This must be Steerpike’s Week of Obscure and Creepy Games, since I’ve gotten roped into playing another one as well, that I’ll be writing about later. Anyway.
Tale of Tales is a Belgian studio with the pretty-much-explicitly-stated goal of making games that aren’t fun. What can I say, they’re Belgian.
The Path has been on the radar for a while now; by far T of T’s most ambitious game, billed as a “short horror” experience. Just released yesterday over Steam and on the ToT website, It’s about half Little Red Riding Hood and half Holy Crap But That’s Disturbing, Even More Disturbing Than The Other Game I’m Playing.
I told you, it’s my week for obscure and creepy games.
In The Path, you play as one of six girls of varying ages, from six year old Robin to 17 year old Carmen. Your job is to get to Grandmother’s House, which is just down the… well, down the path. You’re told not to deviate from the path. Follow the path and your uneventful journey ends in about ten minutes and the game informs you that you’ve failed. Because The Path is all about deviation, in more ways than one. The true game lies in the forest on either side of the path, and once you step off that dirt trail, the things you find among those dark trees are often more upsetting than you might imagine.
I’ve only played The Path for about half an hour, because it’s not the sort of game you play for long stretches. It’s too disturbing and it’s often incredibly boring. But for all that I’ve never been a big fan of Tale of Tales’ work, The Path represents something important in gaming. It is very much a game about adolescence and the aging process, as seen through the thoughts and experiences of each of the game’s potential protagonists. Their thoughts wash across the screen as you wander, along with other images that, while apparently harmless, take on an unbelievable creepiness in the context of the groaning trees and dim light of the forest.
The experience of the journey is what The Path is about. What you find in the forest, who you meet, and your girl’s eventual fate intertwine into an experience that’s almost certainly not a game in the classic sense, but does bring to mind the awesome power of interactive experiences in a way many games simply don’t do.
And then there is the Wolf.
I met him playing as Ruby, who’s 15 or so, grim and annoyed with the world. Ruby wears a brace on one of her legs and adheres strictly to the gothic slut manner of dress. Being that I was a gothy rebel, I wandered off the path first chance I got, and within seconds I was lost. The forest, so eerie, fit in well with Ruby’s sensibilities. She doesn’t like her sisters, doesn’t like the world. She’s happier alone and seems capable only of finding the awfulness in things. This is pretty typical of 15 year old girls, in my experience. “Bubbly and vivacious” are not terms I would apply to young Ruby.
There in the forest, after about 20 minutes of roaming, I thought I saw something moving among the trees. Just a flicker.
Hurriedly chasing after it, I came upon an abandoned, overgrown playground of sorts, with a rusted out slide, some splintery seesaws, and a few toys that looked like they’d been discarded years ago. Just the sort of place Ruby would totally love.
I saw a man dragging something. It looked like a rolled up carpet. Yes, that’s what it was. A rolled up carpet. Why is that man dragging a rolled up carpet through a forest? I asked myself. Then he sort of vanished among the trees, and I chased after.
By the time I found him, he was sitting on a bench and the carpet was nowhere to be seen. I sat down next to him and he offered me a cigarette from his pack. There is no speaking in this game, ours was a silent exchange. So we sat there for a second with our cigarettes.
That my Ruby came to a bad end shortly after this encounter is likely not something I need to elaborate upon, and the game doesn’t either. It fades out and fades back in, and Ruby is asleep or unconscious, back on the path. That the game left it to me to guess what had happened, and where my mind took me, is why The Path qualifies as a horror game. Still shivering a little at the implications, I got Ruby back up and headed toward the house visible at the end of the path. I had had enough of exploring the woods.
It took me a while to realize that Ruby was no longer under my control, and to ascertain that the house ahead was not Grandmother’s. Again, The Path didn’t overtly say anything (it almost never does, not even providing instructions on the controls), leaving me to draw a conclusion… namely, that Ruby had not survived her encounter with the man in woods, and that wherever she was going now promised to be even worse than what she’d already experienced. I don’t know if that house was the entrance to hell or what, but what I found inside confirmed some of my worst suspicions, shortly before the game unceremoniously toted up my statistics and awarded me a C for effort.
The Path is ten bucks. It is slow, and dull, and weird. It’s not particularly fun, not in a normal sense. It is extremely disturbing at times, but never (so far) shows you anything, preferring to make your own imagination the culprit. This is the very definition of an art-house game, and not the type of thing that will appeal to everyone. But for a lousy ten bones, anyone with any interest in the cutting edge of game design would do well to pop over to Steam or the ToT website and grab a copy. It’s the kind of game that needs to be discussed, and may never be understood, except by its creators. And yet it is very much an innovative, clever game that’s worth exploring. The game’s trailers ask an odd question, as incongruous and applicable as the game itself: will you choose the path of needles… or the path of pins?
In The Path, you never know which is which, or which is better. You only know that to stay on the path means safe failure and to step off it means near-certain victory at the cost of your doom. It redefines the concepts of winning and losing by turning both on their heads. It’s a game that wants you to explore and then destroys you for doing so. Go. The forest beckons.