Pathologic 2 is an incredible game. It’s also a game that I have strong reservations about because, as Holly Green wrote for Paste earlier this week, it can be soul-crushingly difficult—by design. In fact, I posted a brief addendum to my review on Twitter, telling people they should absolutely try playing the game as intended. And then…well, “cheat.” To break open the guts of the game and make themselves as close to god as they felt necessary—in direct opposition to the intent of the game’s designers.
But before we can get into Pathologic 2, the latest news post from developer, Ice-Pick Lodge, and why this matters, first we have to define what “difficulty” even is.
Difficulty is the subjective experience of mechanical impediment, often in combination, to the player achieving their goals. The experience of difficulty can be achieved in many ways: hyper-competent enemy AI; esoteric puzzles; damage, hit, and health modifiers that are skewed against the player; limited resources. Difficulty is the way developers can attempt to tune player experience and the speed at which they progress and succeed at achieving goals.
Difficulty is not synonymous with accessibility, which is the process of enabling as many players as possible to engage with a game, regardless of physical or cognitive ability. Color-blind options, subtitles, audio/visual cues, button mapping and the capability to adjust how button presses operate, and support for assistive technology are all accessibility options. They do not make the game less difficult. They provide players with access to engagement with games regardless of neurological and physical differences that are often not accounted for in game development. And while not synonymous, difficulty modifiers can enable access. Differences in reaction times, motor coordination, auditory, visual, and cognitive processing, can be accounted for, even if in a small way, using the largely standardized difficulty modes. And that’s because the subjective experience of difficulty is impacted by player skill and ability. What is intended to be challenging for one player will be a cakewalk for another, or needlessly punishing for others. Because of that, the option to modify a game’s difficulty by players is what I would consider fundamentally good design, and fundamentally in keeping with developer intent.
As game studies and design professor Dr. Todd Harper writes, “Game design is experience design. You try to scaffold and support the experience you hope the player has with your text.” But what happens if players are unable to engage with that experience?
Well, nothing. Players quit, or just never begin at all.
In that sense, I’m glad to see that in the coming weeks, Ice-Pick Lodge will be patching in the ability for players to modify the difficulty without the need to resort to trainers or console commands. Even if the wording of the news update on Steam is a bit, well, defensive.
As with all discussions about difficulty there is a vocal population of gamers intent on gatekeeping their “pure” experiences from players who would benefit from the access that so-called “easy modes” provide. As well as a vocal portion of the fandom that is vehemently opposed to this change because they believe Pathologic 2 is supposed to be punishingly hard, that this is intended, and any change is a corruption of that experience—for themselves, and others. And while they’re not entirely wrong, pushing back on difficulty options is a misguided, losing battle in 2019.
Pathologic 2 is a survival horror game. Players are tasked with surviving 12 days. No more, no less. That is the only overtly stated goal. Seems straightforward enough, right? But the game charges players with surviving while being an outsider, fighting a plague, navigating a host of duplicitous characters in a hostile, slippery environment where resources are scarce, and all while death is a very real, very common possibility. It doesn’t require the twitch reflexes, pattern recognition, or stamina of Sekiro or the multi-phasic meat tanks of Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3. The difficulty of Pathologic 2 is less grounded in demanding attentive and perfect play. Instead it wants players to embrace failure. Ice-Pick Lodge is so strongly committed to this that enough deaths open an entirely different, inventive, and delightful narrative pathway.
If stealth games are only as interesting as what happens when stealth is broken, survival games are only as interesting as what happens when players fail to survive. In this regard, Pathologic 2 is masterful.
But for many players, it may be too much to balance.
On my second full playthrough, I still struggle with the survival mechanics and can’t fully engage with the other experiences the game has to offer. For a game so rich with depth and narrative complexity, being largely locked into the same path I experienced my first go is a disappointment. Time in my real life, as in Pathologic 2, is a valuable and limited resource.
Details are scarce about what shape the difficulty options for Pathologic 2 will look like. Perhaps resources will be made more plentiful, meters will degrade more slowly (or not at all), and enemies will both deal and require less damage to defeat. However they end up, the message is clear: broader player access, engagement, and expression are ultimately a fair compromise.
Will some players use these options to give themselves a fundamentally easier experience compared to others and their own skill? Absolutely. Will that break the original intent of the creators? Absolutely.
But players can already do this with a few console commands in game.
Is this breaking the game? Sure. Systems are meant to be interrogated, exploded, and understood from multiple angles. “Cheating,” exploiting the underlying logic of a game to gain advantage over it, is a valid way of engaging. And for many, this is where their enjoyment is derived. Just look at speedrunners for a culturally accepted version of this.
People will cheat. That’s okay. Other people will tailor the experience to meet their skill levels and abilities. That’s really great! Does that meaningfully impact players who want to enjoy the stock Pathologic 2 experience? Not one bit. If you’re upset by this, get a less fragile ego.
If players want to play the game as originally intended they can continue to do so. If a player needs to modify the game to achieve that same experience, now they can. And there’s no shame in making a game experience you can actually play.
Difficulty options, especially in conjunction with accessibility options, open games up for more players to experience them as developers intended, or on their own terms if they so choose.
So congratulations. If you’re a fan, you just widened the cohort of people you can share this experience with. If you’re a developer, you just sold more copies. More people playing a game you love is always good. Pathologic 2 is opening itself up to more players, and that is good. And in the end, who the fuck cares if other people are giving themselves an easier time?
I, for one, am excited to share the rich world, brilliant writing, and general weirdness of Pathologic 2 with more people.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.