I just recently played The Path by indie developer Tale of Tales. I had to play it for my media studies class. I don’t think a video game has ever evoked as many emotions in me as this game.
Let me start this by saying that I don’t even know if The Path should be considered a game. In fact, the developers often call it an “anti-game.” It is more of an interactive art piece, which is why I won’t be attaching a score to this review. However, it does have a few game-y elements, like collectibles and a map and goals. Nevertheless, this game is not for everyone. But if you open your mind, and let this game take you away, you will likely find it very rewarding.
The Path has you playing as six different girls, each representing a different stage of a girl’s life between 9-19. (The developers talked about this and other aspects of the game in a post-mortem essay here) It is basically a retelling of the old fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. You start on the path, and text appearing on screen tells you to go to your grandmother’s house, and stay on the path. So, that’s what I did the first time. However, staying on the path actually results in a failure, and you are forced to start over. I was so confused. Years of playing video games has taught me to always obey instructions. Am I supposed to deliberately disobey? So during my second attempt, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a girl in a white dress running in the woods. I went off the path and followed her. The colors began fading and everything turned greyscale. The atmosphere is incredibly dim and foreboding.
I followed the girl into a graveyard, where my character made some morbid remarks. You can interact with certain objects to add memories to your basket (inventory), such as the skull that my character buried in the ground.
With no onscreen instructions and no map, I was left to wander aimlessly through the forest. I tried to get back to the path, but to my horror, I discovered that once you leave the path, it is impossible to get back. If you just keep walking, you will eventually loop around again, which I could see from the map of your trail which flashes on screen every 100 meters.
Every girl has her “wolf,” which apparently is supposed to be like each of one of the developer’s ex-boyfriends. They are archetypes for men. One is a lumberjack who spends all day chopping at trees and drinking beer. Another is the “cool guy” who is smooth and wears a leather jacket. These aren’t your typical “wolves” and took me by surprise. I didn’t know they were the wolves until I completed the first chapter and it said “Wolf encountered: yes!” Wolf? I don’t remember seeing a wolf…was the wolf…WATCHING ME?
These wolves are pretty much ordinary people on the surface (except for the werewolf) but your character often talks about the romance or fascination with giving in and submitting. A sort of perverse enjoyment out of not being in control.
And to relate this to the actual mechanics of the game, you don’t have much control as a player. You can walk, run, or interact with objects, but you don’t decide how your character interacts with the objects—she does. And maybe you wanted to be a good girl and just stay on the path, but you’re penalized for it. You are essentially forced to get yourself lost. Never before have I played a video game where I was actually encouraged to get lost—and never have I been more enticed by it.
After you meet your wolf, you black out, and wake up lying in front of your grandmother’s house in the rain. You walk very slowly, almost in a trance, into the house, where you go on an on-rails, first-person journey through it. This is definitely the weirdest part of the game, and I can barely begin to interpret it. And it is up to you to interpret what happened during the blackout. I have heard people say that you were raped, but I don’t think that’s what the designers intended. I think it is your character coming to a sudden realization, perhaps the loss of her innocence, snatched away by her wolf. When she goes into grandmother’s house, everything is chaos, and not the way it used to be. I have heard that you are murdered in the house, but really it’s open to interpretation.
That’s what I love about games like this. You are completely free to interpret them in the way you want to. That’s what makes this game art—it evokes different responses, and means something different, to each individual. The soundtrack, the art design, all contribute to making The Path a truly beautiful game.
My only complaint might be that this game is far too slow. I understand that it is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of game, where you are supposed to take in all the sights and explore everything, but the walking speed is much slower than it needs to be, and frustrated me. You can run, but I stopped running early on because I realized that it actually makes things worse. The camera lifts up and gives an overhead view, with your character at the top of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you, and it gets much darker on top of that. Also, the coin flowers that you are supposed to collect (there are 144 of them, for symbolic reasons that won’t really make sense unless you read the developer’s blog) disappear when you begin running. So the game basically encourages you to walk the whole time. I’d rather you be able to run, without the negative side-effects.
This game divided people into two camps: the more hardcore gamers who criticized it for not even really being a game, and the more casual ones who loved everything about it. But what’s important is that more games like this need to be made, or the video game industry will never evolve. We have enough Call of Duty’s; we need more games like this that push intellectual boundaries and actually stimulate us, the way literature and cinema have for decades. This is as “art game” as it gets, and I loved it. If you open your mind and give it a chance, I think you will too.