I sing in praise of The Path, a game that realizes - if only in fleeting brilliant flashes - the personal, expressive interactive storytelling experience video games have long aspired to communicate. The Path may not take us all the way to the promised land, but I believe it represents a small milestone in the evolution of an art form that thankfully continues to attract visionaries, naysayers, contrarians, and all manner of headstrong game makers who won't take yes for an answer.
Other contemporary designers like Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow helped open this Pandora's box of so-called "art games," but Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn have been at it even longer, and in The Path, they have given us a game of great personal vision and conviction. I'm aware that some people see such games as a kind of self-important pestilence on gamer culture. But it's worth remembering that while Pandora's curious jar was said to unleash untold evils on mankind, the content it ultimately delivered was hope.
The Path is built around an atmospheric experience, and this experience requires time. The game insists you go slowly, and it requires you to explore the same forest six times as each of six sisters. Each has her own story and personality, ranging from Scarlett, the oldest, saddled with responsibilities due to an absent mother; to Carmen, a teenager exploring her sexuality and aware of her physical allure; to Ruby, the goth girl with a leg brace who sees a world full of judgment and decay; to Ginger, the adolescent tomboy who likes to climb trees and collect sticks. Each personality fuses with the player's imagination to form a way of seeing and being in this world that feels unique, but malleable.
Much of The Path's appeal is expressed through the transgressive natures of these young women. Each time you begin the journey to grandmother's house (The Path is based on the Little Red Riding Hood tale), you receive very clear instructions: "Stay on the path." Dangers lurk in the forest, but so do liberation and self-expression, and the game subtly urges you in.
Once there, you soon realize you've lost all sense of direction, and the path has disappeared completely. A little girl in a white dress can sometimes be found, and she will lead you back to the path if you wish, but she has secrets of her own that you must play the game to discover. Ultimately you're on your own, and what you discover and learn are in your own hands. The pacing of the game encourages, even insists, that you reflect on these small encounters. If you're unwilling to do this, or if the game fails to provoke such reflection, you may find The Path tiresome or repetitive. But if you can jettison the "beat the game" imperative that so often dominates our approach to playing, you may welcome the chance to reflect on and interpret your experience while continuing to linger inside the game world.
As Harvey and Samyn told me at last year's GDC, The Path is designed to be accessible to all players. No time limits, no collection thresholds, no unlocking areas, no bosses to defeat. Almost every activity in the game is optional. If you want to stay on the path and go directly to grandmother's house, you can...although this will result in a "failure," which I interpret to be less about the player's failure to achieve an objective, and more about a young woman failing to satisfy her natural curiosity and test the limits placed on her.
I should mention that The Path is a horror game. Bad things happen in the forest, and grandmother's house is no picnic either. So be warned. It's not graphic horror, which would seem out of tune with the aesthetics of the game. Instead, The Path offers a profoundly psychological and emotional ride that provokes you without silver plattering its meaning. You will piece things together in your own way, and when you complete the game (if you're like me) you will immediately yearn for someone to talk to. If you find yourself in this boat - and if, like me, your wife/husband/significant other won't play the game because it's "too scary" - I recommend the lively discussion over at the Tale of Tales forum. The Gamers With Jobs gang are also discussing it. Of course, you can always post a comment here too. :-)
The Path isn't perfect. It's got cumbersome controls, a sluggish camera, and its otherwise elegant girls often move like tanks. Game developer and blogger Nels Anderson outlines some of his complaints here, and I think they're mostly valid. Gameplay and control issues aside, some will consider The Path too slow, overly obtuse, or even self-indulgent. So it probably isn't a game for everybody.
But if you're patient - and if you're curious to see what a forward-looking video game can do with storytelling and poetry and seductive imagery and representations of gender - and if you're willing to accept the game on its own terms - I believe you will find The Path an innovative and uncompromising experience worthy of your attention, and even your respect.
I'm glad we opened that box.