REVIEW / The Path (PC)

The Path, the latest work of indie developer duo Tale of Tales, is a game that defies description, mainly because it doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of “game.” Its makers describe it as a short horror game inspired by the older, darker versions of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Its detractors describe it as an extended rape metaphor and its supporters as an interactive poem. These polarized opinions — for whether they love it or hate it, none have walked away from the experience of playing The Path without feeling something — reveal the true nature of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn’s creation. It may be graphically dated and technically flawed, but gameplay isn’t the real star of the show here — it’s the carefully crafted emotional experience so elegantly and effectively elicited from the player. That alone is worth $10.

You start by choosing one of six girls, tasked with delivering a basket of wine and cheese to their ailing grandmother, who inconveniently lives just beyond a sinister stretch of woods. As the paved road ends and the dirt trail begins, you are given your first and last bit of direction: “do not stray from the path.” And it is this one and only commandment you must break in order to truly play the game. You can choose to follow the path, which after a few monotonous minutes leads you to Grandma’s house safe and sound, but you will have failed. The only way to succeed in The Path is to stray from it, into the forest with all its sinister delights and dangers. Some may feel this is just calling a rose by a different name, the way Prince of Persia traded a death animation for magical rescue, though the consequences for the player ultimately remained unchanged. The game’s equation of obedience = failure could be seen as a roundabout way of simply saying don’t obey, but setting it up as a choice changes the player’s perception makes it a meaningful and purposeful decision whose inevitably deadly consequences carry more weight.

Yes, you die. No matter which girl you play as, and you will have to play as each in order to complete the game, your fate is sealed the moment you meet your “wolf.” Each girl has three locations, signified by bright light on the horizon, that they can visit in the forest — a cemetery, a playground, a campsite, a field of wild flowers, etc. — and the wolf is waiting at one of them. There’s only one instance in which the antagonist is of the teeth and claws persuasion, but all are equally deadly. Who you meet and how you die won’t be given away here, not that I could explain it anyway — this game is completely subjective, like a puzzle of a starry sky made out of perfectly square pieces. It gives you some of the basic elements of a story — the characters, the setting, the motivation — and lets you fill in the blanks. Or not. The Path isn’t really interested in explanation so much as it is exploration.

The forest is endless. Travel far enough, and a yellow trail of dots will appear briefly on the screen, showing where you’ve been on the surprisingly small grid, which seems much larger thanks to the constantly changing layout of the forest and location of the objects, not to mention the methodical, sometimes maddening pace. This is a slow game, both figuratively and literally. Walking is slow. Running is slow too, though a little less so, but moves the camera into a disorienting bird’s eye view that results in moving within inches of objects without seeing them, effectively negating your exploration efforts. The creators want you to walk, to take your time absorbing the atmosphere and reflecting on the experience, but as it stands there’s not enough content in the forest to warrant such heavy-handed contemplation. Exploration is only meaningful if rewarded with discovery, and when you do stumble upon an object with which your girl can interact — like an old building facade littered with spent rifle shells — you are granted not just an item to collect for your basket and potential rooms to unlock in Grandmother’s house, but a short line of pop-up text that gives insight into your chosen avatar’s thoughts, feelings and personality. These moments are fascinating, but also frustratingly few. The most prolific objects are the glowing, spinning flowers — 144 of these hint-unlocking “coins” are scattered throughout the forest. In a game where everything is supposedly fraught with deeper meaning, this feels like a cheap attempt to extend gameplay. The Path would have been better off embracing its avant garde sensibilities completely and leaving the collectible coins for the next Sonic game.

Where The Path really excels is in the marriage of art and music, which work together to create a dreamlike atmosphere that’s constantly changing, shifting and moving in unsettling and beautiful ways. The graphics are decent but dated. The character designs are nice, as each girl has her own style of dress and way of moving, but they all seem cut from the same Hot Topic cloth. The animations are good, as each girl seems to have a real weight and fluidity to her movements, but there are times they move through the scenery or seem divorced from it, nearing but not touching the world around them. None of these things on their own really stand out, but when combined with the hauntingly ethereal sound design and the gorgeous grindhouse sketchbook effect the result is breathtaking. Colors wash in and out. Images blur and focus. Chords pitch and whine. It all comes together to create a disturbing and delightful sense of unease, a mood that will stick with you long after the individual images and sounds fade.

As a game, The Path doesn’t really come together, its concepts and conceits never meshing comfortably with its sluggish gameplay and stunted controls. But as a work of art, it’s a modern masterpiece, ready to be experienced and explored by those looking for an adventurous, artistic approach to the medium. It’s certainly not for everyone. Even though I count myself among those who enjoyed it, I can’t say I understand it. But I am glad to have experienced it, for all its faults and foibles. This path, though less traveled, is worth taking.

+ Wonderful marriage of the seen and heard creates an effect that is more than the sum of its parts
+ Deep narrative provides a thought provoking and haunting twist on a classic fairy tale
+ An atmospheric, absorbing world invites exploration

– Some minor technical issues, including clipping, lagging and unresponsive controls
– Slow pace will test some players’ patience
– Laboured themes and mechanics prevent the game realizing its potential