24 October, 2009

Pathologic - Shattering the Fourth Wall

*Super Endgame Spoilers*

So, in most of the endings, in addition to the scenes depicting the fate of the town itself, there is what I had assumed to be a symbolic scene of a town built out of sand, with some kind of glass bottle hanging off of it (representing the Polyhedron, no doubt). In the Bachelor's ending, where the town is destroyed, two children pound the sand town to dust, and in the Haruspicus' ending, where the Tower is destroyed, the glass bottle breaks off and falls to the ground.

Jumping back to earlier on the final day, when I decided to assist the Devotress in verifying the health of her adherents, I got an angry letter from the Authorities, much like I did under the same circumstances in the Bachelor's scenario. But two things were different. Firstly, whereas the Bachelor was in contact with the Authorities throughout his entire stay in town, it is unusual for the Authorities to contact the Haruspicus directly. Secondly, in this note I received, while I was the Haruspicus, were instructions for me to come to the Polyhedron to receive a message.

Sure enough, the Polyhedron was wide open to me as the note assured, and I went inside - itself an usual feat for the Haruspicus.

In case you don't recall, the Polyhedron is supposed to be this magical architecture that reflects children's dreams...or something. The note told me to go to the bottom of the Polyhedron (on the inside, that is), close my eyes, count to five, then open them again. I awoke to a very surreal encounter that has shaken my understanding of reality.

I was in a small enclosed park or garden, with the sand town from the ending scenes sitting in a sandbox in front of me. Standing by were the two children who pound the town in the Bachelor's ending. Strangest of all, when I walked up to the children, I noticed that my height was shorter than theirs.

The children told me I was a toy - a doll. That they made the town and its reflection in the mirrors made it real, via the magic of the Tower. That the very same magic is what seemingly brought me, a doll, to life. Is this true? Am I just a doll? Was this epidemic all just a game? Was it actually made real or does it simply appear to be real? Or was this conversation I had itself a dream, brought to life by the magic of the Tower? But then what purpose does it serve if it is not real? My mission notes seemed to be more certain than I was, somehow deducing that the disease came from the sandbox - at least its name, Sand Filth, Sand Dirt, Sand Plague, would fit that theory. But of further interest is the implication that the "Authorities" have been the children playing this game all along, and not some executive body of adults...

When you load Pathologic, you are treated to a video of a few of the children from the game - Kapella, Mother Keeper, Spichka, and Mishka - burying a doll in a 'mock' funeral procession.

I had previously chalked this up to the game's surreality and didn't try too hard to understand its significance. Also, within the game, when Mishka talks about dolls as if they were alive (for example, when her doll walked out alone to feed on herbs), or eerily refers to people in a manner that makes more sense for dolls than for living humans, I figured she was just delusional, being an orphaned loner, living out in a railcar with no companions. But of course, my recent revelation changes that interpretation. And the little girl I talked to in the garden with the sandbox mentioned a funeral they had just returned from, but she wouldn't say whose it was - perhaps it was the funeral from the game opening? But the doll they bury...who does it represent? And this idea of making an epidemic into a game...is it an after-effect of the depression from the funeral, or is there another explanation?

After returning through the Polyhedron, back to the town, I received a letter from the developer, asking me to visit the Theatre. Inside, I had a most revealing conversation with an Executor and a Tragedian, who were interested in speaking not to the Haruspicus, but to me, the player.

They opened with this: "These children are no less dolls than the hero. The real game is between you and us." Seemingly to take yet another step backward - not only is the character just a doll and not a real person, but even the manipulation of the doll itself is a game. They went on about free will, and whether or not the decisions I made in the course of the game - especially the final decision I was about to make - were actively chosen, or forced upon me by the constraints of the game's plot.

"When every step you take has been prophecied, you still have the freedom to take prophecied steps. However, when every step you take has been predetermined, then you remain a puppet at the hands of the master of puppets."

Clearly, they are referring to the construct of the game. All the time I made decisions to fulfill prophecies and to advance the plot in the way I thought it was meant to be advanced, and now I am being asked whether or not I truly made any decisions, or whether I allowed myself to be forced by the game. Is this a commentary on games themselves, on a broader scale? The developer is encouraging me - the player, and not the character - to free myself to make a decision uncoerced by expectation. I begin to wonder if I should have been more adventurous in my playing, and what outcome would have resulted...

At the Cathedral, before making my final decision, I chatted with the Inquisitor about these two revelations - that of the Authorities, and that of the developer. It seems the Inquisitor already knew that she and I were both dolls. But while she admitted the town was a toy, she insisted that the Plague is real. Perhaps this truly is a doomed town, and we potential saviors are merely the children's last hopeless wish for salvation. Or, is it possible that magic (that of the Polyhedron?) has brought these dolls to life, so that we may actually stand some chance of saving the town?

The Inquisitor had a far less positive reaction to my revelation regarding the developer. I spoke to her not as the Haruspicus, but as the player, and I told her she was a fictional character with no real existence. She was frightened and reluctant to admit it, and demanded that I bring the Haruspicus back. Kinda freaky. I realized that she actually loves the Haruspicus (now Catherina's prophecy about my sacrifice makes a lot more sense), allegedly for his free will, but she didn't appreciate my suggestion that it was not the Haruspicus' personality, but that of the player driving the Haruspicus' actions that she loved.

(Note the option to hit on the Inquisitor. :3)

After speaking to the Authorities and the developer, there is an addendum to the end of the game, which puts you, the player, back in the Theatre (and reveals the identity of the observer at the beginning of the game in the Theatre before you choose a scenario - it is not a character but you yourself, the player), with the off-screen voices from the nightly pantomimes declaring that the player has truly won - against fate, and against the developers, by attaining the free will to choose, rather than being forced into a conclusion. You can also get this addendum, as I previously had, by abdicating responsibility for the town during the final council and telling the General you refuse to make a decision. I suppose in that way, too, you are demonstrating that you are not bound to the confines of the game's suggested plot. Only through this ending, which explicitly reveals the three heroes as dolls, are you free to finally exit the Theatre and go into the beyond.

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