Pathologic 2 As Comfort Media
Finding comfort in the least likely game
I first played Pathologic 2 in April 2020. At the time I was unemployed and was barely able to wrap my head around the global pandemic that dominated conversations and thoughts wherever I went. Like many others, I’d been introduced to Pathologic via HBomberguy’s video essay ‘Pathologic Is Genius And Here’s Why’. I found the series very fascinating, but I was put off by the game’s reputation for being intentionally obtuse and hostile to players. Looking back, I don’t know exactly what it was that made me decide to give Pathologic 2 a try. But I did play it and was hooked from the very beginning. I played it two more times immediately after my first; something I have never done with any other game. I think about Pathologic 2 all the time. I don’t break out into a cold sweat when I do it, either. I have fond memories of playing this game and it feels good to think about it. To me, it is comfort media.
Comfort media is a term that has been used online for a while and gained some mainstream significance during the pandemic years, for some unknowable reason. Comfort media is supposed to be unthreatening, unchallenging, safe, and easy to love. Most of my comfort media is like this too: TV comedies like Frasier, Gilmore Girls, and New Girl that are passively consumed, gentle, and warmly funny. All of this is to say that I think I have a warped idea of what counts as comfort media. Pathologic 2 fits in this group about as well as Rayquaza does in Cuteness Contests in Pokemon Emerald. But I still think of Pathologic 2 as comfort media.
Pathologic 2 is a game that is deeply marinated in dread. Every single moment in the game is intended to fill you with a creeping sense of unease. If you adjust the difficulty in the game’s menu, a message tells you that the experience of playing Pathologic 2 is meant to be ‘almost unbearable’. So, the developers clearly did not mean for it to be seen as comforting, right? I’ve spent about 100 hours playing this game, and probably another 100 thinking about it, editing wikis, and writing pieces about it. So, after even more soul-searching, here’s why I think I find Pathologic 2 so comforting.
1. It's Not Like Dark Souls
You simply cannot read reviews of Pathologic 2 without encountering comparisons to From Software’s Soulsborne games. And it’s easy to see why these comparisons happen, as they are both infamous for being difficult. This difficulty serves a purpose in both games; to illustrate the value of persevering in the face of nigh impossible circumstances. Pathologic 2 especially goes all-in on this idea, thanks to its more immediate storytelling with multiple opportunities to help other people, generally at great expense to yourself, and the difficulty in being able to help everyone. When you’re half dead thanks to the plague, and you only have one cure that nearly cost your life to make, are you going to keep it for yourself, or give it to one of the sick kids in town who has come to trust and rely on you? These tough choices wouldn’t be as impactful if getting infected with the plague didn’t make the game eye-wateringly difficult to play.
Yet it’s my contention that while these games are similar with respect to their difficulty and the purpose for that difficulty, Pathologic 2 and the Souls-borne games ask very different things of the player. The Souls-borne games ask the player to get better through repeated attempts. The purpose is to learn how to handle various attack patterns in a methodical way so that the end result is the satisfaction of overcoming an obstacle that seemed impossible all thanks to your repeated practice, persistence, and keeping calm in a high-stress situation.
Death in Pathologic 2 is handled altogether differently. It’s not a learning experience. You aren’t given a chance to go back and try it again, but better this time. What instead happens is that you’re given some sort of penalty like reduced maximum health, or getting hungry more quickly. These penalties apply even if you load a previous save. These penalties are delivered via conversations that break the fourth wall of the framing device with the play’s director. You get to chew out the director for how unfair these penalties are, and end up having discussions about the themes of the game in more direct terms than the rest of the game. The nature of these talks makes it clear that the game expects you to die a lot. In fact, if you don’t die you will end up missing one of the game’s most significant segments.
Pathologic 2 does not demand perfection or even small displays of skill. The game keeps going no matter how badly you’ve screwed up, whether that’s missing important quests because you were too busy scrounging up food, or you were unable to save multiple named NPCs from dying, or if you’ve died so many times that you’ve finally exhausted all the penalties the game can throw at you for dying.
As someone who is very prone to procrastinating on a task, risking not completing it rather than suffering it inevitably being completed with imperfections, it’s something I need to hear just as much as the Souls-ian message of perfection through repetition. In Pathologic 2, NPCs in infected districts become infected through dice rolls. This means that sometimes, even when you’ve done everything right, an NPC might still catch the plague. It’s happened to me several times in my playthroughs. And I kept going in spite of it. Pathologic 2 is a love letter to the act of moving forward and learning to live with mistakes.
2. It’s not actually that hard – and that makes it fun to play
This might be a controversial thing to say, but I don’t think Pathologic 2 is actually that difficult. What I mean by that is, if you play Pathologic 2 on the intended (which is to say the highest) difficulty, with no other stipulations than to reach any one of the endings, it’s doable. This ties heavily into the previous point, that Pathologic doesn’t want you to be perfect, it wants you to keep going. If you’re willing to accept that, as one of the loading screen tips says “You can’t be everywhere. You can’t save everyone.”, the game is surprisingly forgiving.
The challenge, for me anyway, came from learning to accept less-than-perfect results. You’re out of food? The game will let you ignore quests to obtain food. The combat is clunky and unintuitive? Good. You shouldn’t be getting into fights anyway. It’s taking you too long to travel around infected districts to get to your destination? Ok, then you’re probably not going to get around to doing everything you wanted to do, but you’ll probably get something done. You just have to get through each day.
I think that the game’s atmosphere of omnipresent, creeping dread does a very good job of making things seem a lot scarier than they need to be. The game’s immersive atmosphere combined with its surprisingly forgiving mechanics made playing the game a thoroughly engaging experience. There’s so much to do on each in-game day, that optimizing my routes and the order of performing tasks became addictive for me. It was the same kind of addictiveness I’ve felt from city-building and strategy games. I can understand people saying that playing Pathologic Classic isn’t fun, but Pathologic 2, this game is fun to play.
Unlike Classic, the second game has several quality-of-life improvements that make the act of playing the game enjoyable and easy. Maybe it’s a different sort of enjoyment than the godlike feeling of creating so much havoc through overpowered weapons in Borderlands 2 that you cannot parse what’s happening on your screen, but it was enjoyment nonetheless. And this wasn’t something that only happened in subsequent playthroughs because I knew exactly what to do then. I felt this way right through my first playthrough.
3. Pathologic 2 is actually pretty funny
No one seems to talk about this. Pathologic 2 has a sense of humour. Artemy, the main character is a very snarky guy, and most dialogue options that you pick have sarcastic options (and sometimes that’s your only option). Plenty of other characters regularly get in on this as well. I also appreciate the game’s use of puns, visual and otherwise. They get plenty of ‘operating theatre’ jokes out of the Town’s Theatre being converted into a makeshift hospital. Even the important thematic stuff isn’t spared; ‘knowing the Lines’ a kind of philosophy of the game’s fictional Steppe culture about the underlying connections between all things is a recurring element of Artemy’s character arc. But even in the context of the framing device as a play, a good actor always knows his lines.
This point may seem inconsequential, but I think a sense of humour is essential to anything that wants to be comfort media. Pathologic 2’s humour can be undeniably dark at times, but that’s not always the case. It shows that the game isn’t taking itself that seriously. The snarky dialogue options pointing out the ridiculousness of the situations in which Artemy finds himself go a long way to making the tension of the game palatable.
4. Know By Heart
I’ve long suspected that Pathologic 2 was a comfort game, but playing Know By Heart confirmed it for me. Know By Heart is a game developed by Ice Pick Lodge, the studio that developed Pathologic 2. Whether it was intentional or not, Know By Heart feels like it's in conversation with Pathologic 2. Both games take place in remote towns in Russia, have male protagonists who feel caught between the past and future, and crucially both towns have a catastrophe befall them.
Without spoiling too much, despite not having any kind of challenging gameplay, and despite not having the same atmosphere of oppressive dread, Know By Heart is not an optimistic game. And it made me realise that Pathologic 2 is actually a deeply optimistic game. It puts you through a number of difficult, unfair, and borderline unwinnable situations, but your actions and efforts never feel wasted or pointless. Pathologic 2 is a game about moving forward and doing your best, and it demonstrates that even in the worst of situations, there is an innate value in just trying. Pathologic 2 tells you that it matters that you made any effort at all.
5. The Endings
The two primary endings of Pathologic 2 are bittersweet. There’s no perfect ending to this game, where everyone is happy. But I’d still consider both main endings to be fairly ‘good’. The Town is saved in both, Artemy fulfills his primary goals, completing his character arc and saving whatever the player has deemed most important. It feels like the struggles you went through during the course of the game were for something worthwhile, whether it’s to see the miracles of the Steppe in full bloom or to see the Town ready to embrace a realistically idyllic future. The game gives you the satisfaction of a conclusion to the narrative. Even the ‘failure’ endings aren’t as bad as they were in Classic. You aren’t treated to scenes of mass destruction of the Town; you get berated backstage by the director, assistants, and other actors for being lousy at your job; it’s almost funny.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Pathologic 2 occupies significant real estate in my mind. I have never played anything quite like it, with its perfect blend of gameplay, storytelling, and themes. What I have found surprising is the amount of comfort I have derived from this game. It’s a game that’s helped me keep going through stressful times and through feelings of anxiety and dread. I’m glad I’ve played this game, and as with any good comfort media, I know I’m going to keep coming back to it.
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