A few years ago, there was a widely-publicized bickering between author Clive Barker and film critic Roger Ebert on the nature of video games, particularly if they could be considered an “art form.” Ebert claimed that, given the player’s influence on a game’s outcome, they could never attain status as “high art.” Barker fired back that games could potentially take us “everywhere – the same places all art can take us.” Ironically, the Barker-produced Jericho then failed to wow on any particularly artistic level.
Even more ironically, Tale of Tales’ The Path, perhaps the closest thing to true art the game world has ever seen, does little to push the argument in either direction. It’s a deeply interpretive, emotionally stirring experience, perhaps even more so than any of its peers. However, it does that at the expense of a lot of the interactive nature that would make it a game.
The Path is basically divided into two sections, the woods and Grandmother’s house. After choosing one of six girls to play as, each named with a reddish hue (Scarlet, Rose, etc.), you take the path to Grandmother’s house. The parallels to Little Red Riding Hood are obvious (even developer Tale of Tales admit that it’s a take on the fairy tale), right down to the potential to wander off the path into the woods to encounter the Wolf.
However, the potential is just that, the potential. The player can choose to stay on the path all the way to Grandmother’s house, where the following first-person, barely controllable walk through Grandmother’s house ensues. Therein, the player can do no more than move forward down a predetermined route towards their Grandmother, where they join her in her bed after their not-so-long journey. However, the resulting post-level completion screen will give you a failing score for not encountering the Wolf.
By its own strange design, The Path practically demands that you ignore the simple rules presented at the beginning of each level (don’t stray from the path) and strike out into the surrounding woods. There, the once-sterile world comes alive around you, with a stark and unsettling beauty. Lighting shifts around your character, and the screen swarms with strange textures and pictographs, as they discover new environments and items. Despite the expansiveness of the woods, your character can never truly become lost, as standing in one spot for an extended period of time summons The Girl in White, a little girl in a white dress (natch) who will take you by the hand and lead you back to the path. Alternatively, you can keep exploring, at least until you find the Wolf.
The Wolf, without giving too much away, is where The Path starts to really define itself. Not just a simple canis lupus, the Wolf takes many forms, each dependent on the girl you picked at the outset. The Wolf is more than just an antagonist: they are now a symbol of something deeper in the girls’ lives. After a brief cinematic detailing your interactions with the Wolf (some of which were almost stomach-churning in their disturbing subtext) your character is left back on the path, with rain falling around them as they slowly and dejectedly approach Grandmother’s house. Once inside, Grandmother’s house undergoes drastic changes, again depending on the girl and their Wolf, and again you follow the same predestined path towards Grandmother’s room.
The Path, to be frank, is one of the most adult handlings of horror I have ever seen, video game or otherwise. Instead of what could have been an obvious monster romp with werewolves and rampant bloodletting (the obvious path to follow), Tale of Tales have made a much deeper, more unsettling horror out of symbolism and interpretation. True, some traditional horror elements remain (the skinless boy spinning in a fog bank was an unexpectedly creepy event), but the game itself is practically devoid of blood or other explicit material. However, it is completely and utterly a game for adults. Somehow, I imagine that the ideas and themes (let alone the slow, dreamlike quality of the gameplay) being completely lost on a younger player.
However, I do have some difficulty in calling The Path a game, as it lacks some of the more basic elements that traditional games have. While there are some set goals, the overall experience is the impossible amalgam of open-world sandbox and interactive narrative. There is no combat or interactive conflict, and aside from the occasional item to pick up, there is no real gameplay of which to speak. Instead, there’s the undeniable feeling that you, much like the girls themselves, have no real control over their destinies. But if that is the tone that Tale of Tales wanted to set, does that make it a bad game?
I’m not going to lie: some of you will positively hate this title. It’s not a fast-action thrill ride, or a multifaceted roleplaying experience. Hell, at times it’s difficult to even call it a game. As loathe as I am to use trite buzzwords, The Path is more of an interactive experience. Go in expecting this, and your 10 bucks will take you someplace emotionally and psychologically that you’ve never been…and if that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.