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.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 12, 2009)
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