I did localization writing for Pathologic 2

I did!

Pathologic 2 is a strange, gripping horror/survival narrative game set in a plague-stricken town in the Russian steppe sometime around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a remake– not a sequel, a much-improved remake– of the cult classic game Pathologic, which I learned about in this classic Rock Paper Shotgun series back when I was in college. I was lucky to get on a team of localization writers which included Kevin Snow, Bruno Dias, and Cat Manning; together we wrote and edited the English script of the game in partnership with the translator, Alphyna.¬†This work took up a huge chunk of our 2018 and much of early 2019!

Pathologic 2 shipped on Steam on May 23. I kept telling myself that I would wait to put up a post about this until I could write a vast postmortem¬†like I did for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but let’s face it: I won’t ever have the energy! So here’s a very basic description of what it was like to work on this project.

We first became aware of the opportunity in September 2017, when Olivia Wood told some of us who had been doing vignette writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine that Patho 2’s developer, Ice Pick Lodge, was looking for a team of localization writers. Since we’d worked together already on that game, working together again on another project seemed like a cool idea. We began talking to IPL about the type of work they wanted done. Kevin, who can read Russian, submitted a series of different localization samples to IPL demonstrating the difference between a surface-level edit, a slight localization rewrite, a major localization rewrite, and a SUPER DEEP rewrite which more deeply changed the sense of many of the phrases. (The sample dialogue they used for this was actually the first conversation Bad Grief has with Artemy!) This was how we worked out the type of work IPL wanted us to do.

Some context: I’d played a very small amount of Pathologic before working on the project, but difficulties with the original translation and the game’s jankiness had discouraged me from getting particularly far. I was a huge fan of the RPS article series, however, so I’d backed Pathologic 2 on Kickstarter in 2014. The idea of contributing to a project I was already eagerly awaiting was hugely exciting to me. I think I would have worked on this project no matter what kind of localization writing IPL said they wanted from us.

In the end, they told us that they wanted a localization pass which mostly retained the precise sense of the literary original, often encouraging us to even try retaining Russian-specific metaphor and humor–but they also encouraged us to modify things to add English-specific wordplay wherever possible. This was not the most challenging type of localization we could have done, but it was definitely extremely challenging! I have previously done localization writing for Tencent, and my localization work on Tango: The Adventure Game helped earn it a Honorable Mention in the IGF this past March, but I’d never before worked on a project which tried to retain the sense of jokes exactly.

We began working on the project sometime around the middle of 2018 (I think). We worked mostly in spreadsheets and accessed versions of the game through Steam in the way many Kickstarter backers did. This meant that when the game came out for real this May, there was a LOT in it that I had never before seen. Many of the conversations we worked on also changed a lot during development.

Kevin managed the relationship between IPL and us localizers. We also worked with Seva Kritskiy, a History PhD who served as our culture consultant. We would receive enormous spreadsheets which included the original Russian, Alphyna’s translation, and an extra column for our translation; each row was one utterance, and each player response utterance had an accompanying cell showing where that utterance led. This meant that it was technically possible to read through branching conversations in the spreadsheet, but very difficult. We recieved an HTML dialogue tree with each spreadsheet that we could use to approximate conversation flow, but it too was a little strange.

Conversations in Pathologic 2 are circular, tangled, messy things. They don’t often follow orderly layouts. They may have sprawling appendices which eventually loop back to the main route, requiring utterances to convey a variety of different emotional tones depending on the context the reader brings from other (very emotionally intense!) routes through the conversation. This is not particularly unusual for commercial games– Mass Effect, for example, has tons of line reads which are carefully designed to seem authentic in a variety of contexts and emotional states the player may bring based on past experiences. In Pathologic 2, however, those conversations are very very twisty!

The four of us broke up the bulk of the work per character. The characters I focused on were Sticky, Murky, Bachelor, all three Kains, Big Vlad, and Vlad Jr. I also worked on a lot of random side characters–various bandits, hospital orderlies, soldiers, random children, the herb bride occasionally, etc. Some of the more prominent characters were split between the four of us based on availability as well.

We were working right up until a few weeks before the game shipped. The end of the process was particularly difficult for Kevin, who was managing the relationship with IPL and performing other tasks related to the game’s narrative as well, including translation.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work on this project. We’d be lucky to live in a world where more games like this one are published. I salute any game which attempts to bring unapologetic literary complexity to a huge, complex modern game. I appreciate all games which use mechanics– including the mechanics of death and difficulty– to add thematic complexity to a game. I really value games which challenge the player to bring their whole self, and all the media literacy they have, to an interactive story. I think that Pathologic 2 does an exceptionally good job at all of these things. It asks players to treat it as a true adversary– to question what it says, question how it seems to be working, to confront and reject the word-of-god-style proclamations its characters sometimes seem to be making.

I think that some of the criticism of this game has really failed to see or acknowledge this part of the experience. You cannot play Pathologic 2 as if you are playing Skyrim, The Witcher, Mass Effect, or even a very good difficult survival horror game. Pathologic 2 is incredibly improved over the original in a variety of ways which really surprised me– its various interaction menus and inventories and dialogue UX, for example, are among the most powerfully thematic I’ve ever seen. But despite how much more polished it is than the original, you cannot play this game as if it’s supposed to be accomplishing the same things a Bioware adventure, or whatever, is trying to accomplish. You cannot play a game which slings Brecht references at you every time you die as if it’s some smooth round orb of entertainment polished up for consumers to swallow.

I think that’s why its core audience has been so thrilled by it. So many of the things we’re able to play these days are interested in being perfectly smooth uncomplicated little marbles of fun meant to grease down our gullets, or whatever. Pathologic 2, on the other hand, is like swallowing the most interesting caltrop in the world. We deserve a challenge like that every once in a while. We’re smart and strong enough to be given a test like that, I think.