At the start of Pathologic 2, I wake up in an empty room. I follow a light, and end up on a stage. I’m introduced to the show, by a wicked-looking director and extras in tragedy masks and skin-tight black suits. I’m an actor, the star, one of many. Then the game begins, I walk off the stage, and people start dying.
Pathologic 2 is the remake/sequel to the cult classic Russian plague simulator, Pathologic. Released in 2005, the game, developed by Ice Pick Lodge, was known for being difficult and cruel, a narrative adventure set inside a plague-ridden town where the player is constantly battling disease, social unrest, and their own starvation. Pathologic 2 is no different, and I’ve spent large swaths of my time since its release trying to save myself and others throughout the game’s punishing, atmospheric 12-day cycle.
But what really strikes me about Pathologic 2 isn’t its difficulty. It’s that stage. It’s the theatricality of it all, and what theatricality can do for a game like this.
When I leave the performance space and walk out into the world of the game and its nameless, likely doomed town, the theatre follows me. Each death brings me back to the stage, for a conversation with the director or a stagehand, a glimpse into a world behind the curtain. Occasionally, reality breaks, and a spotlight appears to guide me to where the game wants me to be, to pull my eyes toward an objective or an object of terror. The extras in tragedy masks—the “tragedians,” the game calls them—keep appearing intermittently, offering suggestions and insights. Once, during a pivotal moment early in the game’s 12 days, they appeared all over town, standing on top of fences, street lights, low-hanging roofs, and simply pointed to where the game wanted me to go next. Other times, they just stand in the background and watch.
All of these little touches make Pathologic 2 feel like a performance. Which it is; all games are, a performance of one for an audience of one, for the player by the player, with a stage and script created by developers. And what’s really striking about the game’s use of theatricality, its purposeful choice to foreground the theatre that’s already in games, to break gaming’s fourth wall, is how well it works. The theatrical elements give P2 an air of surreality, while also foregrounding its status as, well, a game. It lets the game communicate about itself in ways that feel clever and inventive, even when it’s just something like a tutorial or a hint about where to go next.
The videogame industry has a nasty tendency to look inward and forward exclusively. Games, we say, are special, a medium unto itself, with no need to draw ideas from elsewhere. But that attitude creates insular communities and, frankly, boring games.
Pathologic 2 foregrounds how much games can learn from older art forms. Theatre, in particular, has a wealth of commonalities with games that can be mined for style and technique. Both, after all, are about performance, and live participation by actors and audiences. Theatre is also masterful at directing the attention of the viewer—using light and spectacle, sound and routine, it teaches the audience where to look and when. Film and television has the good fortune of being able to simply move your eyes to what you need to see, but theatre and games don’t have that luxury. If you want to spend the entire game looking at the clouds, there’s not much that can be done to stop you. As such, both mediums have to find more persuasive, gentle means of guiding your attention.
The videogame industry has a nasty tendency to look inward and forward exclusively. Gaming, we say, is special, a medium unto itself, with no need to draw ideas from elsewhere. We should be creating, innovating, and making ourselves better, pulling ourselves up by our controller-cord bootstraps, so to speak. But that attitude creates insular communities and, frankly, boring games. When we ignore the insights of other art forms, we waste time reinventing the wheel when we could be driving.
Pathologic 2 doesn’t waste any time finding new ways to communicate when the old ways are there, waiting for it. It sees the need to cast the player as a performer, and so it puts them on a stage, and it shines a spotlight on their head. It’s an old method, certainly, but it also works. And you know what they say about ideas that aren’t broken.
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