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.
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.