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The Path: impressions

By on March 23, 2009
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path2

Bias out of the way: I was always in love with The Path. As an idea, and as an envelope pushing prospect, it’s a project I’ve been following for some time.

It’s also visually arresting. This is not an Unreal-powered title. Its visual style isn’t even all that distinctive compared to releases like Madworld, No More Heroes or Love. And yet Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn have added such unique detail to the forest world through which the young women travel that finding comparison is impossible.

For me, sadly, this is probably the level on which this ‘interactive poem’ most succeeds. As an art game, it is of course subject to… subjectivity that most titles are not. We can, to at least some degree, agree on how complex a game’s graphics are, or how good the AI is. Here, the only real target for criticism are the motif’s of the experience, and how they’re communicated. It’s a nice realisation, but not one the project will always prosper from.

Coming of Age, or Rape Simulator?

A variety of interpretations and reactions have already surfaced online, ranging from in-depth analyses of childhood, to allegations of ‘rape-simulator’. For me, the very fact that anyone has been turned off by the arguably dark portrayal of coming of age is a comment on the project’s success in some areas. I can’t remember the last time I felt appalled by something I’d seen in a ‘game’ and sadly that’s true of The Path as well.

Ultimately, though, your enjoyment of The Path will come down to how much you appreciate its end goal. While this is quite indubitably a work of art focusing on the nature of growing up, it’s an extremely open ended examination. By the creators’ own admission, their objective hasn’t been to say anything concrete, but rather to pursue some postmodern ideal of ambiguity and the absence of objective truth. As Samyn puts it, “I think of The Path as a tool to help me think about certain issues.”

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That’s all well and good, if you’re of the Lynchian persuasion, but for me the unending confusion (across all media) between the artistic and the obscure is hard to understand. While wandering aimless through a forest – lightly interacting with various would-be symbolic environments, dripping with atmosphere – is certainly an agreeable experience, the somewhat nonsensical text and malleable plot don’t lend themselves to my nature. Just as Braid suffered for trying too hard to defend itself from any meaningful interpretation, so too does The Path – and if a discussion of postmodern obscurity were the goal, it could have been achieved without succumbing to the very topic under discussion.

Heavy on the ‘poem’, light on the interaction

Perhaps The Path’s greatest objective failing (since, after all, some people enjoy Lynch et al) is in its interactivity. Certainly Tale of Tales has delivered an experience that will be unique to every player – both in their actual progress, and in what that means to them – but it is unique in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The thing that singles out games’ potential amongst other art forms is the player – ultimately, our medium’s strength is to interpret the players’ actions and deliver something appropriate to him. Here, the directionless wandering and limited interactions means that though we may all have unique experiences, they will not be meaningfully so.

After the rain…

There are good things here, no doubt – things beyond the simple fact that a game like this has made it to market (though in this day of digital distribution, ‘market’ has something of a different impetus to what it may have had before). Beyond what’s been mentioned already, a superbly ironic scoring system reminds you of the boxed in mindset we as gamers and developers have grown to accept unquestioningly. The linear nature of the endgame – where any button pressed serves only to advance your girl’s on-rails progress through grandmother’s house – effectively communicates the inevitability of growth (and pain) in a way light years ahead of any other commercial product.

Looking ahead

For those final reasons alone, The Path is unequivocally worth playing. While I believe there are objective problems with this experience beyond matters of meaning, the fact that I prefer my art to be more grounded and graspable (think Façade, World of Goo or The Passage) is, of course, personal taste.

Indeed, if The Path is to be an indication of things to come, then no doubt there is an ideal ‘art game’ out there that’s yet to even be imagined. The Path, while unique, gorgeous and fascinating, isn’t there yet.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • CB

    I agree. Metafiction is not the basic element of postmodernism. We can find metafiction in Stendhal’s “Le Rouge et le Noir”, in Diderot’s “Jacques le fataliste et son maître” etc. and they are not postmodern.

    For metafiction, to be a postmodernistic tool, it has to be used in the way, to show us exactly what you already told about postmodernism (highlighting how the structures, social norms and assumptions we make everyday distance us from the reality beneath them). In short, it has to show that the medium itself is the reality, is one of many realities.

    Has The Path done that? In a way it has. The game showed us, how artistic can this medium be. It showed us, that this medium can be art. And also, very characteristical for postmodernism, it combined something artistical with something more common (like Eco’s The name of the Rose is written in form of a murder mystery).

    But than again, modernistic elements are also present. It showed us how very important is the perception of a player. How every player forms his own reality.
    And that goes also for the girls. Every girl has different impressions of objects they collect. And most important, they have different impressions of the wolf. This shows for me the fenomenological concept of reality.

    So the question that pops out here is; Is it even possible to make something not postmodernistic in this postmodern time? The very idea to deny postmodern is itself postmodernistic. Isn’t it?

  • Interesting… I think, in a sense, you might be right.

    I don’t think postmodernism’s ‘basic element’ is quite so easy to define, though. Self-reference is certainly a common element in postmodern art, but I’d say it’s far from the most important or defining characteristic (though this is, by nature of the beast, highly open to discussion).

    Postmodernism for me – and the closest I think anyone’s come to presenting a unanimous definition – is about highlighting how the structures, social norms and assumptions we make everyday distance us from the reality beneath them. This is why metafiction is such an important tool, because it focuses attention on precisely those cultural structures.

    On that level I think we might say, in fact, that The Path is anti-postmodern in the sense that Tale of Tales proposes there IS no reality beneath the simulacra and assumptions.

    All the same, this still renders The Path a game concerned with postmodern concepts, if not the proponant of the postmodern ideal I may have implied.

    Pathologic, I would agree, is a fascinating game that I’d like to spend more time with.

  • CB

    I wouldn’t be so quick to call this game postmodern. The absence of objective truth doesen’t make a game postmodern. If any, it makes it modern. The basic element for any postmodern art is metafiction. And I’ve seen metafiction in only one game (and that’s Pathologic by Ice-Pick Lodge studio).

  • Always fascinated to hear other people’s impressions…