In November of 1957, the Soviet spacecraft, Sputnik II was launched housing a single occupant. Laika was a stray dog found wandering the streets of Moscow; born and raised a bum, but selected to be the first living being to be sent beyond the skies.
Laika was doomed from launch. There was no plan on returning to Earth after fulfilling the duties forced upon her. The mutt was to meet her destiny amongst the stars, a Life to be used and dismissed like space debris, an objectified husk ill-fated for an existential departure. She confronted the endless cyclical motion of the universe as she orbited her birth planet, subsequently ending her own. The world kept turning.
But whether or not Laika’s Fate was prematurely met remains the most prominent philosophical conundrum regarding the canine celestial explorer. Is mortality met through the guided hand of others, or are we all subject to deliberate paths towards individual doom?
Conniving and Poignant
Pathologic 2 is seeped in existential moral questioning like this, nearly suffocating from the toils of merely striving to be human. The game is fundamentally structured around survival at the most basic level: maintain hunger, thirst, and well-being until the inevitable finally catches up. Its world is infested with dishonest lowlifes and murderers out for blood, Death literally lurking around any and likely all corners, as a menacing disease runs rampant through the quiet, haunting streets.
The developers at Ice-Pick Lodge recently released the public Alpha for demoing, and the product so far feels just as conniving and lyrically poignant as its groundbreaking 2006 predecessor. The player takes the role of a cynical surgeon, who has just returned to his birthplace after receiving a grave letter from his father urging him home.
In accordance with tradition, Pathologic 2 disorientingly pulls the rug out from players’ feets almost immediately, only this sly title expects them to deal with it whatever the cost. Progression is dictated by unreliable word of mouth and the protagonist’s constant stream of thought, which intriguingly serve as objective markers. His father’s letter may have begged him to return home hastily, but the peculiar white-masked figure, Ice-Pick Lodge’s quasi-Lynchian icon, who appears as though a figment of the mind implores the player to ignore that plea.
Pathologic 2 is invested in the abstract. Its design elements serve as subversive twists on popular gaming tropes, asking players to question the logic of blindly following markers and listening to the demands of others. NPCs each have their own hidden goals, are each striving for their own survival in this harsh world; and the more one plays, the more they learn to trust absolutely no one else.
The station’s railroad tracks leading off into the unknown distance act as “the only umbilical cord that connects us to the outside world,” primarily illustrating this ailing community as one large living unit, rotten to the core from immoral platitudes and trickery. Pathologic 2 then serves as a treatise on the defining tragic flaw inherent within all of humanity: Society crumbles the second an individual’s Life becomes prioritized over another.
Vengeance Provokes Vengeance
Upon waking at the seemingly abandoned train station (it’s just closed for the time being), the first civilian the player comes across seems to have chosen to refuse humanity altogether. Lika dons a dog mask which hides everything but the pupils of his eyes, chillingly presupposing a motif involving costumes and mortal defiance. He tells the player that they have killed the men lying at their feet, out of self-defense of course, but this immediately sets off the game’s continuous moral pondering regarding murder as a necessity.
Indeed, by heavily alluding to a recurring figure as Death personified, Pathologic 2 suggests that each individual’s timely fate is in itself an act of murder. Whether or not this natural act is morally justifiable lies at the heart of the game’s ethical dilemma.
Eventually, Lika is revealed to have cast himself off from his fellow youthful colleagues, a group of children who claim to each house a soul and a half, thanks to their pets. Lika is accused of poisoning three of their dogs, an act symbolically representing the poisoning of the children’s souls, and the clan’s leader, Chief Notkin, asks the surgeon to capture him and bring him back on a leash — “He’ll know what to do.”
By agreeing, the player is directly involving themselves in the Fate of Lika. The individual is simply another cog in the great living machine that is the world, primarily functioning for the sake of social moral duties. His character attempts to adopt only half of a soul by living as a dog; but to what extent is a soul commodifiable? Pathologic, much like Life, is all he said-she said. The player may convince Notkin of the justifiable wrongness or rightness of murder, but the system remains the same. We are all human after all.
“The Soul-and-a-Halves are the real punks,” Lika rasps, “and Notkin is the worst. And punks deserve to suffer, right? Make them see how it feels!” Revenge provokes revenge, blood sheds for bloodshed. Ultimately, what passes as righteous for someone will always prove reprehensible for another. Lay down one’s arms and expect the inevitable. Time will continue, the Earth will forever turn round, the cycle shall remain ceaseless.
“Hold this leash for a second, will you?”