You probably haven’t played Pathologic, but maybe some pretentious gaming critic told you to. It’s a clunky game with bad animation and worse physics, but it’s become a cult legend for its clever writing and game design. It’s also set in a small town that will quickly be overrun by a deadly plague unless you can stop it. Which you can’t.
For reasons that baffle me, I started playing this after the real world was engulfed in the deadliest pandemic of my generation.
I am very late to the Pathologic party. Perhaps the last one in. I had never even heard about it until YouTuber hbomberguy uploaded a two hour video about it entitled “Pathologic Is Genius, and Here’s Why.” I’m sure it is, I thought, but that’s a lot of time for a game no one’s ever heard of. So, I put off watching it for a month or two. I almost forgot about it.
But when I finally sat down to watch it, I was convinced—very explicitly against the advice in the video—to play it for myself. Not just for a bit, either. I played all three of the playable characters to completion. I have 100 percented a game that less than 15 percent of players even make it through the first day on. A game widely known for being a plodding, uncomfortable slog that no reasonable person would willingly subject themselves to.
However, the pain is part of the experience, I was told. You’re meant to feel powerless. You’re meant to feel like all your efforts are futile. Somehow, the game makes failing at your quests feel satisfying. Or at least the dissatisfaction is meaningful. That’s the feeling I expected to get from this game.
I didn’t expect the wave of emotional nausea when one of my earliest quests was to prove to the people in charge that the very real pandemic that they know exists is real, so that they’ll do something about it.
It would not be the last time this game felt too real for comfort.
Denying the Science
The first main playable character, Daniil Dankovsky—otherwise known as the Bachelor—is a bachelor of science who dares not believe a thing unless he can see it with his own eyes. He’s the kind of man you would want during a plague. He’s the first to piece together that there is a disease, he’s identified some of the earliest patients, and he’s well on his way to a plan to quarantine the townsfolk to prevent it from spreading.
Except, it’s not that simple. The Bachelor has to prove to the three ruling families that the plague is real, not because they’re too dumb to figure it out, but because if it’s real it would mean they should hand over emergency powers to one ruling family, the Saburovs. It’s political. Always has been. In fact, you learn later that one of the three leaders, Vlad Olgimsky, already knew for a fact that the plague was real, but pretended not to know in order to play it down.
I live in Atlanta, Georgia. Back in late April, my state was one of the first to start reopening businesses, a little over three weeks after first instituting any lockdowns, which only began on April 3. To salt the wound, my governor justified the very late decision to take any measures whatsoever by implying that we’d only just learned that asymptomatic transmission was possible. This was not actually a new piece of information.
I was able to figure out, through Pathologic’s story, whether Big Vlad really knew about the disease ahead of time. (He did.) Maybe that’s what’s supposed to be satisfying about this miserable game. When a politician lies to your face in Pathologic, there’s a very good chance that you will eventually find out about it, even if it takes multiple playthroughs to do it.
The Existential Dread of Just Getting By
Pathologic is famous for its brutally unforgiving game mechanics. For example, on the first day of the game, prices are reasonable, and you can afford a fair amount of food with the money already in your pocket. On day two, as word gets around that a deadly disease is spreading across the town, prices skyrocket tenfold. All the money you have in the world is scarcely enough to buy a single meal, and nothing within the game prepares you for this transition. It just happens. Unless you intuitively figure out that people will charge more for food during a pandemic (or are told ahead of time), you will become broke and hungry overnight.