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Walking The Path

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!”

All the girls.

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.

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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. 12], 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.

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Still from Suspiria.
Still from Sus­piria.

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’.