Pathologic, released in 2005 by Russian developers Ice-Pick Lodge, is the worst possible videogame to play during a pandemic—and yet, it’s the perfect game to revisit right now.
If you try, here’s what you’ll find: a small town, probably in Russia, situated along a steppe and an ancient river. It’s sometime in the early 1900s, probably, though it’s fuzzy—the architecture, the fashion, and the music are all a little muddled, a little anachronistic. You get the sense that this place exists somewhere outside of history and time. You find yourself taking one of three roles: a young doctor from the nebulous “capital” of whatever country this is, a surgeon with roots in the local indigenous culture, a young girl who might have mystical powers. As the three of them come to the town, each for their own reasons, the unthinkable happens: a plague breaks out. Called the Sand Pest, it’s a deadly infectious disease. The town is locked down under quarantine after the doctor proves the disease’s existence to the local authorities, and the three protagonists find themselves taking on disparate roles as healers, doctors, and amateur epidemiologists over the course of the next 12 days.
Again: not a soothing, escapist game to play right now, as the deadly Covid-19 pandemic makes its way around the globe. Yet, it might also be the most accurate game ever made about the experience so many people are having at this moment, the experience of living through a plague. People panic, and horde the supplies everyone needs to survive. The authorities fight amongst themselves on how to handle it, revealing all the cultural faults and incompetencies that were already present. People die, and no matter how hard you try, there is a harrowing number who cannot be saved. You spend most of your time walking around the streets of the town, trying to keep your distance from the sick, on an unending and exhausting series of errands, all while you attempt to survive long enough to help others. It’s an anxiety attack waiting to happen. Some people find the game absolutely intolerable, far too much to handle even in the best of times.
But consider Contagion. In the weeks after the coronavirus pandemic became a worldwide concern, the film’s viewership on streaming sites skyrocketed. In a video essay, critic Dan Olson tries to explain our societal drive toward the film during a real-life pandemic. “One purpose of fiction is that it allows us to practice intense emotions and states without exposing us to the complexities or harms of those states in reality,” he says. “Watching a disaster film in a disaster, particularly one as sociologically driven as Contagion, is an extension of this. Rather than practicing intense emotional states before they happen, this instinct to expose ourselves to what we’re already experiencing amplifies existing emotional states. It works as a form of emotional inoculation.”
In other words, there are two ways to deal with anxiety when it comes to media. You can seek out media to avoid that anxiety. Or you can drown in it. Like Contagion is a film for drowning in pandemic anxiety, Pathologic is a game for drowning in it. It may even be more intense: all the peril happening in Pathologic happens to you. Playing as a health care worker in a town strangled by sickness, you have a role in the outcome of the outbreak.
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If you’ve played this game before, you might find it lands differently in the present. The numbers of dead and sick, given to the player at the start of each day, feel starker somehow when you look at the same types of numbers on the evening news. The types of tricks and strategies a smart player can use to make the game easier all start to feel a bit crass. For example, any experienced player of Pathologic will tell you that the price of food doubles on the second of the 12 in-game days, as people, spurred on by rumors of an epidemic, buy up most of what’s on the shelves. The correct answer, from a strategic perspective, is to do the same, buying as much food as you can on the first day so you have enough to eat on the following days when food is prohibitively expensive. But that’s hard advice to follow when you let yourself imagine that your greed might cause others to go without. When you remember that you haven’t seen toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or gloves on grocery store shelves since February.
You might also find yourself comparing reality to Pathologic‘s fantasy. But the game’s not entirely realistic—the Sand Pest has a mystical element, and the folk religion of the indigenous people, the Kin, is woven into the reality of Pathologic‘s world. The story of the plague here is also a story of the collision of an old mystical culture and a modernist utopian one. There are surreal magical realities at play here. Yet in so many of the mundane details, it gets it right. There’s talk of quarantines, and what we call social distancing; research and theorizing and sifting through fake cures and conspiracy theories. What’s most compelling might be the way Pathologic captures the feeling that it is the end of the world with the simultaneous certainty that it isn’t, not really, and that you’re going to have to work to figure out what happens after all of this. Even as people die, the powers that be fight over a future that’s impossible to fully imagine.
Plus: What it means to “flatten the curve,” and everything else you need to know about the coronavirus.
Pathologic also has a sequel, released last year. It’s an updated take on the original, and it’s both easier to get into and harder to stomach, with new and ingenuous ways to push home the anxiety of the experience. Both games want you to feel the same thing: the anxiety and terror of epidemic, and the existential uncertainty that comes with it. Everyone in both games is trying to understand why this happened, and while some people have better answers than others, the question is more important. Disasters reveal us for who and what we really are. “The plague is the measure of humanity,” one character, a mystic noblewoman, says early on in the game. That measure is what Pathologic wants you to take.
But the second game is still incomplete, only featuring one of the three perspectives, which makes the original more compelling when facing the reality of pandemic. It’s a problem that’s almost too big to fully understand from one perspective. The ability, in Pathologic, to occupy three lives, to experience those 12 days three times, offers a sense of depth, of wholeness, to the experience. You can get a fuller portrait of something that in reality seems impossible to fully assess. As miserable as that full picture might turn out to be.
Pathologic also has the virtue of being a game old enough that most computers could probably run it. Not that anyone would really recommend a game like this, right now. But people seek out art for different reasons. Sometimes, the world is miserable, and you need to feel miserable right along with it. Sometimes, indulging those feelings in a safe place can help you see them more clearly.
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