Often I’m at odds with myself over following video game news too closely. If I don’t listen to podcasts and read blogs I’ll miss finding out about games that shouldn’t be missed. Following insider news and media also helps filter out what’s worth buying right away and what I should wait out for a cheaper price.
At the same time, following so many outlets often means games with plot twists or important angles get spoiled. The Path has been on my to-play list for a while. It’s a perfect example of my conflict—I probably wouldn’t have known about the game without the video game blogs and podcasts, but it’s definitely something I would have liked to experience blindly. If you haven’t played it and intend to play it, stop reading this. Really, stop.
The Path is more of an art installation piece than game. The few game elements it does contain challenge traditional, well-established structure. Games are made to be beaten. Games generally have goals, achievements, a direction, and a finale. Games present problems and puzzles to solve. They often require that you collect and apply objects within their environments. Many encourage speed and quick thinking.
The Path is designed specifically for meandering. It’s meant to be slowly absorbed, allowing for reflection upon yourself, the game world, and the outside world. Your character can run but you’re discouraged against it – the world blurs and all objects disappear when you do. You can collect items but there’s no reward for doing so.
The Path starts off in a room in what looks like a city apartment. Six sisters occupy the room idly killing time. You choose a sister who is then dropped off at the beginning of a path that goes into a forest. The game gives you two simple instructions: go to Grandmother’s house and stay on the path.
This is where knowing about the game in advance hurt my experience. Even though I knew what would happen, the first time I played, I went straight to Grandmother’s house to see it for myself. The house is strange with elements that create some unease, but you pretty much go straight upstairs, crawl into bed next to Grandmother, and the game ends. The game then declares your session a failure and you’re returned to the girls’ apartment.
I’d like to think that if I had been given the game without being told what it was I would have ignored its rules and gone into the woods. But truthfully, I probably would have followed its instructions and gone straight to Grandmother’s house, expecting the game’s plot to be revealed further upon reaching my destination.
A question nagged me throughout my experience, “Would I have stayed on the path?” It was too late for me but I could, in a way, find out. I had Liz try the game. Dutifully Liz followed the game’s instructions and stuck to the path. When the game told her that she failed, she exclaimed, “But I did what it told me to do! What did I do wrong?” In a way, Liz did nothing wrong. Her character reached her destination as scheduled and as instructed.
Ignoring the game’s orders and walking into the woods opens a world of juxtaposition. The forest is full of light and at the same time shrouded in darkness. It’s full of both adventure and boring stillness. The woods are at times beautiful and calming; at others, ugly and terrifying. The music swells dramatically and then falls into eerie silence.
As you wander you come across objects and strange landmarks that bring up memories. Each girl responds to these things differently. Some of the girls don’t react at all and others have strong memories that rise up. Each girl’s personality dictates her feelings about what she finds.
There’s also a ghostly nameless young girl in white who runs through the forest playing hide and seek. I definitely jumped a few times with the creepy music playing and the girl running through my view. If you stand still for a while she’ll lead you out of the woods and back onto the path. Sometimes she’ll lead you to something of interest in the forest.
The first girl I left the path with is the youngest, Robin. She’s full of innocence and wonder. She thinks the woods are full of interesting things and doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t leave the path and be denied them. At many points The Path is deeply disturbing. Robin however doesn’t see the woods as disturbing…yet. She wanders, finding strange and fascinating sights. The girl in white suddenly runs up to Robin, waving her arms frantically. Robin takes her hand and is led out of the woods, back to the safety of the path. They hug and the girl in white skips back into the forest. But Robin isn’t satisfied. She knows she was told to stay on the path but the woods didn’t seem so bad. She even got some flowers for her Grandmother.
Determined to have further adventures, Robin heads back into the woods and after a bit of exploring finds a cemetery. She has a lot of fun playing with piles of dirt on a grave. Finished with her creations she’s soon excited by the nearby cry of a wolf – wolves are her favorite animal. Suddenly Robin notices a wolf walking around the cemetery nosing at different graves. She follows it around, hoping to grab its attention. It pauses and she jumps onto its back. The wolf runs around frantically trying to shake her off and then abruptly stops and howls. The scene goes black.
Coming back to the world we find Robin lying crumpled on the ground. The world is dark, without color. It’s raining heavily. Robin slowly and shakily rises. Her head is tilted at an angle that just seems wrong. Her arms are wrapped tightly around herself. We find that she’s very close to Grandmother’s house. She slowly stumbles through the front gate and to the front door. Inside, Grandmother’s house is very different. It’s bloody and claw marks are everywhere. As Robin walks through the house, scenes of violence flash across the screen. Howls, cries, and growls surround her. After you reach the final room the game tells you that you’ve succeeded.
Succeeded? How? Is Robin dead? Is the wolf really a wolf? What were the things I saw in Grandmother’s house? Unless you go straight to Grandmother’s house, every girl meets her own fate in the woods. Each girl’s adventure ends in similar fashion – she awakes crumpled on the path, broken. Walking into Grandmother’s house afterwards gives a singular, disturbing experience for each girl.
The Path makes you choose from the start. You can either choose to go to straight to Grandmother’s house and fail or go into the woods and cause something terrible to happen to the girls – for which the game declares success.
As I said in the beginning, the game is very much an art installation piece. A lot of what I wrote about Robin is my own interpretation. Maybe you won’t find the images the game shows to be upsetting. The game never out and out tells you the meaning of things. Some memories recalled by the girls have a caption that changes based on the girl but they’re just to give you an idea of her personality. You’re left to find meaning yourself.
It has been a while since I’ve played a game that made me feel feelings. The Path is a highly unusual game that isn’t for everyone. It’s not to be played but experienced. The “can video games be art?” discussion is all the rage right now. If I hear the question “but what will be the Citizen Kane of games?” once more I’ll punch that person in the face. The Path, however, would be a great example to hold up in the discussion. I was greatly moved and terrified by it and recommend that you give it a try as well.