Nearly three years after its UK release, I'm still trying to get my head around Pathologic, an obscure genre mashup from weirdest Russia. Every time you think you've grasped it, every time you figure out what's at the heart of the game, it slips away or blurs with another idea. What is this thing I've come to love so dearly?
Well, it's a first-person action-RPG. Without much action or role-playing. An adventure game, only without any puzzles. It's a heady and deeply intelligent fable, but there's no clear sense of right or wrong. It's an oblique, narrative-driven experience, filled with mystery, metaphor and metaphysics - one that was tragically buried under a mass of technically better releases. And it's really difficult to describe.
Try this. Imagine Oblivion. Imagine its lush, green landscapes, its lakes and streams and wildlife. Imagine its most extravagant city, towering above you. Imagine the sense that, as you fight this uncompromising evil, you're really making a difference to the people and places around you.
Now imagine launching Oblivion one day to find everything's changed. The trees have died, the grass is a sick shade of brown, the city is collapsing, the sky's dark, and everyone around you is screaming in agony. They're dying - tens, hundreds a day - and despite everything you try, nobody's getting better. You're not making a difference. You're lost in blind panic and horrible despair, and all you can do is struggle for survival in the hope that, eventually, everything will fall into place, before it falls out of existence all together.
Pathologic takes place in a single town, over a period of 12 days. That's defined from the start. You won't understand why, but there's a reason. There are three playable characters, all healers of some sort, each experiencing a different side of the story. The ones you don't pick appear as NPCs, merging seamlessly with the rest of the cast. You'll interact with these characters on a regular basis, but although they'll guide you to an extent, for the most part you're totally, ruthlessly alone.
In Pathologic, nothing is as it seems. If you play as the Bachelor, like I did, you arrive to meet a man who claims to be immortal... only to find him dead. Everyone is certain he's been murdered, but there's no weapon in sight, no poison flowing through his veins. The murderer is not human. It's a deadly disease so fierce, so all-encompassing, that it's wasting away the very fabric of the town's existence.
Pathologic's story floats in and out of coherence, in and out of reality - and not just due to the remedial translation. Breaking every fourth wall in the known universe, it skips between talking to you the character and you the person. It's not always obvious which voice is which, and even less clear to which you should pay the most attention. Pathologic is often so opaque that when my quest log didn't update for an entire day, no matter what I did or who I spoke to, I didn't immediately realise it was a bug. That's just the sort of thing Pathologic does.
Each day, you'll be given an overriding task to complete, and if you don't manage it during the timescale, someone important will die. This does not mean game over. It just means tomorrow will be harder. In Pathologic, the world exists despite you - and just because you're not there to see something happen, doesn't mean it won't occur regardless. As the calendar ticks onwards and reality collapses ever more, you begin to wonder if there's any hope at all. But you continue. Something compels you.
On a typical morning, you might receive notice that a particular character demands your attention. They'll supply you with a task, but it requires the agreement of a man who's inexplicably come to hate you. You need to convince him. You wander over to his house, but accidentally stumble into an infected area on the journey. Your health seeps away. The man you've come to meet wants you to give his dying friends some pills in return for the favour. You've barely enough for yourself, and prices have skyrocketed in the meantime.
You could give him the medicine, head off to the shop, and trade everything you own for another bottle of tablets. Or you could spend the whole day scavenging the streets, in the hope that you'll find enough dropped coins to fund your own survival. Or you could wait until nightfall, and then silently head out into the town. You put a gun to the temple of an innocent citizen and shoot him dead, stealing anything you find on his person. When morning comes, you'll have some explaining to do - but without such drastic action, you might not last that long...