Last weekend, I dove headlong into the most self indulgent video game since Death Stranding: The Last of Us part 2. And much like Death Stranding, I loved every second of it. The game left me feeling depressed and emotionally drained from the level of empathy it forced me to feel. A big contributing factor to this was Naughty Dogs commitment to making their enemies feel like people and not just obstacles to overcome.
At face value, the game appears to be like many other stealth action games: stalk your target until no one’s watching, take them out, get discovered, take out a few more, hide and repeat with little to no remorse. That is until one of their friends discovers their corpse and yells, “They got Dana!” Wait what? That was a person with a name? No this is a video game, violence is fun, right? Remember Doom, RIP AND TEAR? As time went on after hearing countless enemies cry out for the death of their friends and being able to put a name to the face of my many victims, the tension of every encounter increased.
I started putting a lot more thought into the way the AI moved and their dialogue when on the hunt. I could feel a genuine murderous intent behind every action they took. In a set piece early on, you become cornered in a basement. Smoke bombs are thrown through the windows and enemies rush in for the kill. My hands were trembling at this point. I felt so vulnerable and I could feel how desperately these people wanted to kill me—not because they were programmed to do so, but because I’m the monster that murdered Dana, Alan, and their dog Lilly.
What’s even more interesting is that Naughty Dog have tried to evoke this feeling in their games for years now as one off story beats. In Uncharted 2, the final boss tried turning the player’s attention to the countless people they killed to get where they are now. In The Last of Us (part 1), the brutal finale uses the defenseless surgeons as a way to make players feel this empathy. But these moments are self contained, which allows players to shrug this feeling off easily. However in Part 2, they’ve embraced this as a core pillar and they make their players bathe in the guilt, regret, hate, and small windows of joy experienced by all the characters throughout it’s 30 hour run time. The key to this is the player experience provided by the AI design.
I’ve tried to be as vague as possible in this post, because I don’t want to give the impression that you can experience Pathologic by reading an analysis (especially not the sort of armchair stuff that I’m offering), but there will be some minor spoilers here. If you care about that kind of stuff, it’s worth going into Pathologic blind. If you don’t care, or if you’ve already played, then read on.
I impulse-bought Pathologic on GOG in 2014, at the start of my glorious return to PC gaming after half a decade of console life. I’d never heard of the game before, but the reviews were gushing and a skim of the description promised an “immersive survival horror RPG” with a Euro-folkpunk vibe, and that was enough for me. At some point shortly after, I fired it up, but the opening scene had no subtitles and the audio was muffled, so I shut it down. It then sat in my library, untouched for two years.
Not Your Dad’s Immersive Survival Horror RPG
I was reading an interview with Randy Smith in which Pathologic’s title was floated as a pioneering immersive sim, which brought it back onto my radar. Somehow I heard that it had received a new “Classic HD” remaster and, thinking that the subtitle issue might have been resolved, I decided to check it out. I’d taken two weeks off for the new year and decided to at least get past that weird opening scene in the theater before writing the whole mess off. The irony was not lost on me when I realized the game is largely unvoiced and is not lacking in text, thus rendering my subtitle judgement moot. But I was in for a bigger surprise than that.
The game absolutely kicked my ass. I was brutally murdered by a mugger on my first night. I starved to death when the price of food skyrocketed. I died of exhaustion trying to find my way through the labyrinthine streets. I died in my sleep after failing to note that some stat or another was approaching the breaking point before I bedded down.
And yet, beyond all this unyielding death, I was noticing perhaps the most sophisticated and literary narrative I’d ever encountered in a game. I was living the early days of a plague, and the level of nuance and detail in the behavior of the townsfolk at the level of the text was absolutely staggering. I was negotiating the transfer of emergency powers, administrating the construction of a clinic, advising on how best to negotiate a cure. There was a novelesque subtlety to each plot point.
What’s more, this creepy-quaint, magical realist, Euro-folk hamlet was supporting it all at the systemic level. Prices rose as panic buying ensued. Rumor spread about witchcraft as a possible source of the plague, and vigilantes started to spontaneously attack women in the streets. The infection meandered from district to district. The state sent in outside administrators and, eventually, the army. It was grim in a way that cut right to my bones, in a way that I’ve only seen approximated in a handful of games (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. springs to mind). But beyond grim, it felt real.
A Matter of Perspective
Pathologic is not a “traditional” immersive sim. It isn’t an homage to Thief or Deus Ex, it doesn’t feature a million-and-one-ways to get around a locked door, there are no vents to crawl through or physics objects to toss about. And yet, I might call it the finest immersive sim I’ve ever played. I can’t think of another game that has so thoroughly immersed me in a world to the point where I felt it in my gut (and the closest runner up is IPL’s follow-up The Void, so I’d say they’re onto something). But what makes Pathologic different is the way it shifts focus away from interactivity and hinges its design on creating immersion through perspective.
Perspective is at the heart of Pathologic. The game features three playable protagonists, each experiencing the same basic story from their respective viewpoint. The course of each protagonist’s arc is highly distinct, even featuring changes to the gameplay mechanics. As a result, they hold different ideologies, their friends and enemies are different, they talk to different people and get different information with which to form their markedly different opinions. Only by playing through all three can you gain a full picture of what’s going on in this plague-ridden village on the steppe.
Laying the Foundations
To craft these perspectives such that the player seamlessly adopts them, Pathologic deploys every aspect of its design to support its narrative and themes. The art direction and audio create a stage and backdrop against which the tastefully simulated town persists. The basics are all accounted for: villagers walk about, shops operate, every building can be entered (and looted).
Time passes, and it is not the arbitrary day and night cycle of your standard open-world shooter or RPG. You have twelve days to cure the town, and tasks are only available for a single day. If you fuck up and don’t get to something, somebody gets sick.
And layered on top of this are quirky, handcrafted behaviors triggered by plot events. Over the course of the game, mob rule increasingly overtakes the town. Looters and bandits flood the streets, the infected wander around the quarantine zones. The townsfolk turn to superstition and vigilante justice. Eventually the army shows up, maintaining order with rifles and hygiene with flamethrowers. As the plot spirals into utter despair, the citizens systemically lash out and slaughter each other.
When combined with the story being conveyed through dialogue with NPCs, the systems mesh to provide a social dynamic to the environment. The town becomes a character in its own right, the emergent discord representing the arc of its conflict with the plague and what that conflict represents for the town’s values. The effect is an exceptionally palpable sensation of desperation that permeates Pathologic’s atmosphere, and it places the player in a very specific headspace. And headspace really starts to matter as the motley cast of characters start whispering in your ear.
Pathologic’s tutorial comes in the form of a short diatribe by a character known as an Executor. It explains the basics of the game, that time passes without regard to you and that missing important events is a very bad thing. Most crucially, however, it makes no bones about telling you that the NPCs will outright lie to your face. What the villagers tell you—and what you choose to believe—will define your perspective.
But Pathologic goes a step further. The quality of the writing is such that, from the sum total of the information conveyed to you in the course of a playthrough, the emergent effect is a strong identification with the outlook of whichever protagonist you are controlling. Even if you know the plot and intellectually disagree with the character’s principles, the dialogue shapes the story such that the player’s perspective settles naturally into that of the controlled hero.
This is not to say that the path is completely authored for a given protagonist. Although the game is quite rigidly linear, there are opportunities to make choices. There are even multiple endings, but the power to choose freely between them involves metagame elements that are best discovered on one’s own.
Credit must also be given again to the depth of the storytelling. Despite the extreme and at times fantastical nature of the story, the things the characters actually do are not just relatable, but intricately detailed. There is a lot of dialogue in the game, and much of it is devoted to the complex motivations of all the characters. Each of the primary NPCs has a vibrant personality and unique mannerisms through which their diverse worldviews are conveyed.
It’s clear that IPL put as much work into the dialogue as Looking Glass put into Thief‘s stealth. It is the foremost method through which the game’s identity is conveyed. The stories of the characters and the town, settled upon the foundation of despondency laid by the simulation, combine to form the meat and potatoes of Pathologic’s philosophy of immersion.
I Will Survive
If the story and systems are the meat and potatoes, then the survival mechanics are the gravy. They saturate the gameplay experience, elevating the desperation to knuckle-whitening levels. Pathologic’s survival stats are way on the far side of unforgiving. Indeed, the fragility of the protagonist is acknowledged in-world, with characters noting that the very air within the village weakens the constitution and tends those who breathe it towards infirmity.
In tandem with the survival mechanics runs the town’s economy. Prices change depending on what’s happening in the story, and if you’ve not stocked up before a price hike, you’ll be rooting around in the trash for something to barter with. You’ll be trading tchotchkes to little girls for ammo. You might rob or even kill someone just to ensure your own survival. And you will always feel, at best, as though you’re only just scraping by.
It’s a common anecdote in accounts of Pathologic that a struggling player has hawked their gun for food, and that on its own is testament to just how bracing resource management is in this game. Can you name another game where you’d sell your only weapon to keep from starving to death?
But you learn to live, teeth clenched, Sword of Damocles bearing down. And each and every decision you make matters more as a result. This goes all the way down from high level resource management to simply picking the quickest and safest way to get from point A to point B. Even just crossing the street can be a life or death experience.
The intense pressure of the stat management creates an urgency in which you have no time to detach yourself from the game. You have to remain inside of the character, working constantly to advance lest you fall idle and waste away. With the systems and story cradling you snugly in the perspective of your character, the survival mechanics strap you in.
And what a ride. The story of Pathologic is not merely rich and detailed, it’s sweeping and epic, emotional and full of intrigue and human drama, horrific and beautiful at the same time.
And it is all these things because of the pains it takes to create a perspective, a mentality that thoroughly shapes your experience of the game world. In this way, Pathologic ensures that you are not simply playing with a simulated sandbox of a world, but that you are fully inside of it, experiencing all of its pressures and demands and victories and moments of respite as viscerally as possible. And in doing so, it gets inside you.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out what Quintin Smith had to say about his experience playing Pathologic in sync with a friend in his excellent writeup:
“I played through the game at the same time as a friend. He chose the Bachelor, and I was the Haruspicus. Because we played at the same rate, we had the chance to discuss developments in the plot each day. […] My favourite was on day 9, some 20 hours into the game, when the same friend started talking about how he couldn’t play on for much longer. He said that if things didn’t resolve themselves soon he’d give up. He was so tired, he said.
The next day my character went to see the Bachelor to discuss some findings, and I found a man overcome with exhaustion. The Bachelor said that if we couldn’t discover the truth about this disease soon he was going to shoot himself rather than let the illness kill him.
This is what Pathologic does. It creates an interesting, desperate situation and brooks no compromise in letting you experience it. And in unflinchingly making you suffer, you identify with these characters you control to the point of becoming them.”
Immersive sims aren’t actually about the stealth or the shooting, the lockpicking or hacking, or even flushing every single toilet in a 3D building. They are about giving the player a tangible presence in a virtual world, and to this end, Pathologic is outstanding.
I finished my first Pathologic playthrough (as the Bachelor) just shy of the end of my vacation four years ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I’ve since completed the other characters as well, and can confidently say that each is utterly integral to the full story. From the moment I first finished it, I knew Pathologic would stand as one of my all time favorite games.
The agony of choice is all the rage in modern story-driven gaming. Moral and ethical decisions have become the go-to method of injecting substance and weight into interactive narrative, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, choice is unique to interactive media, and is arguably its most fundamental aspect. What is interactivity if not some level of choice in how one experiences an environment? Even something as simple as selecting the right weapon to slaughter a demonic posse in Doom demonstrates that agency is always at the heart of interactivity.
The exploration of agency has come a long way over the short life of video games as narrative media. While the possibility of games with multiple endings was already being explored in the 1980’s, from Nobunaga’s Ambition to Sweet Home, the concept of an ethically-driven choice system would develop through the 90’s, and particularly in the RPG genre. The offerings of Interplay and BioWare, including such classics as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout, introduced characters with independent agendas who would react to the player’s behavior in the world. This could lead to all manner of emergent narrative developments, with characters abandoning or even attacking the player for veering too far along an opposing ethical axis. Morality systems even started to appear in some shooters, such as Dark Forces II, with the killing of civilians determining whether Kyle Katarn becomes a Jedi or a Sith. By the late ’00s, titles like Fable and Bioshock had cemented moral choice as a commodity within narrative design.
As the medium matured, however, there emerged a certain disillusionment with these dichotomous systems. The cracks began to show in its narrative applicability. The choice became less about immersive, situational decision making and more about commitment to one of two paths. BioWare’s Jade Empire provides a particularly egregious example, allowing the player to go through the entire game making small ethical decisions before the final decision rockets you all the way to one end of the morality scale or the other. While it can be great fun to choose between life as a saint and life as an utter bastard, it hinders interesting storytelling by glossing over the gray areas that makes morality so fascinating in the first place.
Active & Passive Feedback
When we talk about how choice has developed in games over the decades, what we’re really talking about is feedback. When I make a decision as a player, how does that affect the progression of my experience? Is it a simple matter of life or death? Does it affect my character’s personal arc? Are the ripples of my choice felt throughout the whole world? One approach to choice-feedback is to have an event-based system of consequences that actually changes the outcome of one or more of the game’s story arcs. It may be the death of a beloved character or the fall of an great empire, or even the unlocking of a unique ability or item. The more responsive the game world, the more likely a player is to feel powerful within that game world. We’ll call this “active feedback,” in which the game explicitly responds to a given player choice.
Another sort of feedback emerges from the design of interesting dilemmas in themselves. This means that the player is presented with a choice that is contextualized by the narrative substance of the game world. While this choice may or may not tie directly into an active feedback mechanic, the heavy lifting is done on the part of the player based on the ideas the ethical choice presents. Adventure games like SOMA and Kentucky Route Zero have deftly applied this sort of choice system, which allows the player to define the interior world of the character rather than the external game world.
For instance, in SOMA, the protagonist, Simon, learns that he is simply a copy of his own brain from a century ago, transfused into a robot body. In one of the game’s subtler moments of choice, Simon finds the computer where his brain scan is stored and can opt, with little prompting, to delete the file. The decision has no bearing on the outcome of the game, but it is given significance by the narrative context, and so it gave me lengthy pause when I came across it. I debated over what to do, and it’s a decision that still stands out to me. The game effectively communicated consequence without a direct supporting event. We’ll call this “passive feedback.”
From a narrative perspective, crafting an interesting dilemma is far more valuable than simply providing the player with the opportunity to “opt in” to either good or evil. There’s little drama in being presented with a flagrantly Good or Evil option and then having the outcome reflect the proscribed morality of the choice. Even in titles such as Fable III, where a sort of tragic irony colors the moral binary, it does more to demonstrate the latent sadism of a binary ethical system than it does to offer anything truly innovative to the concept of choice and consequence in games. We as humans are conflicted, doubtful, anxious beings, and in life we never come across simple moral binaries. Our ethical dilemmas are defined by their agonizing, tragic quality, and the passive feedback of an ethical choice should reflect that complication and depth. The pain of such decisions is the spark of good drama.
But we can go one step further, and say that this pain is also central to morality itself, and how human beings experience satisfaction from making moral judgements. As game designers, understanding the philosophical basis for this satisfaction can be useful in constructing systems of morality within our games. For that, we should look to Immanuel Kant, the quintessential moral philosopher.
Morality is Pain: Kant
Kantian morality is complex and multifaceted, and the philosophically inclined should read The Critique of Practical Reason to understand it fully. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that it’s less about what is moral and more about how morality is determined in the first place. For Kant, morality is a logical form, a set of criteria by which human reason determines an ethical course of action. This opposes Kant to the common assumption that what is “good” is determined by a goal or objective, i.e. happiness, pleasure, ensuring future good, etc. Kant argued that morality must be more than a means to an end. It must be universally and unconditionally good in itself, regardless of the consequences. An individual person determines what action qualifies against this criteria though the use of their reason.
This formula is particularly interesting, since it separates moral choice from the rote, reward-based logic that generally governs how we think of game design. We can see this at play in a title like TellTale’s The Walking Dead. The game is an endless succession of “damned-if you-do” moments culminating in devastating tragedy, and yet we remain absolutely rapt even in the absence of a definitive win-state or reward. According to Kant, this isn’t a fluke. It’s the entire point. Given that a morality is opposed to any self-interested inclination, he determines that there is only one form of feedback that tells you without a doubt that you are being moral:
Physical pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter what sort of pain as long as it hurts. It sounds brutal and sadistic, and it absolutely is, but it creates, as Kant notes, a quality of morality whereby we can appreciate it intellectually even though viscerally we experienced it as suffering. In his introduction to The Critique of Practical Reason, Stephen Engstrom explains that this pain gives way to “a feeling of respect for the moral law, a feeling that can come to have a positive aspect to the extent that we recognize that it is in the judgment of our own reason. Through this recognition, the feeling of respect takes on a certain elevating and ennobling character, insofar as its object is recognized to be a law that has its source in our own rational nature.”
To my mind, this concept perfectly accounts for the power of meaningful choice in games. Players are engaged by challenging, ethically complicated decisions against which they can apply judgment reached through their own reason. To have this effect, these decisions must confront us to some degree with a tragic pain. In the context of a game’s narrative, this pain manifests as guilt. The way in which the player considers this guilt, from an intellectual standpoint, is what allows the experience to resonate with the player and gives depth to their engagement with the game.
Guilt as Passive Feedback
It is important to understand the primacy of passive feedback in the implementation of guilt as gameplay. While there can certainly be active feedback systems to support them, the narrative design and the implications of the choices within the context of the story must effectively convey passive feedback, ensuring that the decisions made have gravity, and stick in the player’s mind long after the deed has been done. An active feedback system that is devoid of any passive feedback, which allows you to simply select between desired outcomes, does little aside from propping up a superficial fantasy. By contrast, passive feedback can color a player’s experience by playing with how they experience the context of their journey. Well executed player choice fully embraces this, relying upon the cultivation of guilt for its emotional yield.
In his talk at GDC 2014, Unreal 2 and Dead Space 2 designer Matthias Worch explained how agency is afforded to players in combat scenarios through an interplay of complicating mechanics which can be learned and beaten through applied knowledge. This deployment of guilt in the context of deep, ethical dilemmas ultimately serves the same purpose, creating an emotional challenge against which the player can apply their rationality, thus granting the player ethical agency.
There is a caveat, however. We must not confuse the creation of compelling ethical narratives with simply piling on grimdarkness and feel-bad storytelling. The cultivation of quality guilt-based gameplay requires a deft manipulation of the benevolent and the brutal into nuanced moral constellations that involve the player at a visceral level and challenge their reason. With the rapid approach of The Last of Us Part 2, replete with its highly publicized dog-eat-dog (sorry) ethical philosophy, we may soon get a chance to see this painful art taken to the max. Will Naughty Dog succeed at creating a taught, compelling experience of the liminal spaces of morality, or will they slip lazily into nihilism?
It is common practice to think of games, in their narrative capacity, as a purely mimetic form. A game places you in a fictional scenario, in the shoes of a character or characters through which you experience a phantasmal world. You interact directly with a world represented through the art direction, mechanical design, etc. of the game. To some, it may be satisfactory to leave it at that. However, recent trends in indie titles hint at a more experimental orientation to narrative which not only presents something new, but also warrants a revisiting of how exactly a story is experienced in an interactive framework. Such a revisitation reveals the simple classification of game narrative as mimetic is problematic.
Strategy games offer an excellent example. Starcraft, for instance, positions the player as the commander of their chosen faction. But the interface implies that the player’s experience exceeds this characterization. The player is not an individual general in the thick of battle, or commanding from a field office. Rather, Starcraft, in accordance with the standards of the strategy genre, positions the player as an omnipotent eye in the sky, less a commander than a manifestation of the structure of command itself. Of course, such strategy games don’t deploy this device as an experiment. Rather, the interface necessitates this godlike position.
It is similar in choice-driven RPGs. In addition to the strategy elements of equipping and commanding your party, games like Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity afford player participation in the development of the story. Through her choices, the player has a certain role in writing the story. Again, this is necessitated by the interface of the game, the mechanics which allow the player to engage with the story at its mimetic level.
In literature, diegesis refers to a manner of storytelling whereby the story is recounted, as opposed to mimesis, in which the story is represented directly. In film, the term has a different meaning, referring to whether an element of the film takes place at the level of the story or the level of the reader. Music, for instance, which can be heard by the character is diegetic, while the music of the soundtrack, which can only be heard by the audience, is extradiegetic. Games are in the unique position to bring these two meanings together. To illustrate this point, one can turn to recent walking simulators such as Sunset and The Moon Sliver.
Sunset, Tale of Tales’ quiet political romance of revolutionary failure, represents the juncture of diegesis in games. It sits on the border of mimesis and diegesis. At the purely mimetic, representational level, you are cast in the role of Angela, a young American expat in a communist Latin American republic. Angela works as a maid for Gabriel Ortega, a local aristocrat who, between appearances at concerts and gallery openings, is financing a revolution against the country’s despotic US-backed dictator.
The game takes place in a series of half-hour episodes, in which the player is given a list of chores and more or less free reign of Gabriel’s lavish apartment. The story is delivered in two ways: first through Angela’s poetic commentary on Ortega, spurred by her existence in his living space, and then through entries in Angela’s diary, which she can be inspired to write by sitting in Daniel’s easy chair. This is diegesis in it’s pure literary form. Angela recounts the game’s story to the player in a space that is contextualized by but separate from actual gameplay. Thus, the narrative is diegetic, but you, the player, are still largely mimetic, her actions being represented through engagement in her chores. Even Angela’s reflection in the glass surfaces around reinforce that you are Angela, and in fact the diary reveals that Angela herself is conscious of the apartment as a space that is separate from the action of the story.
The Moon Sliver goes a step further. You are left on an island with only the instruction to explore and, when night falls, enter the mountain. As you navigate the lonely beach, you uncover the story through letters and journal entries, as well as passages of prose that appear on screen as you move through significant areas. The cryptic narrative vaguely implies that you might be one of the characters about whom you are reading, but because your actions are not specifically contextualized within the narrative, you are kept at a distance. You are an observer, an audience to a story, merely following in the footsteps of a character whose ending has already been written.
In this sense, the player character is itself extradiegetic, to some extent, but not entirely. Unlike Starcraft, in which the extradiegetic orientation of the player is purely mechanical, The Moon Sliver intentionally blurs the line between diegesis and mimesis, allowing the player to exist in a sort of narrative limbo, somewhere between the lines of text and the physical game world. This is all the more underscored by the appearance of the text itself within the game world, hovering in the air as you wander. Are these suspended words in fact diegetic, appearing to the character as they do to the player?
This narrative mechanism is peculiar to the interactive immersion of games, and opens the door to new possibilities for storytelling and avant garde experimentation in the medium. Even more fundamental than the pretentious potential for deconstructionism and semiotics within games as literature, the quasi-diegetic space games naturally occupy, as entities of both story and interface, allows for new questions of narrative altogether.