I love Ice-Pick Lodge.
They do not make good games.
I say this as a preface for what will amount to a love letter to a company who has made many attempts at making video games more for the medium itself rather than the conventions and tropes codifying the industry therein and to be clear on my feelings for what they’ve done. Very rarely do the mechanisms used to form the core of their games lend themselves to the familiar or recognizable and with that decision comes with it its own benefits and mishaps but lead to overwhelmingly unique results with Ice-Pick Lodge’s execution.
Ice-Pick Lodge is a Moscow-based studio founded in 2002. Their body of work includes Pathologic, released in 2005; self-described as a ‘plague simulator’ in which you take on the role of three healers who set out to save the timeless imaginary town of Tanathica. The Void, released in 2008, is the story of an amnesiac spirit lost in limbo who must use color to revive the world. Most recently is Cargo! – The Quest for Gravity, released in 2011, a creation game in which you must build vehicles and structures to restore gravity to the planet. Currently the studio is working on Knock-Knock, which looks to be a very macabre game of hide and seek with an equally unsettling backstory to the development itself. The studio has received numerous awards in their native Russia for their work in presenting some of the most unconventional games, winning the ‘Most Non-Standard Game’ award for both Pathologic and The Void. The studio’s multi-purposed staff have used their talents to develop what has been described by some as a few of the most unplayable and difficult games in recent memory.
The application of their ideas can’t be overstated in their importance – the lasting memories acquired each time I’ve played through Pathologic or The Void are accentuated by something altogether unknown and fascinating with every new attempt at either game. Each environment presented contained depths yet unexplored, understanding yet unfulfilled, accomplishments rewarding you with answers leading to deeper mysteries that intertwined the story in small yet meaningful ways.
That does not constitute either as what would be considered a ‘good’ or enjoyable game by the standards set by the availability of any number of traditional games. The percentage skews sharply against Ice-Pick Lodge’s favor in terms of what the average purveyor for games is looking for – I find it highly doubtful that someone is going out of their way to look for a plague simulator or a purgatorial gardening experience where color is your main crop, both of which have terrible and alien translation that only serve to fuel the difficulty therein.
Quintin Smith of Rock, Paper, Shotgun wrote an amazingly thorough and interesting article on Pathologic nearing on five years ago now that is still an important read to reach an understanding as to what the game is. Most of what Smith had to say are things that I would agree with and have said before. There is one thing that I think was misunderstood, however, or at least not very well conveyed in the game itself through poor translation.
Pathologic is not solely about meat.
Pathologic is about being part of a stage.
The conclusion of the meat arc and how its themes tie the
world of Tanathica, and it is a world unto itself, are incredibly important but the theater and the stage and the play that all of the characters are a part of is something you must always, always, always keep in mind as you play. It constantly reminds you through the use of the Tragedians and Executors – all dialogue with them completely destroys the fourth wall and the last day in particular will reinforce that wholly. You can separate the world itself from the theme of theater but theater is the entirety of the game.
To completely understand the story and what makes Pathologic a beautiful failure as a video game you must play it three whole times. Playing it once will drain you, hurt you, make you wonder why you chose to play it in the first place. To be expected to play it a second and third time is difficult as the player yourself but it is so worth the time and effort and the frustration. Pathologic should be nobody’s favorite game because it hardly constitutes a game itself, but the minute you start the final few days of your first playthrough you’ll only begin to brush the surface of what makes it so interesting.
At the very end, if all of your Adherents, specific people your healer is set to keep safe from the disease, are healthy, not infected and more importantly alive you will be invited to the Cathedral. The cathedral is the centerpiece to the game’s main plot and houses the Inquisitor, Aglaja. The final decision of the final day, the town’s fate, is made here. If even one of your adherents are sickly, the doors to the cathedral will be locked and the executor guarding the door will not let you in. This is taken to more interesting levels if you manage to somehow save the other two healers adherents, who are in Tanathica and working with or, more often than not, against you and whose personalities change along with the rest of town’s based on which healer you are controlling.
You will be invited to the Polyhedron, made by the twin architects of Tanathica and touted as their masterpiece. Inside you’ll find the children of the town safe and unaffected by the sand plague ravaging the adults and visibly destroying the other buildings with flesh-like bloody masses. Of all of the monstrous, gigantic buildings looming over you as you play the Polyhedron is the most elusive and interesting. The twins themselves have lost all control over it to one of the three streetgangs, the Dogheads, and never managed to learn the secrets and the magic that made it what it is. As you play as the Bachelor you’ll be invited to and step inside the Polyhedron very regularly but only on this final day, with those specific and incredibly difficult stipulations met will you be able to step foot into the heart of it all. Inside that final chamber, waiting for all three healers, is one of most startling and unexpected twists in a game that I have personally experienced. This is then followed by yet another invitation, this time to the town’s own Theatre which had been transformed into a morgue up until that final day. What was one of the most amazing twists is followed by yet another as the Tragedian and the Executor explain everything to you.
You. The Player.
You might think that that’s more pedestrian than it sounds but having put so much effort into my character and being tied so dearly to them and to be reminded that they are all quite literally puppets was an incredible feeling. Up until that point I had forgotten that every character, including the player’s choice, is still only just a puppet. The realization hits you like a brick as you look back to all of the NPC portraits that felt, at the time, lazy – all non-essential npcs have the same generic puppet portrait and all of the named characters, the Adherents, use a picture of one of the Ice-Pick Lodge staff to separate them from the rest. Then that final conversation happens and changes everything.
The multiple endings and the consequences that came with them are all important and very much left to your imagination, specifically the Devotress ending, but are nothing like the final day’s very last conversations. Day 12 changes dramatically based on whichever healer you play as and each final conversation is suited to that puppet’s personality but the feeling of being a part of those interactions and being recognized as the puppet master yourself is unmatched.
While Pathologic is the most talked about of the games Ice-Pick Lodge has developed with their unique intent, The Void is deserving of equal discussion. Both games present a bleak, darkly depressing yet beautiful setting and to completely grasp what it is that makes them so important and integral to the industry as developers both games require discourse. I’ll be continuing with The Void, Cargo and Ice-Pick Lodge’s future in the next part of the article.