The Path Review

Lewis heads down The Path.

Review by Lewis Denby
Published 2nd April 2009

The Path

  • Developer: Tale of Tales
  • Publisher: Tale of Tales
  • Release Date: 18th March 2009

If you’re familiar with Belgium-based art-couple Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, known in their games developer guise as Tale of Tales, you’ll have an idea of the sort of thing to expect from The Path. These are the people who made The Graveyard, a five-minute interactive short about life and death, a quick vignette of the troubles of the elderly. The Path is more of a game than The Graveyard, even though the two share many unusual characteristics. But it’s still not really a game in any usual sense of the word, which makes it difficult to judge. It’s broken, buggy, and not in any way “fun”. But to analyse it purely on such a basis seems to be missing the point. It’s a work of art, certainly, but whether it’s good art is another difficult question to answer, because… oh, it’s all very bizarre and confusing. Let’s try to formulate this abstract into something more concrete.

In The Path, you guide a total of six girls, ages ranging from nine to nineteen, through the woods towards their grandmother’s house. It’s a Little Red Riding Hood interpretation, supposedly harking back to the original themes of the cautionary tale, and the Tale of Tales spin is particularly interesting. If you arrive safely at grandmother’s house, you fail. If you perish at the hands of a “wolf”, lurking somewhere in the forest, you succeed. These wolves differ from character to character – from actual wolves, to people, to spectral beings – and relate in some way to the individual girl’s life. The cynical teenage goth meets a young man dressed in black, who offers her a cigarette. Tomboy Ginger meets another like-minded little girl, content to play in the mud with her all day. When you meet these characters, a short cut-scene plays, then the screen fades to black, time skips forward, and you find yourself lying in the rain in front of grandmother’s house, drained and soulless.

These aren’t really spoilers, since nothing specific happens to spoil. Any events are left solely to your imagination, and the most interesting thing about The Path is what stories people are going to conjure up. Already the relevant circles of the internet are awash with speculation: do the girls lose their innocence somehow? Do they get raped and murdered? Isn’t that a bit twisted? The truth of the matter is, there aren’t going to be any definitive answers, and how people interpret the events of the game could well say a lot about how our minds work, and how society is shaping our thoughts.

That’s not to say there aren’t any allusions. The Path is awash with visual symbolism - from burnt-out cars, to bodies wrapped in carpet, to suspicious glances and devilish smiles. It’s often uncomfortable and disturbing, if only for painting such a bleak picture: in one way or another, something “kills” these girls. Whether that’s in the literal sense or not, it’s hardly an optimistic portrayal of growing up.

But there’s a sense of joy hidden away here as well. Whether it’s nine-year-old Robin’s poetically naïve description of death, or Ginger’s obvious thrill at having found a playmate, there’s regularly something genuinely uplifting to discover, providing you’re ready to spot it. Even in their deaths, there’s a feeling that these girls have achieved something: they’ve broken away from expectations and acted on their own impulse; not based on the restrictions of orderly life. And if there’s one thing that The Path does irrefutably well, it’s portraying such vivid, identifiable and comprehensive characters, despite containing no dialogue whatsoever. Pick any one of the girls and try to spot something of your own youth in them. I bet most people can.

This is the crux of The Path’s appeal. It’s all about capturing your imagination and letting that do most of the work. This might come across as laziness on the developers’ part, but it’s a very deliberate design choice in itself. Gameplay is simplified to the point where, well, there just isn’t any. Nothing enormously noteworthy, at least. You walk the girls around this world, and let go of the controls when you want them to interact with something. What is interesting is the system that comes into play during these moments: a proprietary method known as Drama Princess, which contextually randomises the girls’ reactions to the environment. If there’s something to collect, it’s the AI that does so, not the player. If there’s a swing to sit on, same thing. If there’s a wolf to meet… the same thing in principle, though you have to be pretty persistent. These characters won’t seek you out: you have to make an active decision to interact, even though all that’s ultimately required is taking your finger off the mouse button.

The real problem here isn’t the lack of control, but the lack of variety in the girls’ reactions. After a couple of plays, you’ll have exhausted all there is to see of them. It seems like such a wasted opportunity, one that could have really increased the weight and poignancy of the characters’ responses. Instead, it undermines the whole experience. After you realise there’s not a lot of depth on offer, this behaviour starts to feel particularly artificial. Where before you were thinking about your chosen avatar as a person – because, initially, the girls portrayed so well – now she’s just that: an avatar, a collection of polygons on a computer screen. And why does it matter that she dies? What more reason is there to care?

Movement is very interesting. It assumes a lot of the player’s patience. Walking is painfully slow, and running, while fast, swings the camera into an unhelpful overhead view, sends the screen blurry, and generally disorientates you. Your final walk to grandmother’s house after meeting the wolf is a limping, excruciating shuffle, where moving twenty metres takes a good few minutes to achieve. Once inside the house – a creeping, psychedelic nightmare based on your character’s travels – the only thing you can do is move forward. If you don’t press anything, the screen fades out; whatever you do press, it only makes your character take another step into the foreboding beyond. It all defies everything we’ve come to expect from videogame controls, and makes a rather large statement in doing so. Some aren’t going to like this direction, but it certainly raises some interesting questions.

If nothing more, all The Path’s elements combine to create a very distinctive atmosphere: a bleak, somewhat otherworldly feel, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s animated films, with a seductively dark dashing of David Lynch artistry. The aesthetic display in particular is exquisite: colours shift from vivid to sepia, film grain washes in and out, and patterned overlays creep around the edge of the screen. The Quest3D engine is fairly lightweight, but the art direction makes it look remarkable. When the deliciously creepy soundtrack, composed by former Swans member Jarboe, begins to compose itself from a number of abstract sound files, the ambiance skyrockets. Less impressive are the irritating clipping issues and the strangely clunky performance on even newer machines, but the unique stylisation is nevertheless thoroughly refreshing.

It’s all just fascinating. And at the same time, really difficult to judge. Do I like The Path? Yes, definitely. Would I recommend it? If you’re interested in philosophical thinking, or new directions the medium could take, then yes, especially given its low price tag. Is it a good game? Strictly speaking, no, but it’d surprise me if making a “good game” was at the forefront of the developers’ minds. What’s more recognisably disappointing is that, as a work of art, it often feels strangely undeveloped. It’s the ambiguity that does most of the talking, but as the credibility of its cast descends, The Path does too. The result is a product that falls somewhat short of the mark as both a game and a work of art – but, hey, the fact that it strives so hard to do something meaningful in the videogame underworld is commendable indeed. And whatever its failures, it’s still something I could happily write about for another thousand words, and all over every relevant forum on the internet. That’s an urge very few games manage to evoke in me. If nothing else, The Path is commendable for providing one of the most interesting videogame talking points in recent memory.

Review Score: 6.4/10

Please note, this review was scored using our old system. For more information please see our review policy.

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