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In Russia, game plays you: Pathologic in retrospect


But if the game is so unremittingly grim, why would anyone willingly persist?

Think back to a time when you were performing a tough task that you didn't want to do and weren't enjoying, but just kept persevering anyway. Remember that voice in the back of your head that whispered "You've come this far! Imagine how proud you'll be if you fight to the end! Can you really live with yourself knowing you've given up?" That's what Pathologic does: it gets in your head. Everything about the game is utterly fascinating, in a very sick way: the architecture of the buildings is broken and diseased, stark yet meaningful. There are three magnificent, intimidating superstructures (the Abattoir, the Avery and the Polyhedron) that loom over the town yet are inaccessible for much of the game (or even at all, if your character's storyline or actions don't happen to lead them there) but seem central to everything that is going on. You'll long to be allowed through those doors, just to satisfy that curiosity or indulge that niggling sense of terrified awe. But to do that, you'll have to wait and make do with whatever little morsels of information the game throws to the floor for you to gobble up. Then there's the raven-faced executor, who appears as an angel of death outside a character's house whenever a task is failed, speaking to you directly as the player rather than the character, or the mime, whose blank face and knowledge of supernatural information is somehow just as unsettling.

A Brechtian concept of the theatre made real is intertwined all the way through the story, not least in the between-day interludes where you watch a strange performance on stage depicting the day's decisions and events which might well be taking place inside your own head. Or your character's head. As if you know which is which by that point, anymore. Meanwhile, the executor tells you at the beginning of the game that you and your closest associates are the only ones who truly count: they get their own photos and detailed (if butt-ugly) character models. The 'extras' walking around town comprise of fewer than five models, untidily animated and often repeating actions. You'll remind yourself of this when faced with one of those moral crises mentioned previously. But then, aren't they, the regular townsfolk, the ones you're there to save? If you and your associates are the town's bones, keeping the body upright, then they must be the flesh, binding it all together and giving it purpose. For the record, that metaphor was very carefully chosen, but you'll have to play the game to find out why (and when you do and you realise what the game has left sitting under your nose all along, I can guarantee: you will gasp).

In the game's few English-language reviews, it has been pointed out that by any rational standard, Pathologic is technically deficient and even outright broken. And they're right: the visuals are jagged and blocky, as though lifted from a game five years older, coloured in greys and browns and suffused with a thick fog that limits vision to little further than twenty feet. In any other game, this would indeed be a graphical disaster. But in Pathologic? It's seeping with oppressive atmosphere. Meanwhile, if you play the English version of the game, you'll soon discover that the translation work is so bad that many characters' vital exposition is borderline incomprehensible. You'll swear at the broken mechanics, but whether intentional or not, the sense of disorientation they create are ferocious. It's not just the town that's diseased, it's the game itself, adding a whole unexpected layer of depth that would be lost should these 'problems' be 'fixed'.

Pathologic is an experience that disproves everything you thought you knew or believed about videogames. It shows up the expectation that a game simply be 'fun' to be worthwhile as utterly baseless: Pathologic is miserable, psychologically exhausting, graphically dreadful and broken in key areas, yet is more compelling and evocative and astonishing than any other game you're likely to play, an FPS where the first thing you'll do upon finding a gun is trade it in for life-giving supplies. It is the antithesis of user-friendliness, yet you'll keep on crawling back, suffering through its ordeals in the hope that it throws you some inch of relief. Its writing is abstract, thematically vague and any conclusions you come away with will at the end will have mostly been pieced together by your own sense of desperation to find meaning rather than any concrete evidence. The only way to get through it is to stop trying to play the game - find shortcuts, break the reputation system, 'win' in any conventional sense - and instead let the game play you, move you where it wants to and accept the sadistic whims it exerts. It is the most crushing but brutally fulfilling and complete forty hours you'll spend in front of a PC screen. While the mainstream games industry continues to emptily justify its claims to be art or to create resonant masterpieces, sitting quietly and forgotten in its darkest shadows is Pathologic, an experience forged in the Russian formalist traditions that gave Brecht to the theatre world and Dostoyevsky to literature. The greatest game you'll never want to play.
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!