I am tired of politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the true believers to whom bush and Israel are sacred cows, never to be questioned.
This blog post is about something completely different.
There are two parts to this article: the soul crushing part (if you are an avid computer gamer like myself) and the rupture part (which will uplift your spirit).
I recommend saying fuck it, skipping parts 1 and 2 and going directly to part 3.
Part 1: The decline of computer games - making bland, boring shit for the stupid masses
Computer games have a bad rap.
They are viewed as mindless, boring, dehumanizing form of crass, low brow entertainment.
And for the most part, the critics are right.
Three distinct types of computer games are being made today - these are three distinct genres.
First, and most popular, is the FPS - the first person shooter.
Simply put, this has the hero looking at a 3D world, walking, running, and killing everything in sight. Examples of this genre are all the world war 2 games, where one plays the role of a heroic soldier, who almost singlehandedly wins WW2 by killing literally hundreds of Germans.
So - kill, shoot, kill, pew pew blam blam.
Second type, just a tad bit less popular than FPS, is RTS - real time strategy.
This has the player not looking through at the world thru a first person perspective, but from above, the "just below the sky" level of viewpoint. The player uses a mouse pointer to choose a worker, or workers, who then build buildings, which then make soldiers and tanks and planes, which then proceed to kill off enemy units and destroy enemy buildings.
So - kill, shoot, pew pew blam blam.
The third, and by far least popular genre, is the adventure genre.
The player's viewpoint can be from the first person (eyesight on the ground, just like FPS) or from above (just like RTS), or slightly from behind the player's character (looking at his/her butt for hours on end) but the player, instead of focusing solely on killing stuff, has to run around, look for quests, given by various people in the game, do their bidding, and get a reward.
Usually, in reality, this becomes tedious, as the player is given such quests as: go there, kill the bad guys, steal the gem, and bring it to this person for reward.
So, even though the idea is good, the execution (especially of recent adventure games) is (yep, you guessed it):
So - kill, shoot, pew pew blam blam.
I think that everything corporate America touches turns to crap.
Look at rap music - first, it was a music from the gutter, from the ghettos, angry music, detailing the daily struggle to survive, the depression, the hatred of the system that kept a young black man down, and then...
Enter corporate America, eager to cash in on this rap thing:
Rap is now about how great it is to be a rapper, how many women you have, how many and how big cars you possess, and of course, life is good.
Same thing happened with computer games.
In the beginning, in the pre history of gaming, during the time of Commodore C-64, Spectrum Holobyte, when games were loaded into the computer using tapes - YES, tapes, as in actual tapes - games were fun.
There were no rules, there were no three (really, two) dominant genres, and game developers did not have the fat, clueless CEO and even stupider marketing "expert" breathing down their necks to develop YET ANOTHER FPS or RTS.
Every game was innovative, and everything was tried - games were cheap to develop and code, and it was a fun era (eh, nostalgia).
Now, in the modern era the gaming industry makes more money than Hollywood - article is here. Yes, you read that right - the gaming industry makes more money than our movies, with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and other assorted idiots.
With this kind of money on the line, the big studios frown and actively discourage innovation. After all, innovation is risky, and when you develop a game that uses big time Hollywood actors, has taken several years to code and develop - the last thing you want is for the game to sell too few copies.
So, we are now in the bleh era of gaming - as in, Electronic Arts releases its American Football games for years, with each year virtually the same damn game being released, with possibly better graphics (see here for this crushing lack of innovation in action).
Simply put, why innovate and do something new, when the tried, true and old is selling anyway?
So - take no risk in computer games development (and rap... and everything else) because big money are on the line.
We are then stuck with the corporate bland, bland, boring, another FPS, another RTS, with ever more expensive commercials on TV telling us that this FPS/RTS shitty product really IS different, and fun, and when we buy it, we pop it into the disk drive, and we play it, we discover that it is the SAME shit, the SAME game that we have played for years and years and years.
Part 2: Computer games are for kids!
The computer games are no longer played by just pimply faced 15 year olds who did not discover girls yet - look at these amazing statistics here, one of which is "The average game player is 33 years old and has been playing games for 12 years."
And millions of people like me.
And we are tired, oh so tired, of this art form still being stuck in the dark ages, with pushback from the CEO's and CIO's and the corporate who want the status quo to continue, who want to release the SAME game over and over every year for maximum profits and no risk.
There is a preconception that computer games are for kids in America.
Just like animated features MUST be for kids, despite the incredible demand for adult subject matter animated films that has exploded in USA (look at the success of anime!).
Japanese animated movies are made mostly with adults in mind, and can range from sci-fi, crime dramas, or just dramas, with Hollywood production values.
For example, look at Barefoot Gen - an animated movie about the atomic bombing of Japan, or this scene from Akira, which is technically brilliant, or my favorite anime right now, Ghost in the Shell, currently running in USA on the Cartoon Network.
These kinds of movies will not be made in America, because of corporate pushback, and "cartoons are for kids!" mindset.
So we will have to sit through yet another bland, boring Hollywood "blockbuster" with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (yawn).
Similarly, "computer games are for kids!" mindset is in total control.
This has gotten so bad that when Rockstar, the company that releases adult themed games, made Grand Theft Auto series and a game called Manhunt, in which your character must, in a bloody, gory and very realistic way murder his way thru the game, the backlash was intense.
Despite the game having a big sticker on the box that advised the customer that this is an M-rated game (ratings guide is here). The game is about graphic murder, is rated M for a mature customer/player, and what was the reaction?
In the UK, the game manhunt was banned, in Brazil the game Bully IS banned, and there are calls through Canada to likewise ban this game.
Which is all resulting from the mindset, "computer games are for kids!".
Which leads to absurd situations, as for example when Hillary Clinton, that political whore, calling on the Senate to investigate a computer game (BBC article here).
The funniest thing about all the controversy with Hillary doing her political whoring bit was that, in a game that featured graphic violence, with the player scoring points by running over pedestrians in a car, shooting policemen, and blowing the city up, the one bit where that political whore and her ilk were "offended" was... normal sexual relations between the player character and a woman.
The horror! We can't have normal, heterosexual sex in a computer game about murder, mayhem and terrorism!
That, pretty much, sums up America today in a nutshell...
Part 3: The Quiet Revolution
But there is hope.
There is always hope.
Of course, it does not come from the corporate offices of American game developers, who are making their 22nd American Football game, and yet another first person shooter, in which you, the player are the hero of the war, and you must ... well.... you know...
...kill, shoot, kill, pew pew blam blam.
We are now older, more mature gamers, and we want games which will uplift us, make us sad, genuinely move us. In short, we want the games to move from their prerhistoric era, and develop fully, to shed their cocoon of blandness, corporate "games are for kids" and blossom into a butterfly.
Fuck kids (and Hillary too).
I want games for the MAJORITY of gamers, who are adult now.
There is hope on the horizon...
This new wave of games is coming from Europe (granted, Japan has been making quirky and genuinely innovative games for decades, but for some reason these are Japan-only games, and are not released anywhere else).
And now, without further ado, I give you: Pathologic from Ice Pick Lodge games (Russia).
I advise you to skip reading this blog, and click on the links to the original articles. I have picked and copied here only the most interesting bits from the articles, but really, the WHOLE article should be read - and then the 2nd part.
Skip the 3rd part though if you want to buy and play this genuine art on your computer - part 3 contains spoilers.
I will give you a link to the three articles written about this game,
Pathologic - article 1:
I’m going to explain, right now, why a Russian FPS/RPG called Pathologic is the single best and most important game that you’ve never played.
Pathologic is a game about disease.
The game begins with three healers arriving in a town, a backwards settlement built on a meat industry out in the barren earth of the Russian steppes. The year is… about 1910, maybe. The three healers do not know each other, and arrive in town via different paths and come for different reasons. One of the healers is a dashing doctor from the city, another is a musclebound shamanistic figure. The last is a tiny girl with fearsome messianical powers. They are the Bachelor, the Haruspicus and the Devotress. They’re also your playable characters.
But things are wrong. The moment the three healers arrive a terrible, merciless infection breaks out. Soon thousands of residents have fallen ill, with hundreds more dying each day. As the town is isolated and, eventually, quarantined, the healers are trapped, forced to win the fight against the disease or succumb to the infection themselves. And make no mistake, if no one stops this plague it will wipe the town off the face of the Earth like so much rambling on a blackboard.
And that’s the set-up.
And this is the other reason the tri-character narrative is interesting. It makes the world seem that much less contrived. In Pathologic people don’t always answer your questions, and mysteries go unsolved. This actually ties in with the central concept of disease, which is at its heart a battle against ignorance- once the disease is understood, it can be cured, after all. And just as it’s the combined and separated actions of the three characters that ultimately cure the disease (rather than any one of them saving the day) it’s only in completing the game three times that you’ll truly understand what’s going on.
As you’re scrambling from one location to the next there are a few buildings in which aren’t going to escape your attention. First, there’s the Abattoir. Visible on your map as a huge, tumour-like hill on an otherwise flat landscape, the Abattoir is where the town’s meat… comes from. A simple pulley system runs from out of a hole in the hill all the way to the train yard, loaded with hundreds of huge hemp sacks, all of them sticky with blood, sagging down near the ground on their way to the trains. But the Abattoir’s been shut down since the outbreak. The doors have been locked with the workers still inside, and the sacks of meat hanging off the pulley system are left rotting in mid-air.
Then there’s the Aviary. A terrifying monsterpiece of a building, the Aviary is a gargantuan rectangular concrete block with narrow vertical slits for windows. This is where the town keeps its inexplicably large population of madmen. It’s also where the town gets rid of most of its dead. Bodies are dumped into holes at the base of the Aviary, where they’re dragged away and somehow made use of by the Aviary’s inhabitants. Again, this building has been sealed off since the outbreak, the inhabitants still inside.
Finally on the other side of town you have the Polyhedron. Built by the town’s resident prodigal architect, the Polyhedron is a mammoth angular structure resembling an Escher-like interpretation of a conch seashell stuck into the ground by the pointy end. The physics of it are impossible. The town’s children have recently commandeered it, keeping the door locked to everyone except other children.
You’ve never felt foreboding like it. Any student of horror will tell you that there’s nothing more horrible than what only exists in the audience’ mind. Pathologic has you building up your own unthinkable mental picture of what takes place inside these buildings for almost the whole game.
And Christ, it’s a game that can back up its threats.
Pathologic has the cruelest survival mechanics I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. As well as taking care of your physical health, you’ve got to deal with hunger, thirst, exhaustion, infection and reputation.
But- and this is absolutely key- survival within Pathologic does not bend to you, just as the story doesn’t bend to you. This rigidity is perhaps what marks it out as a uniquely Russian videogame. Just as survival in real life is merely something you have to do in order to achieve your goals, so it is in Pathologic. You will not get paid money when you carry out the whims of the town’s leaders. There will not be a health pack hidden behind the thug. You will not find a loaf of bread at the back of the cave. You’ll find a stone wall at the back of the cave, because it’s a fucking cave.
Instead, survival is its own entirely separate entity. To keep up a stash of supplies you have to learn to master the town’s nightmare economy. Example: giving a child a cutthroat razor in exchange for stolen jewelery, trading these jewels in at a grocers for a heel of bread. Another example: recovering empty bottles from bins, filling them with water at the well and giving them to hungover drunks in exchange for bandages.
On my first runthrough of the game I was impossibly relieved when I got given a revolver and six bullets, because it was the solution to my impending starvation. I took it straight to the nearest corner store and swapped it for a bottle of milk and a can of vegetables. The next day food doubled in price.
I don’t want to dwell on the survival, but the brilliance of this cannot be overstated. If there’s another FPS this decade that has you eagerly swapping your only gun for milk, I’ll gladly disappear up my own asshole.
So the structure of Pathologic has you playing two separate games. Carrying out the jobs, missions and inquiries that may or may not help you fight the disease, and simply surviving.
What pushes this combination to fever pitch is a few things. First, the survival is hard. It’s easy to get yourself into a situation where poverty or disease will be the end of you, and if you fail to buy more and more serious weaponry and protective clothing (both of which degrade with use anyway) as the town’s situation becomes more dire, then you might find that the only way out is restarting the game. This means that survival can never truly leave your mind. Your own safety can never be an afterthought. Second, you’re working under a time limit. Every day brings its own deaths, problems, occurrences and tasks, and plot threads vanish as the next day begins. There’s always the option to trade some of your equipment for coffee beans and chew your way through the night, but (just like in real life!) it’s never a good idea.
BUT, and this is another one of those individual aspects of Pathologic which makes me want to scream from the rooftops, if you leave a day’s missions unfinished the game keeps going. You could easily spend a day just stockpiling equipment, but then the survival of the town slips that much further through your fingers.
If you think all this sounds Hellish, you’re dead right. If you think this doesn’t sound fun… you might be right. Certainly there’s a lot here that’s interesting, but you might be doubtful as to whether it makes a good game.
What you have to realise is that, disparate and cruel as all these game mechanics are, they’re all pulling in the same direction. They try and foster something in a player that no other game I’ve played has ever dared to deliberately go near.
You know now that this game, if it can be called that, is on another level (to use that tired cliche for once when it actually fits).
This is beyond "kill, shoot, kill, pew pew blam blam."
This is a work of art.
Pathologic - article 2.
In a single word, Pathologic is dark. And not “we’re going to make our sequel a darker, more adult experience” dark. Not ‘teen angst’ dark. Pathologic is an endlessly bleak game with an atmosphere that smothers all hope. It’s ‘pensioner breaking a leg in his bedsit and no one finding out until the smell starts to get unbearable’ dark.
Even before the disease breaks out the town is a terrible, ungodly place. It’s ugly, completely isolated and ruled in triumvirate by three squabbling families (one industrial, one bourgeois, one intellectual, all of them hungry for power but none of them strong enough to take it). Children are everywhere but none of them can claim any parents, and at night the streets are ruled by furious drunks. The graveyard is maintained by a penniless blind girl who can do nothing to stop endless grave robberies. It’s pretty much a stretch to even call it a town- it’s a Nick Cave ballad brought to unlife in hideous 3D.
Now, when you first end a day in Pathologic a message comes up on screen. It tells you, in simple, silent text, how many have died in the village and how many are infected. It also says that there are eleven days left, and it’s not lying. When you open your journal you can clearly see twelve tabs, one for each day. The game ceaselessly reminds you of its own span.
Now, to begin with this is comforting. It’s just a way of reminding you that this nightmare will be over in a couple of weeks. Then the death tolls start racking up into the hundreds, the thousands, and you witness the sickness and you try and understand it but it only ever becomes more inexplicable and incomprehensible. Everything it does defies explanation.
Then, on one tired night midway through the game as your character staggers to bed, you find yourself thinking. The message comes up again, exactly as it does every night. But this time, you start to wonder what that message actually means.
“After seven days, the game ends.”
After seven days, it ends.
This nightmare is over.
Maybe the town ends.
Or maybe you end.
And then you start wondering if the disease can be beaten at all. And you start wondering if the town deserves it. There’s definitely something very final about the plague. As it spreads unchecked it seems to devour more than just life. As you search for the answers you need to beat this sickness, the sickness seems to be eating the very civilization from the town.
On the first day the town is something of a blank slate. The first changes to appear are the zoned off, infected areas where all hope is lost. In these areas the disease is rife, the houses are boarded up and infested with looters, the streets are choked in miasmas and smoke and the dying claw at you for salvation. These areas shift in location from day to day, and have an enormous effect on your actions. Simply traversing them is both a heartache and a risk, and without a weapon and good protective equipment (galoshes, gloves, heavy cloak) you’re going to need bandages, medicine and painkillers for yourself when you emerge out of the other side. Course, you need those same medical supplies to ease the pain of those dying in the zones, which is one of the only ways you can keep your reputation up. Decisions, decisions.
By day five, just as these dead zones are poised to engulf the town, you wake up to find that many previously civilized districts have exploded into full-blown anarchy, their streets full of terrified men hurling molotov cocktails at anyone who approaches. With another seven days to go, you get to wondering how on earth the town’s going to survive for another week.
The army arrive the next day. Steely Russian soldiers with flamethrowers and rifles, they set up roadblocks and mercilessly gun down the wandering sick. As well as changing the feel of the town, you’ve got to remember that these developments all completely throw the black market economy you’ve learned to manipulate.
There’s another shift in the town a few days later when the government ‘Inquisitor’ arrives. Setting up an office in the church, the Inquisitor puts the army on a leash, orders the construction of gallows and calls for the town’s leader to be put on trial for allowing civilisation to collapse. And all this happens while the disease pushes on, and on, the noose of the law tightening around your neck at a time when you need more freedom to conduct your research than ever. That’s probably a political statement, come to think of it- the Inquisitor calling a halt to everything in the name of justice as the town continues its malignant disintegration.
The most obvious of these details is Pathologic’s colour palette, a thin wash of lifeless browns and grays. The most subversive of the details is the music, a relentless, natural-industrial track which never stops breathing down your neck and changes from area to area. The most effective of these details is the children. Pathologic’s intro cinematic is three kids holding a mock funeral for a tattered stuffed animal. It’s got nothing to do with anything, but it does kind of set the tone for the whole game. The children of Pathologic are everywhere, and, as I mentioned above, they’re largely abandoned.
Now obviously having kids everywhere is going to be a constant reminder of why you’re trying to fight the disease, but the kids represent more than that. The lack of parents has left the kids to form a microcosm within the town, and they’re ignoring the stupid grown-ups and engaging in their very own politics and battles.
We’re talking Lord of the Flies here.
The kids are also just as vulnerable as everyone else in the game. While they will try and run from fights, they can still be killed in crossfire and there’s nothing stopping you from even stabbing or shooting them and taking their possessions. And these kids, these vicious little murderers, often carry medicine.
Here comes the author's most important points about the game industry, which I tried to put across in this blog entry:
A couple of years ago I had an argument with a friend, one of those differences of opinion that leaves you fuming and coming up with witty ripostes for days afterwards. I was saying that a good game doesn’t have to be fun. She was saying that was ridiculous.
My argument, though I botched my explanation at the time, is that games have incredible untapped potential in the field of negative emotions. Just as the lowest common denominator of any art form appeals to ‘positive’ emotions, whether it’s humour, arousal or excitement, so it is that our young games industry is obsessed with the idea of ‘fun’.
I think this is one of the core reasons that the games industry hasn’t had its Casablanca or Citizen Kane- we’re still in the era of musicals and slapstick comedy. No games developer’s going to try and make its audience feel sad, or lonely, or pathetic, at least not for long stretches. You might get games that dip their toes into that water from time to time, but by and large developers are keen to keep you smiling.
And here comes the paragraph that illuminated the experience, the way this "game" works on the player, the way this is an actual, honest to goodness I'll be goddamned ART:
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. This went wrong fast.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” he asked me after we’d both finished day three.
It took me a few seconds to figure out he was referring to the Haruspicus. In his game he’d been sent to investigate a body of one of the infected citizens that had been sliced open and left in the street, and his investigation ended up pointing to me as the perpetrator. But there was no evidence as to why I’d done it. Whereas in my game, yeah, I’d snuck up on a doomed man and cut him open, but I knew it was justified. For thousands of years the Haruspicus had held the right to open the dead in situations like this; what I’d done was the most natural thing in the world. To try and save the thousands of men, women and children in the town who were at risk, I’d brought one death on just a couple of days early. Sue me.
“I needed to see the infected organs” I told my friend, realising as I typed that this defense probably wouldn’t hold up in court.
We bickered for a while, each of us oddly firm in the beliefs of our own characters. He called me a murderer, and I called him pathetic. We left it at that.
When I was playing the game the next day I ended up going to a meeting with the Bachelor. The NPC called me a murderer, and our characters bickered. He wanted nothing to do with me. He said that, as doctors, we could never be justified in killing people.
But this happened all the time. 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.
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.
This is so beyond the mental boundaries of what the "games are for kids!" political whores are trying to establish in this country - this takes that notion, chews it up and spits it up.
What we have now, in this country, is pure and undisguised censorship.
Just like the censorship of comic books in the 1950's ("comic books are for kids!"), when a scam artist wrote a book Seduction of the Innocent, which told its readers that comic books cause juvenile delinquency (which resulted in a blatant and overt censorship of comic books in America, and the so called "Comics Code Authority", which censored any new and innovative and adult themed comic books, and which only NOW, in XXI Century (remember, this "Comics Code Authority" was created in 1950's) slowly, ever so slowly, is letting go to the point where comic books (some of them) are considered art.
But the damage was done - the vast majority of comic books are about superheroes, with no moral, ethical or "deep" life questions posed in them - simply, it is "kill, shoot, kill, pew pew blam blam" on every page. Only now some comic books are exploring different, nuanced stories, with adult themes, adult language, and intelligently written stories, not exactly for 15 year old pimple faced teenagers.
This is 50 years later... it took us, America, 50 years to START ever so slowly move from the "comic books are for kids!" meme.
The same thing is happening to computer games.
The gaming industry is happy with the status quo, as they produce their 55th Madden American Football game, and the same, blatantly, soul crushing FPS, with just slightly better graphics (now your gun looks more realistic!).
And we have the situation where the political whores, like Hillary Clinton, and her ilk, like for example ex Senator Larry Craig, a closet homosexual (who publicly, as a republican, condemned homosexuality) who solicited gay sex in an airport bathroom (talk about a political whore here, folks!) sit in judgement on what is allowed in computer games, what is art, what games the kids are playing (always the fucking kids... "oh please, somebody think of the children here!", even though the average gamer age is 33 fucking years old)...
I want my adult subject games.
Europe - come save us, here in America, land of the bland.
Here are the links to the original articles - read part 1 and 2, but only read part 3 if you have no interest in buying this game and actually playing it.
Article 3 (spoilers!)
The original articles are well worth the read through, and if think you should read article 3, fuck it - do so - it has a wealth of info on this product, which should push you into thinking "Goddamit, this is a computer game? This is a computer art form!"