Labyrinths of Childhood: Exploring ‘The Path’

[29 February 2012]

By Kate Worzala

In Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco describes three types of labyrinths, the linear, the maze, and the net, and how each one relates to the encyclopedia. Eco claims that the linear labyrinth is the simplest to navigate because it’s a “continuous line” that has been wrapped around itself (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, 1984, p.80). The second type, the maze, is more complicated because it includes multiple paths—some of which are dead ends—and that the traveler needs to choose which path to follow in such labyrinths. Eco’s writes of his third type of labyrinth, the net: “the main feature of a net is that every point can be connected with every other point, and, where the connections are not yet designed, they are however, conceivable and designable” (p. 81). If the linear labyrinth is a line and the maze is a tree, then the net is “a system of embedded polygons” (p. 81).

Eco’s net structure is most commonly compared to the “rhizome” described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as “the best image of a net” (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 81). Deleuze and Guattari also describe their rhizome by comparing it to a map. They claimed that both were “open and connectable in all of [their] dimensions… susceptible to constant modification” (p. 12). However, Deleuze and Guattari make it clear that “one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways” (12). However, Eco doesn’t make it clear if the net has multiple entrances like the rhizome or only one entrance like the other labyrinth structures.

Espen Aarseth, though, argues that since every point in the structure can be connected, Eco’s net is not a true labyrinth. Aarseth goes so far as to call the net “exactly the opposite of the fundamental inaccessibility of the other models” (Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 6). Aarseth has made the incorrect assumption that because a net is open (lacking the corridors and dead ends found in the other two structures), it’s an easier structure to navigate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since every point can be connected to every other point, the traveler is presented with an infinitely greater number of possible paths than a maze could ever offer. No game better illustrates that Eco’s net is a valid, and challenging labyrinth structure than Tale of Tale’s The Path.

Eco describes the net as “unlimited territory”, and no other description could be more perfect for The Path. The Path, designed by Tales of Tales’s Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, is an open-world game based on the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. The game begins in a red room with six girls. Each girl in the room is styled to make it clear that each has a distinct personality, but they are all wearing some kind of red outfit. The player chooses one of the girls and sets off for Grandmother’s house. Other than this opening scene and the final scene in Grandmother’s house, the majority of the game’s action takes place outdoors in an open forest.

The Path, then, is a game about exploration and ultimately about growing up, but the player doesn’t know this when she first starts playing. In The Poetics of Gardens, C. W. Moore, W. J. Mitchell, and W. Turnball Jr. write that “in a garden designed for exploration, it is essential, of course, not to reveal everything at once” (qtd. by Laurie N. Taylor, “Labyrinths, Mazes, Gardens, and Sandboxes: Game Space Metaphors”, Digital Humanities Librarian, University of Florida, 2006).  Harvey and Samyn take this idea one step further, as the creators don’t reveal anything at all about the nature of the game—at least not at the game’s beginning. Instead, the player begins the game at the end of a gravel road looking out on an empty forest. The player is instructed to go to Grandmother’s house but is not given any directions for how to get there. The only clue the player has to follow is the well-worn path laid out before her. With no other hints to go on, the player decides to follow the path. The player soon discovers that this path does in fact lead to Grandmother’s house. However, after reaching the house and reuniting with Grandma, she is labeled a failure. She did not collect any items, unlock any secret rooms, or meet the wolf.

Since none of the objects that the player was meant to encounter were near the dirt path that she followed in a first playthrough, the player realizes that she must set out into the wood if she is to find any of these things. Even though the player now knows she is meant to find things, she still has no idea what these items are or where she will find them. There is no map or tutorial to show her the way. She must, as Eco puts it, “grope [her] way” around in order to reach her goal (p. 82).

This proves to be no easy task.

L.B. Jeffries describes the forest layout in The Path well when he calls it “disorienting and visually difficult to navigate” (ZA Critique: The Path>, PopMatters, 30 June 2009). If the player stays in the forest too long, “night” falls and the forest grows darker, making it nearly impossible for the player to see where she is going. Running is another factor that affects the player’s ability to explore. At first, running seems like a good idea.  However, soon after the girl starts running, the camera pulls back and out. Now instead of seeing the forest from the girl’s eye level, the player is looks down from above. The longer that the player runs, the farther removed she is from the girl. This distancing effect severely limits the player’s peripheral vision.

After several attempts to navigate the forest, the player is left hopelessly lost. Even without the physical barriers that Aarseth claims are necessary to make a labyrinth inaccessible, the player still has a difficult time reaching her destination. While she could compare her situation to being lost in a maze, to do so would fail to accurately measure the game’s potential for exploration. One characteristic of a maze is that “it displays choices between alternative paths, and some of the paths are dead ends” (Eco, p. 81). The Path features many choices between alternative paths but no dead ends. There are paths that lead a player where she doesn’t want to go, but there are no physical barriers that force the player to stop and go back.

Even if a player does choose a route that leads her away from her goal, she will still encounter some of the objects and some of the flowers that she has been told to collect. Granted, there are objects that are only accessible to certain girls and there are some specific locations that are more meaningful to each girl, but every girl can reach every place in the game. Ruby may be the only girl to meet a wolf in the playground, but Robin is still allowed to come and play on the swings.

Also, Eco states that in a maze “certain choices are privileged in respect to others” (81). The only choice that is “privileged” in The Path is the decision to meet the wolf because meeting the wolf is the only way to be successful. However, unlike in a maze, the choice is not located at the end of a set path. The player can approach the wolf’s location from any direction and after any length of time. The player even has the option to find the wolf’s location and leave again before encountering the wolf.

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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