Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: The Path Less Traveled

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.


  1. Personally, I don't think The Path is obscure. I think it's as clear as it can possibly be. But its subject matter is complex, making it impossible to give straight answers.

    Michael Samyn.

  2. @ Michael

    Maybe that's the difficulty with tackling complex subject matter, because though the themes were clear, the symbols and actions that took place were not easy to reconcile with a simple story about a girl on the way to her grandmother's. Which is actually why I commend the game's more personal touch.

  3. So I finally got around to playing this game. So far, I've only taken one girl through the woods and off to grandma's house. I think this game is definitely an interesting experiment. I would only recommend it to a select group of people though, because as you said, it isn't really the traditional kind of "fun" you expect from a video game.

    I'm always very interested in how control schemes add to the emotionality of a game. I'm glad you brought up that you get the characters to do things by letting go of the controls. I think this is a wonderful metaphor for the central theme of the game, which is about these young girls going off "the path" that they are expected to take and finding things out for themselves in the dangerous real world. As if you were a parent, you have to give up your own sense of control over these girls in order for them to be able to make mistakes and develop on their own. Giving up that control can be scary for a parent, and it adds to the tension in this game where you don't know if its a mistake for your girl to go into the woods or not, but the only way for you to find out is to let her do it without you.

    Tale of Tales are doing a good job at chipping away at what we traditionally think of as videogames and providing some unique virtual art installations instead. I find their software interesting for the heavy themes of death and autonomy that they can deal with and the way they toy with gaming convention. Unfortunately, they are only fascinating and not something I really WANT to spend hours on like a traditional game, but I'm happy to see somebody really taking chances with the medium because I think they will come up with original concepts that make a unique contribution to the developing world of gaming.