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The Path (PC) artwork

The Path (PC) review

"As a concept, The Path is a brave attempt at something more poignant within the medium. As a game, it's a collection of excellent yet slightly incomplete ideas. As a talking point, it provides more ground for intelligent game-related discussion than anything else is likely to encourage this year. So let's talk about it. And let's keep making more games like this."

You begin on a path. Your character is a young girl, whichever one of the six sisters you chose for the chapter. A few hundred metres ahead is the home of your grandmother, bedridden through illness, awaiting the hamper of food and drink you've been tasked with bringing her. It's bright and sunny, and as you walk forward, the noise of the city's traffic gives way to the chirruping of birds and the sound of a stream. You start to playfully skip down the dusty trail, stopping intermittently to glance at a butterfly or chase a sparrow. After a few minutes, you arrive at grandmother's cottage, hand over the hamper, and the word "FAILED" appears on the screen.

You followed the rules. Gently mocking objective-based gameplay, The Path presents you with a single task, and requires that you avoid completing it. Follow the instructions and everything ends on a happy note. But what's interesting about that? Venture away from the path, into the mysterious forest beyond, and things start to get more intriguing.

The first time I did this, I became almost instantly lost. Panicking, and unsure what I was expected to do, I turned to head back for safety, only to discover that, whatever I did, I simply couldn't find my way out of the forest. The Path uses some very clever trickery to disorientate you the second you lead your avatar astray, and it becomes impossible to work out where you are or where you're going. As a result, you'll inevitably delve deeper into the woodland, until something eventually catches your eye.

These places of interest form the backbone of The Path. Scattered randomly around the open-plan world, they can initially be seen as areas of light in the distance, permeating through the thick veil of trees and shrubbery. As you approach, you begin to make out shapes, colours, and soon you'll realise you've chanced upon a graveyard, or campsite, or misty lake.

Let go of the controls, and something will happen. Your avatar will interact with the environment around her as she sees fit, based on her own engagement with the location. Fun-loving Ginger wanders over to a swing set and starts flying back and forth through the air with glee. Ruby, the teenage misfit, perches on a bench and contemplates taking up smoking, while the almost-grown-up Scarlet sits down to play the piano at an abandoned theatre. "People die," remarks Robin, the youngest sister, at the graveyard. "It's hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die, and we put them in the ground like flowers."

Watching the behaviour of these girls is remarkable. For protagonists who are largely silent, they absolutely exude personality, showcasing it through both their thought-provoking comments and fantastically nuanced animations. But it's also the basis of my main problem with The Path. This behavioural interaction system, known as Drama Princess, is disappointingly underdeveloped. While the girls' personal reactions to a given situation are markedly different, there's very little variety to be seen in each individual character. It strikes me as a missed opportunity. Rendering a larger amount of animations, inserting more of the girls' thoughts into the game, and having each journey appear radically different as a result, could have added immensely to the artistic depth - and, by extension, the lifespan - of The Path. Instead, the system edges towards feeling uncomfortably artificial, more so with each subsequent play.

I also feel awkward about the way The Path seems to hold back at times. Layered over all its creativity and thematic psychological play is a surprisingly traditional format, which seems oddly contradictory. The Path is a game where you collect pick-ups, and get scored at the end in accordance.

And the part of me that likes to be challenged by games - not in the usual sense - feels this is a little half-baked. Again, it's a case of Tale of Tales having gone so far, but not quite having realised their potential. For example, it's a game I think would have worked a lot better without the 'flower gems', spinning and bouncing above the ground as if they were stars in a Mario game, which give hints about locations as you pick them up. That a statistics screen appears at the end, and that there are achievements in the Steam version, just doesn't seem to work. It is perhaps an ironic gesture, but if this is the case, it's not quite clear enough as a statement. It feels more like a compromise between creating a piece of art and delivering something that will appeal to a larger audience. The result is something that could well fall short of expectations for both the artistic and gaming communities.

It will be interesting to see how a more mainstream player base reacts to The Path. Elements of it are deliberately abhorrent, and it would be difficult to class any portion of the game as "fun". It flits haphazardly between refreshingly uplifting and deeply troubling, depending on the area being explored, the chosen character, and any interpretations that may come to mind. Playing as Ginger is glorious, evoking a sense of childlike playfulness, a refusal to buy into the morbidity and seriousness of her older sisters. A walk in the woods as Ruby contrasts starkly, her self-loathing and unnatural bitterness striking a particularly uncomfortable chord. These are elements that not everyone is likely to engage with, and while the numerous aspects of the game go hand in hand, many players could find the cumbersome mechanics, ambiguous narrative and always-shifting atmosphere to be occlusive to their own desired experience.

Others will simply relish in the amount of themes explored, the amount of stories alluded to, and the way The Path deals with the notion of 'death' in videogames. Here, dying really is the end. Ultimately, whichever girl you play as, you'll eventually meet a character who proves to be your demise. As soon as you meet him, or her, or it, the game bravely skips forward in time, leaving the events in between to your imagination. You're then deposited back on the path, presumably some time later. Seemingly in pain, you push onwards at an agonisingly slow pace towards grandmother's house, which twists and warps hallucinagenically when you enter. The view switches to first-person, and no matter which buttons you press, you keep stepping forward, deeper into the foreboding cottage. Then you collapse, and you've finished the chapter. Success.

The speed will be a contentious issue. There's a realistic weight and balance to the protagonists, where other games may opt for more fluid movement. When you walk, you move slowly. When you run, you move more quickly, but errantly, and the camera flies up into an overhead position, totally disorientating you. When you arrive at grandmother's house after encountering a 'wolf' character, the movement could only be described as a limping shuffle, a desperate, snail-paced attempt to reach the front door. This worked in Tale of Tales' interactive short The Graveyard, where you guided a frail, elderly lady towards a bench; the issue is less clear here. Making the controls difficult adds to the impact of what it feels like to be in the shoes of these young ladies, but on the fourth, fifth or sixth attempt, it starts to grate. Perhaps the developers were mindful of this, as subsequent plays as different girls deposit you increasingly further up the path, nearer to the gates.

But taking away this freedom of movement has a profound effect on the experience. You're always at the mercy of the game. The first time you witness the fucked up interior of the house, your instincts tell you to run a mile in the other direction. You try to spin round, but the game does the opposite of what you tell it. It forces you further in. It's like watching the girl in the horror film as she foolishly delves deeper into the haunted mansion. Every bone in your body cries, "no!" The Path says, "oh, but yes..."

Whether terrifying or joyous, the aesthetic design aligns beautifully with the mood. The soundtrack self-composes from a number of aural elements, selected appropriately depending on where you are and what you're doing. The whole game has an avant-garde filmic quality to it, with a convincing grain filter that puts the irritating nonsense of Mass Effect and Left 4 Dead to shame. Colours wash in and out: vibrant and alive on the path, sunken and desaturated in the forest. Subtle images sketch themselves over the picture. The animation is glorious. The Path may be built in a lightweight engine, but it's one of the most beautiful games I've seen.

Minor issues plague it, like characters incessantly clipping through scenery, or certain objects seemingly lit inaccurately. The level of detail seems to vary, as well: while the girls all look wonderful, the 'wolves' occasionally look like they're from a different game entirely. These are only small problems, and The Path is more polished than a lot of major releases. But they're issues that serve occasionally to snap you out of the otherwise wonderful ambiance that The Path so deliciously conjures up.

As a concept, The Path is a brave attempt at something more poignant within the medium. As a game, it's a collection of excellent yet slightly incomplete ideas. As a talking point, it provides more ground for intelligent game-related discussion than anything else is likely to encourage this year. So let's talk about it. And let's keep making more games like this.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 12, 2009)

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If you enjoyed this The Path review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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EmP posted March 13, 2009:

Awesome work. I won't be firing you this week.
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Lewis posted March 13, 2009:

Thanks, love. Though, as a freelancer, I don't think you have the power to do that anyway. AHA!

Did you get me email about the box art?
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pickhut posted March 13, 2009:

Freelancer? I thought EmP was staff.
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Lewis posted March 13, 2009:

I meant *I'm* a freelancer.
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EmP posted March 13, 2009:

Hell, I could probably fire Venter if I wanted to. The only reason this site isn't called EmPGamers is because there's too many caps in there.

I'm jumping on my e-mails now. Busy, busy day.
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zippdementia posted March 13, 2009:

EMP: go back to your spawning pit

LEWIS: good job on the review, though I would still like to see more personality in your writing. As I've said before, it tends to be very analytical and not very personalized. I would have trouble picking a Lewis review out of a line-up. But you always paint a great image of the games you review, in this case making me want to try this game so badly I'm gonna write a letter to the developers begging them to port it to PS3. You also always give a very clear idea of how the mechanics work, and where they fail to work. Continue to work on inserting some personality into your reviews, and by the time you're my age, you could be working for a major publication.
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EmP posted March 13, 2009:

I think that if Lew tried to make his reviews more about him, he would lose that aspect that I probably enjoy the most from this. This review especially is one much more suited for for Lewis' more artistic analysis than, say, my style of mock-heavy and more personal rambling.

To each their own, but I think this review is fantastic. I'd not change a thing.
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Lewis posted March 13, 2009:

Serious games means serious business. Lightheartedness would have seemed a cop-out when discussing a game that deals with such intense subject matters.
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honestgamer posted March 13, 2009:

It's very important to find the tone that matches the subject matter and/or your stance on a given game. I think that Lewis does a good job with that and it's one thing I appreciate about his writing. Not every review needs to communicate a sense of the reviewer's personality, which is something most casual visitors don't even care about. I know I talk about myself in a lot of my more recent reviews, but mostly that's to serve the purpose of establishing my own perspective on the game so that the reader can identify with me or say "Hmm, this guy doesn't look for the same things in games that I do." I'd hate to see writers trying to include personal anecdotes just because it's the popular thing to do.
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wolfqueen001 posted March 13, 2009:

Yeah. This is a really good review. To me, the analytical and personal elements blend wonderfully. The personal aspects aren't lighthearted - and for this, they really shouldn't be - but that doesn't mean they're there, and he utilizes them to emphasize his analytical points.

What's more, those analytical points, which are very strong in the review, paint a clear picture of what this game's about and what it does well/not so well. I think the only part I may have been confused with was the paragraph devoted mainly to aesthetics, but I think that's just because I don't really understand a lot of the technical aspects of it.

This game sounds fascinating - sort of reminds me of your review for Dear Esther in a way, with how it approaches the subject, only that this game includes more... generic adventuring stuff, if I can describe it like that (like with the achievements and whatnot).

Innocence, cynicism, sorrow, and whatever else - each sound like they embody a certain character... and all of them can be present in such a sordid subject. It sounds absolutely amazing. I think it's great that the industry is trying to branch out more with this sort of thing. It's like realism (the literature movement; many games already share realistic aspects...) in video games. It's exciting. If a bit... depressing, in the theme, I mean.
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zippdementia posted March 13, 2009:

Maybe you miss what I mean when I say "personal touch." I'm not talking about snarkiness or bad jokes, I'm talking about a sense of personal style. I rarely get that from your reviews. They're always extremely well written. And seriously, you're one of my favourite reviewers on the site. Please, PLEASE, don't add jokes to this review, or any other serious review. I just want to see you develop your style a bit. That's all. It should come naturally, anyway, if you keep writing.
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Lewis posted March 14, 2009:

I've been reading a lot of Jim Rossignol's work lately. Perhaps he's seeping his way into my own style...
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bloomer posted March 14, 2009:

Hm, I don't understand these 'lack of personal style' comments at all. I find Lewis' reviews supremely Lewisy. Opinion as articulately conveyed as this strikes me as unavoidably, transparently personal. I mean it's not like you could even fob it off by waving a pointed stick around.

Other technically defined hallmarks of personality include recurring behaviour/concerns, tone in writing, opinionation - all much in evidence.

What are you guys talking about? That he doesn't talk about rifling through his game collection and what he had for breakfast? :) These are pros to me.

My own stance on humour is that it works best from the confluence of what grows naturally out of the subject matter and what your own sense of humour is. If you force either factor too much and simultaneously don't make the review goal 'to be explicitly hilarious', it can come across as tiresome to me, though some people dig it. And I'm sure I've forced it myself at times, but this is what I preach to the crowd.
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Lewis posted March 14, 2009:

I think my style is perhaps generally less colloquial than a lot of writers here. It's not that I think either is better, or anything. I just generally write with a bit more formality than a lot of people, I think. Hopefully my work remains interesting.
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zippdementia posted March 14, 2009:

I think what you have is a developing voice, Lewis. It's strong, but it's not fully there yet. It can only get better with time. You're well on your way to being a sÜand out writer.
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wolfqueen001 posted March 14, 2009:

Lewis does have his own style. I don't know what you're talking about. His analytical style is greatly different from anyone else's around here. His reviews don't read like Bloomer's or Masters' or whoever else employs the method. They're separate, different and unique. Just like those other guys' reviews are separate, different and unique.

Besides, Lewis has been doing this longer than many of us, probably, just not here. And he's been on the freelance team since he joined the site probably more than a year ago, so take that as you will.

But, well, if you don't see a distinct style, then you don't see a distinct style. But I do. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
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zippdementia posted March 15, 2009:

You know what I like about Lewis? Everyone else argued with me over whether my point was valid or not. But Lewis simply looked at my advice, took it for what it was worth, and stored it away for further use/perusal/discarding at his leisure. I respect that. I respect you quite a lot, Lewis.

EDIT: By the way, I hope no-one thought I was saying this was a bad review. I think this is an excellent review. It's getting harder to give Lewis advice, and I'm trying to stay on top of the game, here.
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Lewis posted March 15, 2009:

I hope I am still developing a voice, improving my talent. The minute that stops being the case is the minute I stop writing. Never stagnate; never become complacent.
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bloomer posted March 15, 2009:

Zigfried and I were writing reviews when some of you were stumbling toddlers! And we have both changed our minds 10,000 times about everything in the decade+ since then. So in conclusion... Lewis has the right attitude to ongoing development, and Zigfried and I rock.
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Lewis posted March 15, 2009:

I am but a child, relatively. That I've been writing about games since I was fifteen is neither here nor there. Nobody's a good writer at fifteen.
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EmP posted March 15, 2009:

I was first published at fifteen. True story.
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honestgamer posted March 15, 2009:

If you count school newspapers, I was first pulished at age 7. I wrote a short story of about 300 words and my teacher liked it so much that she got it put in the school newspaper. Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to gloat. Mine was the only one selected for that esteemed honor... :-D
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wolfqueen001 posted March 15, 2009:

I never said you weren't still developing a voice - everyone's still doing that, really; though some to a lesser extent than others since it develops more slowly as you get better. But the notion that you don't have one at all - which Zipp seemed to suggest - is ridiculous.

Anyway, I doubt that was directed at me, anyway (nothing in this topic was, really, at least not from you, despite saying enough). I just wanted to clear that up.
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zippdementia posted March 15, 2009:

I'm not going to discuss my commeny any further. It was meant for Lewis, and if he needs clarification on it, I'll be happy to give it to him.

As far as publication goes, I think the first time I was published was back in elementary or middle school, some of my reports and, conversely, some of my poetry. I've been published in small pieces ever since then, from stories, to scripts, to essays.

But I tell ya, the most exciting moment of my publishing career was when HG offered me the freelance position. That was the first time I started to see a path ahead of me made up of an expanding body of work, not just random blurbs here and there.

It's going well so far, I think.
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zippdementia posted April 23, 2010:

This is an incredible review, Lewis. I know I was initially critical of the voice, but I'm going to go ahead and say that I must've been on crazy pills at the time of that writing. This is a brilliant review that really makes me want to play the game yet oddly leaves me feeling nostalgic as if I HAVE played the game.

I think you had released several similar reviews at the time of my original comments, which may have coloured my appreciation of this piece. Coming back to it now, it stands alone. On a pedestal. In first place.

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