“To climb out of the pot, you’ll have to burn your hands.” (Mark Immortell)
The end is the beginning is the end in Pathologic 2. Climbing out of coffins both literal and figurative, immediately capturing an essence of the dramatic. For of course, all the world is indeed a stage, a notion which essentially serves as the game’s modus operandi. But Pathologic 2 refuses any simplistic definitions of morality. “A coffin is the best means of transportation in the world. It can get you to unimaginable places.” A collision abruptly suspends your journey and pure desolation greets you. “Ahead or behind?” This dreamscape has no bearing of comprehension, appropriately asking those unwilling to play along with the game’s misdirections and sense of wit to get out while they still can, so to speak.
Reality and fiction walk an incredibly thin line throughout Pathologic 2. There is a constant sense of self-awareness which cuts through the provocative writing. Some may call it “meta,” but the game doesn’t temper its audience with discussions regarding our relationship with artificiality, which modern day indie titles so often seem hung up on. Pathologic 2 is obsessed with fiction, with perusing our collective confusion within an ever-increasingly unstable period of worldwide disorder.
“Roots and blood. That is what fills our veins. Roots and blood.” (Aspity)
Ice-Pick Lodge have always delved into exploring the metaphysical realm severing the physical and the mental. Knock-Knock, their 2013 masterpiece, remains an evocative and perplexing game where the rules seem to make themselves up as the player moves along, situating them within the claustrophobic confines of a 2D space, shackled within the walls of an ever-shifting household, housing the lone neurotic protagonist. The game serves more as a ritual of sorts; a trial, proposing the necessary risks for an addled recluse to venture into the unknown. Paranoia is the guiding principle for every game design choice built into Knock-Knock; its horrors stem from the demented unknowns stalking around in the room right next door.
“Spill his blood.”
The human form extends into a catalogue of bodies, a community of bleeders and breathers in the town populating Pathologic 2. Its predecessor stands as perhaps the first and only game to have crafted an authentic ecosystem, and this sequel capitalizes on that concept twofold. “A river of blood washes away a drop of rot. There’s no ‘me’ and ‘you.'” Every character plays a role, urging forth the grand scheme of Fate and all things merciless. All of us investigators, seeking truth where decay reigns in a low kingdom of mirth. Our perverse facades are reflected back at us, our Fates executed on a whim. Time is unstoppable.
“Mix your flesh with ours.”
Fate and Time commingle behind the curtains of Pathologic 2, as backstage proponents fiddling with the strings of the grand play’s performers. Deceit flows like a river through the town; the denizens are locked in a purgatorial state of being, simultaneously stagnant and ceaseless.
“When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” a boy donning a dog mask utters after witnessing a surgeon slice and dice three violent men to death. “But what about common blood,” asks a mother, horrified by her kin’s inevitable departure, and subsequently her own obsolescence. “What about paternal love?” Rot and decay and bloodshed infest the game’s entirety, pouring out of every crack in the pavement, every cog in the local factories’ machines, every plagued corpse lying dead in the street. Fate cannot be escaped, only ignored long enough to eventually creep back up and surprise its naive victims.
“When you disengage from the Earth and glide over water, you begin to feel the weight of humanity.”
There is a grand, nefarious hypocrisy to the moral philosophy of Pathologic 2: Selfishness is often the key to success, the ultimate means to strive forward and progress through the game; but it comes at the expense of empathic play, causing the player to lose sight of the compassionate goal the surgeon protagonist probably should be striving for in the first place. In order to “win,” the town likely has to “lose,” which expands the moral prerogative of games-as-a-medium into a far more open-ended philosophical quest for truth, set in a maddening world which refuses its inhabitants a break from the scourge.
The game is fascinated with humankind’s everlasting conflicted state of mind. No right, no wrong, only Life and Death, “limber or stiff.” The frustrating discourse is largely what offers the game its overwhelming horrors. For Pathologic 2 is indeed a horror game, though a severely unique genre piece, in which the human condition is of course examined through player interaction, but also complicates every single instinct they have at nearly every turn.
I lectured Notkin on the misguided nature of revenge and murder; but when put face to face with a cold-blooded child donning a mask and speaking of his victims as punks who deserve to suffer, I choked on my response. Is bloody revenge ever justifiable? Do some wicked individuals not deserve to live on this planet? Capital punishment?
“Hold this leash for a second, will you?”
Fortunately, Pathologic 2, unlike countless numbers of its contemporaries (notably modern RPGs), deals not by answering these moral quandaries with karmic repercussions — which normally only deal in punishing “bad” behavior and worshiping “good.” Real horror erupts from when the game actively prompts the player to sit back and reflect on their moral standards, however ingrained into their heads from experience or ignorance. Am I merely an actor, pretending to be some sort of idealized version of myself reflected back deep within my subconscious? Am I just playing a role?
Theater is such a significant theme in the game’s design because the classical artform digs at the heart of mankind’s obsession with evading sinister truths. Facades are built like walls to block off revelations which may hinder the path to self-righteousness, and all because we are too fearful to stare them straight in their hollow eyes. Theater has always had a lasting influence on game design — from the calculated arrangements of Half-Life 2‘s enemy placement, to that of Modern Warfare‘s dramatized war scenarios. However, only the Pathologic series seems to directly confront and acknowledge theater’s shadow looming over game philosophy, fascinatingly bridging it with moral complication to construct possibly the most articulate and involved metaphysical examination ever conceived for the medium.
Pathologic 2 is therefore more than a horror game. More than a “misery simulator.” More than a walking sim, an RPG, a visual novel. More than Life and Death. More than tragedienne and humoredienne. More than 2019 and the 2010s. Pathologic 2 is the world and everything, and it demands to be experienced, for it promises nothing but a brighter future for the maturation of gaming.