Pathologic first caught my eye a few years ago when Rock Paper Shotgun called it “the best game you’ve never heard of”. They weren’t kidding, either. Pathologic is about as niche as it gets.
I found this out firsthand, reviewing it for this very web site back in 2015 and I was blown away by just how different it felt. It was an uncompromising bucket of cold water in the face; a slow, glacial narrative with odd visual design and a rough combat system seemed to just about hold together this survival story game with gaffer tape and it was truly hard to decipher whether its stilted, clockwork charm was intentional or accidental. Now though, a reimagining is in the works under the auspices of original developer Ice-Pick Lodge, who were kind enough to send us the early alpha standalone demo titled The Marble Nest. Bringing with it a new, standalone story inside the Pathologic universe and a shiny new engine to better express itself with, I excitedly installed and played the new standalone game with great enthusiasm. What’s more, producer Ivan Slovtsov at Ice-Pick Lodge answered a few burning questions I had regarding the demo, and in a world like Pathologic, you’ll have plenty.
“The atmosphere and tone of the game is of utmost importance.”
In this new version, the low-fi crunch of the original release has been swept away into some dark corner somewhere. It’s almost a shame; for a lot of people, part of the rough charm of Pathologic was its odd visuals and low detail models. Luckily though, I can safely confirm that rather than being a shallow lick of fresh paint, the new Unity engine actually helps accentuate and clarify the classic subtlety of the original game. The new engine, instead of being a hindrance, is allowing the team to better realise their creative vision. With great impossible structures and murky, fog-laden geography, the new Pathologic is better equipped to immerse the player in the mystery of its world.
Characters enjoy greater detail in their appearance, and while you won’t find multi-million dollar face capture tech here, the strange inhabitants of this desolate town enjoy a handcrafted “human” feel, and watching their human ticks and nods in conversation windows now adds a subtle human quality to the backward inhabitants of this strange place. It’s an approach that emphasises humanity and realism without sacrificing the hazy, fever dream of the entire game. Ivan at Ice-Pick Lodge stated they “aren’t actually going for full realism” despite everything looking and feeling a little bit more believable. Instead, “the ‘real’ feeling doesn’t necessarily imply hyper-realistic expressions.” For Ivan, those tiny hints of humanity in the characterisation of NPCs never betrays the overarching atmosphere. The atmosphere and tone of the game is of utmost importance, despite the jump in fidelity: “For example, when talked to, most characters display thoughtfulness (even when the dialogue itself is very much to-the-point). This is because the dreamlike mood of the whole game prevails over the mood of a single conversation.”
The boost in visual horsepower is subtle enough to still look like Pathologic while bringing just enough new shiny trinkets to enhance the already strong experience contained in the original game. It changes in all the right ways without sacrificing the original game’s brilliant oddness. Actually, I’d even argue it makes it better by virtue of sheer clarity. This isn’t your usual remake cash in; the lick of paint doesn’t appear to be just a lazy graphical spit shine, rather it seemingly aims to augment what is already there. Ivan told me this himself, too, offering reassurance that they “really want more people to ‘get’ the symbolism and underlying motifs without dumbing it down,” which is a nice advancement towards clarity rather than simplifying proceedings or risk insulting the player’s intelligence.
With that being said, there are some characteristic moments of roughness spotted throughout our short time with The Marble Nest. It’s likely down to this being an early preview build, but doors don’t have open animations, electing instead to simply switch on and off awkwardly without any ceremony, and some of the transitions between dialogues and events happen with no circumstance or ceremony, suddenly transporting you elsewhere with nothing but a sound affect to signal the change. It really feels like some of these swift jumps between environments or states could be illustrated with a little more care. Optimisation too could use some work; I was chugging along between 30 to 40 FPS on a GTX 970, but I also expect that too to improve for the final release. This is, after all, a work in progress.
“This isn’t your usual remake cash in; the lick of paint doesn’t appear to be just a lazy graphical spit shine, rather it seemingly aims to augment what is already there.”
Describing only the odd visuals, however, is the easy part. Pathologic is a huge, complex beast, and it’s daunting to even begin describing what it actually is. it’s a genre-mutated atmospheric mood piece with elements borrowed from every genre you can think of. From adventure games, RPGs, FPSs and even walking simulators, trying to neatly tie down exactly what this game is trying to “be” is simply impossible to describe. That being said, however, this early demo version I played operates as a kind of demonstrative vertical slice, containing an isolated, standalone experience inside the Pathologic world that acts as an introductory paragraph to the vast, spider web of mystery that this game is. Promising 70 hours of play in the finish product, the two-hour demo is cruelly cut short, leaving you wanting more. That’s promising.
In The Marble Nest, you’re sent to investigate a sand plague (a viral, airborne virus that slowly but surely kills its hosts) that is blighting a remote Russian town. Setting its tone with an eerie dream sequence , we awaken in the shoes of Daniil Dankovsky (“The Bachelor”), a famed doctor from the city who’s made it his personal mission to combat the ideology of death itself. Aside from the shroud of mystery that smothers this game, what’s more noticeable was the distinct lack of silence or emotional blankness that typically signals RPG protagonists. There’s no room for your personality here. No. You’re playing a character with an already existing set of morals and beliefs of his own, and you’ll be playing the game according to his moral outline. All your dialogue choices reflect his own biases, his own beliefs. This is true role playing; not to put you in the experience, not to give you a power trip, but instead to put you entirely in the shoes of someone who may not necessarily hold your beliefs in life.
This is something that is key to Ice-Pick Lodge’s approach to design, and you’ll see a lot of this as you play more of the demo. Indeed, as Daniil wakes from his dream, you’re free to wander the town at your own discretion. Playing from this point on feels familiar; much like the infamous original, the sheer variety of directions and the general obfuscation of your actions feels daunting, but this can be counter-acted. How you progress from is very much up to you. Investigation, then, is the name of the game, and you have to rely heavily on hitting certain “leads”. You pound the streets, ask lots of questions, talk to lots of people, and from humble beginnings you have to slowly build up a case against the plague. This can be quite off-putting: on first glance Pathologic doesn’t feel “fun” in the traditional sense, but as you start to follow the threads and follow the clues dotted around the town, the cloudiness that swamps your mind at the start, the sheer volume of questions you have are slowly weathered away. Bit by bit, the game’s insidious story slowly starts to infect your brain. It’s a slow burn that, over time, becomes all you think about – and I don’t mind admitting that I became more than a little obsessed about the game’s strange ticks and quirks as I made more and more headway.
Pathologic becomes much more about tying all the disparate threads together in your mind and figuring out what on earth is happening. While the narrative seems awkward and obtuse to begin with, it’s really a rather simple matter of investigating points of interest on your map until you build up a compelling case. Indeed, Ivan rejected accusations of obtuse, difficult narrative. “Actually, we believe that our narrative is quite straightforward and inviting,” he told us. “For example, in The Marble Nest almost every dialogue invites you to explore some story or unlocks a new bit of the whole picture.”
“Pathologic demands a clear, open mind, and the game rewards attentiveness and forward thinking, but most of all it demands a keen eye for detail.”
He’s not wrong, either. As you become relaxed into the brown, dying world of Pathologic, it becomes easier to grasp the strangely simple narrative logic employed here. The game also makes certain very minor concessions to convenience by providing a handy viral chart of clues you’ve amassed, with all routes of your discoveries leading back to the terrible sand plague that’s cursing the town. The map, too, slowly becomes populated and marked with names of places, people to talk to, and things to do, but these marks only become available as you discover them, meaning exploration is still a key part of the game. You still play that role. You’re still the investigator, but this new version of Pathologic is a little more helpful in keeping you informed of your place in the story, and the slow burn of information becomes exciting to experience. The possibility of learning more about this world is where much of the charm lies.
In many ways, this is Bethesda-style world building done by philosophers and great thinkers: if you ever wanted to play Morrowind with all the intellectual weight of novel, in a context where it becomes necessary to ‘be’ the role portrayed on screen, then play Pathologic. “We really treasure the sense of discovery,” Ivan told us. “Not only environmental, but also ‘mental’: one that happens inside the player’s mind. That’s why we try to avoid gameplay elements that would allow you to play on auto-pilot without thinking about what you actually do and why.”
And yet, in saying that, Pathologic‘s greatest strength is also its biggest injury. It will be divisive, possibly unpopular, but it’s vitally important that you approach this strange relic with an open mind. Going into Pathologic blind feels like a bit of a death sentence. If you had pre-existing expectations of what’s to come, or perhaps you expected the game to share mechanical similarities with other art games, shed them now before stepping into Ice-Pick Lodge’s strange masterpiece. Having already experienced the delightful bemusement of the HD rerelease last year, I felt sufficiently veteran enough to tackle this odd beast, but I imagine if you had any expectations whatsoever, having the game slowly dismantle them one-by-one would be quite a disarming feeling. Ice-Pick Lodge, however, have their heads on straight. When we asked about their unique approach to design, Ivan confidently assured me it wasn’t their intention to forge new ground, but now that they’re here, they want everyone to come along for the ride. “We are making our own thing that really does defy many gaming traditions, but defying them is not our goal. We would love to see our approach to gaming to become a tradition of its own.” Ivan and Ice-Pick Lodge want to aim for the stars with Pathologic and from my short time with the demo, that is plain to see.
This demo demands a clear, open mind, and the game rewards attentiveness and forward thinking, but most of all it demands a keen eye for detail. It asks you to read, it asks you to absorb and to allow yourself to become immersed. The action slowly develops, blossoming at a glacial pace, with plot points and character details slowly unfolding over the course of the two-hour demo. You aren’t just being spoon-fed story here, either. You have to roleplay as your character to some extent, and you won’t be told what to do. Details about the world are slowly pushed your way and if you don’t pick up on the little details, you’ll suffer. To really let Pathologic into your head means becoming the person you play, and it does an incredible job at constructing an addicting world that demands you find out more. For my short time in the demo, it was all I could think about. The world is truly unsettling, in a way that games are rarely able to accomplish. Completing the Marble Nest demo became a small, tiny obsession that I wanted to repeat again and again. Sifting through the dirt and rubble of the doomed town felt almost real, thanks in large part to just how much of a role you play as in the story. Your agency as a human in this world is always at your side. Ice-Pick Lodge want to create something brand new in the re-imagining of Pathologic. They seek to create an experience that constantly, exhaustively reminds that your input can change anything, and if they can maintain the momentum in The Marble Nest in the full game, we will have something incredibly special on our hands.
Pathologic is truly alien experience unlike anything else, and Ivan explains this perfectly: “We would love to see more games that would give you an opportunity to ‘become’ rather than ‘play the role of’; ‘consider and decide’ rather than just ‘choose from the given options and follow’. That sounds pretty neat.”
Pathologic is on track for a 2017 release date for PS4, Xbox One and PC.