So I’m kind of crazy about indie games. I’m even crazier about indie game bundles. When I found out that Indie Royale is offering The Path along with four other indie titles as part of its “Evolved Bundle” this week, I had to go tell everyone. The Path, made by Tale of Tales, is hands down one of my favorite games of all time, which is surprising if you know pretty much anything about me and video games.
I‘m one of the biggest scaredy-cats I know when it comes to horror games. I just can’t play them. That being said, I seem to own a surprising number of them. I usually get these games when they’re radically on sale, and on the pretense that this time I’ll overcome my fears and that this time I’ll be able to make it past the first few scares before screaming bloody murder and throwing the controller across the room.
However, not all horror games leave me in a state of near-paralysis, in which I’m peeking around every damn corner, looking accusingly at every air vent or flickering source of light. I find psychological horror relatively easy to swallow for some reason or another. Perhaps I’m just an overly jumpy person, or I’ve been exposed to the internet long enough to not be bothered by unsettling psychological content. Either way, I also find these games infinitely more interesting than their counterparts with endless jump scares and gruesome deaths.
Silent Hill is an excellent example of psychological horror. Sure, it has its share of horrific monsters lying in wait just wanting to say hello to the player’s vital bits, but there’s so much depth and intrigue to the horror. The creatures are steeped in symbolism, based on the personal horrors of the character’s lives. These games get us to reflect on ourselves as we explore the personal Hells of others. That’s what makes The Path a perfect game for me. As Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales stated in their postmortem, the game was designed to cajole players to “explore their own psyche” and “draw [their] own conclusions” about the many possible meanings of the game’s content.
The Path asks you to experience an unsettling journey about adolescence, to assume the role of Little Red Riding Hood, or more accurately, six Little Reds, all girls of different ages and attitudes. After selecting your Little Red, the game places you on a long, earthen path in the middle of nowhere and orders you to walk to Grandmother’s House. Simple enough. But the game gives you one other ominous caveat: “Stay on the path.”
On my first playthrough, I did just that. I decided to play as the good little girl, because, well, the game told me to. I expected something immediately disastrous to happen if I deviated from the path since the game went out of its way to tell me how I should behave. Perhaps the big bad wolf would quickly track me down and it’d be the end for me and my Little Red. So I walked along the path. As I progressed, I quickly grew bored. The path to Grandmother’s was far from eventful. Over and over I saw the same trees and the same pink flowers and the same dirt and the same misty sky. Only the lighting changed, growing purple and eventually almost entirely black, indicating a transition from day to night.
I could see Grandmother’s House. It was just past a picket fence and over a small bridge, shrouded in an eerie, ominous azure glow. Once inside, the game’s controls changed, as did its camera. Now in first person, I could no longer walk in all directions. I was on rails, and had to repeatedly click to move through the house. There is something so fretfully eerie about this sequence, having your control taken away, forced to walk down absurdly dark and elongated hallways and made to turn sharp corners that could have anything hidden around them. It reminded me of walking through a haunted house, knowing that once you pass the threshold there’s no turning back.
Here come the jump scares, I thought. The atmosphere was perfect for it. The Big Bad Wolf was surely going to burst through the door up ahead and devour me whole. Or worse, in pieces! But nothing ever came. I opened the door. There was no Big Bad Wolf. Just a big stuffed one, mounted like a trophy in Grandma’s bedroom. And there she lay, resting peacefully in her bed, where my character soon joined her.
That’s it? I questioned, staring at the game skeptically as it actually began scoring me. Items collected: 0 out of 12. What? There were items? Special rooms unlocked: 0 out of 3. Whaaaaat? Wolf encountered: No. And lo’ and behold, I was given a big “FAILURE” message. The game ranked my performance as a “D.” But I followed your rules! You can’t fail me!
After several moments of genuine confusion, I started the game anew. After the title screen faded away and the rules did too, I immediately turned ninety degrees and headed straight into the woods. I felt like such an anarchist. Stay on the path? Game can’t tell me what to do!
The woods, it turns out, was where all the fun stuff was. My Little Red, named Robin, ran around and around, picking flowers, stumbling across curious trinkets that sparked curious inner monologue from her. I found playground equipment, a stray wheelchair, and eventually a beautiful if not entirely eerie cemetery, complete with a headless angel statue. I brought Robin toward one of the graves and watched her start to play in the dirt. She thought, “Digging in the dirt. Getting dirty nails. Scratching in the grave. Dirty dirty dirt.” Huh. Either she’s the most innocent child in the world, or the creepiest.
Not too far away, a big, hulking werewolf stalked about a big sunlit tree. As I approached it, the game’s audio started to sound corrupted, broken with pops and strange interference. The entire screen grew darker and redder. The game was telling me that if I approached the creature, that was going to be it. No more playing, no more exploring. But I followed through with it anyway. I saw Robin hop up on the werewolf’s back and ride him around the cemetery, and everything faded to black.
The next scene showed Robin waking up in front of Grandma’s House, having been lying out in the path in the pouring rain for some time. Rising, I guided her toward the house. She walked in such a defeated, if not traumatized way, head hung low, craned off to one side. I was practically dragging her toward the house, having to hold forward for over a minute until she made out through the gate. This is so uncomfortable, I thought, feeling a knot well up inside of me.
Once through the door, I saw that everything had changed inside. The werewolf had corrupted nearly everything. Claw marks were dug into the doors, and the rocking chair moved back and forth on its own, possessed. At the end of the hallway, I found Grandma’s room replaced with an open grave, which my character walked toward until she plunged inside, seeing a few flickering wolfish images before everything faded to black.
I had no idea how to deal with what I experienced in that moment. I sat there as the game evaluated me, scoring me much more generously than last time. It said I succeeded. I got an A, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. I just led my Little Red into an experience that was at best traumatizing and at worst deadly. Or so it seemed.
In their postmortem, Samyn and Harvey state that they were personally astounded by the number of interpretations and personal connections the game generated from players. I’m still not settled on my own interpretation yet. I have too many ideas to list, and I’m sure your time would be better spent actually playing the game than listening to my thoughts on what the game’s about. And in the end, Samyn and Harvey believe that “whatever your interpretation [is about the game], it says more about you than about whatever the situation has meant to [them].” They did not set out to broadcast a rigid message or moral. Rather, they wished to explore the “infinite possibility” within the vagary of the game, utilizing the interactive potential of games to their fullest.
Even with its distribution on Steam and critical acclaim, The Path failed to make back its development cost in sales within its first year. Samyn and Harvey believe this is due to the inherent “contradiction in the fact that it takes independent developers to create projects that may appeal outside of the core audience and that it takes a corporate budget to market to this audience.” Operating on their small budget, Tale of Tales prioritized funding the game’s artistic development rather than increasing its marketing.
Bundle sites like Indie Royale and Humble Bundle help independent developers in two very important ways. They help increase the profits for existing artistically-daring titles created on budgets often too small to properly market, while they increase exposure to these games, boosting demand for similar projects in the future. If you’re even remotely interested in games that push the boundaries of games as art, I’d recommend giving The Patha try. If you do love it, spread the word. The more support, the better. I’ve even specifically invited friends to my house, both gamers and non-gamers alike, just to watch them play this game. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone’s first exposure to interactive storytelling, witnessing that I didn’t know games could do that look as they immerse themselves in another world.