“Now remember: just take the bus to the last stop near the edge of the forest, and then walk the path straight on until you reach Grandma’s house. And stay on the path!”
“Yeah, mom, I know!”
This article was originally published on Gaming Daily.Through the years I’ve had so many reasons to ignore her, always telling me where I could and couldn’t go… – I was following a pretty bird, and I got lost. I wanted to go for a walk by the lake. I wanted to pick some flowers that only grow in the forest. I was secretly meeting a boy. I wanted to check out the creepy graveyard. I needed to get away for a while. Besides, the real reason she doesn’t want me to stray is because she doesn’t want me to grow up and make my own decisions and not listen to her all the time. That’s why I went off the path and into the forest. It’s made me who I am.
The forest is a weird place. It’s not really a regular forest because there are no animals, the trees all look the same – pretty, in a way – and I keep finding all sorts of weird things that don’t really belong in a forest. A beat-up car, a bathtub, a TV that shows static… It’s almost as if it’s not really a proper place at all, a woodland divorced from time on which the fog and bits of someone’s memory are mapped. Maybe it’s mine. Maybe I’m dreaming.
I walk around, I pick flowers, I find things. The gentle piano and voices keep pace with my tentative girl’s footsteps. A part of me – a part of the me that’s sitting in a chair, in front of a screen – thinks “this walking is slow.” And “this forest starts to look and sound monotonous after a while.” But then I turn my head and I’m in there again. Sunlight washes over a glade somewhere at the edge of my vision, and I run with my heart pounding in my ears and my sight blurring. A ghostly violinist accentuates my excitement with a couple of cutting notes.
I enter the glade, and the light shifts colour, as does the music. I feel a fateful presence. Someone else is there. Is this a person or a wolf? I’m not sure, could be both. All I know is that I need to be with this other one, because I’ve lived through this before, back in a place where time moves. I join the wolf person, and my control is wrenched away. The music climaxes. Fade to black.
When I wake up, I’m on the Path again, in the rain. My broken form drags itself onward at a pace that is so excruciatingly slow that even the chair-sitting, screen-staring me feels hurt. Step by step, I inch to the only place that can be reached in any reasonable amount of time: Grandmother’s House. It’s not the way I remember it, though. The rooms have changed, the geometry is wrong, it’s raining inside, the walls bleed. I want out but I can’t go back. I pass through a winding corridor filled with the traumatic sights and sounds that have built up in my memory, until I reach the innermost room. My ears ring with the echoes of a lethal thump and suddenly I’m gone.
As if turning the page to a new chapter, I end back up at the start screen, minus one girl. I repeat the journey, live through more horrid memories, until they’re all gone, all six of them, and I’m left with that enigmatic girl in the white dress. I realise she, like me, is part of all the girls. Or no: they’re part of us.
I find resonance with one of the girls in particular, Rose. I see something of myself in her demeanor: head firmly in the clouds, closer to animals than humans, pantheïstic leanings, and world-weary at some moments. Unlike myself, Rose seems to have experienced some traumatic event, perhaps a chronic illness, that causes her early maturation compared to her sisters. At the same time she is naïve, and so detached from the world that it becomes her downfall. However, like that of the other girls, her end too comes in the form most desired.
I think I’m ready to step back from the game now. During the past few years since The Path was released, I’ve familiarised myself with what it holds, and with what others have gotten out of it. What I’ve written here is impressionistic and reflects a personal interpretation. There are others who’ve dedicated much more time and effort to elaborating their experiences [e.g. 1, 2], which demonstrates the game’s power in eliciting these interpretations from people.
At the surface, the basic premise of ‘a horror retelling of Little Red Riding Hood’ suffices as a description of the game. There’s girls in red in here, wolves, not to mention quite a bit of blood and suspense, and the use of striking colours and architecture has its parallels in a movie like Argento’s Suspiria, as the game’s designer duo Tale of Tales (Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn) themselves acknowledge in their post-mortem. Those familiar with older versions of the fairy tale will know that it didn’t always end with “they lived happily ever after” either. There are some who, led astray by the game’s obtuse interface and often bloody and violent content, dared not look further and have dismissed The Path as a boring, objectionable non-game about leading girls to their death, or even a rape simulator.
I don’t think that’s all there is to it, obviously. With a little work and goodwill – and dare I say it, all art requires both – we get to the core. The thing is, The Path doesn’t try to sell itself to you, or even force its story on you. Instead, you have to put aside part of your own mind’s tempo and get into that of the girl. Once you make that step, you enter a place that’s most like an Angela Carteresque take on the fairy story, blurred by traumatic memory, and filled with excitement, blood, sexuality, and femininity. All this is underpinned by an excellent soundtrack by experimental heavyweights Kris Force and Jarboe.
Out of all of Tale of Tales’ works, this one may be the most blatantly symbolist, urging you to take no object, no colour, no event, at face value, but instead reflect on what it means on an emotional level in the context of the history you’ve constructed out of the game. Their other works, though they’ve intrigued me for various reasons, never reach this level of personal involvement, but I don’t doubt that Harvey & Samyn are capable of matching or exceeding the success of The Path in the future. It seems like Bientôt l’été, their upcoming title, is heading in a different, more detached direction, but if I had to choose, I’d put my money on The Book of 8.
What I’ve gotten out of The Path – the objects, the memories, the visions – are bits of my life as a girl left behind on the path to womanhood. I’ve been an innocent, playful, curious, tough, adventurous, loving, sensual, and disciplined girl. I’ve also been a naïve, detached, foolhardy, self-destructive, neurotic, out of touch with myself, and plain old stupid girl. Being a guy in my late twenties, I consider this no small feat. I’ve worked through hundreds of books, movies, and games in my lifetime, but I can honestly say that few of them have pushed me towards empathy like this one. More than anything else, The Path made me wonder, and perhaps helped me understand at least a bit of ‘what it feels like for a girl’.