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?Continued on the next page...