Labyrinths of Childhood

Exploring 'The Path'

by Kate Worzala

29 February 2012


One Wolf Per Girl

While the recognizable structure of a maze is completely missing (its walls, its boundaries), the game’s design does give the initial impression of being a linear labyrinth. For a game about maturation, this initial impression makes perfect sense. Choices are simple when life begins because children—especially girls—are expected to do as they are told. Giving the player a single path with no deviations mimics the way that young children see the world: there is what they are told to do and nothing else.

The irony is that following instructions usually results in positive affirmation for a child, but this is not the case in The Path. Instead, once again, the player is called a failure—the ultimate negative feedback—leaving her feeling both frustrated and disappointed for having “followed the rules”.

Jeffries believes that Harvey and Samyn designed this ending so that “irked, the player will go exploring on the second round, collecting items and trying to navigate the confusing forest.” He claims that the designers are “preying on […] the curious power that telling a gamer ‘You didn’t win’ seems to have over them.” However, the message behind this ending screen is much deeper than a simple challenge to do better next time. By giving the instructions to “stay on the path”, the designers turn exploration into an act of rebellion. Following directions didn’t get the player what she wanted, so she begins to question the authority of the ones who gave her those instructions. In order to get what she wants, the player has to start thinking for herself—an important step in growing up.

The Path had to be designed as a net because no other labyrinth structure could better support the game’s theme of growing up. Each of the girls represents a different stage of female development; their different ages and characteristics make this point obvious to the player. Just as in real life, each stage of development includes some decision that the player must face in order to move on. This decision is represented in The Path by the six different wolves hidden throughout the forest—one wolf per girl and each one represents a decision unique to a specific girl’s stage of development.

Again, the net structure of the game challenges the player to think for herself. Unlike the maze’s Minotaur, the wolf is not located at the end of a dead-end hallway where the player would be forced to encounter it. Instead, the wolf occupies a specific space that the player chooses to enter. The player can circle the wolf’s space while she considers what to do next; she can turn around and come back later. The player can even enter the wolf’s space without drawing the wolf’s attention. In fact, Harvey and Samyn designed the game so that the wolf will not initiate interaction with the girl. The player must consciously decide to approach the wolf and interact with it.

It is important to note that each of the wolf interactions have an ominous feel about them. In other words, the player is given fair warning that something is not right about these situations, but each wolf also comes with some kind of enticement specific to its girl. For Ruby, the enticement is cigarettes and a bad boy image. For Scarlet, the enticement is music and a sense of refinement. All six wolves have an allure that draws the player in and makes her go against her better judgment and engage the wolf.

These interactions with the different wolves represent another important step in growing up—dealing with the consequences of one’s actions. The player willingly puts the girl into a risky situation, and now she must accept responsibility for what has happened to her. As soon as the cut screen ends and the player sees the girl lying on the path in the rain, the player realizes what she has made happen. She feels shocked, remorseful, and even a little disgusted.

Then, the player sees the kill screen that calls her a success. The player now knows that the only way to achieve the success that she wants is to give each girl over to the wolf. This reality forces the player to confront yet another part of growing up, namely realizing how far she will go for personal gain. The success-driven player continues and becomes, as Jefferies says, “a kind of seducer, studying the girl and taking her to the places [she] knows will resonate with her […] And with this knowledge [she] guides them to their inevitable wolf, their violation and loss of innocence.”

The net structure supports the forest’s message of making choices and thinking for oneself, but once the player decides to go through with the violation, there are no more choices to be made.  To illustrate the theme of dealing with consequences, Harvey and Samyn designed Grandmother’s house as a linear labyrinth. After entering the gates, all freedom is taken away from the player. The player is not even allowed to choose her own direction through the house. Instead, the game dictates which way the girl moves no matter which directional key the player uses. Harvey and Samyn want the player to acknowledge that her decisions in the forest have created this route and now she has no choice but to follow it. Rebellion and curiosity have led to consequences that the player must face.

During these sequences. the player is taken on a disturbing ride full of grotesque images and unnerving sound effects. The length of this sequence depends on the objects that the player has discovered in the woods, but no matter how long it lasts, each segment ends the same way—with the violent death of the girl. Hermann Kern writes that “the center [of a linear labyrinth] is where death and rebirth occur” (Through the Labyrinth:  Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years, Prestel, 2000, p. 30). The “death” is when the traveller reaches the end of the labyrinth and the “rebirth” is when the traveller turns around (“a 180-degree change of direction”) and goes back out the way that she came in (p. 30). In The Path, the traveller’s death is more literal than figurative. The player’s last image of each girl is her broken body.

Unfortunately, the designers end the metaphor there, leaving the player without the possibility of rebirth. The girl that was killed does not reappear unharmed in the opening room. Instead, the player only sees the girls that she has not played. Not until the player has used each girl does the player receive some feeling of rebirth. However, the feeling is still incomplete because the final girl (a seventh girl), the girl in white, still dies violently. At the very end of the game, she stands in a blood-stained dress in the opening room. The girl in white is not reborn; she’s the same girl, only tainted.

Kern calls the linear labyrinth “the embodiment […] of initiation rites” and claims that “a certain level of maturity is required to understand the shape of, as well as to make the decision to venture into, a labyrinth” (p. 30). The maturity represented in The Path may not be the type that Kern had in mind, but there is no denying that the girl who enters Grandmother’s house is more experienced in the ways of the world than she was when she started the game. However, the girl is only able to reach the level of maturity necessary to enter the linear labyrinth because the net labyrinth challenged her to think for herself and gave her “an unlimited territory” to explore.

The designers have turned exploration into an act of rebellion. Following directions didn’t get the player what she wanted, so she begins to question the authority of the ones who gave her those instructions. In order to get what she wants, the player has to start thinking for herself—an important step in growing up.

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