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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Path.

The Path.

A friend of a friend called The Path a 'walking simulator' at one point, and while I can't fault the accuracy of the description, I do find myself taking umbrage at it.

The Path, released by Tale of Tales in 2009, is a psychological horror arthouse game where, indeed, you are essentially just walking around. You play one of any six girls, all themed after the colour red, sent through the woods to visit your grandmother and told to stick to the path.

Which you can do. There's nothing stopping you from walking straight down that path and into your grandmother's house. You can do that with every single one of the characters, if you're particularly keen on obeying instructions. If you wander off the path, though, you rapidly become lost in a vast, dark forest filled with ruins, wrecks, and abandoned places, each of which prompts a remark or a memory from one or more of the girls. 

There's nothing ominous about the path at all, so why would you
leave it?

But those aren't the only things in the forest. Somewhere, there is the Girl in White, a benevolent friend to the sisters who will guide them back to the path, and the Wolf. Each girl's wolf is different, but encountering it will lead to a short cutscene, after which they will wake up, exhausted and seemingly injured, in the rain, in front of their Grandmother's house.

Entering the house will then yield a first-person cutscene in which they journey through the strange, non-Euclidian passageways and rooms of the house, decked out in surrealist, horrifying fashions that hint at past traumas, neuroses, joys and terrors for each of the girls, before eventually their journey culminates in an unseen something attacking them.

When each girl has been to the house, you can play as the Girl in White. Her own journey through the house takes her through rooms belonging to each of the previous girls, before she finally comes to Grandmother's bedroom. As the Girl in White stands over the bed, the Grandmother opens her eyes sharply. When the Girl in White is next seen on the menu screen where you select each girl, her white dress has been stained with blood. 

The Girl in White would never threaten to stab you.

It's one of those games – essentially the video game equivalent of live art. A lot of confusing imagery and disparate snatches of dialogue that are never explained and don't really create a coherent story, instead hinting at themes, events, and emotions rather than ever outright stating or showing them.

This means that, naturally, someone will always suggest that the interpretation is sexual violence. For every girl. I learned this lesson when I was studying live art, that no matter what performance a woman artist did, from the friend of mine who baked cakes on-stage while delivering a monologue about her upbringing; to the woman who did an amazing dance number; to the woman who simulated childbirth with raspberries while covered in gold paint and wearing a pair of golden wings – someone, someone, almost always a man, would go 'Well, this is obviously about sexual violence.' There was this overwhelming idea that it was impossible for women to do art about anything else, as if this one awful, looming, endemic problem with society blinkered out everything else a woman could experience.

The Path is no different, as while browsing the interwebs I found that it was the go-to interpretation for every one of the character's experiences. There is one character for which that is certainly, unambiguously true, but the rest of them seem to cover a range of topics from childhood illness, animal attacks, loss of a parent, the disappointment of expectations versus reality, accidents involving barbed wire, drug abuse, and car crashes.

The library of human trauma is vast, and The Path gamely attempts to include as much of it as possible, and it feels demeaning to go 'Well, the characters are women, I think we all know what this is about,' not least because it's a way to not actually pay any attention to what's actually being said. 

Wells are fun and safe.

But. But, but. But all you do is walk, and the graphics are pretty poor, and the controls are clunky, and it crashed every so often.

If I were to judge The Path purely on its qualities as a game, I'd have to say it's pretty awful, but then the same is true if I had to judge any live art piece on its qualities as a play. I once spent three hours painting a wall. People flocked in to watch me and three other people literally do DIY, and murmured in hushed tones about what it all meant, and whether it, like, represented the meaningless of civilisation, and how, like, the government is trying to brainwash you, bro. This is not good drama. In no sane world would people spend three hours watching that.

(One member of the group wanted us to paint on him, and got immediately yelled down with 'STOP OVERCOMPLICATING THINGS.')

The Path is like that, only better. It's a lot more meaningful than four people painting for three hours, that's for sure. There's clearly been a lot of care and thought put into each girl's imagery and experiences and the designs of their Wolves, and even if I can't see the whole design, and understand the entirety of the story being told, I can believe it's there. I can believe that there's a precision and an artistry to how the story was crafted, and I can believe that it isn't just 'well, this looks meaningful. ASK ME WHAT IT MEANS, ASK ME WHAT IT MEANS!'

There's some nice touches, too. For example, you can circle around the Grandmother's house – not only is it impossibly tiny, but you can also look through the back window at her bedroom, and see her lying there. 

Well, that's definitely a giant glowing head.

It's telling that when my friend and I played it, we spent hours discussing it afterwards, and for days, debating what each girl's Wolf represented, what the Grandmother meant, what the Girl in White meant. Some we came to an accord on, some we didn't, but the discussions were fascinating, and that's surely the purpose of art, especially surrealist art: To promote some manner of discussion, interpretation, and deeper thought.

It's also a game that can be played very quickly. We finished it in a single night, doing all the different girls' stories, and a completionist playthrough, doing each of them several times more, only took another day or two more. For that reason alone, and the fact that it's pretty cheap, I'd recommend at least giving it some consideration. 

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