Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrrr... there be spoilers ahead!"
Taking a look at classic children's literature, you'll find yourself amidst stories with far more complexity than most adults find comfortable in the hands of a child. Grim fairy tales are, as the name suggests, macabre tales of childhood adventures gone awry and the folklore adaptations on which Disney made a fortune have some dark origins. The Path, developed by Belgium based Tale of Tales, is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that fits nicely into the collection of creepy fairy tales.
For those unfamiliar with The Path, the game follows six young girls (ostensibly sisters, but one could easily interpret them as different single women at six separate stages of adolescence) tasked with going to grandmother's house without straying from the path. Yet, heading straight to grandmother's results in a "failure" notification. To "succeed" in the game, you must escort these young girls into the forest, where they will collect experiences with strange objects and environments and encounter "the wolf." The wolf takes many forms, but the result is always the same: the young girl awakes in the rain, seemingly abused, and walks into a house cluttered with frightening symbols of the girl's suffering.
As the young girls become lost in the woods (and getting lost is easy to do), they interact with objects and make short comments, revealing aspects of their character. To interact with an object, be it a knife, a swing, an outdoor theater, or a boat, you walk up to the object until a silhouette appears, and then you do nothing. As the player, you interact by not interacting. Observed through a narrative lens, the player escorts a young girl to the tools of her destruction and stands aside while the girl forges her own way on a path that will inevitably lead to suffering.
With this non-interaction, Tale of Tales critiques our preconceived notions of what is an "OK" input mechanism, but more importantly, they make the player partially responsible for the fate of these sisters. Part of the terror of this game, aside from the disturbing audio-visuals, is the sense you as the player are intimately involved with whatever grotesques occur in the woods outside grandmother's house.
Naturally, this non-interaction has rubbed some gamers the wrong way. The game asks players to set aside in-game interaction in favor of narrative interaction, to look for meaning in the woods, behind the bizarre imagery and cryptic symbolism. For those accustomed to "interactive stories" in which players interact with the controller more than the story, the task is uncomfortable. Strong themes of womanhood, death, control, and sexual violence make the task no easier. Let it be said, this game is not a "fun" experience in the classical sense.
Yet the story is enticing; the symbolism is apparent and invites a myriad of interpretations. Even now, I am struggling not to spend the entire post rambling about how the age of each girl is an odd number, how the prevalence of red blends together notions of death and menstruation, how the grandmother surrounds herself with memories of suffering out of cowardice, and how the girl in white can stray from the path and becomes a mixture of wisdom, ignorance, and death itself. Such metaphorical adventures are best had in-game and in the Tale of Tales forums.
The creators call The Path an "experimental game." I'm not entirely sure what aspects were experimental, and so it is hard to see where this experimentation game succeeds. However, I can see why this game is particularly derided by some. Its demand for narrative interpretation requires an uncomfortable level of subjectivity, asking players to reflect on meaning found in the game and apply their own experiences and interpretive lenses. I derived a lot of meaning from The Path, but all personal profiles are unique, and others may find this work too dense at no fault of their own.
There are times where it is easy to feel overwhelmed, particularly with the elements that are most "game like." I found it difficult reconciling the game's definition of success, when success meant violent ends for the sisters. Likewise, the 144 meaningless collectible flowers may be more of a critique of videogame conventions than an important narrative element. Yet, these quandaries are secondary to the thematic riddles laced through the game.
There is no denying The Path is obscure. Like a film by David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman, it plays like a very personal creation, a work imbued with intentionally elusive meaning. The Path allows participants to consume and explore the vagaries of a story in which we can only be certain severe abuse occurs. The narrative is boggling, but that's alright. Tale of Tales took a path less traveled and made a game I'm comfortable calling "artistic," even "artsy," although it cannot be universally appreciated.
I believe there is enough room under the videogame umbrella for titles that bend popular notions of failure and ask for greater narrative participation than mechanical participation. Tale of Tales reminds us that we can encounter meaning even when we stray from the path of convention and explore the medium that is more expansive than we often recognize.