Labyrinths of Childhood: Exploring 'The Path'

Kate Worzala

Herman Kern says 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." The girl who enters Grandmother’s house in the labyrinthian game, The Path, has just what it takes.

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.

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