Are video games art? It’s a question that’s launched a million threads of incendiary debate on internet forums all around the world and with the release of The Path by the artists-cum-game developers, Tale of Tales, will be re-fuelled to higher temperatures than ever before.
The Path is being touted as ‘A Short Horror Game’, but as labels go, this one doesn’t quite fit. Short it most certainly is, as it can be completed in around six hours, and The Path definitely has a surreal aspect of horror throughout, but the ‘game’ part… calling it a game doesn’t feel right. Still, for the purposes of clarity in this review, I’m going to stick with it, regardless of whether it’s misplaced or not. The Path has been independently developed by a handful of people on a minuscule budget, but despite the technical limitations this naturally imposes on the size and scope of the game, the developers have nonetheless attempted to create an experience that uses graphical style, sound design and story (modern twists on the classic Red Riding Hood fairy tale) that is as unique as it is powerful.
It’s difficult to know where to begin in describing The Path, since it defies so many of the traditional conventions of video game making that it is impossible to find a pigeonhole for it. The game adopts a third-person perspective for the bulk of its six chapters and epilogue. In the main game you are able to choose from six girls, ranging in age from nine to nineteen, playing each one in turn until you reach the epilogue, where you assume control of another character (an NPC in the main game), who shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers. Each chapter starts with your chosen girl standing at the end of a road, a path stretching out before her towards Grandmother’s House, your ultimate destination in each of the six chapters and the epilogue. If you follow the game’s instructions and simply follow the path, when you reach the house the game will tell you that you have failed the chapter, and return you to the starting apartment where you choose the character you wish to play. The purpose of this is to seed the idea that doing what you’re told is a recipe for failure and that you should think for yourself and take a wander in the forest.
The forest itself is beautifully realised and highly atmospheric. While the graphics engine itself is hardly a rival for something as archaic as Quake III, this is largely irrelevant as the game is much more an exercise in style and synaesthesia than it is one of photo-realistic world-building, and your sense of immersion is never put in peril, thanks to a user-interface so minimal as to be almost non-existent. Both the visual and sound design work together brilliantly to create a sense of mood, with the use of colour, abstract shapes being splashed onto the field of vision, the use of music, sound effects and the movement of the 3D camera all combining to change the feel of the game as your character moves around the forest. The girls are free to walk or run, with the former giving the player a sense of tranquillity and peace, being afforded a broad, over-the-shoulder view of the forest. If you make your character run, however, the camera zooms up and out, restricting your view of the way ahead, with colour bleeding out of the image and the music becoming more tense and discordant the longer you run, until you can hear the girl’s heart pounding fearfully in your ears. The effect is distressing and unsettling, and intentionally so.
As you journey through the forest, you will stumble across objects that may be collected to unlock bonus rooms that can be visited once you reach the Grandmother’s house. This is where The Path conforms the most to classical video game design, but is not strictly necessary to complete the game. Indeed, the way The Path grades your performance after the conclusion of each chapter is largely and deliberately an ironic mocking of the ‘achievements’ culture in modern gaming. Success and failure are concepts that have been subverted here, meaning that trying to play The Path as a conventional video game will only prevent you from reaching closure in the story; even the very notion that a video game must be fun to play is defied.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into the specifics of each character and what happens to them in the game here, because discovering that for yourself is a vital part of the experience of playing The Path. Suffice to say that each character has a distinct personality (that is alluded to by their design, animation and the things they say as they discover objects in the forest), and each of these young girls, as a manifestation of Little Red Riding Hood, has their own personal wolf. In order to reach the conclusion of the game, each character must confront their wolf. The wolves can be found at one of six ‘attractions’ within the forest, depending upon the girl you play – at the lake for Rose, at the playground for Ruby, at the graveyard for Robin and so on. Interacting with the wolves is purely voluntary, as they do not initiate the encounter that will (to use the developer’s own term) ‘ravage’ the girl and leave her back on the path, where she can continue the last few steps towards the house.
I should point out here that The Path does not even show what occurs during these encounters with the wolves and that there is no explicit or graphic content in these interactions at all. Once you choose to approach the wolf, you are shown a short cutscene and the screen fades to black, allowing you to make your own interpretation of what happens subsequently, before control is then returned and you can take the girl into the house. At this point, the girl’s body language and demeanour is visibly downcast and shaken, but there is no visual evidence at all of trauma or injury. You are allowed to draw your own conclusions as to what has left her in such a disenchanted state, as you walk her slowly towards her final destination in the pouring rain.