No figure in the modern world is more thoroughly enmeshed with notions of nobility and moral goodness than that of the doctor. “Doctors are heroes” is axiomatic; they use whatever resources they possess to protect bodies from the ravages of illness, cure diseases, save lives from death. Doctors (so we are led to believe) do not discriminate according to external factors like race, class, or nationality, but rather, strip away the complexities of people’s lives to the barest essence: life itself, the protection of which can only be an unquestionably virtuous act.
“Doctors are heroes,” and conversely, heroes are like doctors: they protect the body of the world from the always-returning disease of “evil.” In Pathologic 2, your work as Artemy Burakh involves not only caring for flesh-and-blood bodies, but more broadly, protecting the body of the Town, the vessel that contains the world, from plague. The crisis is not only biological; it is political, metaphysical, existential.
After days of administering antibiotics, bartering goods, and gathering information, you uncover the source of the plague. A few years ago, a large, supernatural structure called the Polyhedron was built on the west side of Town. The Polyhedron embodies human achievement, being a product of both the Town’s industrialization as well as the genius of its architect, Peter Stamatin. During its construction, the building’s steel “stem” was driven deeply into the ground to make it stand upright. This act inflicted a profound wound, placing the stem’s pointed tip mere inches away from the Earth’s heart. In response, the Earth released the plague as an antibody warding off its attackers. A distinction arises here between two bodies—the body of the modern European world and the body of the living Earth—locked in an irreconcilable conflict.
As the plague originated from the Earth, a cure for the plague can be made from the Earth’s own blood. However, there’s only one way to obtain enough Living Blood: by bombing the Polyhedron. Such an explosion would also destroy the Earth’s heart, and send a river of its blood up to the surface. This is one option the game presents you with in its latter half: Bleed the Earth, cure the plague, and save the Town.
The other option is not to bomb the Polyhedron. The Earth’s heart would remain intact, no blood would be spilled, but no cure would be developed. Thus, the plague would completely ravage the Town. This is the decision you face on Day 11, the penultimate day of Pathologic 2. It is a decision that will determine the fate of the world and the Earth: Destroy the plague, or let it live.
Each choice carries a profound loss with it. If you decide to cure the plague and bring about the “Diurnal” ending, you save the Town; but, in return, the Earth—at least, the Earth-as-a-sentient-being—is killed. The people indigenous to the Steppe, known as the Kin (based loosely on Indigenous Siberian peoples), practice a way of life that revolves around the Earth, communing with, worshipping, and drawing their magic from It. Killing the Earth would, in turn, damn the Kin’s culture and magic to extinction, as well as the “miraculous creatures” of the Steppe whose fates are tied to the Earth.
If you decide to let the plague live (the “Nocturnal” ending), then the Town is left in ruins. Most of the townsfolk, those you tried so hard to save, abandon the Town for a new settlement. Only a few remain. The Kin, who are mostly immune to the plague, also remain. Accepting you as their new leader, they reclaim the land for themselves. This human world is destroyed, but the Earth and all its miraculous creatures live.
From browsing online discussions, popular Pathologic 2 video essays and playthroughs like those by Sulmatul, and even the game’s Steam achievement statistics, it appears the majority of players consider the Diurnal ending to be the more favorable of the two+. It’s not hard to understand why. This ending, the “Diurnal Ending,” is the logical conclusion to a story about a peaceful town invaded by a horrible illness. The plague is surely the antagonist of the story, and therefore, the story must end with the defeat of the plague and the salvation of the world.
But there’s a question here, a gnawing question, one that threatens to undermine this salvation narrative. A question that dares to assail the unassailable morality of doctors and heroes, a question that ripples in the present moment and sets fire to the cop cars, the banks, the Confederate statues:
Why should we want to save the world?
"Our people withered by the year, so that the Town grew. It was built on our bones."
— Foreman Oyun, Pathologic 2
On your first day in the Town, before the onset of the plague, you witness the burning of a woman at the stake. Men crowd around in silence. You watch the woman scream and struggle to break free. The cutscene camera moves, pushing up into the air and swiveling around until, finally, it settles into the viewpoint of the woman. You look out at a crowd of hard faces from behind a wall of fire. At last, the scene goes dark, and when you regain control of Artemy, the men are already dispersing, and her body is ash.
This woman was an Herb Bride; she belonged to the Kin. The men from the Town who murdered her believed that she was a shabnak-adyr—a superstition, a folk legend, an evil spirit who devours men—and they blamed her for the death of your father, Isidor Burakh. You discover that other Herb Brides have been killed for the same reason.
Her death cannot be rationalized as a symptom of recent crisis or the act of bigoted terrorists. The loss of Isidor, a healer respected by both the Kin and the townsfolk, may have plunged the Town into a state of chaos and fear, but such an explanation masks the utter normality of this extravagant violence, an act carried out by “normal” men in the “normal” world. It is an expression of a much broader social, economic, and legislative relation of violence and domination that has seemingly always existed between the settler and the native.
The reality of this violence is impossible to ignore, as it becomes increasingly evident over the course of your 11 days that the order and prosperity of the Town is secured by the Kin’s biological and social death. The Kin—those who take up residence in the Town—are the main labor source for the Town’s industry, the Bull Enterprise, owned by Vlad Olgimsky. They all live packed together in one building, the Termitary, and they work under miserable conditions: you are told that, before your arrival, the Kin had been planning a mass strike against the Olgimskys. Foreman Oyun (or rather, his Reflection++) refers to the Kin as “slaves, gristle for the mill Olgimsky built to drown the Town in coin.” In other words, the Kin are understood to be Olgimsky’s property, his livestock, his capital. This attitude resonates throughout the Town. The Kin are regarded as a herd of naïve and cultish beasts, deserving of contempt, suspicion, and fear.
In the white European imaginary, colonized people have always been beasts. Even today these images and tropes persist—the violent hordes, the unwashed and unintelligent masses living in huts and ghettos, unable to transcend their instincts of self-preservation and multiplication like so many bacteria. Whether as helpless children or as mindless parasites, they are only granted life through the benevolence and charity of civil white society. Within the distinction “between human life worthy of protection (eugenic), and that which is not (dysgenic)+++,” the Kin embody dysgenic life, life that is rendered—culturally, economically, legally—undesirable and disposable.
In the world of Pathologic 2, it’s not clear how and why this relation between Town and Kin emerged. Questions abound: How were the Kin forced to work for the Town in exchange for their own sustenance? How did the Kin sustain themselves before the settlement of the Town? Did the Town’s emergence interfere with the Kin’s ability to feed themselves? Were they forced to give up their previous ways of living? The game presents no possibility of actually reclaiming these histories (not that such a reclamation would result in liberation), but one can only imagine, in the space of this elision, histories of violent settlement and enslavement.
Regardless of its historical origin, the Kin’s position within the libidinal economy++++ as savage, irrational, and amoral cements, and in turn is cemented by, their status as property. In the tautological logic of white supremacy, the Kin are subhuman because they are treated like slaves, and they are treated like slaves because they are subhuman. This logic acts as an enclosure, capturing and binding the Kin.
Between colonizer and colonized, there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.
"No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production."
— Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
I mentioned earlier that the Kin had been planning a strike against the Olgimskys before you arrived in Town. This strike never took place. When rumors of the plan reached Olgimsky’s son, Vlad the Younger, he decided to prevent any riots by locking up the Kin inside the Termitary. This is the man who, in contrast with his nakedly bigoted father, provides a more “humane” face for the Bull Enterprise; he supposedly cares about the culture of the Kin and wishes for the Kin’s peaceful assimilation into the Town. When the plague hits a couple days later, the Kin are kept locked inside with the assumption that they are safely quarantined from the disease. On Day 7, when you’re finally allowed to open the doors, you discover that the disease has already found its way in.
Of the thousands of Kin who lived in the Termitary, nearly all are dead.
This is the enclosure of the colonial prison, the bloody, beating heart of modernity. This moment picks up echoes from history—the weaponization of disease by European settlers against Native American peoples—the realities of people trapped in the prison-industrial complex in the midst of pandemic. No talk of peace or progress could drown out the howls of the dying Kin, the reality that this world runs on death. While plague may have killed the people inside, let it be known that the real murderers are the ones who, with the heaviest of hearts and the best of intentions, locked the door and walked away.
I do not belong to any of the Indigenous Siberian peoples that the Kin are supposedly inspired by or drawing from (namely, the Buryats), nor do I have any kind of extensive knowledge of these peoples or their histories. However, while writing this essay I’ve been dogged by the aspects of their portrayal that I find troubling. I feel for and with the Kin; simultaneously, I confront the reality that they are presented unmistakably through an undermining settler gaze, not just through the gaze and speech of the game’s racist characters, but in the language of the game itself.
With the exceptions of their guiding figures—Isidor, Oyun, and Aspity—the Kin aren’t depicted as possessing the fullness or complexity of the human characters. It is not their lack of “humanity” that I take issue with—their inhumanity is the point: to side with the Kin is to eschew the category of Human and embrace animality. Rather, the Kin are not even given the fullness or depth of animals. They are one-dimensional, hard and stubborn, like the bulls they worship.
No—the image of “stubborn bulls” is itself an invention. It's the limitation of human metaphor that can't imagine bulls being anything other than “stubborn." Similarly, the limitation of the colonial imagination renders the indigenous person a stereotype, incapable of having life except mediated through the most alien and alienating markers of indigeneity. They repeat the same handful of words again and again—emshen, yargachin, the Lines, Suok, Boddho—they have no vocabulary for anything else, as if there were nothing else in their world. The game imagines the Kin as incapable of even an animal’s tenderness, compassion or curiosity; they lack even fear, an animating fear of mortality, to make them legible as living creatures.
When they’re not mouthpieces for their beliefs, they’re only inert flesh, not only ready but longing to be cut open. Herb Brides are defined by tropes about fertility, earth, sex, and masochistic violence. Your only interactions with them revolve around their bodies—bodies that burn, bodies that dance in your dreams, bodies like ornaments+++++ that decorate the world, bodies that lay themselves on the altar to be cut open, bodies that do not take but only provide. When one of them, an Herb Bride named Nara, promises herself to you, her grammar is ambiguous, caught between love and ownership: “We are bound, you and I. I am yours.” There is no more ambiguity when it comes time to sacrifice her for your quest.
But of course—all of this is to be blamed on their culture, regressive, horrifying, and misogynistic as it is. Their culture makes them this way: it transforms them into a hivemind, naïve, childlike, quick to violence, and desperately in need of guidance from a paternal savior. Is it coincidence that this depiction of the Kin parallels long-standing anti-Mongolian attitudes about savagery? I imagine these decisions are made by the developers in order to make your final decision on Day 11 more agonizing—to force you to question the horror of what you’re actually saving. Despite their oppression, can I really side with these disturbing, violent creatures over the warm, civilized world?
The designers of Pathologic 2 love subjecting the player to difficult decisions—the game is built on nothing else, mechanically and narratively. But their decision to write the Kin this way approaches a false moral equivalence, in a conflict between settler and native that has historically always been one-sided and genocidal. We do not need to establish the innocence, purity, or dignity of the colonized in order to condemn the violence of the colonizer.
Lastly, I want to draw attention to the language the writers use in their framing of the player's final decision.
“Preserve monsters, wonders, and the plague, reviving the past.
Preserve the Town of humanity and warmth, giving it a future.”
By constructing your choices as “preserve the past” and “save the future,” the game appeals to a notion of linear time and progress that reinforces not as much the superiority as the inevitability of a settled liberal-capitalist world. To place the Kin and the Town on a timeline of “past” and “future” is to project a teleology, a narrative of cultural evolution based not on reality, but ideology. After all, what makes the Kin—a people still breathing in the present—what makes them “past,” and what does it to do to call them “past”++++++?
To call the Kin “past” is to de-legitimize the existence of Indigenous peoples in the present and future. It also legitimizes and rationalizes their erasure within the broader eugenics project called racial capitalism. In other words, to consign them to the past is to take away their place in the world now and in the world to come.
"They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements,’ diseases cured, improved standards of living.
I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out."
— Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
Right now, Black, indigenous, poor, incarcerated, and disabled people are being killed by COVID-19 at vastly disproportionate rates. The highest infection rate in the country is not in New York or New Jersey, but in the Navajo Nation. Black people in the U.S. are dying of the virus at a rate of three times that of white people.
Yet, in the past weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have been gathering in the streets the world over, risking infection, beatings, tear gas, and worse. People understand that the crisis threatening their lives didn’t start with COVID-19, and it won’t end when COVID-19 is a distant memory. This pandemic is killing marginalized and oppressed people—but this white supremacist country has been doing that for centuries, only more quietly and efficiently. Plague was never the true enemy.
The crisis is racial capitalism, settler colonialism, the ongoing historical processes that weave the intolerable fabric of everyday reality for Black, indigenous, poor, incarcerated, queer and trans people. This is why we call for the destruction of this world: because the institutions that uphold it—the prisons, the courtrooms, the corporations, the banks, the local governments, the housing markets, the education systems—all of them shore up capital, protect property, and further entrench the positions of settler and slave.
Reforms will not disappear the colonial relations that have underpinned these institutions since their creation. Reforms will never end the reproduction of the anti-Black, anti-Indigenous social, political, and economic order. The world as we know it has to end for a new one to be made.
Revisiting the final decision of Pathologic 2, we see how the irreducible antagonisms of settler-colonialism cannot be reduced to a simplistic moral tale about saving the world from violence. The world of the Town is violence: violence against the oppressed and against the Earth itself. Only one of these bodies—world and Earth—can be saved from destruction.
To choose the Diurnal Ending is to be pragmatic: accepting the deaths of the most disposable to preserve the society as it is. They’ll woo us with promises to do better—a kinder capitalism, with better working conditions+++++++, nicer cops, more humane cages. But none of this, not least the extinction of the most vulnerable and disposable among us, could create a better world. The “humanness” of the Diurnal ending is precisely its cruelty, when white European conceptions of "the human" have always been built on the bones of the colonized.
"David Scott: 'But what you recognize—as, of course, Césaire and Fanon recognize—is that there is an inner lining of humanism, in which the degradation of man is part and parcel of the elevation of man.'
Sylvia Wynter: 'We can see the reality of this for the indigenous peoples once Columbus arrives in the Caribbean. We can see it today in the degradation of the jobless, of the incarcerated, the homeless, the archipelago of the underdeveloped, the expendable throwaways.'"
— “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter”
The “peace” of the Diurnal ending is a fantasy. To long for a return to order is to long for the peaceful enclosure of the prison, and the systems of death and extraction that make white peace possible.
No. Instead, you, Artemy Burakh, say farewell to order. Farewell to prisons, industry, and the death march called progress. Farewell to the Townsfolk, sleepwalking across the moonlit Steppe, still lost in the dream of civilization. Instead, you embrace your love for the Earth and all its creatures. You embrace the Kin, now liberated from the crushing weight of colonial modernity. And together, you dance on the ashes of a world once nourished by your blood.
+ At time of writing, 9.8% of all players on Steam have achieved this ending; 6.4% have achieved the other. For what it’s worth, I assume many of these are the same people who wanted to see both endings.
++ Among the NPCs you encounter in Pathologic are the masked Tragedians who shadow other major characters. These Tragedians are known as “Reflections” of those major characters. From the Pathologic 2 Wiki: “Some Tragedians act as the reflections of Bound Character[s’] thoughts. They offer insight to the inner thoughts of the character they are shadowing.”
+++ Alexander Weheliye paraphrasing Sylvia Wynter, from Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.
++++ “Libidinal economy” as used here comes from Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. This post offers an explication/exploration of the term as Wilderson uses it.
+++++ Anne Cheng, Ornamentalism: “The history and discourse of racialized femininity are deeply embroiled with the larger philosophic history of the ornament, its complicated relation to modernity, and its enduring entanglement with the Asiatic. Like the yellow woman, the ornament is a category that, for all its glamour, has suffered a long history of denigration. In everyday usage, ornament refers to the insignificant, the superfluous, the merely decorative, the shallow, and the excessive. […] While the Western philosophic discourse surrounding the ornament, especially at the height of modernism, is expressly one of debasement, it is nonetheless deeply drawn to the ornament, a paradox that reveals a tenacious and genuine struggle with the problem of beauty, its radiant debt to horror and defilement.”
++++++ In Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, Mark Rifkin writes:
“The representation of Native peoples as either having disappeared or being remnants on the verge of vanishing constitutes one of the principal means of effacing Indigenous sovereignties. Such a portrayal of Indigenous temporal stasis or absence erases extant forms of occupancy, governance, and opposition to settler encroachments. Moreover, it generates a prism through which any evidence of such survival will be interpreted as either vestigial (and thus on the way to imminent extinction) or hopelessly contaminated (as having lost—or quickly losing—the qualities understood as defining something, someone, or some space as properly “Indian” in the first place.”
+++++++ In the Diurnal Ending, Young Vlad has this to say: “I’ll start with simple things. An eight-hour workday. Forbidding child labor. Insurance. Benefits for disabled workers. Better pay.”
Lotus is a writer living in NYC/on stolen Lenape land. You can find them on Twitter at @_earth_seed, or visit their blog to read more of their work.