21 Mar 2009

REVIEW: The Path

Considering the mass of unexpected controversy that suddenly surrounded this game on release I felt I couldn't pass up reviewing The Path as soon as possible.

The game has so far - having only been released a couple of days ago - divided opinion so entirely that there have apparently even been calls for Valve to pull the game from Steam. You need only glance over certain internet discussions to see how the fiery, hate-propelled bandwagon may have started up and to observe the offence that has been caused to some people claiming that the game promotes paedophilia or rape.

Before I go into any detail of what the game actually consists of, let me lay straight where I feel the anger and discomfort in the community stems from.

Certain sections of The Path possibly contain allusions to rape. Depending on your mindset. The protagonists for the most part are very young girls. Those are the basic facts. However, (and it's a huge HOWEVER) I feel the game is being misunderstood. In the same way that an idiot may view a newspaper headline and immediately draw their own conclusions, I feel that some people aren't delving any deeper into the intentions of the developer, to read between the lines. The developer's reason for the creation of The Path was clearly not to make a 'rape simulator', a phrase that makes me shudder through it's inevitable misuse or, indeed, use at all. On the other hand, I feel that the developers haven't successfully dealt with the uncomfortable subject matter enough to deviate the attentions of the player from the most obvious of themes. The theme of physical abuse in the game is not based on anything solid or immediate. it's an idea that is drifting about on it's own without a simple plot to tie it to and I can see how some players may get the wrong impression. However -again- only an idiot would say that this game is solely about rape. Only a fool would conjure such a simplistic interpretation of the game. The developers, Tale of Tales, may have misfired, but you must understand where that misfire comes from.

The Path, if I were to pigeon-hole it into a genre, is an adventure game. The problem that many people will encounter -including myself- is that it's more of a statement than a game. It's a *deep breath* art game, a jumbled box of emotional responses that congeals into something not altogether savoury. It's an experience more than a game. If you hate it for any other reason than the bugs you encounter or the tedium of the controls, then the developers have succeeded in making you feel SOMETHING, in making you CONNECT with the game on an emotional level. The problem with it being such a statement of a game is that its true purpose is never revealed - or if you like, the statement isn't actually a statement.

Of course, it's still a game. Games don't need reasons to exist other than your own entertainment. The problem is, I will struggle to call The Path entertainment in the traditional sense. I will struggle at any length to find it's true purpose for existence, beside the fact that it seems to create such diverse reactions amongst its players. There is clearly something further that the developers want us to see or interpret for ourselves, but since so much of that message is concealed behind avant-garde, partly directionless, sometimes pretentious artiness, you may get put off before any consistent emotional bond is established with the characters or environment. If you want my advice: see it through.

It's one of the most inconsistent games I've played on so many levels and I have no idea whether the developers intended it to be. At times it's light and at times dark. It's adult and childish, morbid and gleeful, frightening and exciting, ugly and beautiful. Where it does remain consistent tends to be where it fails. It can be repetitive, tedious, glitchy and aimless depending on what you have come to expect from your computer games.

But I'll continue to explain the game...

The Path begins with a room. In this room are six girls, each dressed in red and each innocent in their youth and attire. Instantly, even if you have read nothing about the game prior to playing it, you'll see the connection to Little Red Riding Hood, but I won't go into the background and original folklore because this review is already long enough. However, if you are interested then Wikipedia is the place to go to see where the darkest of the themes presented here have originated from.

Clicking on one of the girls in the room will select her as your protagonist for the next chapter of the game. And so it begins. Starting at the crumbled edge of a paved highway, you are left facing a single dirt track with dense woodland converging on either side of it. You have a basket that consists of goodies for Grandma and which also doubles as an inventory. Nothing in it is usable and it serves only as a receptacle for objects and memories.

Your options are to get to Grandma's house directly (which takes about two minutes at a trot) or wander from the path.

This is where the initial problems with the game may arise for some people. It's a free-form experience in the purest sense. There are no goals or objectives (despite the developer's attempts to parody video game achievement systems). You do as you please. You explore and encounter whatever draws your attention.

This aimless approach to play can destroy someone's interest immediately. 'Where do I go?' is the first question you'll inevitably ask yourself. On my first go I took a deep breath and turned right, heading into the uninviting shade of the trees.

The second question you'll ask yourself is 'what do I do?'. In my own experience as I wandered between the imposing trunks, I was captivated by things in the distance that were either interesting locations or manifestations of my imagination. It was amazing how many times I thought I glanced movement or a figure in the distance only to realise I seen nothing at all. Without giving anything away, because I feel an uninformed introduction to the game is the best way to play it, within the forest you will encounter items and scenes and wolves.

Many of these points of interest have markers placed around the edge of your screen so you're never entirely stuck for new things to explore. Every hundred metres you travel also causes a dotted 'treasure map' to appear briefly as an overlay so you'll usually have a rough idea of your position in the game world too. You also may be aware at times that if you leave the controls alone the character may run over to something and interact with it. It's an interesting mechanic but it's limitations are obvious within the game and can even become an annoyance when you were simply stopping to get your bearings.

In total there are three different wolves to discover within the forest and each one has a certain effect on a selected girl. These encounters can vary in subject matter and you can take them any way you like, as I mentioned above. Inevitably, however, after each encounter you'll awaken dishevelled in the centre of the path. Then you get up and walk -excruciatingly slowly- towards grandma's house and the girl's inevitable death.

I think this is where I struggle to interpret the game correctly because with each girl, up to a point, you may begin to create notions of her past life, her troubles and whimsies built upon by your experiences in the woods. To have these assumptions cut short at the end of each chapter with death can be jarring because it often doesn't follow on from the existence you may have been concocting in your head. However, that's a literal interpretation and, much like those who call 'rape' following each wolf encounter, I'd be foolish to assume that each death was anything other than a metaphor for something more meaningful. What that meaning was though, I was never entirely sure.

I found that the more I played the game, the more I liked it. Depending on how far you explore with each girl, you'll likely pick up different aspects of their characters or begin to form vague ideas about their past and what has led to their demise, metaphorical or literal. Ginger's experience in particular had the biggest effect on me. Without giving too much away, the wolf you encounter isn't quite what you may expect it to be and -I'm sorry- going back to my initial comments regarding physical abuse in the game, this contains no pointers towards such a grisly fate. If anything, unless you take it in a ham-fisted literal way, it simply points to the loss of friendship, desertion and loneliness. It's a joyful, light-hearted experience and one of the The Path's finest moments.

For the most part, the art design is fantastic (when it isn't self-indulgent enough to force itself upon you). The daydream atmosphere of the forest and the sudden feeling that you may have strayed too far from the path adds to the proceedings an uneasiness that also permeates throughout the entire game. Even the somewhat tedious ventures through Grandma's house still hold a degree of uncertainty and fear since the experience differs each time you enter it.

The sound design can also be quite effecting, becoming more intense every time you begin to run. Coupled with various uncomfortable sounds of laughter or growling you may find yourself having to sit a little closer to the edge of your seat. There are also some nice touches with music, although it can become more than a little grating after long periods of play.

In a way, I recommend going into the Path without reading anything about it beforehand, which obviously defeats the point of this review, although I purposefully tried only to describe the heart and soul of the game without poking at the actual flesh of the gameplay. To venture into it with no preconceptions and interpret each interaction in your own way is likely to get you the most from the game. It will undoubtedly create divided opinions between those who bore/offend easily and those who are fascinated by games that do things differently.

The fact that I'm almost on the fence regarding this game seems to leave me in a strangely unique position. In some ways I feel the developers have aimed too high, I feel the game can be tedious, pretentious and dull too frequently. In other ways I think it can be a mesmerising experience if played with an open mind whilst attempting to relate to the girls. I feel certain themes have been developed with a heavy hand but conversely some parts, such as the joy of watching the girls interact with the environment, can bring to the surface thoughts and feelings that anyone who was once a child can relate to.

Honestly, this is the toughest review I think I've ever done and that can only be due to something the game is doing right as much as it is about what the game is doing wrong. As such, I must recommend that every gamer with even an inkling of curiosity at least gives it a go as whether it's loved or hated by gamers or critics alike, I don't think anyone can deny that it's an interesting, controversial and perhaps important step for computer gaming.

VERDICT: An intriguing attempt to try something different. A game that almost isn't a game, but something I would recommend everyone plays. As a piece of art though, it often fails.

To check out an entirely different perspective on the game and one that turned my stomach with its sensationalist content, I recommend taking a look at Alex Lucard's review on Diehard GameFAN alongside playing the game and drawing your own conclusions. I feel I have to link to this because his review made me desperate to sit down and write my own feelings on the matter.


Anonymous said...

This an excellent review, nuanced and reserved. Having played and enjoyed the game, I understand your criticisms, as well as the qualities you rightly point out. Keep up the good writing!

Rowan Davies said...

Thanks very much for the comments and it's great to hear from someone who can see both sides of the story with this game. It's definitely something that's as intriguing to play as it is disturbing. I think they're a developer that people should keep an eye on for many (conflicting) reasons. You're pretty much guaranteed that they'll continue to create diverse experiences.

sagesource said...

As for Lucard's review, I don't think that I've seen anything quite that dishonest outside of political writing. I can't quite get what he has against the game, since so many of the criticisms he makes don't make sense (10 minutes to grandmother's house? all those glitches that neither I nor most other players can reproduce?). It's a free-floating animus that veers into near hysteria. And he is OBSESSED with rape in a way that gave me the creeps. Man's projecting so hard that he ought to be bolted to the wall of the local Cineplex.

Rowan Davies said...

Heh, obsessed is right. Glitches and bugs I can understand as I constantly seem to have tech issues with games that most people know nothing about. That review does come across as almost a vendetta though... It made me seriously angry when I read it. Even though I don't think the game deserves high praise, I saw that writing as some kind of injustice towards the devs.

Unknown said...

I would say that is a honest review. This story pulls for archetypes on a basic level, which is its hook. It is Little Red Riding Hood taken up a notch. Important, I think, not to read too much into it. Just a place to go and hang out, let it trigger some emotions, enjoy the environment, and not get overly bogged down in trying to explain it. It is an interesting place, fun to explore, and much like when one person finds a book boring and the other finds it good, it is subjective in its interpretation.

Anonymous said...

What you have to realise is in this game the leaving the highway for the dirt road is a metaphor, the deaths are not deaths, they are metaphors, the slowness of the game is a metaphor for the 'frantic' games we normally play. he 144 flowers to collect and the 'standard' scoring at the end are meant to be ironic plays on modern gaming.

I could go on, but what you learn from this game has little to do with the game and everything to do with your preconceptions....!