I know I’m not the only one. Just today WIRED published an article about this very phenomenon.
I never got along with the first Pathologic game by Ice Pick Lodge. I watched various Let’s Plays and decided that the difficulty curve was just too steep for me, the dialogue too theatrical and nonsensical.
I picked up Pathologic 2 just as reports about the new, highly contagious coronavirus started emerging from China.
I finished the game in a week. I dreamt about it. I spent days mapping out the fictional town. I memorised the quarantined districts and herbal recipes for tinctures that would not cure the plague, but bring some relief to those suffering with it.
I memorised the barter economy. I felt real, actual guilt when I stockpiled food on the first day, suspecting that (as with the first game) prices would double or triple when word of a pandemic got out.
I researched the fictional languages and real-life equivalents of the Steppe religions.
I finished the game, found the cure and immediately started again.
Now COVID-19 was in Italy, who were preparing for a complete lockdown. Images of masked healthcare workers weeping in hospital corridors filled my screens. People sang from balconies and stockpiled food.
Meanwhile, in the game, I struggled over choices that had seemed easy before. Could I really skip my duties in the hospital that day, just to make sure I had time to give my friends the medicine they needed? Was that fair? If I did carry out my duties for the day, I would be rewarded with food but as supplies dwindled and desperation mounted, was the risk really worth the reward?
When a man tried to mug me (which is a terrifying experience in-game as it more often than not results in death), I successfully managed to overpower him. I was given the option of taking the small stash of nuts and the protective mask he’d most likely stolen from someone else, or even looted from an empty, plague-ridden home. Should I? What if he was already infected?
The sand pest – Pathologic’s fictional plague – lives on on surfaces, something I learned to my detriment when I rummaged through an empty home’s cupboards in search for a scrap of food. You can become infected just by spending time in infected districts. The more you touch, the higher your chance of infection but at least the dead and dying are less likely to object to you rifling through their drawers to keep yourself from starving for just one more day.
I’ve been thinking about these games a lot. There is, of course, an end point. You make your choices right and you keep enough people alive (though you can never save everyone) and you can, one way or another, develop a kind of cure. The sand pest isn’t like COVID-19. It’s sentient. (There’s even an achievement for allowing yourself to get infected and then listening to the plague’s voice as it ravages your mind and body. This inevitably leads to death. You do not get infected and survive in this game.) It’s here for a reason. In that way, there is a sense of escapism.
Before the coronavirus hit UK shores, I started following a bot which tweets snippets of dialogue from Pathologic 1, 2 and the Marble Nest DLC expansion at random (as programmed by yuramoonbow.) Many of the tweets seem almost prescient.
At the end of each in-game day, a bell tolls and you are given the final figures of the dead and infected. You are also given the figures for suicides and murders. They don’t just seem like numbers any more to me.