You experience “The Path”, you interpret it, you explore it, and above all, you feel it… but you never get to *play* “The Path”. In fact, it would be more correct to say that “The Path” plays you. And that’s why it makes for art in its purest form.
The rather grandly named The Path (Tale of Tales) is a video game. It's official taxonomy would probably be "survival horror", but to quantify it as such - or to even classify it as a game - is to miss its point entirely.
Its basic structure is deceptively easy and will initially seem intuitive to anyone who has ever played an action-adventure or role-playing game. After a moody introductory sequence, the player chooses between six young girls (presumably sisters), all of whom appear to be adolescent, all of whom are vaguely gothic in appearance, and all of whom have names synonymous with the color red (Scarlet, Carmen, Ruby, and so forth). The directive is blunt and simple: Go to grandmother's house, and stay on the path.
The player takes control of the girl of her choice and begins her journey. The first playthrough does not allow the player to stray from the path; the road to grandmother's house is neatly delineated and easy to follow. It winds through a seemingly neutral forest; at first, the woods seem neither particularly menacing nor seductive but part of the game's mise-en-scène. The game's music is slightly creepy but not overly so, consisting largely of a singsong, childlike chant backed by gently plucked strings.
The girl travels onward for a relatively short period of time and soon comes to a gate, beyond which lies a cottage. She enters the house and makes her way to a bedridden old lady who is presumably her grandmother. She sits on the edge of the bed, the scene fades out...and a "failure" message appears on the screen.
If the gamer is not disgruntled or cowed by the message she may restart the game as any of the girls and begin her journey once again. This time she is given the option of extra controls and the pure freedom to wander off the path.
But young women are not exactly known for their obedience, are they? Will they be able to resist the temptations of the forest? Will they stay clear of danger? Can they prevent the ancient tale from being retold?
As each girl in turn departs from the familiar, well-traveled path, the woods grow darker, the music fades, and the comforting backdrop of birdsong and rustling leaves gives way to foreboding ambient noises. The forest envelops the girl and suddenly the sun is blotted out. In the distance one can hear a heartbeat; moans of pain - or is it pleasure? - mushroom around the player; low growls and yips surround the hapless young women.
No matter how bright the sun shines, it remains dark and foggy. It smells like something died.
The experience of each girl is unique, but the tarnished-silver common thread in every girl's success is that each must find, confront, and cope with her own specific "wolf". The wolves are richly detailed archetypes: one girl comes across an enigmatic young woman dressed all in white who communicates nonverbally; another girl encounters a woodsman; one particularly vulnerable girl who wears a leg brace wanders into a clearing where a young man sits on a bench - he offers her a cigarette, and things get stranger from that point; yet another stumbles - quite literally - into a dimension that is not quite the woods but which is certainly not a recognizable reality.
"He's just sitting there," says Brathwaite. Still: "The actual thought that ran through my head at the time was, 'Oh my God, am I going to be raped?'"
Whether they make it to grandmother's house is not the object. The object of the journey is the journey itself. It may be an exploration of the loss of innocence or the inexorable march from adolescence into adulthood. It may be a dissertation on the perils of disobedience. It may be a deconstruction - or is it a reconstruction? - of a fairy tale. Perhaps it's simply a psychological hat trick. But as with any great trick, the sleight of hand is invisible, the shiver of dread upon its completion involuntary and visceral.
Traveling The Path could be profoundly triggering for players who have been abused or otherwise damaged while in vulnerable states, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is not a true survival horror game. Nothing is spelled out, nothing is linear, nothing is quite what it seems. As with all nightmares (and all good stories) there is no discernible line of demarcation between the game's beginning and its end. Its mechanics are almost ludicrously simple; its effect on the player is anything but.
It’s a dark and somber re-envisioning of the classic tale, brimming with sexual innuendo, heavy psychological violence and a wealth of adult themes, all captured through an extremely rich symbolic scenery, whose interpretation quickly becomes the main draw of the game.
The game has far more in common with films such as Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves" and with the murkier iterations of "Little Red Riding Hood" (the Brothers Grimm, Perrault's Le Petit Chaperon Rouge) than with other games in the survival horror genre (Fatal Frame being a slight exception). Parts of the game strongly reminded me of Francis Bacon's art, of the disquieting book House of Leaves, and of Neil Gaiman's more haunting (and less self-consciously whimsical) writings. (It's a fair bet that if you enjoyed Gaiman's sumptuous Sandman saga you will find The Path to be chewy and satisfying.)
It is more fever-dream than game: profoundly disturbing, darkly symbolic, relentlessly disorienting, cautionary without being didactic. It is a deft juxtaposition of innocence and decay, of fear and curiosity, of vulnerability and power, of the implacably ancient and the achingly young. It is not a game for everyone, but for those willing to tread the borders of the unconscious - for those who find a strange sort of solace in dancing on the lip of the abyss - it is an experience not to be missed.
Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay or charming - never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!
all quotes pulled from the following sites:
official game site: http://tale-of-tales.com/ThePath/
selected reviews: http://metavideogame.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/the-path-do-not-stray-from-the-path/
screenshots and trailer: http://artofthestate.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/155/
gameplay/walkthrough (extreme spoilers): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WNpx8PKAUw&feature=related