One of my favorite words in the English language is fulminate. I like the word fulminate because of its dual meanings; in the figurative sense, it refers to explosive verbal protests and denunciations, while in the literal sense, it refers to thunder and lightning, and the loudness and quickness with which they clap and strike.  It’s the only word I can use to describe my feelings as I played through Pathologic Classic HD. I’ve been fulminating. I am fulminating. I am going to fucking explode, and by the end of this piece, you’ll probably fulminate too. Because I’ve been lied to about this game for years, and chances are good that you’ve been lied to as well.

Day Five, In which the Bachelor regrets his affection for the living and would very much prefer to like the dead.

There are three main statements that people have said about Pathologic:

  • It’s not a fun game to play, and having fun while playing it is difficult, if not inconceivable.
  • Its primary gameplay activity is mind-numbingly boring, and there is too much of it.
  • It’s designed around inflicting pain and misery upon the player by impish developers gleefully twisting their little game developer knives into your sides as they make you play their horrible twisted game for sickos.

All three of these statements are what I like to call: bullshit. They’re all bullshit. But before we dig deep into those cans of Worms, let us first address the one aspect upon which most people agree.

You’ll notice that none of those three statements reference Pathologic’s story elements, and that’s because the writing is something everyone tends to appreciate and enjoy. The game features a truly inspired setting that’s novel for video games to this day, nearly twenty years after its initial release. The particular themes it explores encompass a wide array of topics from relationships between rural towns and the governments whose jurisdiction they fall under, and how those power dynamics clash in dire emergencies, to the nature of death on the individual, social, political, ideological, geographical, and cultural scales, and how death impacts the humblest of orphans, the most powerful of rulers, the economically disenfranchised, the oldest of traditions, and those close in blood or bond. 

The narrative and character writing of Pathologic is, mildly speaking, pretty damn good. It has that enrapturing quality about it where you’re given a mixture of cold facts, gestures at rules and rites that must be adhered to but never explicitly outlined, lots of ambiguity, metaphors, symbolistic language, and in some cases, deceptions, to such a degree that the text lends itself to personal interpretation, meditation, and reflection.

The example themes I gave are barely scratching the surface of what can be gleaned from this work, and arguably the best part about it is that you don’t even have to be all that keen on literary analysis or have a degree in creative writing to pick out enough details to support a nigh bottomless well of themes and ideas. In other words, Pathologic is largely allegorical in nature, and this is aided by its more surreal elements. There are literal plot points that can be extrapolated for those with less interest in thematic interpretation (or those who require more concrete plots to follow), but like with all allegorical works, you get out what you put in. The blood squeezed from the stone is the same blood that’s your own.

I’m not fulminating about the narrative elements. Those are great, and I won’t be talking at length about them anymore, in the off-chance that you play this wonderful game yourself, and experience that narrative unmarred by my interpretations. No, we’re here to wade through the aforementioned bullshit, and hopefully cross to the other side with a clearer understanding of what Pathologic is, and what it is not.

Pathologic is a fun video game. Read that again. This is not a bit, this is not a joke, this is a true statement… for me at least. I can’t rightly claim that Pathologic will be fun for everyone, but it is not an unfun game. It is not devoid of fun or enjoyment, because its various systems build on top of one another, interlinking in such a way that mastery over one section helps you overcome other sections. This results in a positive feedback loop of ever-increasing mastery until eventually, you are “good at Pathologic,” and it does this without having any abstract properties of player progression.

There is no gaining experience points to level up in Pathologic, nor is there anything that boils the concept of progression down to something that is handed off to the computer. “I got to level 15, so now I can enter Barley’s Warehouse and take out the seven muggers because they’re all level 10 and I will have more than enough HP to weather their stabs.” Pathologic isn’t like that. Instead, it focuses on more actionable methods of progression which rely squarely on player skill, planning, and decision-making. “I have acquired enough healing supplies and bullets to see me through Barley’s Warehouse. I’ve fully repaired my revolver, and I’ve purchased some clothing for protection from the muggers’ knives, so now I feel ready. I’ll still have to play skillfully and carefully, but I am much better off than if I didn’t have a revolver or any healing items at all.” It’s not a game where you improve by putting points into stats; it’s a game where your skill improves as you gain familiarity with the environment, mastery over its controls, and acquire knowledge of how its other systems work and how you can use all of these in conjunction with one another to plan, prepare, and enact short-term and long-term strategies over the course of a playthrough.

In order to know that clothing provides defensive boosts, you have to equip it and notice its effect on certain parameters in the Character Menu (or read its item description). In order to repair your revolver, you have to observe that weapons have durability which degrades with use, and you have to learn that certain NPCs can repair them for a fee. In order to acquire healing supplies and bullets, you have to learn where to source those supplies, and also acquire a means to buy or trade for them. Knowledge of these systems and how they play off of each other is a crucial aspect of Pathologic’s gameplay, and it’s the core of what makes the game fun.

A lot of games have money that you can use to buy and sell items, but very few games have multiple uses for items without simply implementing a dime-a-dozen crafting system. Bartering in Pathologic is such a cool mechanic because you start to see all the connections various items have with each other. You develop familiarity with the game’s items and use cases and with that knowledge, you’re able to turn junk items into the supplies you need, whether that’s medicine, munitions, rations, or even gear like clothing and weaponry. Part of what makes the barter system rewarding and fun is its relative novelty. Plenty of games have trading, but most items across most games tend to be restricted to one purpose. You either use the item for its singular context, or you liquidate it for cash. In Pathologic, you still have those options, but most items can also be traded to specific NPCs for other items. The muggers that spawn in the town at night drop blades when you kill them, which have no practical use for the player, except that they can be traded to boys for medicine, lockpicks, and bullets; to patrolmen for food and bullets; or sold to shops for cash.

Mastery over the game’s item economy affects how you’ll plan your routes and tasks for each of the game’s twelve days. You’ll regularly take stock of what you have, what you need, what’s due for repair, and as you go through the day’s main quest and side quests, you’ll adjust your routes and schedule accordingly in order to satisfy any material needs you have while fulfilling the objectives of quests along the way. Early on in my playthrough as Bachelor of Medicine Daniil Dankovsky, I was still getting used to the layout of the town. I noticed my rations were getting low, and that I’d need to resupply soon, as letting the Hunger meter max out causes health damage over time. Daniil starts in the westernmost quarter of the Town, the Stone Yard, and a lot of his quests take him there. The Stone Yard has two shops across its two districts; a pharmacy in the Atrium, and a tailor shop in Bridge Square. Neither of these are grocers, and when I learned of this, it impacted the entirety of my route-planning across the rest of my playthroughs, even long after I’d finished Daniil’s route. I knew that if I wanted to buy food from shops, I should stay out of the Stone Yard. It sounds like a minor thing, but in a game where time management is crucial, where traversing the town is a primary aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay, saving time by taking note of details like that is extremely valuable as it adds up considerably over a full playthrough.

This leads me to the second point people bring against the game: the boredom. Much has been said about the sheer amount of walking Pathologic asks of the player, and the amount of walking leads some players to find the game boring or uninteresting. The game takes place in a small rural town in the Russian steppe, connected to other metropolitan areas solely via a railway. The town has to be traversed in real time, with no options for expediting this process. There are no vehicles, no fast travel points, and there isn’t even a sprint button. This game hails from a time before even mega-hit franchise games like Halo had sprinting as a regular feature (and we all know how much Halo fans despise sprinting). While walking in Pathologic is what you do for a majority of a playthrough, I would argue that it’s anything but boring or excessive.

In isolation, walking in Pathologic appears to be a routine, monotonous task with no engaging elements and no depth; it’s too slow, and you have to do so much of it all the time. Of course, as someone who loves to “RP Walk” in all kinds of games when the mood strikes me, “just walking” is often an opportunity to engage with the atmosphere of a game’s world; to really breathe it in and enjoy the scenery and mood. But look, I’ll level with the less-patient, more extrinsically-motivated crowd: During my first playthrough as Dankovsky, I started to notice that walking around the Town was far more involved than it would seem to someone watching me play over my shoulder. See, Pathologic has three layers of gameplay that interact and play off of one another:

  • The Quest Layer
  • The Item Layer
  • The Survival Layer

The Quest Layer is tied to the 25 major characters who make up the main cast of the Town. They are later joined by two more characters who appear in the second half of a playthrough, as well as the other two playable characters you didn’t select at the start of the game, who act as NPCs who go through their storylines while you take your selected player character through their own storyline. As part of your character’s storyline, you are given a main quest every day, as well as one to four side quests by these major characters. Any quests you receive during a day must be completed before the end of that day; they do not carry over into the following day. Failure to complete the main quest by midnight results in one of the major characters becoming infected by the plague (and it can outright give you a Game Over if the main quest is important enough). This makes that character inaccessible unless you provide antibiotic medication or a plague curative for them. A key thing to note is that each player character has a set of seven or more of the major characters who are “Bound” to them, and they are referred to as your Bound. If you fail to complete the main quest on a day, it is specifically one of your Bound who succumb to infection, and the only way to avoid the game’s bad ending is if none of your Bound are sick by the end of the twelfth day. The side quests are less crucial than the main quest in terms of story priority, but they often reward you with items, money, reputation boosts (or losses), and in some cases they unlock opportunities such as providing alternative conclusions to the main quest for that day, or unlocking the ability to purchase maps which reveal the location of plagued districts for that day.

The Item Layer is something I’ve mostly addressed already; it refers to the item economy of the game and how each item interacts with the barter, combat, and quest systems. Weapons help you deal with threats, trinkets and curios can be traded or sold for goods and coin, and some quests require the acquisition and delivery of certain items. You get the idea.

It’s the Survival Layer where everything comes together. Each player character has a list of meters that have to be monitored and taken care of, as neglecting them will eventually result in death. The Health meter is self-explanatory; you’re smart, you’ve played video games before, you know what health is. The Exhaustion and Hunger meters go up over time, cause periodic health damage if they’re allowed to max out, and are satisfied by sleeping and eating food respectively, as you might expect. The Infection meter only comes into play if you get infected by the plague, but unlike exhaustion and hunger, infection causes damage over time even if the meter is barely filled, and as the meter builds, each tick of damage increases in turn. Infection has to be managed with antibiotic medication, but these items cause health & exhaustion damage when you take them, acting both as an abstraction of medicinal side effects, and as a complication to the Survival Layer. Infection damage can be reduced by increasing the Immunity meter via immunity boosters and vaccines, and higher immunity also acts as a resisting shield against infection. While Immunity takes a hit each time you’re hit by a plague source, it’s very easy to replenish on the fly with boosters. During my Changeling playthrough I got hit with plague clouds more than a dozen different times and I only suffered an infection once. Last and certainly not least is the Reputation meter. This abstractly represents your overall standing in the Town. Reputation is gained by doing good deeds such as killing muggers or donating money or items to poor or sick NPCs, and it is lost by killing innocent townsfolk, killing patrolmen, and stealing from houses. As mentioned before, quests can also alter reputation, positively or negatively, depending on the actions you take during the quest. As your reputation lowers, shops eventually stop accepting your patronage, and if it gets even lower, townsfolk attack you in the streets, and killing them will lower reputation even further, making it that much harder to climb out of infamy.

Daniil Dankovsky's status page on Day 9. The time is 20:17, and an array of meters are displayed at varying degrees of fullness.

So how does all this link back to the walking being boring, I can hear you ask. Well, every day you have a set of quests to do, and these quests are given by NPCs scattered around the Town. But at the start of each day, you don’t necessarily know which quest is going to be the main quest. These NPCs will send you letters at certain times of the day letting you know they have something for you to do, but until you talk with them, you won’t know whether they have the main quest or a side quest. Additionally, some quest objectives are only available at certain times of the day, meaning that even if you know where to go through deductive reasoning, you might be too early to do anything once you get there. You’re never required to do any of the side quests, but they often provide resources which make surviving the Town easier, and while you’re traveling around completing these tasks, your meters are rising. You’re getting hungrier, and more exhausted. If you’ve been having to fight enemies or you’ve been infected, you’ll have to mend your health and lower your infection. You’ll have to find items to mitigate the effects of these meters, and you’ll be taking stock of what you need and where to get it.

The result is that you start making plans throughout the day, and adjusting them according to quest objectives, the state of your supplies, and the status of your meters. You received a letter from Lara Ravel, so you’re walking to her house to learn more about her quest, and you know that there’s a grocery store nearby; your rations are running low, so it’ll be worth checking the shop while you’re visiting Lara. There are a couple trash bins next to the grocery store, so you check them for items you can trade with townsfolk. Lara’s quest takes you to the eastern part of town, and there’s another NPC over there to whom you need to speak as part of another quest, so you’re able to knock out two tasks in one trip. And while you’re over in the Earth quarter, you might as well stop by Andrey’s pub and pick up some coffee, as your exhaustion meter is getting close to full, but you don’t want to waste time sleeping because it’s already late in the afternoon.

The walking in Pathologic is different to walking in most other games, because it’s directly tied to the most important resource in the game; time. The game is constantly testing your abilities of time management, and all three characters have at least one main quest which requires them to travel through the entire town, from one side to the other and back again, often under some sort of time constraint. Walking makes you intimately familiar with the Town’s layout, and you find shortcuts & more efficient routes to complete your objectives each day, while managing both the items in your inventory and the survival status of your character. Sometimes it’s worth cutting through a plagued district in order to save time, and other times it’s better to take the long way around as that’ll take you to shops or other NPCs or a place to rest and reduce your exhaustion. On the surface, it’s just walking, but when you’re actually playing the game yourself, it’s equal parts an immersive activity that puts you directly in the shoes of your character, and a “zen” activity which leaves you with enough brain bandwidth to calculate faster routes through the town so you can deal with all three layers of gameplay at the same time.

Walking is also balanced perfectly with the size of the Town. The Town is big enough to feel expansive and appropriately scaled for the type of settlement it’s supposed to be in the story, while small enough that traversing it doesn’t ever feel like the game needs to have a fast travel option, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of open world games we’ve seen as of late. Try playing any five open world games released in the last six years, but restrict yourself from using their fast travel systems, and see how boring and monotonous the walking becomes in most of them, which stretch out their maps to such massive degrees that they can’t reasonably expect players to manually walk from one end to the other. Fast travel systems are a bandage solution to bloated map design, and it’s something many games would avoid if they scaled down their worlds to a more reasonable level; something best learned from games like Pathologic, which has a world that’s as big as it needs to be, and no bigger. Ice-Pick Lodge would eventually add a fast travel system in Pathologic 2, but unlike many games, it’s diegetic, costs a special resource to access, in-game time still passes in transit, and it accounts for the physical topography of the Town. It’s very possible in that game to fast travel from one part of town to another and have the travel waste more in-game time than if you simply walked there instead. As far as fast travel systems go, it’s leagues ahead of the kind of “waypoint” network we’ve seen in dozens of open world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Genshin Impact, and Elden Ring.

Pathologic is built and designed entirely around the speed at which the player characters walk, the distances the quests ask them to walk, and the total amount of time in a day that they have to complete those quests via walking. To me, saying the walking in Pathologic is boring is like saying the shooting in Halo is boring. Sure, walking is less visceral of an activity than shooting an alien might be, but they’re both the main thing that their games were designed around. If you isolate either of those mechanics, the walking or the shooting, then they’re going to look pretty bare-bones and monotonous, but there are other components and layers to both walking in Pathologic and shooting in Halo that embellish the overall moment-to-moment gameplay. I know that this is an absurd comparison to make, but to me, both of them are equally engaging even though they offer very different experiences. It’s all about approaching a game on its own level, and leaning into what it’s trying to do, rather than expecting it to be something it is not.

This brings us to the final point of this fulminating rant about the lies that have been leveraged against Pathologic for years now. I’ve spoken at length about how the game is fun and engaging, and how it’s neither boring nor tedious, but now I seek to tackle a far more prevalent claim; one that sneaks its way into even the more level-headed and open-minded reviews, critiques, and showcases. A claim seemingly so universal that it’s taken for granted as being true, and it’s even seeped into perceptions of the sequel, affecting the impressions that game has garnered. That claim being thus: Pathologic is an exercise in sadistic game design, where the developers have meticulously and carefully crafted the whole experience to excruciatingly squeeze as much suffering and torment out of the player as possible. Of course, I’m being a bit dramatic here, but that’s part and parcel for the language often used to deliver this claim.

See, Pathologic is particular because of those narrative qualities I mentioned earlier. The story, setting, and characters have a lot of intrigue and complexity to them that cannot be denied, even if one finds the gameplay unsatisfying, basic, or outright bad. If it was simply a boring, plain game from the mid ‘00s, then it could be comfortably and quietly consigned to the mediocre shelves of obscurity; to be pondered and perused only by the most perspicacious of video game enthusiasts. But no, Pathologic is an artful game. Those narrative elements are too craftly woven into the work to ignore the game in its entirety. And thus are people left to consolidate their appreciation of the game’s story, with the reality that they didn’t find the game to be enjoyable for one reason or another. This ultimately leads many to conclude that the game must be unfun on purpose, as an intentional design philosophy, and this conclusion leads to all kinds of misconceptions about Pathologic.

The walking is boring on purpose: to frustrate you as various tasks and meters waste your precious time each day. The combat is awkward on purpose: to discourage fighting whenever possible, as partaking in combat risks losing health or dying or sacrificing weapon durability. The item economy is obtuse on purpose: to confuse your understanding of the value of items and how they might help you. There’s no clear-cut way to heal yourself. The game pits you against several enemies at once in order to fuck with you. The side quests waste your time when they don’t tell you that they don’t have a reward. The game doesn’t tutorialize its mechanics or tell you anything about what to do or how things work, which makes playing the game even more frustrating and insufferable and holy shit I can’t deal with these three muggers and ten thousand rats and constantly juggling all of these meters and items and I don’t have enough time to do anything and the walking is so slow and—

When Dark Souls was gaining popularity, one of the core features people often touted about its gameplay was that it was challenging and difficult. This was a carry-over from Demon’s Souls, which pioneered many gameplay concepts and design strategies that are still in use today by many games, especially ones not developed by From Software. One of those concepts was the ability to write messages on the ground for other players to see, to provide guidance, levity, or chicanery in varying measures. Players were unable to type out customized messages, and had to use a library of specific phrases and terms to prevent the use of unscrupulous language (though players would inevitably discover creative ways to twist the library of terms into obliquely suggestive or vulgar statements.) One of the pre-made messages players could leave for others was this one:

“The true Demon’s Souls starts here.”

This phrase has persisted in the subculture of video games, with “true” frequently being morphed into “real” and “Demon’s Souls” commonly converted into whichever game is the subject of the conversation. It’s often an indicator meant to say “this is where the hard part of the game begins” or, more broadly “this is where the player truly starts to experience what the game is all about.” It’s so ubiquitous a phrase that it’s escaped out of games culture entirely and it’s not uncommon to see it brought up in conversations about all kinds of media from television shows to webcomics.

The atmosphere which surrounds Pathologic reminds me so much of the same stifling air that engulfed games culture during the rising popularity of Dark Souls. Not that Demon’s Souls wasn’t widely enjoyed or just as good, but it’s with its spiritual successor that the suite of From Software action RPGs really started their upward spiral into the mainstream success and acclaim that they enjoy to this day. For many people, myself included, those games were a wake-up call. It became evident that players appreciated challenge in their games, and that many games released during the first decade of the 21st century were too easy or too quick to give concessions to the player. MMORPGs stopped reducing players’ accumulated experience points, and the tales of players dying and de-leveling were novel stories of the past. FPS games eschewed health bars and medkits in favor of bloody vignettes covering the screen to indicate damage, and giving players regenerating health (or shields) once they found cover and avoided damage for a short time. I was in high school in 2007 and people were still referencing Contra for the NES as one of the hardest games ever, a game that was twenty years old at the time. Nowadays, we’ve got a veritable buffet of games with varying degrees of difficulty and ways to modulate that difficulty, and even though difficulty for the sake of being difficult was never the point of Dark Souls, people realized that mechanically pushing back against the player drew them in, because it forced the player to take the game’s mechanics and goals seriously.

Dark Souls didn’t take away your souls on death because the designers wanted to be cruel and punish you for being bad at the game. They took your souls away so that death would have a consequence; so you wouldn’t just mindlessly throw yourself into the fray with no care about what you were doing or where you were going. It was quite ingenious of them to pick souls as the thing you lost upon death in Dark Souls (another carry-over from Demon’s Souls). Souls were both a currency to buy items and upgrade weapons, and they were the equivalent of experience points. Normally currency and experience points are separate resources in games, but they combined them for the Souls games, and then made you lose all unspent souls that you had accumulated whenever you died, with a singular chance to reclaim them which asked the player to retrace their steps back to where they perished. Imagine playing Final Fantasy XIV where every death zeroed out your held gil, and if you died again before returning to your point of death to reclaim your lost gil, then it was all gone forever. I’d wager more people would keep their gil stored with their retainers most of the time, only making a withdrawal when needing to make a purchase. But that’s just speculation, because they wouldn’t put that kind of resource loss function in Final Fantasy XIV as it wouldn’t serve the goals of that game like it serves the goals of Dark Souls.

I thoroughly reject the idea that Pathologic is a sadistic game that revels in the suffering of the player. It is not a game about inflicting pain and misery when it’s played; those aren’t really what its goals are as a video game about immersing yourself in a plague-stricken town as a healer trying their best in a worst-case scenario. While it certainly pushes back against the player with its survival mechanics and focusing all actions the player can take within the constant pressure of a time limit, it also seeks to help them out considerably if they pay attention and approach the game on its own terms. It’s not a “one-way street” game that forces you to come to it in order to have fun and experience all it has to offer. Pathologic asks you to meet it halfway, and it’s frankly abysmal to think that anyone would drag their feet forward to that halfway mark, and make the process of playing the game out to be this painful endeavor from which the developers take fiendish delight. 

Let me give you an example. When I started my playthrough as the Haruspex, Artemy Burakh, I was a bit more familiar with how his storyline was going to go since I’d played Pathologic 2 prior to the first game, and Artemy’s route is the only playable route in the sequel as of this writing. While Bachelor Daniil starts in a house with decent funds, items, and a maxed out reputation meter, Artemy starts at the train station outside of town with 30% health, half-full hunger and exhaustion meters, barely any money or items to his name, and a reputation meter lower than his health. He’s often touted as the “hard-mode” character of Pathologic because of his objectively worse starting scenario compared to Daniil. Artemy, like all three playable characters, meets a couple of tutorial NPCs at the start of the game, who explain his situation to him. These NPCs also act as guides of sorts, in the event the player is playing Artemy as their first character. One of them puts a marker on Artemy’s map, telling him that he should go to Big Vlad Olgimsky’s house in the center of town.

Day One, in which the Haruspex turns from a rightful heir into a dangerous criminal.

Beelining for that quest marker causes the player to activate a scripted cutscene where townsfolk chase Artemy into the Warehouse district, where he takes refuge in one of the sheds occupied by a gang of children led by a boy named Notkin. Notkin offers Artemy a gun & ammo if he agrees to do a side quest that involves killing a defecting gang member. When I was playing as Artemy, after this quest, I decided to head up to Vlad’s place. The problem was that Artemy’s low reputation meant that townsfolk were constantly trying to kill me, so I was having to kill them first or run away. When I got to Vlad’s house, I found a courier outside who mentioned that Vlad wouldn’t be available until 11 am. The game starts at 6 am, and even with the distraction of Notkin’s quest, I got to Vlad’s house at 7 am. So now I was stuck in the middle of town, where any moment someone could spot me and try to kill me, with four in-game hours I needed to burn. By the time I managed to speak with Vlad and his daughter, Victoria, my exhaustion and hunger meters were nearly maxed out, shops wouldn’t sell me food because I’d killed a lot of townsfolk and cratered my reputation, and I didn’t have much health from all of the fighting. I thought it was hilarious when both Vlad and Victoria told me not to make my situation worse by killing people (oh hey, it’s helpful guidance from the game disguised as character dialogue!) because at that point, even if I managed to build up my reputation, I wouldn’t be able to recover it in time to deal with the hunger damage I’d be taking in an hour or two. Thus, I wrote this playthrough off as a failure, and opted to start over.

On my second attempt, I thought about what I had learned when playing Daniil’s route. There’s another character in the Warehouse district who represents the Town’s underworld element. I figured he wouldn’t mind my bad reputation, and it turns out I was correct. Not only does he give you an extra reward for dealing with Notkin’s side quest, but he tips you off to some muggers you can kill back at the train station for some reputation bonuses and some items, and he leads you to another side quest. This one takes you to the easternmost side of the Town, where you’re asked to go all the way over to the west side of town, and then go back east again. It’s a long trek, and if you go through the town it can be a bit tense as townsfolk chase you in the streets. But if you manage to complete this quest, you get a huge boost to reputation at the cost of some health.

By the time I wrapped up this long side quest, it was around 11 am; the perfect time to visit Vlad. It was then that I noticed what the game had done. Because I had spent the morning wisely by completing side quests and avoiding killing townsfolk, the amount of time it took me to complete those quests almost perfectly lined up with the time that the main quest could be started at Vlad’s place. Not only that, but my reputation was high enough that the townsfolk would no longer attack me, making the trek to Vlad’s house effortless compared to my first attempt. It’s almost like the designers expected the player to beeline right for Vlad, since it’s the only direction the player is given at the start, so they forced them into a cutscene which takes them to an NPC with a side quest, and if they pay attention to the dialogue from Notkin and the defecting gang member, they can find a couple more objectives to do before Vlad’s house is open later in the day. Additionally, they lock Vlad’s house up so that even if the player stubbornly goes back to beelining to the map marker, they get shut out and told to go somewhere else for a few hours (such as doing that side quest they were directed toward earlier).

What’s interesting to me about Artemy’s starting position is that, while he starts in a worse place compared to Daniil, if you take the opportunities the game gives you, you end Day 1 in an arguably better place than Daniil does. Daniil gets to virtually ignore the reputation mechanic for basically his entire storyline, and he gets showered in coin in all of his side quests. But Artemy gets more powerful guns much sooner, lots of bullets for them, and a means to acquire unique resources that can lead to more ammo, money, and special medicinal brews which are stronger and safer than the typical medicine items Daniil has to rely on. It’s not like the game doesn’t help you at all; the designers simply use the game’s mechanics to instill a certain mood or tone for each in-game day, which coalesce with that day’s quests, events, and rewards. This tone is elevated by the game’s survival mechanics, the atmosphere, and yes, the walking.

Even when Pathologic is pulling the real horseshit moves, such as when the game wants you to be on one side of town for one quest, but then will ask you to be on the other side of town for another quest, and you only have a small window of time to get both done because they’re only available toward the end of the day, I’ve never felt like the game was brutally painful or displeasing to play. As I’ve said before, I find the game to be full of mechanical depth, at least for what the game is trying to do, being an older title with a more focused experience. There are certainly mechanics which I find to be more refined and considered in Pathologic 2, such as making those medicinal brews and how their usage is expanded upon both mechanically and narratively. But Pathologic stands on its own as a real accomplishment of how games can interweave their gameplay and narrative into one singular, cohesive work.

Pathologic is not a game about reveling in pain and player suffering. Nor is it a game absent of fun or enjoyment. It’s a game that asks you to place yourself in the shoes of its protagonists, who are all dealt awful hands at the start of a nightmare scenario, and it wants you to play it through to the end. It wants their stress to be your stress. It wants their actions to be your actions. It wants their victory to be your victory. And it believes that you can do it. I believe you can do it, too. I don’t think my ability to enjoy the game or find it fun or lean into its stressful moments to be a novel aspect unique to me alone. I just believe that when a game challenges our preconceived notions about how games should be designed or what feelings they should inspire in players, that we should endeavor to lean into those departures from the familiar and the safe, and meet the game halfway.

Pathologic deserves to be recognized for its well-considered gameplay elements as much as it’s adored for its awe-inspiring narrative ones. I can’t guarantee you’ll find playing it as fun as I do, and if you have played it and found it boring or tedious, then I don’t think your experience is wrong just because mine was different. But if I didn’t offer my own perspective on my time with the game, which seems to clash quite explosively with what I was led to believe based on videos and articles about the game, then I’d surely fulminate into oblivion.

About Spencer

Spencer is a skeleton from Florida’s B-side, currently skulking around Washington state, and he always plays the thief in games.

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