Necessary Failure: Some Late Thoughts on ‘The Path’

If video games often tell the story of the boy saving the girl (from another castle, from a very large ape, or whatever) by allowing the player to take on that gendered role of hero and protagonist, it does raise the question of what the end goal of a player taking on the role of the girl in this oft told scenario should be.

And, of course, it might also imply that the role of the girl in this scenario is to be taken.

The Path serves in part as a model for how this might work with six “Red Girls,” all resembling in some way Little Red Riding Hood, all charged with the goal of going to Grandma’s house. Following the instruction (as a good girl should) to “Stay on the Path” leads to an unsuccessful outcome. Any time that a girl safely arrives having not encountered a wolf, she will be evaluated on a screen (which mimicks countless evaluation screens like it in other games) that describe this outcome as a “Failure.” The overall plot of The Path will not progress until each of the Red Girls has been taken by a monster, at which point the evaluation screen will suggest that her quest is a “Success.”

Having been devoured, that girl is no longer playable and the story of the other girls can be told.

With six girls representing various attitudes and stages of childhood, as many have clearly noted, this is obviously a game that is intended to be about the loss of innocence. However, it counts such loss as a success.

This is disturbing because the nature of success is predicated on violence and being violated by the world. But this is a process that becomes essential when one finds the need to challenge the rules dictated by authority (like a parent’s instruction to “stay on the path).” The game mimicks this process by clarifying that following the rules leads to nothing interesting at all. It is only in the woods that one gets to see new things and experience and interpret things that are different.

Being devoured and losing a self that like Robin fails to understand the reality of mortality, like Rose fails to understand that fantasy and the ideal (the clouds) are not real, like Ginger who fails to recognize that playtime isn’t forever, like Rubi and Carmen who don’t yet know that sexuality lurks in the guise of charming wolves and wolves that ply you with alcohol, like Scarlet that fails to know yet that masks and performance aren’t merely fun but a part of day to day reality is all essential to growth and development. But these are hard moments, shocking truths that violate and devour former ideals of childhood.

In The Path, to become, you must first be destroyed. Progress is represented by the death of former identities and attitudes in order to mature. Thus, success is only achieved by sacrificing former lives.

At the end of the game (and its beginning since it is a start screen on which the girls will soon re-emerge to be played again, as if this is a constant cycle in the life of each new young girl throughout cultures), the Girl in White appears bespattered in blood. The stains on her dress indicate a change in her identity and into something new.

While others have argued that the Red Girls represent the experiences of Grandma, it seems to me that the Girl in White is the mature version of the various Red Girls, as her final level allows the player to leave the path or go directly to Grandma’s house with no evaluation of her actions as a “Success” or “Failure,” and it is from her perspective on Grandma’s house that we see all six of the girls’ visions of Grandma’s house. Her presence earlier in the game seeks to drag the girls back to the path and away from the painful experiences that will make them into someone like her, yet at the same time that she often enough tries to play with and guide the girls, she often enough ends up in some physical struggle with them. The past is a difficult thing to accept, to wrestle with, or to acknowledge.

The Girl in White’s decisions in the game’s final “level” are not evaluated by a final judgment on those decisions, as a child might be. She is simply allowed to explore or follow the path depending exclusively on her own prerogative, as an adult might. Thus, unlike the other six girls, her journey to Grandma’s house is deemed neither a “Success,” nor a “Failure.” Ultimately, her story, though, is a process of maturation and an embrace of self direction that will be repeated when the girls re-emerge in the Red Room and another progression of self destruction begins this cycle of youth to maturity once again.

Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood, it is a story often told, and one in which exploration will necessarily occur and rules will be broken over and over again. No one follows the path forever. The Path doesn’t suggest that the path to adulthood is paved with merely stupid mistakes made when you were a kid, but instead by terrible mistakes, but necessary ones. Learning doesn’t occur by hearing the story, but as in a video game, by experiencing it and making those terrible mistakes not until you get it right, but until you can defy wrong or right.


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