Saturday, March 21, 2009

Byte: The Path

I've spent the last couple of days reviewing The Path, an independently developed horror game by Tale of Tales.

My spoiler-free review should be going up on Videogamer sometime next week, and normally I wouldn't preempt a review here on my blog, but since a lot of my thoughts on the game are already online, I'm going to post an in-depth account of my experiences and interpretation of the game.

Obviously, I would urge you to go out and play the game for yourself before reading my conclusions, because The Path is designed to be a highly personal experience, and I'd prefer not to prejudice what you might draw from playing the game by reading this first.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE

The Path is essentially a six-fold retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, given a modern, surrealist twist. The premise is simple enough: a girl, a forest, a path, a Grandmother in her bed and wolf. There is a lot of freedom in the way you can approach the game, as the interactions you have with the wolves (each of the six girls has a different 'wolf') are entirely voluntary. So while it's possible to take all six girls directly down the path to visit their grandmother, or to collect all the items in the forest and return to the path and avoid the wolf entirely, to do so would not only be really boring, but also miss out on the one thing that makes The Path unique, controversial and so unexpectedly impressive.

I'm going to lay my cards on the table here, put on a double dose of my new eau de toilette (Pretension, by Calvin Klein), and state that The Path is almost certainly the most significant videogame that will be released this year, in terms of evolving the form of what videogames are capable of. I intentionally avoided using horrible corporate language like "paradigm shift" when I reviewed The Path for Videogamer, but that's exactly what I felt when playing the game.

The Path subverts almost every single preconception you have about what you should do when playing a videogame, not only in terms of pacing and story, but also what even constitutes success and failure, and whether a game even needs to be fun to be a compelling experience.

I think that the best way to illustrate this is to describe my own experience with the game, what I thought, how I reached those conclusions, and why (despite its manifold technical shortcomings) this micro-budget indie game stands a very good chance of being my personal game of year, before we've even reached the end of March.

Robin

Robin is the youngest of the six sisters, just nine years old. It's almost inconceivable in today's world that a parent would allow a child that young to even risk wandering off alone in the woods, yet during my childhood, it was commonplace. I was allowed free-reign to go wherever I liked to play outside, even from as young an age of five. Of course, this was before the media frenzy surrounding child abductions and murders that are so luridly given wall-to-wall coverage in the national news, which is why now the very concept strikes an uncomfortable chord. Robin is lively, curious and full of life - like anyone her age. She is also blissfully unaware of the dangers posed by being isolated and alone in the big, wide world and Robin is the one girl that is designed to look closest to archetypal Little Red Riding Hood figure from the original story.

Her wolf (unlike all the others in the game) is a literal one - a werewolf. A childhood monster, but also a force of nature. When she meets the wolf in the graveyard, Robin's first instinct is to play. After all, a wolf to her is nothing more than a big, shaggy dog. She doesn't comprehend the peril she is placing herself in by leaping onto its back.

Robin's story is one of childhood naivety, and is the one story of the six where there is least room for interpretation beyond a literal death. The sequence shown in Grandmother's house after Robin's play with the wolf concludes with a tumble into an open grave. Robin's child-like nature has led her to a needless, senseless death, and given the player's complicity in initiating the encounter with the wolf, this is intended to evoke guilt and remorse on the behalf of the player: that you purposefully led Robin to her death so that you could be told that you successfully completed Robin's chapter of the story (Note: reaching the house safely without interacting with wolf results in 'failure' - you don't move on to the next chapter). Whether intentional or not on the behalf of the developers, for people within the UK at least, Robin's chapter evokes distressing parallels with the story of Madeleine McCann - whose fate remains unknown, following a momentary lapse of parental responsibility - except in the case of Robin, the lapse is intentional on the behalf of the player (Robin's surrogate parental guardian) and the consequences are devastating.

Rose

Rose is a girl who, at eleven years of age, is beginning to mature beyond the first flush of naive childhood and is beginning to appreciate the wonder of the world. Like Robin, Rose also considers the forest her playground, but she has a greater level of understanding of the power of nature. Rose is both in awe and consumed by curiousity and wonder about everything the forest has to offer, from a simple spiderweb cast between the trunks of a pair of trees to the more complex interactions between land, water and sky, as mists and clouds form in the spaces between the wood, the ground and the heavens.

Rose's 'wolf' is an amorphous, vaguely humanoid form living at the centre of the forest's lake, born from the clouds, as rain showers over the water. Unable to resist her innate sense of curiousity, Rose take a boat out into the lake as the rainstorm rages around her. Exhilarated, Rose soars into the air to dance with her wolf, pirouetting through the precipitation. Fade to black...

Rose's story is one of the most difficult to draw a definite conclusion from. Her Grandmother's house sequence is one of the more surreal in the game, finishing up in a swimming pool, with a tree stump at the centre. You could take this to mean a literal death (with the tree stump representing Rose having been cut down in her prime), but given the unthreatening nature of her wolf encounter, I'm more inclined to interpret her in-game 'death' as Rose testing her curiousity against the power of Nature and coming off second best, resulting in a humiliating dunk in the lake, rather than an outright drowning.

It should be said at this point that the Grandmother's house sequence after the wolf encounter starts identically for all the girls. Control of the game is returned to you after the wolf cutscene with the girl lying prone on the path, showing no signs of injury or physical trauma, just a few metres from the gate to the house. Rain pours from the sky and almost all the colour is washed out from the graphics, with only a lurid highlighted border brightening up your character's feet as they shamble disconsolately towards the house, their body language being subdued and lethargic.

While it is fairly clear that these last few steps on their journey after their interactions with the wolf are symbolic of death, it remains open to interpretation as to whether the death in question is literal or allegorical. In the case of Rose, I'm more inclined to the latter of the two possibilities.

Ginger

Ginger, at thirteen years old, is on the cusp between childhood and true self-awareness. Ginger is unashamedly a tomboy: still keen to hold onto her childhood and yet coming to terms with the maturity enforced upon you by age. Ginger is the most masculine of the six sisters, her go-get-'em attitude being reinforced by the comments she makes as she plucks off the pumpkin head of a scarecrow, determined to make it her dinner.

Ginger's wolf is by far the most intellectually challenging, as it is a girl of similar age to Ginger herself and of a similar playful outlook on life. Ginger and her wolf play hide and seek amongst the flowers of a field, as a squadron of ravens watches from above, neatly forming ranks on the telephone wires. Exhausted after their play, Ginger and her wolf fall into the tall grasses of the field, and then we fade out.

My take on Ginger's story is that her wolf represents Ginger's sense of narcissism and her burgeoning sense of her own sexuality. Her wolf is the only one that is explicitly female, and Ginger's post-wolf encounter 'death' actually represents her fear of accepting her own identity and also her fear of rejection.

Ruby

Ruby can be categorised as your archetypal disaffected teenager. Ruby is fifteen, is deeply into self-loathing and craves acceptance, attention and affection. With a metallic brace on one leg and an ornate gothic stocking on the other, Ruby is the most visually striking of the six sisters, though it's not explicitly made clear whether her leg brace is due to some unknown injury, or whether it is simply an affectation.

Ruby meets her wolf at a playground in the woods. He is young, attractive and charming, yet there is a suspicious air surrounding him. When you first see him, he is dragging a rolled up carpet along with him. Is it simply an unwanted carpet, or are there more sinister forces at work? Could there be a body wrapped tightly in those coils of fabric? Undeterred, and perhaps even craving the risk of the unknown, Ruby approaches her wolf and accepts the offer of a cigarette. Is he just disposing of a used carpet, or is he truly a danger to our dear Ruby?

Again, very little (if anything) is made explicitly clear as to what happens after the conclusion of the cutscene, and Ruby's fate is the one most open to interpretation. Is the wolf only interested in Ruby as another potential carpet-roll-dwelling victim, or is he just on an errand to dispose of an old carpet, and simply grateful for Ruby's temporary company? I haven't quite drawn my own conclusions on this one as yet.

Carmen

Carmen exudes self-awareness of her own sexuality and attractiveness. She doesn't walk, but rather prowls, like a cat on the hunt for prey. Carmen is seventeen, old enough to make her own bad decisions and choose her own provocative style of dress. She resents having to run an errand to see her grandmother, so is only too willing to stray from the path. When she finds Rose's lake, she wishes it were warmer, so she could take a swim and tease any men watching. When she finds an old gramophone lying in the forest, she's thrilled - she's got some music to party to! All she needs now is beer and a bloke...

And find them she does, at a campsite in the woods. Carmen heads straight for the beer, enjoying the thrill of the alcohol burning in her bloodstream. Emboldened, she plucks the cap off the head of her 'wolf' (the cap itself has a wolf symbol on the front), revealing his bald head. The woodsman is old, not nearly as attractive as Ruby's wolf and it's implied he is the father of the girl in white, who is playing in her tiny little tent. It's an interesting choice of 'wolf' - given that the woodsman in the original story is the one who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf's belly. Carmen parades around in his hat, implying that their roles have been reversed: she is now the predator, and he is now the prey. Carmen lights the campfire, sits, and she and the wolf/woodsman share the warmth of the fire and the coolness of the beer. Fade to black.

Like Ruby, Carmen's 'ravaging' (the developer's term, not mine) is likely to be one of the most controversial. A literal interpretation would be Carmen is raped and murdered by the 'wolf', but this doesn't ring true for me. The woodsman in the original story saves Little Red Riding Hood by killing the wolf and pulling her alive from its stomach. Yet in this scenario, it's not really clear who is the wolf. Carmen is clearly after sex, and the woodsman is her target. The most interesting interpretation is to consider Carmen both wolf and Little Red Riding Hood in this scenario. So what's the woodsman to do? Is it even possible to save Little Red Riding Hood without killing the wolf within her? And would the woodsman really have sex with Carmen (let alone murder her) with his daughter watching from her tent? I see two possible interpretations that would leave Carmen 'ravaged': either the woodsman rejects her advances and sends her on her way, dealing a fatal blow to her sense of self-esteem and her own attractiveness, or she and the woodsman do have sex and it's not nearly as revelatory or pleasurable as she thought it was going to be, shattering the illusions of her early adulthood sexuality. Or maybe there's a third option: la petite morte (a little death) is a French euphemism for an orgasm, so maybe her 'little death' wasn't so little...

Scarlet

Scarlet is the eldest of the six sisters, at nineteen years old, and she acts as a second mother (the actual mother being left unseen in the game) to her younger sisters. Scarlet is a woman of order: she doesn't like the untidiness of the forest. With the responsibility of being the firstborn of the sisters, she has always felt the need to maintain control and harmony within the household. This self-imposed weight of family duty has left her lonely and emotionally repressed, constantly wearing a mask of composure to hide her true feelings.

Scarlet meets her wolf at a ruined theatre deep in the forest. She (he? it?) is a fey being reminiscent of Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Tall, elegant, ethereal. Scarlet takes to the stage, sits down at the upright piano and begins to play. The wolf walks over to Scarlet and the piano, standing at her shoulder, playing the odd accompanying note, and appearing to give encouragement and instruction. As they play, the curtain comes down, hiding them from view. After the curtain has fully cloaked the stage, we fade out and the scene is cut back to the path.

I interpreted the 'death' here as the death of Scarlet's repressed self. Her journey into the woods is representative of her need to free herself from her responsibilities and inhibitions and learn how to embrace life, and her 'wolf' is more of an instructor or liberator than a threat to Scarlet. This is reinforced by the imagery used in scene at the Grandmother's house: the objects are symbolically veiled and ordered or regimented. For Scarlet to grow up and become an adult, she needs to accept who and what she is and not hide behind a false sense of duty and order.

The girl in white

The seventh playable character in the game, the girl in white, also happens to be a non-playable character for the first six chapters of the game. She appears in the forest to offer a reassuring hug, a soothing kiss or just a playful game of pattycake when encountered by one of the sisters. She also serves another purpose in the game: to return the sisters to the path, if you venture into the woods, but do not want to initiate the encounter with the wolf.

You assume control of the girl in white for the epilogue. Here there is no wolf, and all you have to do is take her to the Grandmother's House. Like with the other characters, she will make her way to the Grandmother's bedroom to keep her company.
You will notice here that like the other characters (if you don't encounter the wolf in the forest), the Grandmother has a portrait of the girl in white over her bed, implying that she is family. There is also another nice symbolic touch I like (common to all the scenes in the Grandmother's bedroom when you have 'failed' the chapter), that being the stuffed wolf next to the bed.

When the scene fades and segues back to the starting apartment, the girl in white is standing alone in the apartment, her dress splattered with blood. Gradually all the six sisters re-enter the room, prompting the girl in white to leave when they are all safely back in the apartment.

It would be easy to assume that the girl is just a device to let you replay the game (and in a sense, she is), but it is also possible that she acts as a guardian for the sisters; a symbolic replacement for the hunter or woodsman in the original story. There are other possible interpretations as well, such as that she is a seventh sister, or is even a surrogate mother figure for the other characters, since she is the only one who knows their way through the forest back to the path. She acts as a bridge between all the possible outcomes achievable in the game, so should not be seen as simply a convenient game device.

SPOILERS END HERE

The Path's true brilliance however is not that I was able to read all this from the game, but that someone else could play it and draw completely different conclusions. These are just my thoughts, based on my first play-through. I'm not saying that my interpretations are right, or that they are the only reasonable ones to draw - just that The Path warrants more attention and thought that a blandly literal interpretation.

I think The Path is an exceptional piece of work, and one that's likely to make people see videogames in a different light, because it's the most ungamelike game I've ever played. Its purpose isn't for you to have fun. It's to make you emote and challenge yourself and your way of thinking. It's also one of the few games that's ever passed The Girlfriend Test. Normally my lady looks at the videogames I play and pulls a face like I've just asked her for unprotected anal sex without lubricants. (That's a needlessly graphic metaphor, by the way, not a comment on my sex life... just thought I'd make that one clear.) Yet when she watched me play The Path she uttered the immortal words "That looks interesting." - high praise indeed from someone who doesn't even like Peggle.

I think you can probably tell from the length of this post just how much I like The Path (my review for Videogamer is of a similar length, too - around 2500 words), which is a hell of a lot of wordage I've dedicated to an indie game that's unlikely to register on most gamer's radar. I hope the Videogamer review will do something to raise the profile of The Path, because it really deserves attention. And despite getting a free review copy earlier in the week, I still bought it off Steam last night, because I do like to put my money where my mouth is, and I believe games development this brave deserves to be rewarded.

So go out and buy it - it's easily worth $10 or £7 of anyone's money, even that of a mean, tightfisted Scot, like me.

6 comments:

hydra9 said...

Hi Iain,
I arrived here from your comment on the RPS article. I finished the game last night and have been thinking about it ever since and drawing my own conclusions. Then I decided to see what other people thought of it.

This is a really well-written and interesting analysis that is actually very similar to mine.

I can't believe that people are jumping up and down and calling this a game 'all about rape' or thinking they've seen things that aren't even there (I'm talking about this guy).

I don't have much to add/argue: I think that Ruby gets into a relationship with the guy in the park, a relationship in which he is very much the boss and takes her for granted, then she ends up dying in a car crash (Hence the room with the cage, the tyre tracks and the wrecked car). I think Robin, rather than suffering an actual death, may simply have lost her innocent (even playful) attitude about death and finally seen it as something to be feared. I saw Scarlet's story as a positive tale of casting off a looming mundane life of housework and TV to pursue her dream of being a musician. Though some of the images suggest that maybe long years of study and dedication didn't give her the happiness she wanted - At the end, one of the flash images seems to suggest that she feels like a puppet with someone else pulling the strings (The Woman In White, who perhaps turns from tutor to callous promoter, exploiting her talents for profit?)...

As for the most controversial of the girls, Carmen, it's clear that she knew what she was looking for and she instigated it. And yes, it could have become a rape, but I think she just felt terrible about her lost virginity - A realization that she had voluntarily given away her innocence and couldn't get it back.

As you say, it's a fascinating game and after one playthrough, I'm ready to play it again - discover the few objects I missed the first time around and try to gain a little more insight.

Iain said...

Thanks for your thoughts - particularly about Ruby. I wrote all this in a blur over the course of an evening - I do want to go back to the game to replay the Ruby encounter specifically (and the rest in general), because it's the easiest chapter of the game to read knee-jerk, Daily Mail-style BAN THIS SICK FILTH reactions from; and because I was playing through the game quickly for review, I wasn't able to take as much time as I'd have liked to make a deeper analysis of the outcome of the encounter from a non-literal viewpoint.

I had a similar thought as regards to your interpretation of Robin's wolf encounter (the 'death' being symbolic of a loss of innocence) but given that this is the one encounter where there is overt fury and rage on the part of the wolf, it's much more powerful statement on the behalf of the developers to think that they're making you kill such a young girl (an unthinkable taboo in modern society), just to 'win' the chapter. I agree your interpretation is just as likely, and maybe I'm projecting my own thoughts of the distaste I have for the way the media treats cases like the Madeleine McCann disappearance or the Ian Huntley murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham with such a morally righteous frenzy (when their only real concern is scoring in the ratings war, rather than reporting the facts and informing the people) onto the events in the game; but regardless, it's a powerful and unnerving act - the player putting such a defenseless young girl in danger intentionally, when every natural instinct would normally be for you to be protective of her.

I think The Path is absolutely astounding. There have been plenty of games where I've thought that it's been a brilliant experience, but nothing else I've played in 25 years of being a compulsive videogamer has actually made me sit back and question whether I'm actually enjoying the act of playing the game or question what the game has actually been trying to do.

whykt said...

Thanks for writing up the most comprehensive interpretation of the game.

Hopefully I can get two of my friends to play and game to discuss it. I'd love to write about this on my Uni's paper to introduce it to a wider audience, especially as this can be an accessible (but not "fun") game for non-gamers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing such an thorough interpretation of a great game. I have something to add.

With Carmen, I think the important image is the final one - a tree in the middle of her bed. I think this is an image of childbirth. Carmen's death is the realization that sex and boys are not a game.

Similarly with Rose, her death I see as a realization: That nature is not always beautiful. As the second youngest, she has surpassed Robin's naivety of danger, but not lost her innocense that Life is Good. Her love of animals, flowers suggest this, as does her response to dangers such as the knife and the needle; 'someone might get hurt!' and 'Someone needs their medicine!' and the responses of someone trying to be a Good Girl. The lake, the mist and the threat of drowning is the comeuppance that teaches her that no, life isn't fair. Nature is a powerful, terrible thing.

Sylvain said...

Thanks for your interpretations. This game is such a mystery that I really need to read different points of view and share mine

I completly agree with your vision of Scarlet story. I guess she discovered beautiful things (music) she forbid herself until today. Maybe her metaphoric death is that it's too late now, and that she isn't able to leave her sense of responsability...

Rose :
But I still have no clue about this cloud-man. What can be the meaning of this ? No idea, and your interpretation is not so clear...


Ginger :
I think it's something about friendship and betrayal, and unfortunately I think she's dead for real (let's see the pictures with barbed wire).
Lonely Tom Sawyer, for the first time she tried to trust in a friend, but the red girl is not so nice


Well, as you, I dont know, just supose...

Hunter said...

Really enjoyed your post. Thanks for the time you put into it.