Adventure Gamers Awards
When I first laid eyes on The Path, I was deeply intrigued by the peculiar gothic art design, and when I discovered what the game is about, I was even more charmed. The premise of the “game” (for lack of a better term, though as you’ll see soon enough, this is anything but) is one of those original, compelling and thought-provoking ideas so rare nowadays in the videogame market, let alone the adventure genre. Six sisters; six characters vaguely similar to the archetypal Little Red Riding Hood; six women that are also six embodiments of different stages of life, sent on a journey to their grandmother’s house, one by one. A clear, very definite path is ahead of them: they can follow it as explicitly instructed, or they can veer off and step inside the dark, menacing woods surrounding it. What will they choose to do? What will you choose to do?
It takes only this brief synopsis to realize how many possibilities are concealed in this premise. And The Path, by putting the choice in the hands of the player – a choice that proves more metaphysical and moral than pragmatic – manages to deal with challenging, delicate themes seldom seen in our favorite pastime: life and death, sex and grief, innocence and impurity. Unfortunately, the actual exploration of these themes is handled surprisingly superficially, though the game tries desperately to be profound and philosophical. In fact, it seems to consciously try so hard to be art that the result can’t help but feel too pretentious for its own good.
When the “adventure” (another term only loosely applying here) begins, players are offered a choice between the six playable sisters, from the nine-year-old Robin to Scarlet, who is nineteen. You can select whichever girl you want, since one doesn’t affect another, and the order doesn’t influence the outcome of the game. Once you’ve chosen your first avatar, you’re given a very clear directive: go to the grandmother’s house and stay on the path. As you’ll soon discover, if you indeed proceed right to the destination, nothing will happen except being told you’ve “failed” and getting kicked back to the character selection screen, with the same girl still eligible. In other words, you don’t really have any choice about exploring the woods, which seems like a blatantly fundamental omission.
Into the foreboding forest you must go, then, where the atmosphere becomes eerie and menacing. The graphics, one of The Path’s strongest points, stop being sunny and bright to become a misty, darkened, Burton-esque nightmare of long shadows and ghastly azure lights, while the sound effects and musical score begin to sport an unsettling, dissonant and cacophonic quality. Each girl has a distinctive look which adds greatly to the modern Gothic atmosphere, and the art direction – which often relies on flourished overlay graphical effects, like spirals and circles – is creative and further emphasizes the disturbing mood. The Path is labelled a “short horror game” and there are moments when walking alone in the forest, the loud beating of a heart the only audible sound, is indeed an unsettling experience. And in this distorted, gloomy environment, every encounter, like a little girl dressed in white dancing around the trees, stands out like a frightening apparition. The developers captured this tense atmosphere of latent peril well and succeeded in making The Path a formidable harrowing experience of sight and sound.
Exploration is obviously a key element of the game, and it is done using the keyboard (the classic WASD setup), a gamepad (reportedly, though I didn't try this myself) or a mouse, where the left button serves to walk and the right to run. When near to an interactive hotspot, like a swing in a deserted playground or a lonely bench in a dusky glade, you simply have to pause and wait: the girl will automatically do some sort of scripted action, depending mostly on who she is. For example, Robin will hop on the swing but will be reluctant to sit still on the bench, while the more mature Carmen can even enjoy a beer around a campfire. After a good deal of wandering, you’ll eventually stumble upon a wolf. This should come as no surprise, since the game is inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, but don’t expect a classical, four-paws-and-fur wolf. Here, the wolf symbolizes a peril: a moral hazard, loss of innocence and so on; more often than not a metaphor for unavoidable death.
Death is really the core element of The Path. From a tenebrous cemetery to an eerie stream, from the abandoned playground to a secluded field inhabited only by a scarecrow, every location and every symbol used in the game speaks of this unfathomable demise. If you are less interested than me in plot/character development and writing (two points I’ll touch on soon), chances are that you will find yourself intrigued by the game’s daring attempt to address such a delicate subject, because the theme is treated here in a very ethereal way, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. For example, once you’ve encountered each girl’s wolf, the character you’re controlling will be transported, after a fade to black that leaves your imagination to fill in the blanks about the traumatic experience that transpired, in front of grandma’s house: the graphic style of this segment, almost black-and-white and filtered by a rain-like effect, reminded me of the languishing atmosphere of the movie. At this point, the girl will be incapable of running and, at an excruciatingly slow pace, she will have to enter the house and then, plainly and simply, she will die. This is not a spoiler, since the developers publicly stated so before the game released. What I won’t give away are the particular ways in which each girl sheds her mortal coil, which you’ll be showed through brief, often confusing flashes right before the game reloads and shows the achieved… score?
The final score is easily one of the most surprising contradictions of the game: from such an obvious “journey means more than the destination” experience like The Path, I was expecting anything but an old-fashioned Sierra-like point indicator. I don’t know if this choice was motivated by a tempting appeal to casual gamers or if it is intended as a satirical jab at more conventional games, but whatever the reason, this addition feels utterly unnecessary and completely out-of-place in this particular game. This last screen will tell you how many flowers you have collected (there are 144 of them in total, and I found the whole task so pointless that I don’t know what happens, if anything, when you collect all of them), how many objects you have found, and how many secret rooms you have discovered. These objects – ranging from a can of beer to a teddy bear – are very well hidden, and once discovered are simply stored away so that you can’t use them to interact with the environment, making their addition rather useless. The secret rooms are more interesting: based on your wolf encounter – at least, I think, since the game isn’t very clear on what triggers these rooms – you will have access to a different area of grandma’s house. Disappointedly, the difference between these rooms is only aesthetic, and after my first few playthroughs, I stop feeling the urge to try unlocking them.
As a “game”, that’s really all there is to The Path. Whether that’s enough for anyone will depend on what you seek in a game. Personally, even deep and thought-provoking themes are not enough, since I also desire an engaging plot development and clever, imaginative writing. Unfortunately, The Path fails to provide these things. At first I was intrigued by the thoughts of my character, displayed on screen in a lopsided, childish handwriting, and I had high hopes that each girl would start to display a personality with which I could bond, thus discovering something interesting about my own reactions to the situations presented. I was wrong. These thoughts soon become such repetitive rants with all their flourish and rhetoric (“People die. It's hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.” , says the nine-year-old) that it seemed like I was watching an “Edward Scissorhands meets Twilight” spoof, leaving the six sisters with no real character, no real substance, and ultimately feeling to me like uninteresting puppets on lonely strings. The player is meant to be disturbed by apprehension of their impending fates, but I ended up being so bothered by their dull presence that I had to stifle the urge to find their wolves in the quickiest possible way.
The whole process (repeated six times with just minimal variation according to the girl you choose) is so seemingly confident in its artistic value that, by the time I reached the fourth sister, I was really tired of this fulsome conceit. I dutifully followed the developer's directions (the ones they actually mean players to follow) by taking my time to explore slowly and thoroughly, not rushing to the end but rather losing myself in the woods like my on-screen avatar. I really tried to immerse myself in the experience as intended. The problem is, I couldn’t, and while I certainly applaud the experimentation, the whole experience struck me as not only contrived, but also detached. It’s contrived because it deals with its important themes by telegraphing them with banal and uninspired symbols (the playground stands for ruined childhood and loss of innocence, a broken TV represents the black-and-white nostalgia of things lost, and a ruined cemetery – guess what? – symbolizes death) and even more ostentatious writing. The Path feels detached, too, because the developers made six “playable” characters, but chose not to imbue them with any spark of personality. They were clearly intended to represent six different ages – better yet, six different embodiments of the same human being through different ages, from childhood to maturity – but the differences are buried beneath so much ill-conceived rambling that disconnected me from the on-screen experience. In a nutshell, I couldn’t care less for them, which all but removed any sense of dread or horror I would otherwise have felt on their behalf.
In the end (not that it has a pre-defined end), even taking The Path on its own merits as an artistic experience more than a game, I felt neither emotionally challenged nor enlightened on any of the themes I was so eager to explore. I was mainly just bored and finally decided to make the only real choice in The Path: I quit playing. Given my personal experience, it is hard for me to recommend it overall, but one thing is certain: there is nothing else currently like it. Whatever its failings, it’s bold, it’s ambitious, and absolutely unique. That alone may warrant a look from those who are tired of the same gaming formulas and interested in a fresh new approach. For those people, the game can be downloaded for a very reasonable $9.99 from the official website. For anyone expecting a traditional adventure in any sense of the word, however, you definitely won’t find it along The Path, and even for those prepared for an all-new experience, you may just find it falls short of both the horror and profundity it means for you to find.