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.
And then there's the final dream-walk through the house. You're on a single track, and any interaction with the controls makes you take another step along this delirious route. If you don't, the screen slowly fades to black and growling rises... and I've never actually been brave enough to just leave it to see what happens. These sections are, for me, one of the finest formalist parts of the game - that step-to-move captures how you feel when you're actually dreaming. Running through houses, knowing something's behind you, trying to escape, knowing you're on a track, trapped...
It's not the only place where interaction is reduced for an aesthetic effect - though generally speaking, they're less successful. For example, to interact with anything in the game, you release the controls, and then the girl will wander over and have a nose at whatever's nearby. To interact, you stop interacting. I more admire the elegance of that control system than its obvious deconstruction. The one total mis-step is removing the run option when you're near an important location, forcing you walk around. It actually discourages you from exploring these locations as it takes so long to do. The most interesting parts of the game - this misty lake, this abandoned play-park, this massive stage - find their effect slightly neutered.
The stars of the game are the girls. From their visual design, to their animations, to the one-liners they respond with to whatever they find, each is well characterised and memorable. They live and they die and we know them better for that. Replaying the game for a second time, actively seeing what each girl makes of a place an earlier sister went to is part of the... fun? No, fun's not the word. But the interest. To see what happens. To explore.
(Oblique comparison: the game that The Path most reminds me of is actually Endless Ocean, with its stately pace. With a flash of Silent Hill at its most cerebral. And slowest.)
If you put aside its pace - which is its point - the biggest reservations with it are how it both introduces itself to you and how it uses its game elements. The irony of the end-of-game screen undercuts somewhat callously any affection you had for the girls, for example. When it clicks, the UI is obvious - icons towards the periphery guiding you towards interesting locations - but when a game throws as many visual distortions over itself, it's easy to miss their importance. There's some minor twitchiness around some of the characters - like the mysterious girl in white occasionally running into trees or appearing, which cuts the atmosphere for a second.
The mysterious little girl? I haven't mentioned her yet. I'm not going to mention her any further. The problem with The Path is that to explain it is to ruin it. It's an exploratory game, and being surprised by the first time you see something, and wondering what it's for and what it's about is the main thing. The game rarely spells anything out. You spend a lot of time bemused - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad - and wondering what it's about.
I'll say this: you'll have a strong opinion on it if you play it. Friend-of-Eurogamer John Walker was profoundly disturbed by its portrayal of teenage years as doomed fatalists. Others have come claiming it's a rape simulator - which, for the record, I consider unsupportable by the game, even if you take everything on a solely literal level. It is, at worse, a being raped simulator - though I'd say that was a misreading too. What do I think? Metaphorical story of one girl's growth to adulthood, with the "death" of each girl leading to the birth of the next. But that's an essay. I don't know for sure. If you play it, you'll have your take. That's kind of the point too. It sticks with you and provokes thought. It's probably art, if the a-word matters to you.
It's totally no fun. It's interesting, but there isn't a fun bone in its mopey body. But I've paid to go into modern art galleries. I've paid for really oddball, minimalist art films. I've gone to gigs where music is divorced from any physical reaction and raised to some cerebral, abstract place - and plenty of gigs where most sane human beings would consider there was nothing actually musical going on. I haven't, but could pay for experimental theatre tickets. Lots of poetry. Whatever.
In our corner of the world, the thing with close-to-pure art-games... well, they're all pretty much free and buried away on the internet. The Path is on one of the biggest game distribution systems in the world, for a reasonable yet "proper" price, and still does what it does. Its existence is a statement of belief that, like any other media, there's a small niche of people who are happy to actually pay for this kind of cultural material.
That's who the Path is for. And if you're one of them, The Path is probably worth it.
If you're not, really, run for your bloody life.
7 / 10