The act of gaming could be defined as utilizing an interactive medium of entertainment in order to create a suspension of disbelief, which in turn creates the feeling of pleasure or enjoyment. However, what I want to question today is whether gaming necessarily has to be “fun”.
How many movies or novels are best sellers, not because they were particularly pleasurable experiences, but because they were powerful? For instance, I wouldn’t call Schindler’s List a feel-good-film, but it is without a doubt a masterpiece. Similarly, George Orwell’s 1984 is one of my favourite books, but it is arguably more frightening than enjoyable. This being said, why is it that there is still such a stereotypical view of video games solely as entertainment? I believe the answer is that gaming has yet to be harnessed to its full potential as an emotional stimuli. Developers are focused on sales; rehashing the same old formula just because it sells.
Thankfully, there are others out there who are daring enough to try something different. Today, I want to tell you about a Russian title which was released in 2005, called Pathologic. Heard of it? Didn’t think so.
Pathologic is a survival-horror game created by Russian developers Ice-Pick Lodge. There are three things you need to know about it:
1) It’s incredibly depressing and messed up.
2) It has the worst English translation in any game, ever.
3) You NEED to play it.
So, Pathologic is the opposite of fun. There is nothing fun or pleasurable about this game. In fact, it’s downright brutal.
Your role as one of three healers is to solve the mystery of a strange plague that is spreading through a small Russian town. Each character has a very different approach to the plot, and will receive different missions throughout the twelve days of play time. It’s even possible to bump into the other healers during the game, because no matter what actions the player takes themselves, the game continues regardless.
What I mean by this is that the game doesn’t just freeze in time waiting for you to trigger certain events. If you miss a 9pm meeting, you missed it! No going back, no waiting around. The Russians don’t mess about. For instance, early in my play-through as the Bachelor, I stumbled across a mob of angry villagers burning a woman at the stake. I learned they assumed she was a witch, but as her body didn’t turn to clay, it turns out they were wrong. Huh. Well, horrifying as that was, there’s no doubt that if I had been on the other side of town looting items from corpses, those villagers would still have burned her at the stake. The town in Pathologic lives regardless of the player’s actions; something which games like Oblivion and Skyrim have yet to accomplish.
This means that time management is vital in order to succeed. The main objectives in Pathologic are to keep a group of people (known as the Adherents) from dying, by completing a number of tasks in each day. If you fail to complete a task, the Executor will go to the door of a key character, and that’ll be the end of them. It’s really quite terrifying to walk by the home of a character you’ve grown fond of, especially in the latter stages of the game, and know that it is your fault they are dead. The visual embodiment of the raven-headed executioner only adds to the feeling of despair which is so often felt in Pathologic.
Guilt, desperation and depression are not words we often associate with gaming. Pathologic is such a masterpiece because it manages to get under your skin. Each day is played out near enough in real-time, so you begin to develop a routine in the town, you make friends. Then it’s your job to save them. And you let them die. And the guilt sets in. The village visibly rots away as the plague takes hold, with more NPCs limping around groaning from the pain, begging for water and food, which you also desperately need. Food prices rocket, so you find yourself trading your precious revolver for a loaf of bread and some medicine to ease your own suffering.
Oh yeah, didn’t mention that did I? Your character will also become infected with the sand plague. This just adds to your to-do list. You’ve got to keep on top of your hunger, your exhaustion level, prevent the infection from actually killing you before the twelve days are up, all on top of keeping the other characters alive. It’s all very tiring, which perhaps explains why I kept on playing even though the whole experience left me feeling drained rather than entertained.
As for the translation… my god. It’s terrible. In fact, it’s so bad it’s fucking hilarious. I think the guys in charge of the English localisation used Google translate, but changed the whole script to Latin, then Spanish, and then to English. There is so much that just makes no sense at all! It can get quite frustrating at times, considering you’re on a time limit, but you’ve really got to learn to see the funny side. Also, I find it adds to the overall weird atmosphere of the village; I like to think that the people just have their own grasp of the English language.
Fondled you say… hmm.
Technically speaking, Pathologic is a terrible video game. The graphics are dated, and they would feel dated even if I were playing this back in 2005. The controls are awkward, and the character movement is excruciatingly slow, leading to what feels like hours of trudging from one end of the town to the other in order to complete one seemingly pointless task. The interface isn’t great either, the trade screen being particularly difficult to get used to. And the combat is just awful.
Just in case you’re masochistic enough to go through all of that again, there are three completely different stories to complete, all with their own take on the plague and how to defeat it. There’s even a mysterious secret ending, which I am still oblivious to, but apparently it’s mind blowing.
But all of this can be forgiven, because Ice-Pick Lodge did something incredibly brave with this title. I have never experienced anything like it. Pathologic evokes emotional reactions from the player that should not be possible from a form of entertainment that is labelled to only produce “fun” experiences. In addition to creating one of the most innovative economic systems in any game, Pathologic presents us with a truly original gaming environment to explore, and to attempt to save. If you fail, the game doesn’t care. But you will.
What I wanted to achieve by writing this column was to persuade you guys that games don’t have to be fun in order to be excellent. A successful interactive experience is something which draws you in, and makes you a part of that world, be it an enjoyable experience or not. Pathologic does this more effectively than most.
If that wasn’t weird enough for you, Ice-Pick Lodge made another game. It’s called The Void, and is based on the idea of purgatory. Here’s a screenshot.
YES LAD! I’m totally getting this.