Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Path Review

Title: The Path
Developer/Publisher: Tale of Tales
Genre: Indie Horror/Game-as-Art
Release Date: March 18, 2009
Platform: PC
ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Price: $9.99

In 1914 Marcel Duchamp walked into a local department store in Paris where he purchased a bottle rack. He then turned around and displayed this same piece (completely unaltered) as a work of art in his studio. Since the beginning of the twentieth century our ideas of what exactly fine art is have changed, incorporating not only the technically superior arts of Da Vinci or Michelangelo, but also intellectually-based arts such as Pollock’s action paintings, Warhol’s pop art, or even Duchamp’s “readymades,” things that have not been considered in prior centuries. The Modernist mode of fine arts is to develop works that are new, and new technologies have factored into this mode. Video installations have been a common form of art since the 1960s, and more recently video games have demonstrated their place in the art world. The just-released indie horror game The Path by Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn is one of the few games that make the link between gaming and fine art apparent. Similar to the approach of duchamp’s “readymades,” The Path takes what we assume as non-art and makes it into art by really limiting, and almost eliminating, the functionality of a game, in both interaction and storytelling.

The Path is an interactive experience with a loose narrative based on the older versions of Little Red Riding Hood (the one without the male savior). The player takes the role of six sisters who live in an apartment in the city. One by one, they are sent to grandma’s house on an errand to deliver a bottle of wine. They are given the explicit instructions not to wander off the path, because the forest outside of the city is full of danger. You can abide by this instruction, but the straight shot to grandma’s house will only create a lack-luster play-through; this should show the players that there is no explicit goals set for them.

The purpose of the game is not to obey the instructions, as the Tale of Tales blurb states, “young women are not exactly known for their obedience, are they?” Once you understand this, you can really begin this game, stepping out of the warm glow of the sun beaming down on the beaten dirt path and into the dark and mysterious overgrowth of the surrounding woods. Many gamers may be deterred by the game’s lack of challenge; the game has no enemies, puzzles, or time constraints in it. The Path is wholly about the fear and excitement of getting lost in the woods, the discovery and exploration of human refuse that litter the area.

Its loose tale is told through brief, understated text-based monologues as you find certain objects in the woods. The subtle interaction with them is open to interpretation, and the story has no one correct understanding. Each girl’s journey, however, has character-specific items that only she can interact with, which reflect her character and develop a somewhat grounded base. What each character discovers will determine what type of ending they will receive once they reach grandma’s house, none of which are particularly happy. The house becomes increasing abstract and terrifying the more you find out. It can be assumed that each girl is killed in the end (or possibly just before the end), but since the ending is played from a first-person point of view, it is only implied by sickening sounds and a darkening screen.

It calls each girl’s journey a level but the map remains the same, having you explore the same area of woods over and over. It’s a relatively small map to repeat so many times, which allows for only a limited amount of continued interest; therefore, the re-playability is extremely limited. But for a low budget indie game, the aesthetics of this patch of land and the unique HUD come out beautifully; it is an immersive experience that pulls players in. If you are looking to find every item in the game (including the 144 flowers to pick), you can spend several hours on just one play-through.

The pacing of the game is slow, but not noticeably so till you run into the “wolves,” a metaphorical term for the antagonistic characters that are not always literal wolves. This is similar in some of the older versions of Little Red Riding Hood where wolves were instead ogres, werewolves, etc. Although in this they also take the shape of humans as well. In these segments, after you’ve gone through the cutscenes where the girls meet the wolves, it fades into a night scene; it’s rainy, and the girls wake up lying on the ground in front of grandma’s house. They seem despondent as they rise and lethargically shuffle down the last few feet toward the house. While it sets up a powerful ending to the level, this part seemingly takes forever to get through and having to repeat it six times becomes obnoxious.

Art is often about subjectivity; the viewer is as much a participant in the storytelling or idea presented as the artist is. The Path, while minimalistic, provides a magical setting in which the player’s mind blooms with imagination as they discover the beauty and terror that encircles the safety of the beaten path.

8 ‘Big Bad Wolves’ out of 10

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