(Tale of Tales)
US: 18 Mar 2009
Take this basket to Grandmother’s house. Don’t stray from the path. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Following two straightforward instructions hardly sounds like a scintillating video game. The challenge comes when you realize that if you unquestioningly follow the directions as laid out in The Path, you will fail.
Perversely, those who protect their avatars will not meet the hidden objectives of the game. The objective? To complete the story as it is traditionally told—including the girl’s grisly death at the hands of the wolf. Cleverly, the tale is set in the present day, and each of the six “Red Riding Hoods” has a different wolf that is unique to her personality and weaknesses.
Before I venture into the land of spoilers in an attempt to describe what is certainly one of the most artistic and unique storytelling games I’ve ever played, let me address those who may be reading this review in an attempt to figure out whether or not to buy the game. You may be wondering what the “point” of the game is, and if so, I ask: what is the point of art? Answer this question, and apply that answer to this game. If your answer is, “Art has no purpose,” don’t buy The Path.
Technologically, The Path is low-budget, but not so much that you’d notice. Its graphics are slightly dated but well-executed; the controls are unusual but not cumbersome. The sound design and music are absolutely stunning; if you have the opportunity to play this game with surround-sound or high-quality headphones, don’t pass it up. Occasionally, while playing late into the night after my children were sleeping, a girl would gasp in the forest and I would literally jump out of my chair. I wasn’t particularly fond of the third-person-on-rails approach of the final chapter for each girl; there were parts of the rooms I would have preferred to look at more closely. But at this point in the game, lacking control over your character’s perceptions and actions is fitting and appropriately symbolic, so I can’t put too fine a point on it from a storytelling standpoint.
The Path is more of an interactive story than a game, though Tale of Tales did throw gamers a few bones in the form of collectible objects and an ironic “score” screen at the end of each level. If the idea of discovering a highly symbolic and subjective storyline through level exploration and a series of object location/interaction sequences sounds even vaguely appealing to you, I recommend that you purchase The Path. It’s only $10(US) on Steam; what have you got to lose?
If you plan on playing the game and don’t like spoilers, you probably want to stop reading now. Go ahead, bookmark this page and come back after you’ve finished the game. It will only take six hours or so. Move along. Nothing more to see.
Back already? Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Players of The Path are faced with two choices: encounter the wolf and allow the Red Girl to be devoured (in a metaphorical sense, at least) or wander endlessly in the forest, keeping the girl alive but failing to fulfill the story’s traditional ending (and barring game progress). It’s entirely possible to play all six girls safely, exploring the woods and collecting objects for as long as you like before taking them to grandmother’s house and climbing into her warm, safe, cozy bed.
But to choose the path of least resistance is to willfully abandon the progression of the game. Without putting each of the girls in mortal peril, the player isn’t able to discover the cautionary message inherent in the tale. Each “red girl” has a distinct personality and a unique tragic flaw which leads to her downfall. But Robin’s childish curiosity and Carmen’s overdeveloped sexual appetite both have the same outcome: metaphorical, spiritual, and psychological death.
Older versions of the tale are much grislier than the relatively benign Grimm’s version most of us know. The noble woodsman who rescues Red and Grandma was the brothers’ invention, added to make the story more palatable to small children. In Charles Perrault’s version —the earlier written version that first introduced the notorious Red Hood—the girl is devoured and dies, end of story. But in the French oral tradition, considered by many scholars to be the earliest European versions of the tale, the heroine is able to organize her escape. First, however, the wolf tricks Red into consuming her grandmother’s flesh and blood. The wolf also persuades Red to throw her clothes into the fire and climb in bed naked with the wolf. At which point, Red realizes that Grandmother’s bed has been adulterated and is no longer safe. These older tales were not designed for small children but were peppered with sexual symbolism and told in sewing circles as cautionary parables for young women on the cusp of puberty.
Although The Path is worthwhile and compelling, it’s difficult to review because it’s not really…fun. Playing through, I wanted to continue only because of some perverse fascination with the horrors that unfold as the story progresses. It felt very much like watching Memento, which is a great film to see when there aren’t any slow-motion train wrecks available. The Path is creative and artfully executed, and it tells an incredibly deep and interesting set of interwoven tales, but it left me with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. In short, playing The Path is like visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum—it’s important to do and it teaches valuable lessons, but it’s not really a pleasant experience.
On an even deeper level, The Path questions the value of established video game conventions that place a high value on scoring and doing things “the right way.” By challenging the gamer’s instinct to blindly follow orders, The Path calls forth ghostly memories of the real-life atrocities at Mei Lai. Frustrated soldiers, ordered to raze a Vietnamese village, brutally slaughtered the entire population of the town, including women and children, and burned their homes. Some soldiers resisted the order and refused to participate in what they viewed as inhumane treatment of enemy civilians; the others followed the instruction of their commanders, albeit perhaps, with a bit of overzealousness. To a lesser extreme, this is the choice a player of The Path must make. At what cost are you, the gamer, willing to pursue “success” as the game developer defines it? To what degree can one be absolved of the responsibility for one’s action by claiming the “just following orders” excuse? In other words, what cost, victory?
A final note: while I was in the process of writing this review, I had to make my own trek to grandmother’s house under very dire circumstances. I received news that an intruder had invaded my grandmother’s home in hopes of robbing them of their valuables. Finding nothing of value but being confronted by my grandmother and step-grandfather inside the house, the perpetrator proceeded to severely beat my grandmother and step-grandfather into unconsciousness. My grandmother was killed and her husband remains critically injured. This unconscionable act serves as yet another a brutal reminder that savage wolves do indeed still lurk in the guise of men.
// Moving Pixels
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