The Path
Reviewed by Rebecca Wigandt
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-19 PC Adventure RP (Rating Pending) Tale of Tales / Valve

Most of the time, I envy my friends' dreams - wonderfully weird (eating a sneaker with a knife and fork), impressively banal (vacuuming the floor and then sitting on a sofa for hours), painfully obvious (seeing a love interest on dream-television while washing dream-panties in a big white basin with your mother's name written on it), or the sort of utterly pointless nonsense that usually starts conversations about dreams in the first place ("Becky, you totally showed up at my house in this dream, right? And you were wearing those jeans, only they were red, not black, okay, and you said we had to find the five nachos of St. Petersburg for Jesus Christ by Super Bowl Sunday").

I usually don't remember my dreams. When I do, the reactions of the people I tell range from worried furrowing of the brows to sympathetic hugs or grimaces of gut-twisting discomfort. I can count the dreams that were pleasant and at all coherent on one hand; as a general rule they involve big angry mobs, vicious animals, imagined months or years in a silent isolating room of a prison or asylum, giving birth to terrible creatures of some kind, or things coming out of or going into my body in all sorts of unpleasant ways.

Still, none of them were, as far as occupying real estate in my brain goes, a complete waste of time. I had a dream about two summers ago - time, if not the experience, distorts - where I sat in an upstairs dining room of an enormous plantation house in Louisiana, at a table with two brothers, whose sibling I was the youngest (I am in reality neither wealthy, nor reside in Louisiana, nor have siblings). I remember the feel of courtyard grass under bare feet, the taste of lemonade and mint juleps, and an imaginary big brother hoisting me off the ground to squeeze me, his little sister, home from the big city for the summer. I remember my two eldest dream-brothers arguing over the death of the absent third, who had stuffed a handful of Civil War coins in the barrel of a shotgun and blown his brains out a year ago at that very table over disputes long-buried in family memory. I sat across the table from screaming young men who didn't really exist, repeatedly poking with my bare toe at one of those darkened coins that had embedded itself in that centuries old wooden floor. It feels real to remember, though, and it reminds me of the vast unseen continents inside us.

Feeling slightly depressed and ethereal now? Hooray! Let's talk about The Path by Tale of Tales, then. If you haven't heard of Tale of Tales, don't feel too bad, or feel suspicious that I'm cramming some old college roommate's pet project down your throat for consideration. ToT has heretofore occupied a small but growing niche - art games - that tends to have its largest following among those who are themselves visual artists, non-gamers more interested in seeing a showcasing of mixed media online, and so on. ToT - which consists of the Belgian duo Aurea Harvey and Michael Samyn - are also Entropy8Zuper, a Belgium-based art studio that has produced all sorts of wonderfully surreal, absurdist, dark, and just plain unique postmodern stuff in online and electronic art. The reason I'm telling you all of this isn't just to show off how well I research my subjects (actually, I'd seen E8Z's presentation in California by pure chance some time ago), but to reveal my motives in reporting on The Path- this is a title that demands a broader audience.

The Path continues ToT's tradition of interactive storytelling- that is, there's a beautifully detailed world, sometimes big, sometimes small, and your entire job is to see all the relevant parts of it and receive the fullness of the story ToT is trying to tell. As with previous outings, The Path is an adaptation of a classic fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood. In this telling, six sisters, aged 9 to 19, live in a decrepit housing project with their absentee mother adjacent to a vast and forbidding forest. A paved road leads to the footpath leading through the center of the forest to grandmother's house. As with the classic story, Robin (or any of her five older sisters) is sent off with a basket for her sick grandmother and dispatched on her mission.

For the most part, that's where the resemblance ends- at least, as far as the plot. Playing The Path made me want to dig up my copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves and Estes' various other treatises from my old women's studies classes and my wince-inducing neo-pagan phase, because it mines the same ancient, primordial literary symbols as its literary progenitor. If you read the same versions of the old Grimm's tales as I did, you know that there are a lot of ways to tell Little Red Riding Hood, and a lot of them aren't pretty- most of them filled with barely-subtle symbols of menarche, rape, rebellion, and identity crisis. Not being a literary historian, I don't know the exact point in history when fairy tales started being "safe" (or when "fairies" became something delightful, and not otherworldly creatures that delight in creatively inducing human suffering in all its wondrous variety for their own amusement).

The Path isn't safe. There isn't a single explicit, undeniably clear image of violence, sexuality, vulgarity, drug use (okay, someone smokes a cigarette), dying, or personal violation. And yet, The Path is so full of these things that I wouldn't want an intelligent child anywhere near it without an adult nearby for a good long talk afterwards. And even then, maybe a few years of therapy.

Am I being melodramatic? Maybe, but that's what The Path is. It's a grown up Goth's delight- proof positive that all those grim images of the decay of innocence and goodness and beauty never left the world, they were just away for a while to update their wardrobe. Not to mention, if we're talking Goth, the musical stylings of Jarboe (much late of The Swans) gently woven throughout the game. The art direction is reminiscent of Emily Strange meets The Sims meets album art from Jack off Jill or Scarling or, hell, half the female artists in my CD collection. The effect is somewhere between pencil sketches, pastels, and charcoal: shadowy, tentative, soft, and dreamlike.

Gameplay is simple, though its effects aren't always straightforward. E8Z calls it the Drama Princess engine, and it lends itself to a "hands on, hands off" experience. You directly control character movement and camera angle whilst wandering the girl of your choice through the woods. If you come upon something interesting that the character can interact with, a ghostly close-up of the object in question will hover in your field of view if you're close enough. If you then stop moving and release the keys/controller, after a moment the character will wander into the object/event and play it out. There's no direct control there, and nothing requiring a great deal of precision, fast reflexes, or juggling various aspects of the interface. You never know how a character is going to interact with the environment until you turn her loose to actually do it- each of the six girls has a different engagement with various items/locations, and some objects are exclusive to a particular girl or two.

There's no specific objective to The Path, either. You can pick any of the girls and walk them straight down the path to Grandma's house in less than five minutes, whereupon you'll be sent through a hands-off sequence of wandering through Grandma's house to the bedroom, where the story ends. Without having explored the forest and 'collected' various experiences (your growing collection of 'basket' items is not always literal, physical objects), though, this end sequence is missing much of its content. And that's not even getting into the matter of The Wolf.

Yes, kids, there's a Big Bad Wolf in these woods. The Wolf takes a different form for each and every girl, just like real life. In each case, a kind of symbolic representation of the psychodrama facing that particular character at her age: loss of connection with father, loss of innocence, freedom, virginity, etc. When you encounter your character's Wolf, you decide whether or not to confront them yet. If you do, a dramatic scene unfolds and your character passes out, waking up right outside grandma's house, broken and forlorn in some way. This time, though, the trip through Grandma's house is different; bizarre, menacing, dark, and even more surreal imagery (a bedroom hallway becomes the locker-lined hall of a high school, etc.), and each girl's final meeting with Grandma is, well... you'll see.

The Female Perspective:

The Path is thoroughly gynocentric in its design, character direction, music, etc. In fact, I'd almost worry that it wasn't at all male-inclusive, but then I'd wake up and remember that nearly everything else in the universe is. You don't have to be a female gamer, though, to appreciate The Path's take on literary symbolism, Gothic sensibility, and relaxing pace of play. The meta-stories of The Path are about the perceptions, feelings, and world of girls and young women in relation to themselves, their siblings, and their dreams. There's no question this was a game written to occupy women's space.

Summing Up:

The Path is a lovely game that does its atmosphere well. You never forget that you're traipsing through the virtual space of a gothic fairy tale. The hybridization of modern imagery (abandoned cars, playgrounds, junk) with the literary imagery of centuries works well. Likewise, as bare-bones as the story is, it is a story told well; each girl's journey through the forest is not so much a series of plot points but a non-sequential, undirected character study of the girl herself, leading up to a confrontation between that psyche and the adult world. The interface is easy to pick up, and the game is forgiving all round: there's no 'losing,' no irrevocable damage you can do to your game experience, no roadblock puzzles or boss monsters.

For $10 direct from E8Z or Steam, you can't go wrong. The Path looks gorgeous on just about any decent rig; you don't need a top end platform to enjoy the excellent art and visual effects. This is a game that occupies a very particular niche, though, so it isn't likely to appeal to every kind of gamer: there's no fast-paced action, not much problem solving, no competition, and the whole world can be explored from the perspective of all six girls in well under 10 hours. It's almost unfair to judge The Path as a game, though; judge the value of paying, and playing, as you would a walk through an interactive art museum of six young women's dreams.

Even in this context, The Path isn't without its flaws. Taken as a 'strolling' game, it still moves too slow for comfort, sometimes- you will occasionally have to sit through lengthy animations or scenes you may have already seen, and there can be a great deal of wandering without seeing anything in particular until you learn to navigate the world. There are a few minor irritations of visuals, too- some objects don't have clipping, which breaks the otherwise excellent immersion when you walk through a tree or rock, and very often the ghostly lettering that appears on the screen as narration to an event is unreadable in the moment due to a similarly-coloured background. The ambient (and procedurally-derived) music is excellent for mood, but there's actually very little of it, so the tune will get quite repetitive before long at all, and with an hour or two of wandering aimlessly in the woods, that can give a tedious edge to the feeling of mystery and suspense.

The Path isn't perfect, and it isn't for everyone. It does what it aims to set out to do very well: tell an interactive story. It's a story worth telling, though, one you'll find thought-provoking, haunting, and the source of endless intellectual speculation for a long time after you set it down. It's a dream worth sharing, in my book.