I’d like to begin this review with a response directed at the kind individual who read my “Quarantined in Taiwan” piece and took the time to email me about the disrespect for the dead I was displaying by playing the 2018 video game VAMPYR. To give some context for those who haven’t read that piece, VAMPYR’s main protagonist is a vampire doctor who has made it his mission to find a cure for the Spanish Flu. According to the email I received, by deriving entertainment from this game, I was making light of the tragedy suffered by those who experienced that pandemic a century ago, and perhaps also showing contempt towards those who are dying now from the coronavirus.
At the time, I was unsure of how to reply, or if I should reply at all. I am sorry, if you are reading this, for letting your email sit there for months. I think I now can address your concerns by reviewing another video game I’ve been playing these past few months that also depicts a deadly disease, a plague, if not a pandemic.
“The Marble Nest,” developed by Russian indie studio Ice Pick Lodge, is a game about struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. You play as Daniil Dankovsky, a human doctor working to contain the spread of the Sand Plague, a seemingly supernatural plague of immense lethality and unknown origin. Having safely quarantined one-third of the Town-on-Gorkhon, a rural town in a place resembling the Eurasian steppes, Dankovsky receives a prophetic dream warning him of a carrier lurking, waiting to spread the plague to the survivors. The game takes about two hours to complete, if you don’t die from starvation or disease halfway through.
What can plague media teach us today? I was told that to play a game about a plague is offensive, considering how many have died from real-life pandemics. My immediate response was to wonder what the author of that email thought of, say, “Schindler’s List” or “The Boy with Striped Pajamas.” Were the creators of those works of media laughing at the very real plight victims of the Holocaust went through? I thought we all had a consensus that it is good and indeed, healthy, for tragedies of such global scale to enter the popular consciousness, and from there, into popular media. That means that we are not forgetting them, that we are continuing to reckon with their present-day impact and considering their causes so that history will not repeat itself.
There is a theory that we have nightmares because our brain is attempting to prepare us for frightening events to come. When we are chased by monsters in our dreams, we become psychically prepared to deal with real-life threats, like saber-toothed tigers or finals week. Video games, and fiction as a whole, perhaps play the same role as dreams, by fortifying our psychological resilience. In that case, “The Marble Nest” does a fantastic job of “preparing” its players, by portraying a situation highly similar to our 2020 pandemic despite having been released two years prior.
It can be best described as “survival horror,” and has the genre’s highly immersive aspects. Playing as Daniil Dankovsky, an ordinary human with an extraordinary task, you must reckon with his dwindling immunity, accelerating infection, growing hunger, and limited stamina.
There are no supernatural creatures waiting to jumpscare you, but the Plague taunts Dankovsky directly, clouds of infection harry him through the streets, and the mummy-like, bandage-bound infected chase him down with outstretched arms begging for the salvation or succor he cannot give the already-damned. It is a harrowing experience, and it hammers in the frailty and fragility of human life in the face of a force of nature.
Aside from the physical dangers surrounding Dankovsky, the player is also confronted with the hell that is other people. The local authority in the Town-on-Gorkhon dismantles his protective measures, dismissing the orderlies from their duties to maintain public health and (spoiler alert) deliberately allowing in and harboring a carrier of the deadly plague. People eager to return to freedom and normalcy walk in the streets, openly defying the orders to stay inside and quarantine. Armed soldiers keep vital medicine locked away from the dying patients who need it. The odds are stacked against Dankovsky’s quest to save the last of the Town, and the player finds that there is no way to win. Not in the traditional sense.
If “The Marble Nest” is about any one thing, it is about death, and how we should respond to it. There are four endings, and in none of them does Dankovsky successfully protect those in his care from infection. Even if the player finds the carrier immediately, it is no use. The Town-on-Gorkhon is doomed. And yet, there is such tenderness and humanity to be found. A soldier begs Dankovsky to sign a letter affirming that he shot no one in the struggle to maintain quarantine, so that his mother would then not think her son a killer. Dankovsky himself, who affects a rational and decisive persona, talks of his hopes to hand-feed recovering patients broth and oats (instead of closing their eyes and clasping his fingers together to pray for the dead). He remembers his duty as a doctor, he honors the trust people put into him as a medical professional until the very end. “The Marble Nest” is not about whether we can save people or not, but the worth of trying to save these stupid, compassionate, short-sighted, beautiful humans regardless, and how that effort defines and shapes us.
Thinking back to that fateful email, I wonder if my correspondent was not offended because I consumed a work of fiction about a plague — rather, he was disturbed by the fact that I was playing a game. It is true that games have a reputation of being mindless, even frivolous, entertainment. I, too, would be deeply insulted if someone took the Chinese Exclusion Act or, indeed, today’s pandemic and gamified it into an app like Candy Crush or Angry Birds. I believe that any work which aims to address death, especially how it affects those left behind to grieve and those tasked to confront and fight it, should do so with respect and depth.
Furthermore, video games can convey important messages on serious topics in ways specific and unique. This medium, unlike movies or books or music, allows its audience to truly interact with the world and characters presented. Books are said to raise questions. Video games want you to answer them. Choice, reactivity, and effort —these are elements of video games that other mediums have trouble replicating.
Choice. Many games have at least some elements of choice, like karma meters that measure the morality of your player character, which then determine the ending you receive at the end of the game. “The Marble Nest” has no such thing; the ending you receive (except for the fourth “bad” ending you receive by dying too soon) is ultimately decided by a dialogue choice. Does that mean that the rest of your choices do not matter? Hardly. There is limited time; the timer is relentless, and the Town keeps changing —at noon the shop closes (unless you open it first), at night the plague hits, and after nine Dankovsky’s funeral bells ring. On your first (ideally blind) playthrough, it is impossible to find every event and keep Dankovsky alive. You will have to decide whether it is worth it to give up valuable medical supplies for the sake of a man who wants to die, or whether getting the orderlies back to work takes priority over heeding the imperious Judge’s orders. Every move carries an opportunity cost. This game captures desperation. I personally have had to replay “The Marble Nest” nine times to get every dialogue and hidden event and item, and I still wonder if I’ve missed something.
Reactivity. Although most of the choices you make do not ultimately determine your ending, your choices reveal characters’ intentions, the secrets of the game world, and your own values as a player (or the way you interpret Dankovsky? More on that later). There are several important branches which can change the tone of your ending greatly. By setting up a hospital in Dankovsky’s home, you can receive a sweet dialogue with a man who thanks Dankovsky for his generosity and kind spirit before your end. Or, by confining the sick to the Cathedral, you endanger them, as arsonists plot to burn the building and the infected within.
Effort. It takes effort to be Daniil Dankovsky — you have to manage his ailing body, his limited time, his endless obligations. And Dankovsky is such an odd player character. He isn’t a blank slate for the player to project onto; he has a past, he has a personality, and he has a very distinct wardrobe. At the same time, so much of him, from his religious affiliation to his opinion on whether exposing thousands of innocents to the Plague is justified so that the strength of the Town can be tested, is up to you. The work that goes into keeping Dankovsky alive, and the decision-making you as the player engage in to determine who he really is, makes “The Marble Nest” especially immersive, and reaching the ending so much more satisfying.
It comes to mind that I’ve barely talked about the actual gameplay. For me, the primary strength of “The Marble Nest” is its storytelling —but every gameplay decision the developers made adds to the story they are telling. The first-person perspective helps immerse you in your role. The mindmap through which “quests” are linked to each other and updated in a sort of “web” gives the sense of frantic planning, a desperate man trying to draw connections between the inexplicable with the last day he has to do so. The grid-based inventory forces you to make difficult choices about what to carry, and how much.
Dear kind correspondent, I hope this review has convinced you that some games are quite worthwhile, and deal with the subject of plagues and pandemics honestly, realistically, and respectfully. If there is any video game that I can hold as an example of the medium’s brilliant artistic potential, it would be the game that inspired half of my Yale application essay responses and my decision to learn Russian: “The Marble Nest.”
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org