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Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Russians remaking one of the most cerebral horror games ever made


Interview by Hamza A.

One of the true cult classics in the horror genre is Pathologic, a game about surviving in a plague-ridden, quarantined town, by Russian developer, Ice-Pick Lodge. Though the original game back in 2005 was something of a cult hit, rather than a best-selling masterpiece, the game attracted a loyal legion of fans. So much so that when Ice-Pick Lodge took to Kickstarter to pitch a remake of the game, it met with resounding success and earned some $70,000 beyond its asking goal of $250,000.

I sat down with Alexandra Golubeva, the associate creative director of Ice-Pick Lodge, and one of the key creative driving forces behind this Unity-fueled remake, to discuss the game in-depth. As you'll see from the interview below, this is a game that the developers have been thinking about deeply, and promises to be a far more cerebral horror experience than we're often used to in a world where guns and gore rule supreme. Coming on the back of the likes of Layers of Fear and Kholat, it's genuinely good to see that there is a real appetite out there for more cerebral horror experiences.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): Pathologic, one of the most original horror titles at the time, was released more than a decade ago. Not counting the remaster that came out last year, what made you want to go back to your first title and remake it for the modern audience?
Alexandra Golubeva (AG): Actually, I’d say our reasoning was very similar to the line of thinking many fans of Pathologic are sharing. “Look, here’s this great game that we all love and care deeply about—but it’s riddled with bugs, issues, and a number of unfortunate creative/technical solutions that didn’t even allow it to age well.” Considering a remake seems like a rather natural line of thinking if you look at it like this, wouldn’t you agree? This is probably also the reason why a huge portion of our fan base found this idea easy to get behind.

But personal attachment, however inspired and sincere, is never reason enough (or rather it can be, but you may end up disappointed). We saw other arguments in favor of remaking Pathologic: namely the popularity of the survival genre these days. While it peaked during our Kickstarter campaign and has become a less important trend lately, we still feel like modern gamers will appreciate the survival aspect of Pathologic more easily and eagerly than their mid-00s predecessors.

The Ice-Pick Lodge team

Finally, Pathologic seemed like a fitting vessel for the ideas that are currently plaguing our thoughts. The old Pathologic was a game about the (non-)triumph of inevitability; the new one is shaping to become a game about inevitability being but one facet of life and death… Which brings up an obvious question: If the heartless fatum are just one side of the coin, what’s waiting for you on the other side? What does the big picture look like? Is there a law—or set of laws—that governs the universe, and if so, can man make sense of them at all?

These are the questions we are currently occupying our minds with—and Pathologic’s Town seems like a perfect place to ask them in.

DD: What served as inspirations behind the development of Pathologic?
AG: We didn’t have direct inspirations—it was mostly about the cultural concoction in our heads finally spilling out. The sources that have in one way or another influenced the game are innumerable—so innumerable, in fact, that it obviously is just cultural recycling.

Every person’s mind is like a motley backdrop against which they exist, form preferences, and find inspiration. Sometimes we can’t even precisely trace the influences woven into it; they become part of us, our second nature. Broadly speaking, Pathologic was conceived within this general cultural space.

DD: Most of your games make prominent use of surreal imagery and incorporate, more or less, a sinister atmosphere. What is it about this style that attracts you, as a game company, the most?
AG: Is it sinister though? I’m pretty sure not everyone in the studio would agree with this description.

The Kickstarter trailer, including in-game footage


What comes across as sinisterness, is probably its otherness; the fact that our works exist within the realm of magical realism. When making a game, we always take our time to consider the universe its events unfold in; and I don’t necessarily only mean the setting, but rather the laws under which said game operates. What is the most important thing in this world? Which ideas that are more or less unrelated in the real world have become connected here? What are the base metaphors for the game?

Changing the moral scape like that can feel sinister and unfriendly simply because the things that are awful, ugly, and horrible (for us, in the real world; like the plague) are not presented as such. Are we going after making you feel uneasy? Sometimes—but it’s rarely about being scary or downright ominous.

DD: Pathologic is going to be your first major title to be released on home consoles. Given that you have been pretty much PC-exclusive to this point, how does this make you feel?
AG: Well, we have tested the waters with Knock Knock (a much humbler game, of course), made an embarrassing mistake or two, learned the process properly and now feel prepared for it! While our minds generally remain focused on PC, it does feel like an important step forward.

DD: Genuine psychological horror games are few and far in-between, with even less garnering worldwide success. What challenges lie therein for game developers to create a compelling psychological horror narrative, and why do people have a trying time with such an experience?
AG: The thing about “psychological thrillers”… and “psychological” anything, really, is that they heavily rely on the audience being committed to experience them in full. Whenever you approach a subtler horror or thriller, you ought to be prepared to do so in good faith—else it’ll fall completely flat. And I’m not only talking about games; it’s true for, say, movies too. Have you ever tried to watch David Lynch while not being in the mood? His pieces become boring and disconnected slice-of-life flicks or simply gibberish. You have to trust the author and get immersed to make the most of them.

The same goes for games. Thankfully, players generally want to get in the mood and in tune with the atmosphere—but you have to think about how you’re planning to help them with this.

The original Pathologic

Also, while it may come across as surprising, games are not necessarily the perfect medium for building subtle narratives. Not all genres, anyway. Games that feature monotone, repeating gameplay seem to resemble real life very closely (it’s also full of mundane repeating chores, right?), but in reality they don’t; our minds tend to go blank and switch off when we encounter repetition in real life, but games actually make us pay attention to this relatively unnatural activity. This creates a psychological state that’s quite different from realistic: players begin to expect rewards (in the broadest sense of term) for every action they take. And that leads to a skewed emotional perception. It’s hard to make the player forego the feeling that they operate in a game-y world—under game-y logic.

And this, I think, is the main challenge that the developer building a subtler narrative faces. The original Pathologic did some great things in that regard; namely, a lot of information was conveyed through quests, but sometimes characters also dropped random phrases that felt totally like quest cues (“You should ask X about this, she probably knows”)… but in reality were not. Because real people are different from questgivers. They don’t just burden random acquaintances with their requests and aren’t always correct in their assumptions.

In the new Pathologic, we’re planning to explore such tropes further.

DD: The remake is going to be powered by the Unity engine, whereas the original was powered by your in-house engine. What is the reasoning behind this transition?
AG: Creating a homebrew engine is a great challenge for programmers, so it’s easy to see why some of them may feel compelled to try it. But, while definitely no minor feat, it’s not necessarily the best idea when making a big game—a game that has already been announced (and thus can’t have its development stretched for an unlimited amount of time). However talented, the programmers have to put the game and the schedule first—and using a pre-existing engine seems sensible in this regard.

Not to mention that Unity offers a very compelling deal. The engine itself is well-suited to our needs; the game produced in it is easily portable and supports multiple platforms; the community is great. And the Unity team itself is the epitome of responsiveness: when we encountered an issue that hindered our progress, they actually went ahead and fixed it in the engine quickly.

The Pathologic remake

DD: Will we ever see a continuation of Pathologic?
AG: As in a sequel elaborating upon further events? That’s extremely unlikely. The world of Pathologic ends with its story; while we can guess what happens next and imagine the future lives of some characters, the story of those lives simply isn’t Pathologic. The plague only took twelve days; after that, a different world began.

(Not to mention that the game features several mutually exclusive endings, none of which is “true”. We wouldn’t want to invalidate the idea of all these possibilities being equally plausible… and equally right.)

I honestly believe that unnecessary continuation is a problem that many TV series and franchises suffer from. Folk wisdom says that you should stop eating when you are still a bit hungry and that leaving a friend’s place is best when they don’t yet want to let you go; the same goes for stories. Yes, you love the characters. Yes, the ending may be somewhat open and hint at future events. Yes, it heats your imagination.

All the more reason to end the story there and then—with a full stop, not with a comma.

DD: What major changes should we expect from the remake?
AG: They’re so numerous I’m not even sure where to start.

First of all, there will be an actual game beneath the plot, characters, and ideas. The original Pathologic was not made as one; some elements were simply thrown in because why not. We’re taking a much more thoughtful approach to possible user experiences now. That doesn’t mean that Pathologic will become a game-y grindfest or a fun edgy RPG with a ton of stats to upgrade, of course; we’re doing our best to keep the core tone of the experience.

Then there is a new approach to quests—or rather non-quests—we’re trying to find. Quests are an extremely common trope in plot-heavy video games, but we actually find it unsatisfying; if one made an effort to abandon gamer logic for a second and apply real-life thinking, they’d most likely find out that quests are often quite ridiculous. Why are so many people so intent on burdening you with their errands? Why are they so eager to spill their soul to you and tell you the whole honest truth (including generation-old secrets)? It devalues the information the player receives—and while the old Pathologic did have some neat tricks to explain this peculiar situation, we still think the gameplay itself was overly game-y.

The original Pathologic

And so our current goal is to not give the player tasks, but rather allow them to set their own goals. That doesn’t mean abandoning them to their own devices; sometimes it can all boil down to almost cosmetic changes—after all, if an NPC tells you that trouble is brewing somewhere, he could have just as well asked you to look into it. The implication (that there are some events you can participate in) is clear.

And some ways of encouraging the player to set their own goals are less cosmetic.

We hope that this new approach will push the game in the right direction, while also allowing us to avoid some silliness (like random people ordering the Bachelor—quite an important man!—around or someone else guiding the Haruspex’s progress in fulfilling his life’s purpose).

AG: The Void is your other well-known game, and just as original and beloved. What future plans do you have for The Void? Will it too get a remake down the road?
AG: Well, it’s in a bit of legal limbo right now, so actually we do have plans concerning The Void—namely to rescue it from the pit of legal ambiguity. As for the creative side, we have no plans to return to it.

By the way, did you know that the international version of The Void is actually already a remake? The first version of the game (known as Tension) was not released internationally. Is was much more hardcore, featured less defined plot and was more open to interpretation, but a number of players actually like it better.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
AG: Personally, the latest game I’ve launched was The Witness—and holy cow, is its design perfect! I’m not talking about the visual design (it’s very pretty, but that’s not the point), but rather about the learning curve. It’s just as… curvy as it needs to be.

The original Pathologic

It turns out that I’m very used to puzzle games teaching me a new mechanic or principle and then allowing me to apply it for a number of levels while increasing the difficulty very slowly. This is not mindless repetition, of course; some puzzle games just rightfully want you to actually play with the tools (i.e. rules and mechanics) that you’ve learned and mastered. It also allows you to feel smart by offering challenges that you most likely will be able to overcome.

But The Witness does no such thing (at least in the beginning; I haven’t actually finished the game). As soon as you grasp the idea, it changes the style of the puzzles. It’s as if the game was telling you, “Alright, got it? Cool, then let’s get on with the next part.” It has no intent of letting you savour your successes, but rather tells you that the best possible reward is changing the puzzle principle (thus acknowledging that you have already mastered the previous part). And I love it!

I’m speaking about The Witness in such detail because it is actually relevant to the new Pathologic. We want it to be a stimulating game; a game that doesn’t become old—and not just by intriguing the player with more plot. The Witness is obviously not a direct reference for us, but it gave us all food for thought.

- Hamza A.
Contributor

The Russians remaking one of the most cerebral horror games ever made
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