Midnighters posts are on a brief hiatus. Have some mindfucks instead.
The Path is a little exploration game by Tale of Tales. The premise is simple: you pick one of the six girls (each named after something connected with the color red, like Ruby, Ginger, etc.)
and find yourself at the end of a road that just abruptly stops and gives way to a ground path. You are told to go straight ahead to your grandmother’s house. You can do it, in which case you’ll be treated to a very short and only vaguely creepy game.
You can, however, go off the path into the woods instead.
The woods are mostly empty, but occasionally you would encounter a clearing with stuff to see and do
or an object you can interact with.
Interacting with objects can unlock some stuff for the endgame, sometimes activates a short animation of a girl doing some stuff with it, and always gives you a vaguely philosophical sentence, as you can see here. Those sentences are often as pretentious as you would guess, but they do provide some insights into girls’ personalities.
There is also a girl in white running all over the woods. You’ll run into her from time to time, and interacting with her is the only way to get back on the path.
As you have probably guessed by now, the game is loosely based on the story of Red Riding Hood, so naturally there must be a wolf. The wolf is actually unique for each girl, sometimes taking form of an actual wolf (well, a werewolf, more like), sometimes being some assholish-looking guy.
Despite what the game tells you at the beginning, going off the path and encountering the wolf is actually the goal of the game. Encountering the wolf activates a short animation, as is usual with object interactions, but then the screen fades to black and we find the girl standing before Grandmother’s house, shivering and clearly in pain as heavy rain falls down.
The girl loses the ability to run, and walks much slower than normal. Any attempt to get off the path results in the girl recoiling back. Entering Grandmother’s house activates a pseudo-interactive first-person segment, same as usual at that part of the game, only the house changes from dark and quietly creepy into actively psychedelic.
At that point, some items may unlock additional rooms which you would visit going through the house. At the end of the journey jump scares awaits, leading to the culmination of the game: short disjointed animation full of disturbing imagery implying the girl is dead.
Then you are taken back to the screen where you can choose a new girl, the previous one disappearing unless you restart the game.
Before I talk about the meat of the game, let me say that the visuals are very striking. While the graphics didn’t exactly age well, the design in the game is great. Color scheme is a big part of it, as well as contrast between gloomy woods, sometimes creepy and sometimes cheerful clearings and psychedelic house. Soundtrack, too, is nice and haunting, breaking into lyrics at the most dramatic parts of the game.
Now, gameplay. You know, back when the game first caught public eye, there was some talk about how devs were making a point about the structure of video games and assumptions players carry. In places I visited back then, the game provoked discussions about art in video games.
And, as much as such a discussion is potentially interesting, I’m not going to go there. I would say one thing on the subject, however: you should never ever fuck up your gameplay for the sake of making a point. Regardless of any Deep Meaning you would get out of it, that still would result in a shitty game that, at best, people would like in spite of horrible gameplay.
And that’s what The Path does.
Allow me to explain. The controls of the game are deceptively simple: you use arrows or left mouse button to move forward (rotating the mouse to turn around). Pressing right mouse button or left and right arrows while walking allows you to run, which is tempting since woods are huge and looping, so you’d need to move fast if you want to encounter all items and clearings in a reasonable time. Except when you run, the camera zooms up and moves towards the uppermost edge of the screen, severely limiting your view. There are also flowers around gathering enough of which would point you to the nearest interesting location. They become invisible while you run.
You also can’t really turn while running. If you are using arrows, left and right ones are already pressed, and if you are using mouse, the camera would simply refuse to rotate, instead the girl would move slightly to the left and right, which could be good for dodging the obstacles if the process wasn’t too awkward to control.
In theory, it’s supposed to enhance the immersion of being lost in the woods: running just gets you more lost, and you miss interesting things. But it quickly becomes frustrating when you play the game since you are basically forced to stop every few meters to take a look around in case you missed the light of clearing or glitter of flowers. You also can’t run in clearings at all, which makes moving around them a choir, since some of them are pretty large.
Then there is the lack of map in the game. Well, that’s not quite true. After each 100 in-game meters you’ve walked, you are briefly shown your trail: a dotted line across the screen marking your path, with important locations (but not clearings) shown. You can also unlock the trail permanently by going straight to Grandmother’s house three times. It’s not very detailed, though, it’s just a dotted line for the most part that gives you no clue where you can find more clearings and which parts of the woods you may want to examine more closely.
Again, I get that it’s supposed to imitate you being lost in the woods, but that does mean you are going to lose a lot of content without spending ridiculous amount of time on the game.
Wandering aimlessly around with no landmarks is immersive and spooky for only so long before you start feeling frustration over running into the same lake (briefly losing your ability to run) far too many times.
Then there is interaction with objects. You do it by moving close to an object and seeing its ghostly image appearing at the left half of your screen. When it becomes clear enough, you let go of controls and allow the girl to initiate the interaction on her own.
I think it’s supposed to be some deep statement about the nature of video games or something, but you need to stand just right to interact with some objects, and you can accidentally start the interaction by just turning around near an object (rotating the camera doesn’t count as touching controls, only active walking). There is also the girl in white, who would sometimes block objects with her own ghostly image and take you away if you aren’t careful.
All in all, regardless of whatever point devs tried to make, what I’ve learned is that I want my goddamned E button, thank you.
Oh, and in some locations the position of camera is fixed, fucking up mouse controls completely. I don’t think it’s supposed to be any kind of deep point.
So, yeah, The Path is basically a poster boy for why games should be games first, pieces of art second, when it comes to the actual process of playing.
Now, to the story and imagery… So, it’s really, really easy to read misogyny into the game since it’s basically about maneuvering the girls into meeting their wolves and presumably dying. The game doesn’t really shy away from sexual or even rape subtext in wolf encounters. The game even praises you for it. If you were to go straight to Grandmother’s house, you would get a big fat message saying FAILURE. If you encounter your wolf, however, the message changes to SUCCESS (you also get an alphabetical rank depending on how many items you’ve gather and how many rooms you’ve unlocked). And, given that the game has a sort of running narrative, with girls going into the woods one by one and disappearing from the opening screen, it’s easy to assume that you don’t play as them but rather as something guiding them to their doom.
The saving grace of the game lies in its vagueness. I’m willing to believe that devs had some message they were trying to deliver but lost themselves in the logistics of mindfuck. So, what that message could be?
Well, with the structure of the game where you must go against directions given to you, and with the supposed attempt to comment on video games as a whole, the most obvious answer is that the devs attempted a discussion on boundaries of society and people straying from the path. You can follow rules given to you and live a somewhat boring but safe life. Or you can go against those rules and go into proverbial woods full of wonders but also danger.
That interpretation, however, is undermined by two factors.
Firstly, there is the endgame screen with your rank, statistics and failure or success message. That screen exist on the same level as the directions given to you at the beginning of the game. First you are given the task, then you are judged. Only the judgment is done in reverse to what you were told earlier. Living a safe life is a failure, being killed by a stranger is a success. It cannot be the judgment of the one who gave you the instructions at the beginning, and it cannot be the judgment of devs unless they really hate the girls (it would make more sense for them to mark success as going into the woods, gathering items and unlocking the rooms but escaping from the wolf).
Secondly, feeding girls to the wolves is how you progress in the game. Seeing them all gone is the only way to complete it. Going to Grandmother’s house just return you to the title screen to try again and again until you do what the game wants you to do (it even gives you a pointer to the wolf should you go to Grandmother’s house two times). In other words, not straying from the path is not a meaningful choice. The game doesn’t acknowledge its finality, instead treating it as something you do because you can’t navigate the woods good enough.
Due to those inconsistencies, I am forced to reject that theory.
Another possibility is a discussion about the nature of video games, as I’ve indicated previously with devs’ choices in gameplay. In this case, the endgame screen would not exist on the same level as the instructions. Rather, it would be a part of game structure. In this case, the warning contained in the instructions is genuine: you should not stray from the path if you want to do the right thing. The game itself, however, would push you to do the opposite by rewarding you with more content and taking you back to the title screen again and again until you play along. Even as the girls disappear one by one, you are praised for leading them to the wolves.
If that is true, then The Path, much like OFF, makes a point about how players can do amoral things just by doing what the game wants them to do, enabling a sinister scenario to unfold. Even when presented with a choice to do the right thing and guide girls to safety, most players would stray from the path for the sake of cool imagery. The player, therefore, becomes an accomplice in a crime designed by creators of the game. And the moral here is that you should not just go along with what the games want of you, but question it and perhaps even stop playing if the game requires you to do something disturbing.
The strike against that theory is a game section unlocked after you’ve led all six girls to the wolves. During that section you play as the girl in white. As you know by now, she is the one who can lead the girls out of the woods and back to the path. Her section would have been perfect to deliver a punch to the player and show just what has been done during the course of the game.
But the section lacks that punch. You mostly just run around at superspeed (and fucking finally the camera doesn’t hate you anymore) gathering items you’ve missed, then you go to Grandmother’s house, getting the regular tour, and the game starts anew.
It’s still possible that was the intention and devs just rushed that part of the game or didn’t know how exactly to execute the idea, but that still means the idea exist in a realm of speculations rather than having solid support of the source material.
I’ve also heard the idea the girls are meant to represent Grandmother at different stages of her life and various regrets she has or mistakes she’s made. However, they are distinct enough characters that I rather doubt it’s possible. At best you can say that maybe the girls are allegorical representations of Grandmother’s regrets, but at this point you may as well propose they represent seven levels of Purgatory (including the girl in white). That would be supported by the game about the same.
In conclusion, I liked the game back when I first played it, despite the atrocious gameplay, because I like me some pretty mindfucks, but now it makes me feel rather uncomfortable for reasons much different than merely disturbing imagery.