By John Walker on March 11th, 2009 at 9:48 pm.
Tale of Tales’ The Path comes out a week today. It’s a unique game, almost stretching the use of the word “game” to describe it as such, in which you take one of six Little Red Riding Hoods through the woods, on her journey to Grandmother’s house. However, simply completing this task is the shortest route the the game’s ending – indeed, if anything, finishing the game is really the last thing you want to do.
The path is surrounded by woods. Walk straight down it and you’ll find the house in around a minute. Leave the path and things will take a lot longer. In the woods are various locations to discover, which the girls will respond to and maybe gently interact with. I have one of the worst senses of direction known to mankind, so I’m never quite sure if the game is masterful at spinning me around such that I can never retrace my steps, or if it is reordering the position of places behind my back. Whichever, this is a game of getting lost, of the terror of thinking you’ve been moving in a straight line and finding yourself back where you started.
This is difficult to write about. It describes itself as a “short horror game”, but it’s not horror as you might think, or even as it might present itself. The atmosphere is immediately picking up on gothic vibes, especially in the presentation of the six girls. Varying ages, varying styles of dress, each is distinctly morbid. Who you choose defines how you’ll experience the world, from the reaction to objects found to the speed and style of movement. Ranging in age from 9 to 19, each represents a stage of growing up, of the transition from wide-eyed excitement, through cynical disgust, to a craving for adult responsibility. Rose gambols amiably, positive and optimistic. Robin, 9 years old, is slow and aimless. In fact, she’ll fight against you as you try to control her, walking off in her own direction as soon as you take your hands from the keys. Ruby, with her left leg in a brace, walks with a limp but runs fast. She’s 15, broken, and unpleasantly vulnerable. My experience playing her was by far the most uncomfortable. I kind of don’t like the game.
This is not a criticism. If anything, it’s the highest compliment I could pay it. While there’s spooky woods, abandoned playgrounds, creepy dolls, and many other familiar themes of horror, these offer no scares. For me, the horror comes from what appears to be the most abhorrently pessimistic presentation of adolescence. This is a game about doom, about unhappy endings – even a peaceful finish feels wrapped in threats of morbidity and misery.
The atmosphere is probably the most important thing to discuss. It’s almost a character within the game. As you move, scrawlings, doodles, weird motifs scratch themselves into the surface of your screen, while the entire quality of the image constantly shifts from over-saturated colourful worn photographs, to blurred, grainy archaic film footage. Colour washes in and out of the world, while the soundtrack twists and wails. Thoughts from the girls slowly write themselves over the top of it all, often obscured and impossible to read. It makes Monolith’s attempts with FEAR 2 look grossly uninspired.
There’s a strong theme of helplessness throughout. I think perhaps it’s this, more than anything, that takes The Path into what I assume is its intended uncomfortable place. Movement is often achingly slow, slower than in any other game I’ve played. When a girl runs briskly, it’s a remarkable feeling of sudden freedom, then taken from you once again when you reach a certain place, or see a certain sight. Reach Grandmother’s house, and the controls completely betray all your instincts. While you never feel completely in control at any time, here no matter which buttons you press, you move forward. It’s a fascinating decision, and says a great deal about the role of our interaction. Depending upon your actions, and the girl you’re playing, the house can be very different. But most of all, moving forward is often the last thing you want to do. Taking away that choice, but yet still forcing you to press something, anything, in order to keep moving, is sinister.
The speed is a problem. If Tale of Tales push their luck anywhere, it’s here. To move quite so slowly suggests a great deal of confidence in the player’s interest in persisting, and perhaps this isn’t always deserved. I stress “always”. Often it is, but there were certainly times when I was just bored, rather than anticipating.
I’m left feeling incredibly unsure about how to express my negative feelings, having attempted this paragraph half a dozen times. I don’t want to give anything away that happens in the game, but I do want to discuss my experience of playing as Ruby, and why it genuinely upset me. I think this is The Path’s greatest achievement – to be capable of being genuinely upsetting. Although I’m not sure that’s something I want. Well, hell, that’s not true. I do want to be challenged this way, to be left feeling repulsed. I think that’s important. But I think the honest reaction to it is say that I don’t like the thing that caused it.
I think The Path can be criticised for occasionally misjudging its pace, for oddly poor details in the character designs (while others are fantastic), and for the awkwardness of placing collectable flowers around the woods, and a strange score table at the end that’s completely incongruous to everything else. But it cannot be criticised for making me feel really fucked up by it.
It’s remarkable. I strongly suggest that when it’s out a week today, you take a look. I’m so ideologically opposed to its attitude, so bothered by its perspective on adolescence, that part of me wants to rail against it. But more of me is fascinated that something has created such a response. It’s certainly unlike anything else. Whether that’s a good thing is going to be an oddly personal reaction.