Once you have reached the Grandmother’s house, you are then allowed to walk through the rooms of the building (including any you may have unlocked by finding objects within the forest) up to the bedroom, where the chapter finishes. The imagery you are shown within the house after having met the wolf is disturbing and disorienting, laden with symbology relating to the girl’s personality and what she may have acquired during her time in the forest. Once reaching the bedroom, you are then shown the chapter score screen, told the details of your success and are subsequently returned to the apartment, where you can pick the next character you wish to use. Once you have completed all six chapters, you then play the epilogue, after which all six girls will be returned to the starting apartment, so that you can replay the game.
Where The Path seems destined to cause controversy and divide opinion is the interpretation that people will draw from the interactions with the wolves by the girls. There is something inherently repellent about the thought of violence against women in general and girls in particular, which can be seen by the moralist outrage and frenzy in the news media whenever a young girl is murdered or goes missing. The Path taps uncomfortably into this psyche by presenting a tale where you are playing an active part in most parents’ worst nightmare: their child missing in the woods with wolves potentially behind every tree trunk. And not only do you cause them to get lost in the first place, you have to be complicit with their ‘ravaging’ in order to succeed in the game.
This will be a very uncomfortable notion for a lot of people, especially given the huge breadth of possible interpretations left open to the player. With so much left to the imagination, the first conclusion most players will naturally jump to is that they have caused the death of their character for the sake of seeing a success screen. In the cases of Ruby and Carmen in particular, it is also heavily implied that their wolves groom them with cigarettes and beer to charm and disarm their fears, prior to their off screen ‘death’ – and that their interest in the girls (given the ages of the characters, and the underlying theme of the Red Riding Hood story) may go beyond thoughts of murder to sexual violence as well. This is not explicitly stated in the game, however. The girls are seemingly oblivious to such a threat in the cutscenes and there is certainly no explicit evidence of rape or murder after the wolf encounter has concluded. The truth of the matter is that what you take out of the game depends entirely on what you bring in with you.
The Path is not a game that should be taken lightly or literally. Like any fairy tale, it is packed full of symbolism and allegory, and it is only in literal interpretation where you might draw the conclusion that The Path is a game that allows you to act out the rape and murder of young girls and women. Such an interpretation is born out of a superficial, tabloid mindset, fed by the paranoid, fear-mongering news media. It is easy to forget that the whole purpose of children’s fairy tales is to educate them about the dangers of certain behaviours (such as talking to strangers), and indeed, scare them into obedience. The Path takes this concept and turns it on its head. It demands that you exhibit precisely the behaviours the fairy tale warns you against, so that you can (so to speak) ‘win’ the game. It even subverts the fundamental preconceptions you might have about what constitutes a win condition. In most video games death is throwaway and meaningless – undone by a simple quickload. Here, it is permanent and indeed necessary to progress in the game. In this respect, The Path is unlike any video game you have ever played and genuinely breaks new ground. The Path demands that you look beyond the obvious: that you look beyond the crude 3D models and use your imagination to fill in the gaps left open for you.
Through its characters, the game touches upon themes as diverse as the death of innocence, the fear of the power of nature, the loss of inhibition or responsibility, questions of sexual identity and sexual awakening, and the fear of rejection. These themes are not immediately obvious and take an intuitive leap on behalf of the player, but demonstrate how The Path will mean different things to different people.
If you care about video games as a form of entertainment or a form of art and are compelled to defend them against the usual tired argument that they are solely playthings for kids and are simply not as worthy or culturally significant as film, television or literature, then I urge you in the strongest terms possible to play The Path. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I can guarantee that it won’t leave you apathetic or unaffected. Even the slow pace of the game can be taken as a satirical commentary against the desire for instant gratification in today’s society, and the player’s journey through the forest itself could be interpreted as a metaphor for life. Rush through the game by running everywhere and you will miss so much because you can’t see where you’re heading and a lot of detail will be overlooked in the panic and the blur. Take a more sedate approach, however, and you will see everything the game has to offer and give yourself more time to look beyond the surface detail. But by far the most daring and important feature of the game is the manner in which it treats death. The message is that if life is to have meaning, there must be death, and that if people are to grow, death must be accepted as being just as important as life. Whether you believe the deaths of the characters in the game to be literal or metaphorical or not will be a matter of personal choice, but there is no escaping the significance of how The Path takes us away from the way we normally play video games.
The Path challenges the very core of what you think a video game can be and what themes they can tackle. As a video game, it may have many technical flaws (some are deliberate design choices, but some are just bugs and glitches, regrettably) and may be deeply provoking or uncomfortable at times, but The Path is a hugely significant work in terms of what a video game can be beyond the realms of throwaway entertainment and is potentially a seminal moment in video games. It’s bound to polarise opinion, leaving people bemused or impressed in equal quantity and as many people denouncing the inclusion of morally distasteful subtexts as there are people praising its bravery in approaching them at all.
It’s missing the point and even perhaps an insult to the concept of the game to give The Path a score at all, so why a 10, you might reasonably ask? Firstly, because it’s bound to wind up the people who don’t understand what The Path is setting out to achieve, and secondly because the purpose of art is to make you look inwardly and question what you think, and not to simply accept what you see without thought or reason. The Path is one of only a handful of video games that does this. If Planescape: Torment was the first game to take a riff off the text-heavy works of Tolstoy, The Path is the first to succeed in taking its inspiration from the likes of David Lynch and the 20th Century Surrealist movement. It will be years before a game made by the big budget software houses like Ubisoft or EA is brave enough to attempt anything remotely similar, but The Path shows promising signs that gaming is starting to grow up. By leaving so much open to interpretation in the mind of the player, rather than graphically doling out sex and violence for the lowest common denominator, The Path shows a maturity that belies its roots in a child’s fairy tale. The question remains, is The Path art? Buy the game and form your own opinion. One thing is clear, however: vapid, mindless and instantly forgettable it certainly is not.