At First Hand - Pathologic (Igromania Magazine, #2(89), 2005)
For years the author of these lines has been dinning in everyone’s ears that video games are a species of modern art, just as, for instance, cinema or, say, theater. We have our kind of mainstream, our art house, lastly, our trash. We also have our gurus, our pop idols, and our kind of underground. Russia, with her insane tempo of development, has thrown all her forces of national game making onto mainstream. Quite understandable it is, as everyone in this world needs to eat something. However, commercially successive games, like Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, and Silent Storm, to name a few, have led us to forget that we possess a very powerful cultural stratus, that is now trying to hold its head straight. Our legacy is more than impressive too. National, oh excuse me, modern art sells and is even adored in the West. Andrey Tarkovsky is openly canonized by many, also in Hollywood. After all, Nikita Mikhalkov, before his tragical turn to imperialism, was, and there is no overstatement here, a genius of film-making.
“And video games? Have national artists that create in the field of modern art not yet realized how wide prospects lay fore man? Do they not want to harken to modern technology?” – Comrade Editor-in-chief asked me once in a private talk. As it turns out, they have and they do. Ice-Pick Lodge studios, who struggled fiercely against cross-fire of journalists’ questions during last year’s Game Developers Conference, are finishing their debut project, Pathologic. Recalling catharsis and existential horror that we were promised in hotel Cosmos, we commissioned me, at your service, to Ice-Pick Lodge office to explore details. The latter followed promptly – instead of two hours as it had been scheduled, the meeting went on for four, and I finally laid my hands on the game struggling up from the sofa where we had been talking with the studio’s head ideologist, Nikolay Dybovsky.
Anticipating things, Ice-Pick claim that they are developing a game that is not comforting, not cozy and even to some extent hostile to the player. Now, imagine: a terminal station of the underground. I fall out of the carriage, gasping, and the human flood carries me to real Moscow slum suburbs. Some kind of absolutely irrelevant November snow hits me in the face. Slush under my feet. I am desperately bugging grudging passers-by trying to find the way to Civil Registry (sic!). Some take me for a local fool (despite of my camera and voice recorder), some smile and lead their path. Only an old lady of unidentifiable age points to a building that I mistook for a polyclinic: “this way, dear”.
Ice-Pick’s smart heads occupy a living basement; amidst social service offices and Soviet-style wooden doors a game is being created that could be the most radical product of national game development. There goes underground. However, all post-Soviet allusions vanish as I cross the studio threshold. Quite different atmosphere inside. In front of a wide aquarium numerous cups and various teapots are placed in a creative disorder. Nikolay offers me a choice of, perhaps, seven varieties of tea or so. I spot a gourd next to an antique typewriter, but Dybovsky puckers: “they brought me this, mate. I didn’t dig it. If you treat a beverage with more respect than yourself, that’s…”
To tell about Pathologic in an impartial, reciting way is a most ungrateful deed. The game is part and parcel of the people who created it, of the ideas put in it, of vision of the aforementioned Dybovsky. To understand me right, imagine you are being told about Vangers: One for the Road, without mentioning Krank and his genetically-bred hatred towards tomatoes; the same with Pathologic. This is a strictly individual project, a piece work. Such have not existed so far, and no one can say if they will in the future. Thus, to understand the Ice-Pick Lodge’s product, one needs to understand what its chief ideologist sleeps with.
It is absolutely impossible to have a specific talk with Dybovsky. The conversation goes to particulars all the time, we recall advertisement of PlayStation 2 by David Lynch, or derive to audio installations that I witnessed in Tate Modern in London city. All in all, to filter substantial part from our discourse is an unthankful job. When I found that my voice recorder holds two hours’ worth of information, I felt sick. For results of deciphering, see below. I am remembering of the theatrical roots of Pathologic that Ice-Pick Lodge were telling about during the Game Developers Conference, and decide to go that way:
Igromania [I]: Nikolay, to the extent of my knowledge, Pathologic breeds from the scene of a theatre. And it was a theatre without any spectators, is that right?
Nikolay Dybovsky [ND]: Yes, but we better not talk about that. That was a different life, different people, different relationships. The game was born from an exclusively powerful energy of passion, a kind of possession from the people who were involved. The consequences were fatal. Two of the people that I started with passed away, not even crossing the line of their thirties. That was a vastly different level of gaming conflict.
[I]: All right, but here goes Pathologic, a video game, released through Buka Entertainment. As I see it, you do not percept Pathologic as a commercial project. If making money is not the goal, so what then is the driving force?
[ND]: Our goal is to reveal and develop the artistic features of the game, that is, ways and expressive means, with the help of which a player, having really won or lost the game, will be able to achieve a new level of perfection. These features are immense. A game, a video game in particular, holds a vast multitude of expressive means, but they are not developed nor found, like gems in rock. We want to breed a new species of game. Game is an instrument that will allow man to perceive his own self. Do you understand me?
[I]: I do… but let’s get clear with this. Yours is still a video game with monsters inside, you shoot weapons at them. You are telling me about existential horror of a man before himself. And at the same time you got monsters in gas masks!
[ND]: We have to carry a dialog with the existing tradition. We do not want to break it. We want to make friends with it, for it exists for a reason. But, we overcome it from the inside. A deep enough game mimics a simulator. There are enemies in gas masks, in fact, all traditional instruments of a video game are present, more than that, Pathologic contains lots of clichés. But killing these muppet enemies is absolutely pointless! Gamers are used to fight in pretence. But every game is always based on a conflict. What is game worth of, if this conflict is a fake…? You reach the final boss, you kill him, and you’re shown a video: the world is saved, the evil is destroyed. Will you have the feeling of having fought with evil indeed? Was it true to life?
[I]: Just a minute, what does that mean – pointless killing the enemies? I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the office of Buka Entertainment: here goes the enemy, we shoot it, he falls down…
[ND]: Falls down, and then what? By the way, the main hero is very weak in this game. It is very difficult to survive in face-to-face combat. Then an observant man will soon realize that bashing down the enemy is pointless- you do not gain from that! Evil still surrounds you, it is everywhere. We have this terminal disease that turned out to be an effective metaphor of evil. It can’t be seen but it’s everywhere. A most uncomfortable feeling…
[I]: All right. But I’m struggling to understand, what are you trying to achieve? Or, let’s put it that way – what for are you doing this? Do you intend to lay some kind of impression on people? Or just submerge them in the state of stupor and moral terror?
[ND]: Of course not! Art, if it is real art, never leads people to such state. This is a crime. Stupor and moral terror have nothing in common with mission of art I was talking about. Catharsis and stupor are on the opposite poles of human state. One shouldn’t confuse challenge with stupor. A challenge is not nice. When Malevich was painting his Black Square, he didn’t make prognosis as to, what impression his art would lay on masses. He created art. And art, if it is real, is a painful and uncomfortable thing.
By this moment people begin to accumulate in the studio, arriving one by one. Some are making tea, some ask to name a great artist who was able to make money without having to betray his genius. The person then makes a reservation, “beside myself, of course”. At the same time I am desperately trying to pull anything specific out of Dybovsky. To understand what is Pathologic’s gameplay based upon. But it is not so easy. We talk about Kurosawa, about Mechner’s genial, but nevertheless commercially failed The Last Express. In a nut shell, we talk about everything except for the subject of my visit.
For you to feel cozier, here’s comforting: Pathologic is still a video game. It has enemies, loot, script and a very dense, almost touchable atmosphere. Nikolay adds though: “If a player will be taking what will be going on as a video game, he is at risk of missing much, or even losing the idea altogether. His task is to solve this puzzle, to understand where the trap ends and game begins. Because there is much more to it than the final video and credits.
The plot is, roughly, as follows: there is a city somewhere. We do not know anything about it at all – neither geographical location, nor political situation. Furthermore, it is even unclear in what span of time the events depicted are taking place. The city seems to be fished out of time-space continuum. It is an artificial media, almost a theatrical scene on which a show will be played. This city is besieged by an epidemic, an unknown plague. Where did it come from, for what reasons, and why – nobody knows. But people in the streets are dying with a frightening regularity. The sick are literally crawling through the streets, catching the healthy by the skirt. At one instance, three heroes enter the city: Bachelor, Haruspex and Devotress. We are free to choose between them and play the game in a voluntary order (the script, events and quests differ a lot depending on the chosen alter ego). Nikolay adds, though: “We are planning to recommend sequential game playing, first for one character, then for another, then for the third one. The player is, of course, free to choose but, following our sequence, he will find it easier to navigate in the plot. And, of course, the game needs to be played through with the help of all the three characters, or you will not be able to understand all of it”.
Finals are several for each character. The way they are generated is a whole different story. The thing is, time floats on its own in this game. It doesn’t wait for you. Player is to live exactly 12 days in the infected city. Each day in the game equals to two hours in real life. As a matter of fact, you could lock yourself up in a room, leave your computer on for a day and night, and then come back and even watch the final video. The abovementioned The Last Express deals with time in a similar way.
If you decide to follow the plot, there is still a whole lot of variants. In what way you communicate with somebody. Whom you choose to help or not to. What tasks you manage to fulfill in right time and which ones you leave out. There is no, and can’t be, the right solution. There is only a sequence of your actions that leads to a specific result. Some plot strata will pass by and some, on the contrary, will reveal themselves – it all depends on the player. That is, besides necessity to play the game through the eyes of each of the three heroes, there is clearly a necessity to play several times for each of them. Only then the puzzle will be solved.
Now, for dessert, I will tell you what it looks like and how the whole thing plays. Nikolay declines all genres and comparatives. More than that, he is strongly against such comparatives. But we will tell you nevertheless. Pathologic looks like a cross between Silent Hill and… Morrowind. From the first it received a sickened, not cozy, almost physically uncomfortable atmosphere, and surrealistic design of some characters. From the latter – freedom of choice and some visual resemblance.
Of course, there’s no talking about Morrowind-like scale –the game is restricted to an isolated space of one city. However, even within one settlement there is enough place to go. Ice-Pick Lodge crafted a quite trustworthy, although deliberately artificial, but still a society. There are slaughterers here settling fist fights, there is a polyhedron growing over the city, there are mines, a church in which metaphorical scenes are played for you, a large mass of houses that you can walk into.
It looks and plays roughly as follows. You appear in the city with a quest to start with. For instance, Bachelor is expected to invent a curing potion, whereas Haruspex only came to claim bequest. But soon you will be sucked into a whirlwind of local relationships. Pathologic does play like Morrowind. That is, you get a ponderous inventory, a branched dialogues tree, your rating in various groups of population. Even the change of day and night is there. Fighting is difficult indeed. The only one who can stand in an unequal fight is the Ripper. All the rest are recommended to stay away. Despite of similar game mechanics, from the point of gaming atmosphere Pathologic and Morrowind lay on the opposite poles. Disease and rust, that is what this project by Ice-Pick Lodge sodden with.
Evil, that is, the plague, may get you as well. It walks through the streets in the shape of invisible clots. They can only be traced with a special vision aid device that needs to be refined in the future.
Unique setting, as they call in in the West, is the main reason to fall in love with Pathologic. The leprous wound in bandages, really, crawl through the streets, reaching their arms for you. At one point the city is flooded with severe gas-masked people equipped with flame throwers. These are agents of the government that has ruled to burn out the population. At night, the homeless armed with do-it-yourself knives stick out from every hole. All in all, absolute moral decay.
From the visual point of view, Pathologic does not shake the earth, but everything is crafted surprisingly nice, especially taken that this is a debut project of an experimental studio. Neat modeling, very literate design and interface, absolutely gorgeous music. Altogether, there is no trace of a low-budget marginal thing.
Just as we couldn’t finish our conversation on a cozy sofa in the office of Ice-Pick Lodge, it is hard to understand where the review of Pathologic is to be finished. The project is positively unique. Nothing that looks like this is being made in Russia or the rest of the world. Grown from an experimental theatre, a mixture of metaphoric horror built by an unknown team of intellectuals on an action/RPG platform, - how is that at all possible in this age of developed capitalism and immense growth of market, it would seem? Nevertheless, Pathologic is practically finished – Dybovsky is already pondering the next project at full speed: “Interesting how the game will be accepted by the public. It is clear now that some aspects are not working as anticipated. In fact, Pathologic is an experiment, a touchstone. I now think that only light, positive games need to be developed. Fear is a primitive emotion. It is easy to scare a person, and it is a lot harder to make him laugh at him or herself, or to make him think”.
Whatever easy it may be to make an average gamer pee in his pants from fear, national game development has not coped with the task so far. Pathologic, as it seems, is the first Russian-made video game capable of scaring the player. This is even more so funny taken that Ice-Pick Lodge’s aims are way more complex and serious, just as the project itself. No matter what Pathologic turns out to be in the end- a new word in video games or a goal for fun, - its creators deserve that hats be lifted for them. Respect.
P.S. When I cautiously inquired from Nikolay how the team was recruited, he took his time explaining how talented people joined one by one, and what happiness it is that such persons have gathered that understand and share his views, then he paused for a while an added: “Although, to say the truth, I don’t think anyone in the studio besides me gives account on what Pathologic is in reality. Only I know”. So much descending into the basement of local Civil Registry.