What Cruel Teeth You’ve Got: The Path Impressions

By John Walker on March 11th, 2009 at 9:48 pm.

A rare bright moment in the game.

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.

I've not figured out who this girl is, but she helps you find the path again.

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.

Even picking flowers is unsettling.

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.

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95 Comments »

  1. Tei says:

    The Graveyard is already on Steam.
    Must download this one…

    “Little Red Riding Hoods ” …humm.. in a way, Zoey from L4D is LRRH. I mean, with the red HP, and with the hunter (wolf) out here…

  2. Markoff Chaney says:

    -snip-
    My experience playing her was by far the most uncomfortable. I kind of don’t like the game.
    -snip-

    This.

    This is what truly makes something horrible. That uncomfortable feeling in your mind that really makes you want to turn it off, to make it stop, to not inch or lurch or sprint toward that final respite, or so we hope. Whether it’s poorly done and it offends your sensibilities of taste or smell or touch or intellect or aesthetics or concept of reality or anything else you identify with your perception of the event or whether it just plain terrifies you at your core and reduces you to a gibbering retching quivering mess Horror is that desire that need to stop whatever is happening and being utterly completely and irrevocably unable to do so.

    I greatly anticipate this interactive experience.

    EDIT – Don’t forget the new trailer just out today as well…

  3. teo says:

    Art games are neat but I haven’t liked one enough to justify paying for it

    Especially considering all the games on Steam that I want but haven’t bought yet

  4. JKjoker says:

    “Taking away that choice, but yet still forcing you to press something, anything, in order to keep moving, is sinister”

    yeah, turning the game into a 1 button quick time event is very very sinister, you can almost taste my fear that this game becomes successful and everyone starts doing it (wait, *looks at fear2*, they already do! nooooooo!), sorry man but im not touching this one with a 50 ft pole

  5. Thiefsie says:

    Markoff Chaney,

    I get that feeling watching the Biggest Loser or other equally abhorrent TV, but then I justify myself by thinking it’s already been recorded and nothing is going to change by me not watching it, and for a game, well it’s just a game.

  6. John Walker says:

    JKjoker – you might have missed the point a little there. But then going around poking at things from 50ft can do that.

  7. JKjoker says:

    nah, i know what you mean, but ive never looked for art in games, i want fun and i just can accept to loss of gameplay. even if it works its no longer a game.

  8. Wildbluesun says:

    Sounds like this game is a bit like The Bell Jar…it takes you really, really horrible places, but you go there anyway simply to experience a kind of awfulness you can’t get in your own life.

    So I suppose when you’re thinking “hmm, should I buy this” the question is “do I want to be entertained or do I want to experience something new and unusual, however unpleasant it may be”.

  9. Markoff Chaney says:

    Thiefsie,

    Aye. Horror takes many forms. I always feel it’s harder to sally forth with the un-interactive kind (where it’s a truly binary decision of continue to submit myself (watch or read) or just turn the thing off) than the interactive kind where I can meander around exploring other things if I don’t feel like going straight to the next link in the chain of progression in my game. At least when I have a choice, I can keep looking around for more plants to heal me or ammo to shoot stuff or fill every square of the map before I face that final horror. I wonder if the inevitability of a linear progression with a fixed time frame ending point also somewhat enters into my decision making process as to what constitutes, in my mind, horror.

  10. Lewis says:

    John, thanks for this. It’s a good few weeks since I played through The Path now, and I was starting to doubt my own high judgement of it. This piece nails it, though, and makes me want to crawl back into that world.

    I might just do that if I get a spare half hour tomorrow.

    What’s interesting is that some of the strongest feelings The Path evoked for me were the opposite of yours. It rarely upset me, though pessimism is certainly a central theme. Quite the opposite, really – I found a lot of it really uplifting and inspiring. Robin in particular has a beautiful naivety to her that’s so easy to get caught up in. Her comments at the graveyard actually made me stop, and think, and smile, in spite of the morbid subject matter.

    I also think that the underlying message – that you have to take risks in order to discover yourself – is one that’s refreshingly positive, even if it is poured into such an unsettling mould.

    I’d like to talk with you about this in greater depth, but, y’know. It’s not a game to be spoiled. In a couple of weeks, perhaps.

  11. Larington says:

    Fear? Or foreboding?

    System Shock 2 had far more of the latter, an audio cue in one part that had no reason to be there (Though some spiders were a mere doorway and a corner away, on the level with the biocanisters that help you get to the next level on the ship) but damn near had me halt play right there just because I was expecting something really REALLY bad to happen.

    Frankly, I feel most games AND films, AND television do a shit job of scaring us, being reliant on shock jumps rather than trying to genuinely unsettle us and push us away from our comfort zones.

    So say we all?

  12. Lewis says:

    Oh, incidentally – Michael from ToT reliably informs me that the flower gems, achievements and score table are supposed to be ironic. If I have a serious criticism of the game, it’s that I’m not sure they conveyed that well enough for it to work.

  13. Lewis says:

    JKjoker: it’s really not like that at all. You’re in an evironment, in first-person perspective, but no matter what button you hit, no matter where you move your mouse, all it does is make you take another step forward into an increasingly messed up environment.

  14. Joe says:

    Weird. My girlfriend and I were literally just playing this and mulling it over.

  15. Benjamin Finkel says:

    While the narration in the trailer was lacking, in my opinion, I think I will purchase this. It looks marvelous, and your impressions are quite compelling.

    Ben

  16. John Walker says:

    Lewis – I agree. If it were meant to be ironic, they forgot to have it be a statement. Unless the incongruity itself was the statement, but if so, it’s hard to see how it states anything other than, “This doesn’t fit in this game.”

    I think it’s more likely the flowers were an attempt to encourage people to wander further from the path, to explore more.

    The only real irony I could see was the declaration of “SUCCESS!” when you had encountered the wolf.

  17. maybenexttime says:

    Huh. You’ve certainly piqued my interest. Thinking back to the really unpleasant bits in novels – the bits where you feel like it’s your fault because you keep reading – well, some of them are the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never had that feeling from a game. I’m intrigued to find out more….

  18. JKjoker says:

    lewis: oh, im feeling stupid now :p
    i have too much QTE related anger inside me just waiting to come out
    still, the “press X to have the game play itself” is the thing i truly fear

  19. Igor Hardy says:

    From the descriptions this game reminds me of Inscape’s Bad Day on The Midway. I’m looking forward to a comparably disturbing experience to the one that old title brought me.

  20. Gap Gen says:

    I kinda felt the same way about Dark Knight. It made an interesting point about superhero comics, but I utterly detested it. Oh, and Watchmen is far smarter.

    That said, this sounds like a very interesting piece of game design, and even if it’s not a popular success, that sort of idea could be noticed by mainstream game designers. Here’s to a Guitar Hero where no matter what you do, you descend into a drug-fueled husk of your former self and no matter what button you press, you still suck.

  21. Paul_M says:

    I’m really looking forward to this. I love exploring within games – too few really encourage you to do this.

    John – Do you think your revulsion to aspects of this game and its depiction of childhood are related to your youth work?

  22. Scandalon says:

    I’ve been curious/intruiged by this title for awhile now. That trailer is…rough though, and the voiceover is awful. As in, I almost couldn’t finish it.

  23. Kast says:

    Well what a coincidence… as part of my Creative Writing course we’re looking at fairy tales. Guess which one I chose and am about to give a presentation on, regarding its psychological interpretations and modern subversions?

    I do love Tale of Tales’ work and have been very much looking forward to this, though I’d consciously forgotten it. I just wish I had any money with which to buy it…

  24. Lewis says:

    Kast: It’s under 7 quid.

  25. John Walker says:

    Paul_M – If you’ll allow me to get exceedingly introspective, and to say stuff that is purely “comment” territory, I think the revulsion this game causes in me is the reason I do youth work, not because I do youth work. My reading of the game – and I stress this is very much my own reading, I’m far to Barthesian to impose this on anyone else – is that teenage years are doomed to cynicism and self-destruction.

    I think the girls, depicted as victims, reinforce the idea that they are doomed, hopeless. It’s that ultimate bleakness that really bothers me. I think what the game captures magnificently is an honest depiction of that feeling of hopelessness. But one that makes me want to scream. Doom is not inevitable, hope is possible. This game, to me, says otherwise.

    I stress again, I’m likely loading it with my own bias.

  26. Thomas Lawrence says:

    Kast: if you haven’t already, you need to read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”, a short story collection featuring a number of takes on Red Riding Hood, among other fairy tales.

  27. James G says:

    Edit: Many of my questions were answered in the time it took to compile this post.

    I’m torn on this one, it sounds interesting enough, but its an idea I don’t feel quite confident enough to dive into properly, either in terms of cash, or emotionally. I fear I’ll be too tentative and cursory in my approach to really get the impact.

    However your description does make me curious, although I’m still not entirely clear where your negative feelings lie, whether with feelings portrayed and represented by the piece, or presented by it. I get the impression of the latter, that your disagreement was as much with the authors, as it was with the content (or at the very least, your perception of the authors.)

    Now obviously, not having played the game it is impossible to pass comment on anything but your own impressions. But the line, “transition from wide-eyed excitement, through cynical disgust, to a craving for adult responsibility,” struck me as it is a shift which is both alien, and yet familiar. I don’t think I ever fully gave up on the former, and it is a feeling I prize, and similarly the latter is something that never showed itself. Responsibility is something I picked up as it came, sometimes with apprehension, rarely with reluctance, but I never really craved it. The closest point was probably in the couple of months before heading to university, but this was all tied in with so many other emotions that it is difficult to separate. The cynicism did come, only later, and even then I find it exists along side the wide eyed wonder, only in the microcosm of my career has it perhaps begun to replace it, something which saddens me. But I suppose my main point here is that I think it is mistaken (and I realise that it is your comments on the game here, so I’m not calling you mistaken necessarily) that growing older means discarding all that which makes us young. CS Lewis says it better than me:

    “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    Of course, adolescence also ties in to the whole issue of sexual maturity and experimentation. (At leasts symbolically.) Thanks to Pullman I also now link it all in with free will and ‘original sin.’

  28. Wedge says:

    So eh, is this thing going to be $5 like the Graveyard? I mean the Graveyard had nothing to it at all, so I wouldn’t pay for it, but I might pay $5 for this as it sounds like there’s a lot more variety and interesting stuff to look at, even if it’s pretty much just interactive art.

  29. Z says:

    Anyone have tech specs?

  30. John Walker says:

    James G – In that line I was trying to quite briskly summarise my interpretation of the range of playable characters. You can read about them all here: http://tale-of-tales.com/ThePath/gallery.html

    The oldest, Scarlet, is 19, parentalised by raising her younger sisters. She is described as keeping her hope and desires as secrets she will die with. It’s not a good prospect.

    I noticed that on this site – http://grandmothers-house.net/ – it has the line, “A game of growing up.” That’s a chilling declaration to make.

    Z – Pretty low. 2 GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM, semi-recent graphics card

  31. yhancik says:

    Always Run is standard in most games; here it’s an almost uncomfortable experience.
    There is no action button; to interact you have to leave the controls, and let the girls do.
    This is not “effective”, this will require patience from the players, but it makes you think about you gamer’s habits

    In a way, with the controls and the whole irony about achievements/success, The Path might also be a game about games. Which definitely is interesting.

    Aside from that, even if it might look technically slightly outdated, it’s probably one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, especially on the use of shaders. It’s almost shocking that all the other games use them so poorly :p

  32. PaulMorel says:

    “Rose gambles amiably”

    I believe that should read either “Rose gambols amiably”, or “Rose ambles amiably”

    Funny typo though. ;)

  33. bhlaab says:

    Wow, I saw the trailer earlier today and thought it looked like a terrible American McGee’s Gothy Fairytale Goth Goth.

    But reading this, I’m suddenly interested…

  34. The Hammer says:

    I’ve been intrigued, and interested, in this game for years. Lovely to see it finally out, and equally lovely to see it’s as interesting (albeit pessimistic!) as I was hoping.

    Thanks for the Impressions, John!

  35. Buemba says:

    Sounds interesting. If the price is right I’ll definitely give it a try.

  36. Z says:

    Looks like a great headtrip.

  37. bansama says:

    Sounds interesting. If the price is right I’ll definitely give it a try.

    IIRC pricing will be $9.99.

  38. Brad Root says:

    I’m really excited to play this, thanks to your review. I look forward to it! $10 sounds right.

  39. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Well so long as it’s scarier than an RE game I guess I’ll pick it up on principle.

    And may gush about it to people who’re unfortunate enough to be nearby if I like it enough.

    EDIT: Reading comprehension failure. Okay, so it’s not actually supposed to be properly scary. Still, is probably scarier than RE so that’s alright.

  40. Gassalasca says:

    This is why I like RPS. I wake up ar 7:14 AM on a gloomy, prospectless day and you are there waiting with something as awesome as this.

    Thank you.

  41. apnea says:

    I’ll be sure to try. So-called atmospheric games are rarely wasted experiments.

    About the controls’ irregularities: I welcome games engaging players at other levels than the (sacrosanct) “entertainment” of its control schemes.

  42. apnea says:

    Argh, typos galore.

  43. Lightbulb says:

    Gassalasca

    Ditto :)

  44. Michael Samyn says:

    Beautiful article, Mr Walker. Thank you. I’m sorry we made you feel bad. But I’m afraid I need to assure you that this is a very personal reaction. Perhaps that’s the most uncomfortable thing about The Path: it’s about you.

    I promise that our next game will be nice again!
    Well, I won’t actually promise that… ;)

  45. Michael Samyn says:

    I also think that the underlying message – that you have to take risks in order to discover yourself – is one that’s refreshingly positive, even if it is poured into such an unsettling mould.
    Wow! Lewis. Do you want to be my shrink?
    It honestly just struck me right now how appropriate this message is to the life of Auriea and I, to how we got together, a tragedy of which the scars still haven’t healed. And yet something we have done, are responsible for and have enjoyed so much.

  46. Michael Samyn says:

    John, perhaps it helps when you think about the different girls in The Path as aspects of a single person.

  47. Lewis says:

    A few more comments to a few people:

    Michael: hello! I fear I may have come across as a horrible journo type for not really being in touch since pestering you for an early review copy. Sorry! I must commend you and Auriea on creating a game that’s already provoking such an intense reation from such a wide variety of people, even before the release of the game. That’s rather admirable, and says as much about your clever viral marketing prowess as it does about your thought-provoking game. It’s also fascinating how different these reactions are: while John’s was one of repulsion, mine was largely one of optimism in the face of negative situations.

    Pure speculation, but I wonder if age has anything to do with it. I don’t know. I’m still a wide-eyed early-twenties type, though I did spend a number of my teenage years wallowing in a Ruby-esque state of existential pessimism and faux-intellectualism. I wonder if seeing these adolescents, each troubled or longing in their own unique ways, step up and take responsibility for their lives (or deaths) resonated in a way that made me feel oddly comfortable and satisfied. Realising you can’t go through life living for vapid and unfounded pessimism. Realising you have to act, and consciously move forward. I wonder if, since I’m only a few years older than the game’s elder sister, this is something that evoked memories a little clearer for me, rather than allowing for more distant and evaluative interpretation like John’s.

    (Not that John’s reaction wasn’t intensely personal, of course; but my instinctive response was to identify with the girls, then think “good on you!” when they stepped up to the plate, whereas John’s seemed very different.)

    Wedge: “I mean the Graveyard had nothing to it at all”

    Really? Really? ‘Cause I think I could talk for longer about the themes and ideas explored in The Graveyard than anything that immediately springs to mind. Except, perhaps, Dear Esther and Pathologic. If you’re asking “is The Path more game-like?” though, then yes, it is.

    Dorian Cornelius Jasper: I’m still uncomfortable with calling it “scary” or “a horror game.” It doesn’t evoke fear. It didn’t for me, anyway, at least after the initial panic of getting instantly lost faded (The Path does agorophobia better than any game I’ve seen… though it might be the only one that’s tried). What it does do is stir up the sorts of emotions and thoughts that we usually try to steer clear of, making it a somewhat daunting beast to tackle. Anything overtly scary is just an interpretation of events conjured up by your own mind.

  48. Wildbluesun says:

    “it’s pretty much just interactive art.”
    That being a criticism? =P

  49. Xercies says:

    I think the thing that John did here is the only thing you can really talk about the game. I’m really looking forward to this game, and hopefully it will broaden my horizens in art games. I’m still going to laugh at traditional reviewers trying to review this game like IGN because i don’t think its possible.

    i personnaly like psycological horror more anyway, hich is what this game sounds like its doing. Unsetelling is what we need, gore and cheap jumps are fine but can often get tedious and leave you wanting more from the game.

    Anyway its nice to see a guy doing what he wants from games, and I’ve got to say that I have been kind of inspired by these indie guys doing what they want.

  50. Kast says:

    Thomas Lawrence – That’s the first thing my tutor recommended, but thanks for the tip/reminder.

    Lewis – Regarding age and identification with the Red Girls, I would be interested in seeing results of a large number of players marked by age, gender, level of identification and emotional response to the game. There could be some very interesting trends there. Oh, and good on you mentioning Dear Esther :P

    It seems to me that the ‘horror’ aspect is more the emotional rawness and gothic fairy tales stylings of The Path. Reading original oral traditions of what we now call fairy tales, they’re absolutely horrific.