Review by Mike “Scout” Gust
Developer Tale of Tales
Publisher Tale of Tales
Released March 18, 2009
Available for PC (version reviewed)/MAC
Verdict: 4/5 Thumbs Up
“I soon came to realize that this was not your typical video game. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that it’s not a video game at all though I would claim it is. Most games take you by the hand and teach you how to play them. You learn by a simple method of positive and negative reinforcement. Lessons learned, you play, you overcome, you win. In The Path you really don’t win though there are a few objectives you can meet. This is a game made by a pair of very unlikely game developers, one of which has actually admitted on his own forum to not liking video games very much. So what do we have here? What does a game look like that was made by someone like this?“
On March 18, 2009, Tale of Tales, a two-person Belgian indie game development company, released a video game called The Path. It’s basically an updated version of Little Red Riding Hood in which you play, one at a time, six separate sisters, ages 9 through 19, as they make their way through a forest to Grandmother’s house. The girl’s names are Robin (age 9), Rose (age 11), Ginger (age 13), Ruby (age 15), Carmen (age 17), and Scarlet (age 19). Each girl is a complete and separate personality unto herself, one innocent, another fatalistic, one lonely, another sexually curious, one dreamy, and another wise beyond her years. You begin the game in a red room where the girls are patiently waiting their turn to take the journey to Grandmother’s house. Run your cursor over one of the girls and click. A corked bottle drops into a basket and you are on your way. You leave a modern city and take a highway to where the pavement ends and a dirt path begins. A dark forest looms on either side, and as you start down the path, hand scrawled letters appear over the girl’s head instructing you to go straight to Grandmother’s house and to stay on the path. The first time I played I hurried along the path until I came to a small cottage surrounded by a deep moat. When I entered the cottage I found that I couldn’t explore any of the rooms. I could only progress by clicking my mouse or tapping a key to move along a predetermined route. A few uneventful minutes later I came to Grandmother’s bedroom. She lay in her bed, a skinned and mounted wolf standing silent sentry nearby. My character crawled into bed and the scene faded. The game informed me that I had failed, then sent me back to the red waiting room to try again. I picked the same girl, and this time , instead of heading for Grandmother’s house, I veered off into the woods. Obviously I needed to ignore warnings if I wanted to succeed in The Path.
I soon came to realize that this was not your typical video game. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that it’s not a video game at all though I would claim it is. Most games take you by the hand and teach you how to play them. You learn by a simple method of positive and negative reinforcement. Lessons learned, you play, you overcome, you win. In The Path you really don’t win though there are a few objectives you can meet. This is a game made by a pair of very unlikely game developers, one of which has actually admitted on his own forum to not liking video games very much. So what do we have here? What does a game look like that was made by someone like this?
For one thing, there is no real map, at least not for most of the game. Every minute or so a screen fades in under the game that appears to be a map. It marks your current location with a star and shows your progress as a serpentine trail of dotted lines. There are no real landmarks on this map. It’s not really a map at all for the simple reason that there is no game space to map. You have three main locations, the waiting room, the forest, and Grandmother’s house. That is it. And of those setting you can only explore the forest. And this is not your normal, run-of-the-mill game forest either. It is flat and heavily treed, making it impossible to see where you are or gain a vantage point. Though it’s beautiful, it’s not at all pristine. There is a burnt-out hulk of a car in there, an old TV with a broken screen, a frayed upholstered chair, a shopping cart, a single brick wall standing in a drift of spent bullet casing, a line of power poles that begin and end in a small meadow and so on. There are also a set of larger locations, among them the aforementioned meadow, as well as a graveyard, a fog covered lake, a spooky playground, a camp and an amphitheater. And these places appear to move around the forest with you. Try navigating in a straight line. Go on. Try. You’ll find yourself exiting the map on one side and immediately reentering it on the other. It’s as if the game space has been wrapped around a sphere that you circumnavigate endlessly. Think of it as a tiny planet, with the forest as the ocean and the main locations as continents continually adrift. Only at the end of the game are you able to make sense of things but here we encounter dragons and matters of spoilers and so no more about that.
There are a couple of in-game ways out of this forest. One way is to find your way back to the path. But if you have strayed too far into the woods the path will disappear. The only way back is to stand still and wait until a little girl in a white dress appears, takes your hand and leads you back. Once back on the path look for a sort of telephone booth. Approach it and whichever girl you are playing will pick up the receiver and talk. Fade out and you’re back to the red room.
The other way out is to find your wolf.
After all, what would any self-respecting Red Riding Hood story be without a wolf? Or, in this case, six wolves.
Each wolf is specific to a girl and once she encounters it, she triggers a cut scene. As the cut scene unfolds you watch helplessly as each girl interacts with her wolf. Though these interactions aren’t particularly graphic they are disturbing. One girl shares a cigarette with a handsome but menacing hunk in his mid-twenties. Another sits down at a campfire and shares a beer with a young lumberjack. Another girl encounters a ghostly being deep in the forest. One girl actually meets up with a real wolf, or something that looks like a wolf though it doesn’t act like one. At the finale of each wolf encounter the game delivers a series of flash cuts too fast to follow, then dumps the girl on the dirt path in front of Grandmother’s house in the pouring rain. It’s obvious something traumatic has happened but we never really see what. We have only our own imaginations to fall back on. We have only our own fears and expectations. We are confronted with a mind set. Our own. And it is not pretty.
Depending on how many objects each girl has discovered before she meets her wolf, once you enter Grandmother’s house you visit a set of secret rooms, each more frightening, lurid, and nightmarish than the last. There are submerged rooms, rooms where gravity ceases to exist, rooms where saw blades whir, and huge trees sprout from beds like gigantic phalluses. The game then throws up a kind of score screen telling you if you have succeeded or failed, how many objects you have found, how far you have traveled and which major location you have discovered. If you have succeeded, i.e. found the girl’s wolf, you get a grade, usually a B or C, sometimes an A, depending on how persistent you were. You then return to the waiting room, choose one of the remaining girls and start all over again.
The graphics in The Path are childish, haunting and beautiful, spare and tremendously powerful. Scrawled pictographs flash on and off the screen. At places, especially in the house, the visuals nearly dissolve into a fog. Shafts of golden light penetrate violet hued shadows. Images are layered one upon the other, creating a dream-like, nearly visionary effect reminiscent of the French Post Impressionist and Symbolist, Odilon Redon. The audio is credited to Jarboe of Swans fame and Kris Force. There are no words just a hypnotic and eerie sound track with chittering voices, gasps of pain and pleasure, wolf growls, and ambient sound. Like the artwork, the audio has a shifting, veil-like quality. Text looks to be hand drawn, calligraphic. The animations are simple but effective and each girl has a very unique and specific gait. The whole package is at once crude and elegant, low budget and high art.
This then is what a game looks made by someone who claims not to like video games. Actually I think that claim is a deflection. Actually I think Michael Samyn does like video games. He and his partner, Auriea Harvey, just don’t like the same old, same old. Through most of the game, Harvey and Samyn cheerfully frustrate your expectations. They scatter white flowers through the forest and let you pick them and the game keeps score but there appears to be practically no point to this. You must find objects like a diamond, a knife, a mask, skull or flower. Some objects are in plain sight such as a building or a car. Others are harder to find and most, though not all, can be found only by a specific girl. Once you locate an object it will go into your “basket” a kind of crude inventory consisting of a grid marked off into of thirty-six squares. You can’t use these objects really, can’t combine them or throw them or use them to buy anything. As you progress through the chapter the devs eventually give you a map marker in the form of a white claw at the edge of the screen to indicate the location of each wolf. Head toward the claw and you’ll go straight to the wolf and an abrupt end of the chapter. In fact, once you have the claw marker you can enter the forest and make directly for the wolf if you want to. It’s like The Path does not care if you play it or not. That’s not true actually but it is up to you to you to fill in the blanks, to hunt for hidden objects, to explore the forest and figure out the narrative on your own.
Yes, there is a narrative of sorts in the form of interior monologues. Find an object or a major location and you’ll get the current girl’s comment in the form of a little koan. This is a piece of the puzzle, an insight into each girl’s psyche. Gaining these insights is arguably the most satisfying part of the game.
The world is a stage
Nothing is what it seems
Except for nothing itself.
The man who would save us is the destroyer.
Lately I get this feeling of being watched.
I can’t tell from which direction.
And I can’t see anyone.
Small things move fast.
If you’re still reading this review, you are no doubt wondering just what the hell this game is about. That’s a good question and one a lot of people are trying to figure out. In fact this might soon be a game that takes longer to read about than to actually play. Some people believe it to be about rape and sexual predation. The devs even write that each girl is “ravaged” in turn before being dumped in front of Grandmother’s house. It is surely a valid view. Other people think maybe each girl is a specific age in the dying grandmother’s past. Depending on which girl you are playing, her portrait hangs above the grandmother’s deathbed. Others bemoan its bottom line nihilism, creep factor, and obsession with unhappy endings. Another viewpoint, and one close to my own heart, is that The Path is about loss of innocence. Each girl experiences a loss of innocence, each moving from a child-like state to a one a bit older and a bit wiser. After all, modern culture has had its rose-tinted glasses ripped from its face. Events have taken on a decidedly darker, murkier cast. Is is any wonder that the story of Little Red Riding Hood has returned as a horror game for the 21st century?
Yet another clue to the meaning of the game is found here.
Auriea is the star!
Or should that be the goddess?
She made us all in her image.
And the forest! And the house.
Auriea is, of course, Auriea Harvey, one of the co-creators of The Path. It would be easy to deduce that all these girls are parts of Harvey’s interior makeup, each a facet of what ultimately became her adult personality. While I think this is probably as close to the truth as anything, it’s also fair to say that there is no final truth. In the end The Path is really about measuring the player’s tolerance for ambiguity. Admittedly, this is not exactly a priority high on the list for most gamers hellbent on fun, fun, fun and the game sales are no doubt suffering for it. The Path is a sort of anti-game in a way, a game turned inside out in service to something deeply personal, human and disturbing.
One of the mission statements of The Tale of Tales is this:
Humans have a physical need for wonder, poetry and story. It is our desire to carry on the tradition of telling and retelling tales old and new.
There is a pattern of return in The Path. A constant return to the oldest of stories, in this case Little Red Riding Hood. The Path is a game of serial returns, returns to Grandmother’s house, returns to the waiting room, returns to the beginning from the end. It reminded me of another game, one I suspect these devs knew about, called Alice: An Interactive Museum. Released in 1994, by Synergy, Inc., a Japanese development company, it too explores taboo subjects of sexuality, loss of innocence, and constant return, in this case by retelling Through the Looking Glass. Alice: An Interactive Museum is a contradiction, both a rare, valuable collector’s game, and a minor masterpiece. I constantly thought about it when playing The Path. If ever there was a game that deserved to be re-released, it’s this one. But I see I’ve strayed. Back to The Path.
Upon first starting this game, I denied that it was a slow game. I was wrong. It is a slow game. Your characters lope along through an endless forest. While you can make them run this has the effect of blurring the screen, and raising the camera high up into the trees, obscuring detail. To regain control you must slow the pace. And so you go, speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, slowing down. It is frustratingly deliberate and yet, at least for me, deeply affecting. There is no gaming this game. Throw out your preconceptions, lay aside your bag of tricks. Everything you know is useless. A blockbuster this is not.
People are throwing around the A-word a lot when writing about The Path and I guess it is art, though I think it’s as much a matter of gaming apologists desire for “Art Games” to point to as anything. But if one of the definitions of art is that which can impart a heightened or rarefied experience (note: I just made that up!), then this entry has as valid a claim as any to that label. And just the very fact that people are bringing up words like meaning and art and extremely disturbing when discussing this game is reason alone to buy it and play it. So buy it and play. And whatever you do, positively, absolutely, do not stay on the path.
Minimum System Requirements (PC) Windows XP or Vista, 2 Ghz CPU, 1 GB RAM, 256 MB VRAM, recent Radeon or Geforce videocard of x6xx type (no integrated videocards) (MAC) Mac OS X 10.5 .6 or later, 2 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 1 GB RAM, 256 VRAM, recent Radeon or Geforce video card of x6xx type (no integrated videocards)
Reviewer’s System: Windows XP, Athlon 64×2 4400, 2.2GHZ, 2GB, 5112MB, ATI 3870