A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
I walk over to the window and look outside. It's raining, and the sky is dark. On the ground, about ten feet from my window, is a pyre twice the size of a man, and it is ablaze. Horrible smoke pours from it. Beside the pyre stands a figure wrapped in a cloak that obscures its silhouette and hides its arms. Its mask—or perhaps its face—is one part the skull of a bird, one part the grim mask of a plague doctor. It has orange, lamp-like eyes. It is looking directly up at me, and cocks its head just slightly, leveling me in its gaze. This is The Executor, and it is the very first thing you see when you begin Pathologic: The Marble Nest.
The Marble Nest is somewhere between a demo and an alpha for Russian developer Ice Pick Lodge's full scale remake of their 2005 game Pathologic. It contains assets that will be used in the final game, as well as characters and conceits, but is otherwise entirely self contained. It is also only available to alpha backers of their (long finished) kickstarter, and as such I'm going to talk about this two hour game without holding things back. If you're an alpha backer who hasn't played The Marble Nest yet, or you want to go into the remake completely blind, this is not the piece for you.
How do I begin to talk about Pathologic? It is a game wrapped over and over in strangeness, and each time you uncover a layer you discover another of an unexpected material or texture or weight. There is a town, and if it has a name, I have never uncovered it. It is almost certainly on Earth. Perhaps it is in Russia. It is surrounded on all sides by a great and wild steppe, from which storms blow in regularly. The town is a dreary place. Little grows there.
This town is being ravaged by a terrible disease. Sometimes it is called "The Sand Plague", sometimes "The Sand Pest". The symptoms involve coughing, yellow skin, painful movement, bloodshot eyes, death. By the beginning of The Marble Nest, it has killed eight thousand people in three days, or perhaps—perhaps more, the numbers are confused. It's hard to get accurate reports when your subordinates keep dying.
At the most basic level, then, both Pathologic and The Marble Nest are about curing this plague, one way or another. But listen, the town is so very strange. So strange. And its inhabitants, its architecture, its traditions and laws and patterns move to the beat of a drum that you cannot hear at first. The challenge in the original game, replicated perfectly in this, is to learn to understand the drum's rhythm.
So there I am, peering down through the window as the Executor peers back up at me. In The Marble Nest, I take on the role of Daniil Dankovsky, who is nominally a doctor. My actual profession, however, is a thanatologist, or expert in death. It is not immediately clear whether the residents of the town know this, but they will come to later.
To many of the townsfolk, however, I am not even "Dr. Dankovsky", or "Daniil"—I am "The Bachelor," a moniker that is never directly addressed or explained. The town is full of similarly named characters: "The Judge", who seems to be its mayor; "The Seer," who will later fruitlessly try and teach me how to die. "The Executor."
I check the window and the figure is gone. It is waiting for me downstairs.
At the start of The Marble Nest, The Bachelor is triumphant. Despite massive losses in the town, he has instituted a mandatory quarantine of the district known as The Stone Yards, and in doing so, believes he has eradicated the plague completely in this area. At the base of the stairs, though, stands The Executor, who tells me that it is the plague given form. "You have missed something," it says. "I am still here." Somewhere in the district, dying, is the last infected person. If I cannot find them, the plague will spread like wildfire. My quarantine will become a death sentence.
Looking into the face of death, The Bachelor is defiant. The Executor vanishes, and I open the door into the street and see, in front of me, a second Executor. Except—
—Except the mask is so slightly different, the cloak so slightly less ragged. The figure introduces itself to me as "Orderly No. 9", and gives me a situation report. See, this is a town where the medical staff have taken on costumes from the local theatre, since they provide protection from the storms and the plague. It is never explained why a theatre company would have so many of these terrifying bird costumes, or why the orderlies believed they were a perfect match, or whether they actually provide protection. But there they are, twenty-or-so masked figures, stalking around the town. They are doctors and they are never anything less than chilling.
At first No. 9 is entirely resistant to the idea that The Stone Yards might be hiding an infected person, but as I press him, he admits to some strange occurrences around the district. A queue of people outside a house, hoping to see a woman who claims to interpret dreams. Three children peering up through the windows of a mansion. A troupe of performers appearing outside the cathedral.
He also, with an air of tactful surprise, expresses his relief at seeing me alive. Somebody had told him that I was dead.
I head towards the children first. In the original Pathologic, children in the town developed their own, fully functioning society inside an impossible building called The Polyhedron. Their fortress is out of bounds here, but it looms on the horizon constantly. The three outside the mansion are looking up at the windows, and when I ask their leader what's inside, he is startlingly frank.
"Two fine masters," he says, "Dying of the Sand Pest."
There is a momentary glimmer of hope—have I found the infected people so quickly? This dissipates, though, as the children tell me that all the doors are locked and they can't get inside. One of them will trade me lockpicks, though, in exchange for walnuts.
"Why do you want walnuts?" I ask.
The children explain that you can bind up the souls of recently deceased people in walnut shells.
"Why would you do that?" I ask.
The children explain that the walnut-trapped ghosts are obliged to whisper secrets.
Rain pours down. The masked orderlies shelter themselves beneath the eaves.
In the square, three lanky humanoid figures wearing round white masks are performing an elaborate mime. One kneels, another marches over and makes a show of presenting something. The kneeling figure refuses it. A third figure watches and gestures opaquely. They are surrounded by birdcages of all sizes.
It becomes horribly apparent that not only has the situation in The Stone Yards begun to worsen, the quarantine has been lifted in totality. Patients I was preparing to examine, locked in the Cathedral, have been allowed to return to their homes across the river. All the while, orderlies, confident that the situation is under control, have been going off duty. As the day passes, and I rush from engagement to engagement, things only become more and more confused.
I speak to the committee governing the town and ask them to open temporary hospitals and repair a local store. They take my advice on board, emphasise that they believed I was dead, and are almost immediately removed and replaced by more of the masked actors from the square. One of the children repeatedly insists that I am, in fact, lying in bed in my house, delirious.
I encounter the head orderly, dressed in the slightly altered mask I last saw on The Executor, who shows me my own death certificate. It is signed "Daniil Dankovsky".
"We've been given the strangest orders," says a man on the street. "We are to light pyres, we are to bury the dead on the street and place bells on their graves."
"Who gave you these orders?" I ask.
"Why, Bachelor, you did!" Says the man.
I am so tired. I am so tired.
"Of course I did," I manage. "It must have slipped my mind."
Night falls and the pyres are lit. Strange, scarecrow like structures are erected at intersections. The town is all but empty. As I walk, I can hear the wind from the steppes and the ringing of hundreds of tiny bells. Fresh graves line the road.
Outside my house are a group of townsfolk. The actors, the committee, the shopkeeper. Soldiers. One or two of them greet me. The others wait silently.
I enter the house, and they close the door behind me, and then they board it up. As I walk upstairs I can hear the sound of hammers and nails. I know that The Executor waits for me beside my bed. What did I expect. I am not a doctor.
I am a thanatologist.
I never managed to get into the locked mansion. It evaded me. I took the game to a friend's house, hoping that he might find a solution, but we drank beer and played slowly and by the time I had to leave, the doors remained closed. I drove home through the dark and put on pyjamas and brushed my teeth and got into bed.
As I was drifting off to sleep, my phone buzzed. It was a text from my friend, and it said "i got in".
Attached to the text was a grainy photo he had taken of the screen. It was slightly blurred, and at first, rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I couldn't make out what I was looking at.
And then the picture took shape, and I jumped.
It was a photo of the two masters, standing, facing each other in front of what looked like a large window. Their hands were raised in prayer, symmetrical.
They were wrapped head to toe in yellowed, ragged cloth. Head to toe. Clasped hands bound tight.
My phone buzzed again.
"they won't stop coughing," said the text.