The Path

Year: 2009
Platform: Windows/Macintosh
Developer: Tale Of Tales
Genre: Horror
Review Date: 8/1/09
Rating: ***

There is one rule in the game. And it needs to be broken.
There is one goal. And when you attain it, you die.

A stunning and brilliantly crafted psychological horror game about growing up that will make your brain hurt. Much like "Silent Hill 2", "D2", and "Rule Of Rose", "The Path" is vague and morally ambiguous, forcing players to come up with their own conclusions and interpretations of what the game is about. As with any interpretive work, those conclusions will be as unique and varied as the players are. Students of symbolism will be thrilled by the iconic imagery in the game and its multiple layers of meaning. It's a beautiful and haunting experimental work that will stay with you long after you've finished playing. (unfortunately, the repetitive music will also stay with you long after you've finished playing...)

"The Path" is basically an adult oriented retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood" that tackles some heavy issues concerning the rites of passage for young girls into womanhood. It's not so much a game as it is an experience, and "The Path" makes excellent use of gaming technology to tell an interactive and evolving narrative that the player unfolds through careful observation and exploration. You start the game with six sisters ranging in age from 9 to 19 years old, each of which has to make it to Grandmother's house with a basket of goodies. But wolves lurk in the woods, so it's imperative to stay on the path and not stray. And herein lies the first mental challenge of the game - do you play it safe and go straight to Grandma's house like you're told, or do you taste the temptations that the forest has to offer? The instant you start playing the game, it becomes a metaphor for life, and the only way to gain knowledge and experience is to challenge authority and not do what you're told. Staying on the path gets you safely to Grandma's house, where you're rewarded with a failure message. Failure at what? This is also up to the player to figure out.

Each girl has her own personal wolf that she may encounter if she decides to leave the path and explore the wonders and secrets of the forest. Wolves can take many forms, and their effect on the girls is subjective. Each girl is ravaged in some way by her wolf, but whether it's physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual is purposely vague. The only certainty is that the encounter is traumatic, destroying the innocence of childhood and ushering in the confusion and disillusionment of womanhood. This may represent puberty, sexual maturation, loss of virginity, lust, rape, or simply the learned response of fear in the face of danger. Effectively, each girl must explore the forest until she learns her lesson, which represents her coming of age and transition to adulthood. Or maybe their deaths are literal instead of symbolic, turning the game into a macabre murder mystery. It's definitely not clear. It's pretty heady stuff, and the nightmare imagery at the end of each chapter is mind-boggling and difficult to grasp. (very reminiscent of the hellish imagery in the "Silent Hill" series)

As far as gameplay is concerned, the game is incredibly simple to play. All you do is walk around and interact with things that catch your attention. The whole point of the game is to get lost, and once you're off the path, you can't return without help. The forest loops infinitely and its layout isn't consistent, so it's extremely difficult to know where you are, where you've been, and where you need to go. This is by far the most frustrating aspect of the game. Certain items can only be interacted with by certain characters, and trying to find those items again with the appropriate characters can be infuriating. It's not a game you can play with an analytical task-based mindset, so you have to just let everything happen in an organic and serendipitous manner. Just like in real life, there are certain things that you may never find or not even be aware of (until it's too late).

The majority of the game plays out in a third person perspective, but the control scheme changes based on camera orientation. Actually, it's not the controls that change, but the forced perspective change from chase camera to fixed camera can cause a lot of confusion. The controls can get a little wonky sometimes and trap you within the scenery, and there are lots of clipping and collision issues with the forest flora. But the game isn't about technical prowess, it's about creating an atmosphere and a mood, and it does this quite effectively. The game can be fine-tuned to give you the best possible performance, but it still requires a lot of RAM and a decent video card to play. The UI is simple and elegant, and the visual cues are subtle, but effective. Much like the rest of the game, you also have to interpret the meaning and significance of those cues. Basically, you learn how to play the game by playing the game - yet another metaphor for life.

The use of sound is very good, although the unsettling random sound effects in the forest don't seem to represent anything (other than promote the fear of being followed, perhaps). The music is eerie and haunting, changing with the environment the deeper into the forest you go. The simple use of certain chords and rhythms instinctively alerts you to the presence of danger, which is very handy. It's so subtle, and yet so effective. Fascinating stuff. The only complaint I have about the music is that it can be very repetitive, so if you play for ten hours straight, you'll have a girls choir ringing in your head for the next couple of days. Another niggle about the game is that sometimes the dialog is impossible to read because it disappears into the background. This causes you to miss vital clues about the girls' personalities and histories. And finally, the pacing of the game is very slow and deliberately so. Do not expect to rush through the game or you'll only get angry. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to experience it at a leisurely and contemplative pace. It's not a race, nor are there any puzzles, boss monsters, or tricky maneuvers to pull off. It's simply a forest to get lost in, and the more time you spend being lost, the more experience you'll get out of it.

Despite its minor shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Path" and the profound effect it had on me. It's a welcome breath of fresh air in an increasingly stagnant and creatively crippled industry. "The Path" takes risks, just like the characters in the game. It's an art game - beautiful, deep, lyrical, insightful, mature, thought provoking, mentally challenging, experimental, and almost completely unconventional. As a result, it also has no perceived commercial value, since no sane publisher would ever take a chance with it. It's a hard game to recommend to just anyone, but if you like games that are emotionally and intellectually stimulating, by all means, check it out. If you have an open mind and a sense of wonder, it's definitely a journey worth taking.