Its been a while since I’ve played a indie horror title like The Path. I’m not particularly good at dealing with them, and thus I don’t go out of my way to buy or play them unless they come highly recommended for a reason that isn’t laxative related. Horrors serve a particular purpose in the media landscape; they are designed in such a way to make you feel helpless, defenseless and generally up shit creek without a paddle. In a video game, taking away control is almost the antithesis of the medium, and thus horror titles such as Amnesia and Silent Hill 2 make interesting arguments on how far games can go to create meaning.
When I installed The Path, putting on my lead underwear and readying the ceiling airbag in case of jump scares, I was prepared to concede control to the game. The game gave me its task; make your way to Grandma’s house and don’t even think about stepping off the brightly lit path or you’ll be sorry. No problem, I said. Way ahead of you. So off I go, skipping down the path, ready for some psychologically scarring creature to lurch out of the woods and grab me.
Repeated nope-ing is never ever not an option.
But nothing happened. I made it to the grandmother’s house without incident. For completing this task and doing exactly what the game asked of me, they gave me a D rank. Well, fuck me for following the rules of the game, right? This would be the point where I put the game down and call it uninteresting. A game isn’t really engaging if nothing really happens, right? I berated But seeing as this is a backlog trawl and not a flight of fancy, I persevered and finished the game.
What I am left with isn’t so much a horror as it is a slightly unnerving and definitely acid-induced Little Red Riding Hood. Out there in the woods – where the game pointedly told you not to go – there are collectibles, snippets of information, wells to jump down and generally horror game set pieces. The set pieces laid out in this forest are the wolves, one for each sister, and all representative of their character. After your roshambo with them you re-enter your grandmother’s house under ominous circumstances, the rooms get all trippy and Eli Rothy, and then someone is missing. Shit.
Yeah, I see no correlation between these two events at all.
What the game forces you to do to progress is deliberately do what you’re not supposed to do. “Stay on the path”, the game warns in ominous white handwriting. Alas, the mystique and the lure of exploration grabs every player by the lapels eventually – it is an exercise in temptation, and the failures in recognizing it. One of the girls’ wolves is a kindly lumberjack, lonely and attractive. Clearly something is going down and no one’s yelling timber, hyuk hyuk. Another is the piano teacher of a girl who had to give up her passion for music to look after her family. The temptation to steer from paths better traveled is played with through narrative and gameplay, and as one sinks deeper into the forest it becomes less clear where one has come from and where they are going.
This leads to an interesting concept that goes against the grain of what we understand as gamers – failing in order to succeed. In traditional video games, the rules of the game are very clear. By following the rules and mastering the mechanics, you can win the game, and failure comes by either not having the skill to master the gameplay or a failure to understand these inherent rules, which is often a negative consequence. The Path is not traditional, obviously, and thus failure is less of a consequence and more of a narrative tool, becoming the vehicle by which the story progresses. Failure becomes another mechanic. Once we start to see failure and its causes as a mechanic, it becomes clear that other games do it as well, from Braid to Fire Emblem to DayZ, for varying degrees of success.
The Path is a strange thing for me to recommend. It does what it does well, certainly. It’s a allegory for the movement from childhood to adulthood, temptations and failures, and not liking old people because they don’t clean up after themselves. It also presses heavily on what less traditional video games are doing right now: pushing the boundaries and forcing us to examine the parts of games we have never considered before, even the concept of losing the game. ‘Is The Path even a game at all?’, some may wonder. With the current climate surrounding that question right now, I may just leave it for someone else to decide. I am quite fond of keeping all my body parts attached to me, thank you very much.
Next week on Breaking Backlog, I will be playing:
From one pole to another – art game to action RPG. Let’s do it.