Pandemics are a popular video game scenario. But games with epidemics as special opponents bring unusual problems with them. How do you fight what you cannot see and what is difficult to grasp?

A scene from “A Plague Tale: Innocence”: Rats are everywhere

In the sterile digital worlds of video games, there are an astonishing number of diseases. If a dystopian or apocalyptic world is to be created, a devastating pandemic often has to serve. In contrast to war, however, epidemics have a special characteristic: their consequences are only evident when it is already too late for the individual. While the destruction of war can easily be turned into an intoxicating spectacle or a fantasy of power, the agents of an epidemic remain intangible and invisible, are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Even today, at a time when the mechanisms and causes of epidemics are known to science, diseases have lost little of their unpredictability and incomprehensibility. Paranoia, panic, conspiracy theories and superstition float in their waters. If “Fight or Flight” suddenly becomes irrelevant, a catastrophe will produce strange flowers.

Epidemics thus become a symbol of loss of control: in a medium like computer games, whose greatest asset is often the feeling of control, if not even power, this is an enormous problem. How do you deal with a danger that is neither visible nor specifically understandable for players? If after the “game over” due to illness it is not clear how and where you came into contact with the deadly pathogen? In addition: Hardly anyone will want to spend their free time avoiding virtual pedestrians so that nobody coughs in your face. While war is sometimes simulated in minute detail, a “realistic” game simulation of epidemics would not be impossible, but playfully pointless.

The rat as a tangible metaphor

A Plague Tale: Innocence” takes place in the time of the “Black Death” from 1348 to 1351, during which an estimated half of the population of Europe was killed. The game is full of apocalyptic images of empty villages and mass graves. The familiar iconography also includes rats, which have a special function: the rodents transform themselves from mere carriers of a disease into a tangible metaphor for the disease itself. The monstrous swarms of rats depict the horror of the plague, but at the same time they have the opposite function. By banishing the invisible danger into tangible bodies, we save the illusion of control.

In the “Dishonored” series, too, plague and rats are so closely linked that the disease is almost completely absorbed in the omnipresence of rats. Although the rats are also dangerous to our protagonist Corvo, the assassin is more part of the shadowy world of rats than that of humans, and is thus automatically associated with the plague. Like the rats, Corvo lives in the dark niches of the city. His powers grant us power over the rats, which he can summon and even take possession of them.

The plague and me

Nowhere is this association of our protagonist with the plague in “Dishonored” as clear as during Lady Boyle’s masked ball. Just like in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death”, the aristocracy passes the (plague) time with an extravagant masked ball, while disease rages on the street in front of closed gates. And as in the story, an outsider wearing a mask finds his way into the decadent world of appearance and punishes the aristocracy for their arrogance. In Poe’s story, this outsider is a personification of the plague itself. In the game, it is our protagonist Corvo who appears as the plague’s henchman. In other words, “Dishonored” is a rare game that makes up for the threatening loss of control of an epidemic by turning us into agents of the disease.

“Plague Inc.” by Ndemic Creations, for Android, iOS and Windows

Plague Inc.” takes this idea to extremes: In this global pandemic simulation, we play the epidemic itself, which we are allowed to genetically modify. Our sole goal is the annihilation of all humanity. Like “Dishonored”, “Plague Inc.” found a way to turn the pandemic into a kind of power fantasy by at least partially putting the unpredictable power of the disease at the service of the players.

But that doesn’t completely tame the plague: In “Dishonored” the rats can quickly become our own doom, and in “Plague Inc.” we are only controlling the pandemic indirectly. These games find a middle ground that avoids a loss of control and at the same time allows enough leeway for the dangerous unpredictability of epidemics to convey an impression of their destructive power.

The plague as a deadly mystery

The opposite extreme is found in “Pathologic 2“. As the young surgeon Artemy Burakh you arrive at the beginning of the game in an ominous steppe town that has been ravaged by a deadly “sand plague”. As medical professionals, it is our goal to get to the bottom of the cause of the disease and, if possible, to develop an antidote.

Not only are we as doctors established as antagonists of the sand plague right from the start, but we also quickly learn that we are dealing with an overpowering opponent. Failure is practically inevitable; Keeping our protagonist alive is already difficult enough, but we also have to fight for the lives of a number of characters who can be carried off by the plague at any time and thus permanently removed from the game.

“Pathologic 2” provides us with enough information and room for maneuver to just remain playable. A bar shows our immunity and we can protect ourselves with robust clothing, gloves, masks and various medications. The contaminated neighborhoods are clearly marked by a visible miasm hanging over the streets. The plague appears as a supernatural power that whispers in our ears and chases us in the form of ghostly shapes: always at most indirectly combative, but at least visible.

The sheer pressure that the plague constantly exerts on us, as well as its constant spread and unpredictable movement from one quarter to the next, ensures that we feel completely at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the disease despite this assistance. “Pathologic 2” is not only extremely difficult, but also unfair. And while the former hardly violates established design principles, the latter is downright an affront to “good” design, even to the game medium itself, which is often defined by its illusion of control. But an epidemic that obediently subordinates itself to human principles of sporting fairness and plays according to clearly defined rules would hardly be recognizable as an epidemic.

A struggle for understanding and meaning

“Pathologic 2” is not only a fight for life and death, but also one for understanding and meaning. Answers are few and far between on the barren steppe floor. The city’s population is making desperate attempts at interpretation, and they all seem to have their own opinion about the nature and origin of the plague. Is the sandpest a mystical phenomenon or a natural, rationally explainable one? Is it obsessed with a mind of its own and driven by intent, or is it drifting away haphazardly? Is their outbreak mere misfortune or part of a malicious conspiracy?

All of this may sound familiar to us from the corona crisis. The complete arbitrariness of a plague is difficult for us humans to accept, and so it is easier to suspect some will or meaning behind it, whether it is a punishing god or biological warfare. It is probably no coincidence that in games like “Deus Ex”, “Dishonored”, “Vampires: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” or “Pathologic 2” infectious diseases and sinister conspiracies appear shoulder to shoulder on the stage. Almost everything is preferable to the incomprehensibility of the disease.

Or as a character from “Pathologic 2” puts it: “You want an easy answer, don’t you? You want a monster you can drive a stake into, or bargain with … That’d be so heroic, wouldn ‘ t it? And so much simpler than the hard work of discovering a cure. “

The monstrous body of the plague

Epidemics test us by calling into question the illusion of an orderly, fair world, depriving us of our sense of control and ultimately pushing us to the limits of human understanding. The same applies to virtual epidemics. Their fascination remains endemic in the digital biosphere of video games, but those who cannot keep their hands off them quickly notice that epidemics can quickly get out of hand, even in this regulated, artificial space. Implemented with great consistency, as in “Pathologic 2”, for example, they threaten the basic principles of game design, even playability itself.

Only when the informal plague is defined by the metaphorical bodies of pest rats, zombies, vampires or ghosts, or we ourselves become agents of the disease, can this danger be contained. Even if you can’t get rid of a monster with excessive hand washing or social distancing, it seems to be preferable to the reality of an epidemic.