Pathologic 2 ending thoughts

Original source: andreazchen on tumblr

i don’t really use tumblr much anymore, but i recently finished Pathologic 2 and i have thoughts on the ending, which i felt was somewhat incongruous with the rest of the game’s themes and ideas. and tumblr felt like the right place to put a long-form post about it. so, here i am, haha!

MAJOR spoilers for Pathologic 2 below, obviously. this post will probably only be interesting to you if you’ve already played the game, so if you haven’t, be warned! hehehe!

okay, so. i have a lot of thoughts about the ending stuff, but basically it boils down to: i think the ending as presented would have been a good ending for a different game.

quick summary: towards the end of the game, Artemy learns that the Polyhedron, a physics-defying tower and architectural wonder, is rooted into the ground with a long metal spike that pierces the Living Earth. destroying the Polyhedron would therefore open a gaping wound in the Earth, spilling rivers of blood that could be used to mass-produce a cure for the plague. however, doing so would not only destroy the Polyhedron, but also kill the Living Earth, and by extension the Kin. alternately, Artemy can choose to preserve the Polyhedron, which would prevent the Living Earth from bleeding out and dying; but it would come at the cost of the lives of everyone in the town, since the plague would then be unstoppable.

so, the ending choice is principally about this: you have to choose between preserving the magical wonders of the world, the Kin and the Polyhedron and the Living Earth, but at the expense of the actual living humans of the town; or, you save the town and all its mundanities and its ordinary people you’ve worked so hard to protect, but at the expense of your cultural heritage and all the magical, impossible things of the Steppe. do you choose a world that is dreamlike, enchanted and strange, even if there is no place for regular humans in that world; or do you choose an ordinary, realistic world, one in which there is life for common folk but not for magic and fairy tales?

here’s what irks me though: this dichotomy is not at all what the game is about. or, to be more precise, it never felt to me personally like this was what the narrative was setting up. the choice as presented is fine in a vacuum! there’s nothing wrong with telling a story that creates this kind of clash between magic and realism, and asks you to choose between them. but it doesn’t feel congruous with the rest of the game’s story. let me elaborate.

so, part of what’s going on here is that the game is asking you to make a sacrifice. as the game itself repeatedly tells you: “you can’t save everyone”. either the Kin, the magical steppe creatures, and the Polyhedron are destroyed; or, the ordinary humans of the town are destroyed. you can’t protect both. Pathologic 2 goes to great lengths to show you that you are not a magical fantasy RPG hero who can complete every quest, rescue every NPC, overcome any obstacle and get the Perfect Ending. that’s the whole point of the overly punishing hunger and exhaustion mechanics; that’s why you die so easily in combat, why you’re always running out of time, and why the game is perfectly willing to punish you for every single mistake you make. it’s not a game about being the chosen one, who has magic powers and is uniquely capable of saving the day. right?

except… it kind of is precisely that, if you think about it. Artemy’s story is very clearly a traditional “chosen one” narrative! he is the sole inheritor of his father’s legacy, he is the town’s only menkhu, and so much of the story revolves around his spiritual journey. over the course of the game, Artemy undergoes a coming-of-age of sorts, reconnecting with his heritage, unlocking the secrets of being a menkhu, brewing magical tinctures that slow down and ultimately cure the plague. multiple characters make it explicit that Artemy is important - Foreman Oyun, Aspity, Isidor, and various minor characters of the Kin (like Nara) all talk at length about how Artemy is special, and his role (should he embrace it) is to lead the Kin once he is ready. and the entire conflict with Rubin revolves around the fact that Rubin isn’t the “chosen one” the way Artemy is!

this whole plot thread reaches its climax when Artemy ventures into the Abattoir to seek answers. there, he undergoes a series of harrowing spiritual experiences. several really important things happen here, and i want to focus on two of them.

firstly: upon reaching the central chamber of the Abattoir, Artemy is tasked with performing “surgery” on three seemingly random objects: a candlestick, a fingernail coin, and a spindle of thread. he has a metaphysical conversation with the odongh he meets there and then “connects” these objects into a living, beating heart, and the heart speaks to him. this scene is either hallucinatory or supernatural (or both), but it doesn’t matter which; the point of the scene is that Artemy has finally learned to read the Lines, learned to see how seemingly disparate objects can be spiritually connected into a singular whole. he takes three items that appear to have nothing in common, and he forges a beating heart out of them, a living thing. as Artemy himself learns:

This system isn’t symmetrical. It’s not just “Nerves, Bones, Skin.” Or “Nerves, Bones, Flesh.” Or “Spirit, Hair, Blood.” Any triad is correct.

Truth is not a set point, but an intersection and confluence of many small truths. Knowing this, I can match and connect anything.

furthermore, shortly after leaving the Abattoir, Artemy has a dream in which he returns there and speaks to the ghost of Isidor, his father. here, he learns a difficult truth: that Isidor intentionally brought the plague back to the town, believing - essentially - that it was necessary for the town’s growth. the decision seems monstrous. Isidor justifies it thus:

This town was… connected wrong. Its parts were tied with artificial seams—so different, so awkward. One could say that Simon, the Mistresses, and I held it all together by force.

So I tore it apart, so you can sew it all back, better than before. Because you’re better, and smarter, than I am.

so here we have the high point of Artemy’s spiritual journey, the part of the story where he finally understands why things are the way they are, and what it is he must do.

and this is where things start going wrong, in my opinion.

because all of this, all of what we’ve seen, seems to point in one very clear direction: Artemy will find a way to connect the Kin, the Town, and the Polyhedron into a single coherent whole. it fits so perfectly! Artemy learns that there is a way to mass-produce a cure, but doing so would require him to destroy the Polyhedron and the Living Earth. it appears as though the Polyhedron, the Living Earth, and the Town cannot all coexist; something must be sacrificed. but this choice is presented right after we’re told that Artemy’s destiny is to “sew it all back, better than before”. it is presented once we’ve seen that Artemy can connect a coin, a candlestick, and a spindle of thread into a living, beating heart, no matter how impossible that may sound. knowing this, he can match and connect anything.

and yet, he… doesn’t. the game does not end with a solution that connects the Kin, the Polyhedron and the Town. ultimately, Artemy fails to sew it all back together - and it’s not just that he fails, it’s that the game itself seems utterly unconcerned with that possibility once it heads into its final act. the mere idea that there could be a solution that “connects things right“ goes unexplored. even if the game wanted to be pessimistic and suggest that it can’t be done after all, it should at least acknowledge the thought! the game does admittedly have a focus on the idea that “you can’t save everyone”; this is one of its core motifs. so, fair enough! but since it fails to address that cynicism, it feels less like a statement on the game’s part and more like a lack of awareness.

but that’s not all! there’s a second thing that really bugs me. see, there’s another major event that takes place in the Abattoir: Artemy finally has his fateful encounter with Nara, the Herb Bride who has haunted him throughout the game, insisting that their destinies are intertwined and that he will one day kill her. here, Artemy finally comes to understand what it all means. in the depths of the Abattoir, Nara is waiting for him; the other Herb Brides give Artemy a menkhu’s knife, and they task him with cutting open Nara’s body without killing her:

We know how to open things up. Our way. You know how to open things up. Your way. Do you want to know why the sand pest passes us by? Show yourself.

Cut a living sister in such a way that she stays living. You can do it, if you know the Lines.

Artemy follows through, and he converses with Nara even as he cuts into her flesh; they talk to each other right until the end, when Artemy retrieves a spindle of thread from her body, and she dies.

now, this scene is somewhat tricky to interpret; Artemy must show that he can “cut a living sister in such a way that she stays living”, but in the end, Nara does die. so was he successful or not? well, i would argue that he is; even though Nara dies, he proves that he is able to read the Lines with such precision that she can speak calmly with him until the very end.

more importantly, this scene is the high point of a recurring theme in the game: Artemy’s skill as surgeon.

on Day 1, the very first part of the game, Artemy is sent by his old friend Bad Grief to perform surgery on Piecework, one of the thugs in Bad Grief’s gang. Piecework has gotten in a fight and been stabbed in the gut with a lockpick; without Artemy’s intervention, he will die. you can choose to save him, flub the surgery and kill him, or ignore the sidequest altogether; in any case, this early quest introduces the player to the surgery mechanic and serves to establish Artemy’s unique skills as a surgeon.

on Day 11, the last day of proper gameplay, you have a repeat of this encounter. while pursuing the main quest for the day, you wind up in a pub, where a gang of local bandits have set up shop. they threaten you and order you to rescue one of their pals, who has been shot in the stomach and is about to die. here you again perform surgery to save a man’s life, but this time you don’t do it through the usual surgery minigame - it happens entirely through dialogue choices, and i’m actually not even sure if it’s possible to fail this interaction. in any case, you retrieve the bullet from the man’s stomach and inform his friends that he’ll live.

so what’s the point of all that then? well, the way i see it, the point of all this is to foreshadow a climactic conclusion: Artemy will remove the Polyhedron without killing the Living Earth.

the game spends a lot of time setting this up! on Day 1, Artemy saves a man by removing a long metal spike from his gut non-lethally; in the Abattoir, Artemy proves his spiritual growth by demonstrating that he can “cut a living sister in such a way that she stays living”; and on Day 11, the game throws yet another surgery vignette at you in a scene that frankly feels a bit out of place otherwise.

all of this feels, to me, like it’s foreshadowing and setting up one very obvious result: Artemy, having mastered not only practical surgery but also the art of reading the Lines, of being a menkhu, is the one person who can remove the Polyhedron without killing the Living Earth! the game spends all this time explaining that in the Steppe culture, cutting open flesh, or the earth itself, is taboo: only a menkhu is allowed to do so, because a menkhu is someone who knows how to read the Lines, who knows how to cut in a way that will not harm the Living Earth. the culmination of the story, therefore, needs to be that Artemy puts this exact skill to use. that was the point of his character arc, right?

except… no, it isn’t. in the end, there is no way to surgically extract the metal spike from the Living Earth. the only two choices we are presented with are: botch the surgery, or leave it be.

in the end, i feel that the ending(s) of Pathologic 2 aren’t appropriate conclusions to the ideas, motifs, and overall narrative progression we’re shown throughout the earlier parts of the game. Pathologic 2 is in many ways brilliant, and i do not hesitate to call it a masterpiece, aforementioned criticisms notwithstanding - but that’s precisely why i cared enough to write all this down! it’s a story that gets into your head, really stays with you, and maybe that’s the reason why i have such strong feelings about the direction the story takes in its final act.

if you reached the end of this post: thank you so much for reading it! i hope you enjoyed my thoughts, and i hope you have a great day!

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