The Path

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 12 April 2009. Last updated on 11 August 2009.
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The Path
Grandmother's house is the ultimate destination for the girls, even as the forest calls them elsewhere.
The Path
Grandmother's house can look very different depending upon when the girls visit.
The Path
The girls will reveal their own personalities in the way they respond to the changing world around them.
The Path
Staying on the path is a much cheerier experience than delving deep into the forest.
The Path
Little do the girls know what their fate will be if they venture off the beaten path.

The Path is not a typical adventure game—nor a typical game of any genre. It is the intellectual progeny of a duo of avant-garde artists and game designers at Tale of Tales, who have described the game as a horror take on the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Its central purpose does not seem to be catering to an established niche of gamers, but rather an experiment for the benefit of those who do not typically play games. Its main draw is not its graphics, puzzles, or challenges, but the story and experience it attempts to generate.

The Path is a game (loosely speaking) that gradually opens itself up to the player. Initially the player is thrown into the game with no more clues or navigational aids than a warning to "stay on the path", a rule which if followed leads to an entirely unsatisfactory result in which the player is chided to try again. The story is not meant to end that easily, the various protagonist stand-ins for Little Red Riding Hood have to break the rules to experience their tales. Breaking off from the path allows the player to explore the forest which contains a number of objects to interact with, a few significant locations for each character, and a wolf which represents the girl's eventual demise lying in wait. The game does not reward you for playing it safe or avoiding danger. Rather, the only way to advance the game is to seek out the mysteries of the forest until they finish you. You can pick up coin flowers to gain clues on your map to guide you to objects in the forest, and the longer the game is played, the more navigational aids open for your benefit.

The Path is not a game driven by puzzles at all: although the player possesses an inventory, it is used as a record of interactions rather than a means of generating new interactions. The only commands the player is capable of performing are moving between locations and leaving the character that the player controls alone in a location to allow her to interact with objects when figures are shown in the foreground, although unfortunately it can sometimes take a few tries to position a character so that an action can be performed. The only means the player has of affecting the outcome of the game is by discovering interactions in the forest which unlock rooms in the finale taking place at grandmother's house, and of course the inevitable decision of whether or not to stay on the path or search for the "wolf" in the forest.

To best take advantage of its atmosphere, The Path is a game ideally played in the dark on a late night when you feel primed not to experience shocks or horror but to take a step into the unknown. The endless expanse of forest you will explore can be both bright and grim, and the music is haunting and unsettling without ever being obtrusive. The world is often interesting just to watch, the forest changes in lighting and color scheme to produce vibrant or faded tones, and the music adapts its melodies to what is taking place. There are essentially 2 phases to the game: exploring the forest to discover its secrets, and seeing the results of those choices at grandmother's house.

The Path unfolds over a series of chapters: 6 young women are tasked with bringing a basket to grandmother's house, and your goal is to lead them all, not to safety, but to the wolf they must inevitably meet. The girls have their own personalities and react to the various objects in the forest differently, as well as to the sites that mark their own encounters with the wolf or the resting places of any of their fellow sisters. Some objects in the forest can only be interacted with by a particular sister, and any other sister attempting to do so will simply see an image on the foreground of the correct sister. These serve as a clue for where to explore later, but it is very unlikely that the player will find all of such interactions on a first attempt. The climax to each sister's journey is the inevitable meeting with her particular "wolf", which leads to a scene with fairly dark implications about the sorts of consequences a young woman is likely to find wandering in the forest by herself. The meaning of it all seems fairly open to interpretation, and after being "ravaged" by the wolf the poor girl is left to stumble slowly back to grandmother's house and watch the results of her choices played out in the rooms of the house that are unlocked.

There is an air of mystery to The Path in trying to understand all the symbolic events that take place, and there is a general horror feel in the game. You are not just passively watching the story and wishing the girls would stay out of the dangerous areas, you are required to actively push them into trouble. The game delivers best on its potential in the story scenes that conclude each chapter, and the dreamlike journey through grandmother's house as its rooms are gradually opened up, when you begin to appreciate the significance of what you have done and seen.

The greatest weakness of The Path is in the gameplay that ties all these portions together. It is a game that is meant to be played slowly, but unnecessarily so in some respects. When first playing the game, the player has no clues or map with which to figure out the forest and navigation can be taxing on the player's time before yielding its rewards. Compared to the potential size of the forest, the ability of any character to traverse it is limited, it takes a substantial amount of walking to travel between known locations, let alone searching for objects in the forest that remain unmarked on the player's eventual map. Similarly, the final trip back to grandmother's house after meeting the wolf, although it gets shorter with each subsequent chapter, feels overindulgent to me in the extent to which the game is kept moving at an extremely slow pace. There are a number of interesting encounters and interactions to be had in the game world, but I feel that in some respects the method chosen to dole out those encounters made the process of exploration difficult to appreciate even as the game's content encouraged me to dive in further. The content in the game is interesting to unlock and delivers some genuine moments of horror and discomfort, but in the end I feel that the means used to explore the world should have erred more on the side of not restricting me in revealing its content; puzzle solving and storytelling are both more fun than brute force exploration.

Ultimately, The Path may be a game which is more to be appreciated than enjoyed. It leaves you with questions to think about more than it gives you a desire to run through it repeatedly. A good part of the mystique to the game is the unknown—both understanding what the game is trying to say and where it will all end up. Each of the chapters serves as its own self-contained story, of what can go wrong on a trip through the forest. Gamers who are curious about The Path are advised not to go into it expecting a challenging puzzling experience or even a complete horror story that is handed over to them. The Path is best approached with an open mind and a willingness to explore the world it offers and see what you make of it, even as it requires you to venture off the beaten path.

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