A closer look at The Path and its various elements.
The game design is setup to give the player a few key choices about how to conduct themselves. If you stick to the path you will make it to grandma’s house and see your young self sitting on a bed while an old woman still lies dormant. Off in the corner is a wolf frozen in motion. The game will rattle off all the secrets you missed and point out that you did not encounter the wolf. It is preying on the typical gamer habit of collecting secrets and the curious power that telling a gamer “You didn’t win” seems to have over them. Fire up the game again and you can wander off the path into a forest full of secrets. There are 144 randomly placed flowers that can be collected along with a set number of unlockable secret events for each girl that are unique. Throughout this exploration section a girl in a white dress will run about who will occasionally take you back to the path if you engage with her long enough. The forest itself is disorienting and visually difficult to navigate but eventually a mapping system takes over in the form of symbols of various wolf sites. Running causes your view of the surroundings to go away because the camera moves up so the best way to travel is walking very slowly. Depending on how many secrets you collect the final montage at the end of the game will change, particularly if you find the wolf event.
Finding a concrete interpretation of the game is surprisingly difficult for two reasons. The first is that the wolf varies from being metaphorical to literally drinking a few beers with a guy before the screen fades to black. Dark and disturbing noises follow before the girl wakes up on the path disoriented and walking slowly to Grandma’s house. Inside the house a linear rail sequence starts up that has you looking through a variety of disturbing rooms while lights flash that all echoes of David Lynch cinematography. There is, to put it lightly, a great deal of room for interpretation about what this is supposed to imply. The other problem is that all of this symbolism changes depending on how many secrets you chose to discover. 8 Bit Hack argues that each girl is a stage of the grandmother’s life. He explains, ““Each of the Riding Hoods play the role of one stage of the old woman's young life, from the bright eyed Robin to the learned Scarlet. The wolf, in his many forms, represents the betrayal and cruelty waiting out in the world when you stray from what you know, what is safe, and what is easy.”
We got into an argument about how many of the girl’s scenes were implying rape (a similar one came up at Brainy Gamer) and realized that we had both seen very different imagery. Whereas he saw one of the girls tied up with razor wire and bleeding, I saw an image of a scarecrow chasing children underneath a bed. This then becomes problematic because although I usually tried to get two or three secrets per girl I rarely bothered to find every single one. Given how difficult such an act would be, the designers seem to have created an interesting method for insuring their imagery always remains vibrant or unique for each person. With the exception of the wolf scene, the game is actually quite open to interpretation because the game design generates its images based on the player’s actions.
It is also worth noting that the game plays with your relationship with these girls in a very unique way. The initial tropes of the game start off as role play, we empathize with the girl in the way one normally does with their avatar in a game. The initial shock and horror begins to fade as one becomes accustomed to the system however, leading to a certain kind of transformation in the player. The 99th over at Play This Thing! argues that the player themselves are becoming the wolf. He explains, “The core gameplay involves figuring out what the 3rd person characteristics are of each of the girls. Figuring these things out enables you to say "ok, I bet this girl would interact with that object", which leads to results.” In this way we are a kind of seducer, studying the girl and taking her to the places we know will resonate with her. We discover little bits of information about them through poetic reactions to the items they discover or by what they’re wearing. And with this knowledge we guide them to their inevitable wolf, their violation and loss of innocence.
What is at the core of these numerous choices and unlockables is a story about the loss of innocence. When Scarlet sees flowers she opines about how dirty nature is, when she approaches a piano in the woods she muses, “Art is where the nobility of humanity is expressed, I could not live in a world without it.” As the grey haired musician teaches her to play the screen fades and we awake outside Grandma’s house. The final scene is to a clapping audience, a green curtain rising up, and a thud as the screen goes to black. Her juvenile views of music and art are gone, the child that would’ve been sitting on the bed next to the dormant old woman is gone. The young Robin contemplates, “People die. It’s hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.” A hulking wolf wanders about the graveyard when we approach and Robin leaps onto his back just as she does every secret she has found in the woods. As funeral bells begin to ring out, wolf carries us to the top of the hill, and gives out a great howl in triumph. The final scene is us falling into a dark hole, a grave. Robin’s innocence is lost as she realizes the true nature of death and its inevitability. So it goes with the other four girls offering a new take on a development in a person’s life. Impressions about art, death, and for several sex are all explored.
I would ignore reviews that complain it is not a game or who take the imagery literally. Death is symbolically the mechanics of change in people, the current personality must die in order for the new one to grow and take effect. Michael Abbott once wrote that you can’t ever dictate the meaning of imagery to someone in a game because our relationship with these things is always unique. The point has merit, particularly in a game like this that is full of so much nuance and ambiguity. You can, however, accurately predict people’s relationship with game design elements. There is a path and if you stick to it the game will tell you that you did not discover all sorts of secrets. Irked, the player will go exploring on the second round, collecting items and trying to navigate the confusing forest. Making the controls minimal and passive will generate uneasiness in the player while large amounts of conduct and action continue to happen with little input from them. Eventually, you will be placed in a situation where you have no control at all and can only watch as the inevitable happens. Like a dream where the subject is helpless, The Path is a game that frightens you not with thrills but instead with how it makes you feel.