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The Path: impressions

By on March 23, 2009
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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.