As I write this, I’m about halfway through Pathologic 2, Russian game studio Ice-Pick Lodge’s reimagining of their 2004 horror cult classic Pathologic. It’s been several days since I picked up the game at all, but it hasn’t left my mind. I have a sticky note on my monitor reminding me of one of the many arduous tasks I plan to attempt on my next foray into the plague-ridden city of Gorkhon. I just haven’t done it yet because I know it’s going to be an ordeal. Loading up my save file again means going back to being on the brink of starvation, rummaging through garbage bins for odds and ends I can trade with other vagabonds for food, while I stumble through the harsh and unforgiving streets of a town that’s rotting from the inside out. I’m dreading going back to this game—and yet I fully intend to, and I think it’s brilliant, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to all my friends.
Pathologic 2 puts you in the shoes of Artemy Burakh, a young surgeon in early twentieth-century Russia who returns to his home town after years of absence to find his father murdered and himself suspected of the crime—and that becomes the least of his troubles when a mysterious illness begins to ravage the city. Within a time limit of twelve days, you’ll have to keep Artemy alive while investigating the murder, the plague, and a multitude of other strange and surreal events. Many early reviews of Pathologic 2, such as one by Brendan Caldwell of Rock Paper Shotgun, criticized it for its absolutely brutal difficulty, which forces players to miss out on interesting quests in order to prioritize survival. In response to this feedback, the developers recently added several difficulty sliders, which should make the game much more accessible to players who want a frustration-free experience. And while I’m glad that this update will allow a wider variety of people to enjoy Pathologic 2, I also think that some of the reviewers who interpreted the game’s difficulty as a flaw may have misunderstood what the developers were really trying to accomplish: crafting a uniquely disturbing experience that immerses you in the game’s horrific world by bombarding you with harrowing choices that are guaranteed to haunt you no matter what you choose.
One of those moments came for me when I was trying to skirt around the edges of one of the town’s infected areas on my way from one place to another. (Once the plague hits, you risk infecting yourself if you stay too long in any of the districts that it’s landed in for the day. There are a few ways to strengthen your immunity, but being terrible at video games, my strategy is mostly just sprinting for my life.) As I rushed through the streets, the cries of an infant joined the chorus of shouts and moans from the dying. A woman I spoke to earlier had informed me that it was possible to rescue babies from infected districts, and that the town’s authorities would take care of them. But when I rushed into the house that was now marked on my map, I couldn’t see the baby. I flung open the doors to several different rooms, only to find them empty and ransacked—or worse, inhabited by bandaged plague victims who would exacerbate the steady drain on my immunity if I got too close to them. I realized that I would likely die if I spent much longer in this house, and that I had to give up and run, abandoning the child to save myself. The gutted dwelling where I had heard the baby crying remained circled on the map for the rest of the day—a constant reminder of that awful choice.
That might not sound like a description of an enjoyable video game—that my attempt at a side quest was a resounding failure because of how absurdly hard it was, and that the game’s mechanics seemed set up to cause that and to make me feel bad. But Pathologic 2 isn’t trying to be a game that you can succeed at. It’s a game about trying to survive while dealing with the lasting consequences of failure. As the developers explained in an announcement addressing the game’s difficulty, “We want the player to do things that feel clearly wrong . . . Among other things, Pathologic 2 is an exploration of selfishness—that video games often allow us to completely disregard as a factor.” They certainly fulfilled that vision, and I admire them for it.
Pathologic 2 is also a great game to play at the same time as your friends, so that you can compare notes. I first became interested in the game after reading Quintin Smith’s excellent series of articles about the original Pathologic, and I was especially intrigued by his descriptions of the interlocking stories that played out through three protagonists’ campaigns, and how he and a friend who played as a different character reacted to them. So I was slightly disappointed when I first heard that Pathologic 2 would be releasing its three campaigns separately, with only Artemy’s currently available to play—anyone interested in being driven to moral arguments with their gaming buddies over their characters’ conflicting motivations will have to wait for later updates. But I soon learned that even when playing as the same character, my experiences with the game were bound to vary wildly from my friends’ based on the choices we made. We’ve had a lot of fun conversations, giving each other advice, filling each other in on some details we missed, and just generally commiserating about how hard the game is. In addition to everything else it accomplishes, Pathologic 2’s difficulty can turn a single player game into an interesting communal experience.
I want to emphasize that none of my praise of the game’s brutal nature is meant to say that there’s anything wrong with preferring a less gruelling player experience, or with the developers choosing to provide that with the new difficulty sliders. I’m not going to judge anyone who would rather play with them turned down, and I might even try that myself sometime. But I would highly recommend that anyone who’s interested in interactive narrative give Pathologic 2 a shot on its original difficulty level. I might not say that it’s “fun” in the same way that other games are, but that’s not what it’s trying to be—and the experience it provides is a great example of the incredible potential that video games have as a medium for unique and compelling art.