The setting of Pathologic 2 was falling apart long before the plague showed up. The Town-on-Gorkhon, a settlement of a few thousand people on the Russian steppe, is a carefully built explosive device well on its way to detonation. Cobbled together through the work of Simon Kain, an old-beyond-old utopian patriarch who drew in architects, mathematicians, and whatever brilliant people he could find, the Town is, by design, a battlefield for a series of competing ideologies and mystical understandings. On the one end, there is the rationalistic, humanistic approach to growth and progress evinced by Kain and the people he's recruited to live in this isolated place. On the other, there are the Steppe people who already lived here, who now represent an oppressed underclass ready to revolt. By the time Artemy Burakh shows up, summoned by a letter from his father, the settlement of his childhood is already in the process of changing forever.
The town in Pathologic 2 has no name, save for any cobbled together from its association with the Gorkhon River. It is simply the Town, both a synecdoche for all towns and a location so particular and encompassing, so much the entire world, that it requires no other name. Its transformation from a rural indigenous community to what it is in the present of Pathologic 2 began with the Bull Enterprise, the morass of factories and a singular, massive slaughterhouse run by the Olgimsky family, one of three powerful families that together effectively rule the town. The Bull Enterprise dominates the southeast portion of town—a giant tenement house built onto an ancient stone temple structure that now functions as a slaughterhouse, alongside a tangle of factories and a train station, the town's only connection to the outside world. Though the Bull Enterprise technically came first, it still appears somewhat unnatural. Its harsh metals, blocky shapes, and smog have an air of something cancerous—a tumor attached to the underbelly of the town, growing with the threat of devouring the entire place from within.
The rest of the town, moving north and west from the Bull Enterprise, lives along two tributaries of the (fictional) Gorkhon River, called the Guzzle and the Gullet. Most districts of the town, across these three "islands" created by the river, are named after a body part—from the Hindquarters, to the Spleen, to the Marrow, the Chine, the Backbone, and the Maw. The town is immediately presented, then, as a sort of hybrid organism, a living thing built out of machine and flesh and earth all intermingled. It's a town modelled, in some ways, after the bulls that led to its founding, split all into its separate cuts of meat and hide.
As Artemy, the Town is the first and most immediate presence through which the player experiences Pathologic 2, which makes the simple act of describing it an important way of exploring how the game is played. If games are defined by their verbs, the primary verb of Pathologic 2 is "to walk." Your primary occupation will be traversing the Town, weaving from one end to the other, flowing like a white blood cell through its veins and arteries.
It won't be long playing until you realize what a difficult task this is. The Town is arranged in perhaps the most hostile way possible. You'll likely notice it with simple street design, at first—pathways that seem like they should connect, don't; small barriers not marked on the map block progress on some routes that seem direct; the town's major landmarks are as far away from each other as could be possible, forcing you to constantly plot lengthy, circuitous routes from one objective to another. A map will never be far from your hand, no matter how long you've been playing. These complexities are only exacerbated by the swift invasion of the plague that occupies most of the game's attention; difficult-to-navigate spaces are now filled with infectious clouds, crawling with bandits and overwhelmed by the dying and dead. As the city's social fabric collapses, even its architecture warps; houses themselves become infected by the plague, growing fat, bloody blisters.
"The Kains had a rather unusual notion of how they wanted the Town's routes planned," Yulia Lyuricheva, a mathematician who helped design the Town, will tell Artemy in an optional conversation. "They believed the routes of choice influence people's mood. Their soulstate. I found the challenge intriguing, if a bit insane."
The Town's cruel layout is, then, an intentional challenge—it is intended, for both the player and Artemy, as a catalyst, a means to create affect and shape certain kinds of engagement. Geography in game design is always already metaphorical, but the Town wears its reality as a psychoscape openly in both textual and design terms. You are meant to feel harried, exhausted, embattled. You are not meant to zone out or move automatically. Walking in Pathologic 2 is a space for contemplation, wallowing, and planning. Maybe, even, a space for growth.
As Yulia also says: "But as far as I can tell, in their eyes [the Kains, or the game's developers?], humans aren't paragons of animals, but rather larvae. They believe the human spirit is a spring to be stretched. Their favorite image."
Pathologic 2 wants its spaces to stretch you. That's why the spaces themselves are, in addition to being confounding, so immense and affecting. The Town is pulled between a series of landmarks, each of which seems to warp its surrounding landscape, highlighting different aspects of the play experience and subtly changing the game world. The first the player encounters is the theatre, the site of the game's preoccupation with its own artificiality. The theatre is the most changeable landscape in the game, its interior transforming every day in one way or another. If you die enough, even the exterior changes, with tumors of wood bursting from its front lawn, the Town itself reacting to your failures.
Then there's the Polyhedron, an impossible structure at the outskirts of the town's western edge. Its winding, gnarled upward expanse looks like a nest of some sort, or a mosquito wrenching its dying body up toward the sky. Built by a pair of visionary architects at the behest of the Kains, its impossibility is a symbol of the Town's utopian aims. The Polyhedron takes on a life of its own, acting as a beacon and a base for the Town's children, who have seceded from the structure of normal family and formed their own sub-society in the Town, one which Artemy will likely come to rely on for information and trading goods. The Polyhedron is a symbol of the future, and of the seven children Artemy is ordered by his late father to protect. When you come near it, it creaks, as if its weight is too much to bear. But without outside influence, it will not fall.
Then there's the Cathedral, where decisions are made. A random townperson explains it clearly: "For the Kains, every building is a machine, making something for humans … or with them. For example, this Cathedral has nothing to do with religion. There is a grim joke circulating around, claiming that the Cathedral makes time."
It's not a joke. Within the Town, the Cathedral weaves time around it—the save points in the game, the clocks, all bear the architectural marks of the Cathedral's gray stone, and if you enter the Cathedral, it has its own save point in the form of its massive clock structure. The achievement for saving here is called Clockwork, with the description, "Touch the thing that produces time." It's a funny fact in Pathologic 2 that every day is slightly shorter than the last. The Cathedral is a symbol of this limitation and the way it constantly harries the player, pushing them into further desperation, further unease, further action. The Cathedral is the ultimate ward against idleness, and the ultimate reminder of death's inevitability. Time will run out.
This is the Town: more than a setting, it is the game's constant preoccupation, creating and enforcing all the limitations the player experiences as necessary facts of its own geography. It is constantly falling apart, on the brink of revolution, with the player's small interventions playing some role in shaping whether the town even survives another two weeks. Its logic is tidy and cruel, and, with your help, it can come apart or it can be sewn back together. The Town is an oppressive, full reality, an entire world living on the back of a bull. Within Pathologic 2, and its layers of trickery and artifice, it's not clear any other reality even exists.
There is a refrain in the game, a bit of narration that occurs periodically when one day ends and another begins. It's a perfect encapsulation of the Town, with its contradictory impulses, structural divides, and mystical import. It also fully encapsulates the Town's goals, what it hopes to accomplish, the work it is doing as a game space and a fictional world:
"You had twelve days" a disembodied voice says, with portent. "Not so many, but enough. One more has passed. The Town shifts. Something stirs in the Theatre. Something stirs within you."
Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Austin, TX. She’s formerly a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on Twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches.