Version tested: PC
There's an urge to give it one out of ten. Maybe a two, because two sounds more genuine than one. One sounds like foot-stomping petulance. Two sounds considered, as if I really do mean it. I'm not, because I don't, but it'd serve a couple of good purposes. Firstly, if considered solely as a classical game, The Path is bloody terrible. Secondly, if you're the sort of person who cares about the review score, it's almost certainly not for you and I should turn you off as quickly as possible.
That's what a lot of this review is going to be about. The Path is a strange, unusual, progressive and unique game, which may even be important for the industry and the development of the form in a handful of ways. It's also so arty that it makes Braid look like 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. It's not for everyone. And I've got to write a review which says that, while not turning "It isn't for everyone" into a challenge for people who quite like to think of themselves as one of the Not Like Everyones.
The name "game" is always going to confuse people. You only really work out what something should be called after a name's codified. Names for mediums are always kind of made up on the fly. "Novel" has a particularly tortured history as a word. Comics comes from the fact they were the funny pages in the paper - but soon became anything but. A century down the line, they realised they should call comics "sequential narrative", which cuts to the core of what the medium is. It'll never stick, because it's so bloody ugly and there's already a name everyone knows. C'est la vie. We're stuck with novels, comics and games - and novels that aren't novel, comics which aren't comic and videogames which aren't...
The Path is a videogame that isn't a game. Or at least, the game part is deeply vestigial. Not as much as the developers' previous The Graveyard or The Endless Forest, but this is playing on a much larger stage with its Steam release. It is deeply interactive - in fact, in parts about interaction - but in terms of the mechanics which characterise games, there's "sporadically collecting stuff". It's most like an adventure game, but there are no puzzles. The win/lose state is ironic.
That's fine. As a medium, videogames' fundamental characteristic is interaction. The classical "game" is a form of interaction, but it's not the only thing we can do, and certainly not the only thing we've loved - think of the first half of The Cradle in Thief 3, think about the rollercoaster linear scripted sequences in many shooters where you've got no chance of dying, think of selecting jokes to make in old school LucasArts adventures which don't change anything. Games are more than games. Don't come to The Path expecting any of that.
Eyes glazed over? It's safe to say that the Path isn't for you. It'll try your patience far more than a mere 500-word "what-are-games-anyway-man?" intro. And it's even more pretentious. No, really.
The Path is a riff off the old Red Hiding Hood fable. You choose between six sisters, aged from nine to nineteen. You're then deposited at the start of the eponymous path and given two commands. One, go to Grandma's house. Two, stay on the path. If you obey, you can be at Grandma's house in a couple of minutes and complete the game, told by the closing screen you've failed. You probably won't do that. You go off the path and go and find your wolf. Eventually. After the confrontation, you're deposited outside Grandma's house, in the rain, slowly limp inside before being presented with a semi-interactive nightmarish walk around the house before you're finally escorted to the game-over screen with oblique, brutal images. Now the game-over screen says you've succeeded, and you're deposited back on the selection screen with a girl missing and five more left to go.
In the previous paragraph, read that wolf as "Wolf". It's not that literal. In fact, if you're looking for literal, you're really in the wrong game. The Wolf is what, for better or worse, puts an end to the girl. While nothing is explicitly shown, some ends are suggestively brutal. You suspect that the developers would agree with Poe's famous quote about the death of a beautiful woman being the most poetical topic in the world.
So it's a horror game, in an atmospheric, oblique manner. The atmosphere is the point. It's about as goth as Dracula's armpits. And as dark, though less smelly. The visuals are smeared with after-images, blurring effects, fades. The smears of sound - provided by the iconic-in-the-right-circles Swans veteran Jarboe - alternate between semi-pastoral and openly nagging oppressive, swelling brilliantly in the game's set-pieces.