When a video game takes us to an imaginative world, it is often a selling point of the experience. Countless games do this with epic space battles, spell-slinging wizards dueling, and powerful martial artists duking it out—all of this is a part of the experience. Very rarely does the mundane have a part to play, even rarer still, the mundane twisted in some sort of macabre dimension.
Horror games can do this well, shunning the epic for the mundane quite easily, while twisting it into something monstrous. Few games, however, become psychological in nature at the same time. In modern context, horror games thrive best as indie titles. Out of recent titles released on the indie scene, perhaps the most jarring, cerebral title in that vein is The Path by Belgian Developer Tale of Tales.
Tale of Tales has become a pariah of sorts in recent years. The small company has made few games, The Path and the divisive title Sunset the most prominent. Tale of Tales has come under fire for remarks regarding the lack of success for Sunset, as well as criticism for their games not being … well, a game. At risk of reviving that age old argument, any justification that their titles aren’t video games is ultimately missing the point of their design: that being an interactive narrative. True, some players may not see these games as video games in the classical sense, no end goal, score, or even instruction to follow to achieve an end goal, but such perceptions on the matter are simply just that: a perception, and opinion, of what a video game really is.
The Path in particular goes against that belief, and often design conventions, of it not being a videogame, despite maintaining a status as a game due to its nonlinear structure. It does only what a videogame can do, create something interactive and playable that is ultimately discovered at a pace set by the player. Through this The Path provides an experience over a goal, a mandate to see what you uncover versus just finishing the game for the highest score. It also provides a unique experience that is in the same vein of more well liked so-called “walking simulators,” such as Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable. It is a game that eschews typical narrative and even rules to create something cerebral, sort of a video game equivalent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
That is not a hyperbolic claim as The Path is as surreal and disturbing as Lynch’s cult classic. The entire game is essentially a retelling of the classic fairytale Little Red Riding Hood, only set in a contemporary time. The game has you select one of six different girls of various ages and has one instruction for you to follow: stay on the path to grandmother’s house. Of course, the player can listen to those instructions and the game will be relatively short and simple, the route to grandmother’s house being down a straight path, but the game also punishes the player for following instructions in this way, giving them a “bad score” for not discovering anything in the surrounding forest.
The game purposely is more interesting the more you stray from the path to your grandmother’s house. This of course is by design; developers Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey discuss this as being part of the tradition of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, “Sexuality is not so much a theme in The Path as are the concepts of seduction, temptation, attraction and curiosity,” they state in an interview with the website Adventure Classic Gaming. “Those are all aspects of the main traditional theme in Little Red Riding Hood: growing up. But we like to expand on that and perhaps consider the confusion of adolescence as a metaphor for the uncertainty of life.”
Part of thematic push for The Path is to invoke a classic style of horror, psychological horror. While not totally divorced from survival horror, which has its roots set in adventure games from the past, psychological horror is predominantly a subgenre of adventure-style games. Silent Hill, being the most prominent example, is often lauded as a survival horror title for many reasons, but the inner workings and motivations of the games, in particular Silent Hill 2 and 3, are always more psychological over survival based. Other series follow this pattern—from Parasite Eve to Fatal Frame—each of them enriching the survival horror aspects that popularized the genre in the mid-to-late 90s.
The horror aspect of The Path comes in through interactions by the player, namely what they find in the woods off the path itself. Ghostly images float in the foreground of the screen as you uncover collectible objects. You hear haunting music get more erratic as you venture deeper into the woods, and jumbled camera angles provide unusual perspective, right down to the film grain filters draped over the camera angle. The Path is big on atmosphere; the world is dark and moody, and oozes personality that matches the foggy, forbidden streets of Silent Hill. In that respect, The Path is a winner of visual design, offering a somber style to provide a feeling of dread for the player to experience. It is just off-kilter enough to be unusual, and not in the serene sense we tend to see in video games.
Other aspects of The Path also contribute to the game's atmosphere. Encountering things such as the Wolf in the woods, for example, doesn’t kill the player; rather, it fades to black and leaves you on the middle of the path, almost like a corpse near your grandmother’s house. Other encounters are more benign but strange, such as meeting a mysterious woman dressed in white to finding a random woodsman chopping trees. All of these events lead to strange and unusual imagery that is ultimately unsettling over overtly scary. Images constantly burn themselves into the foreground of the screen, sometimes overlapping completely, and everything in the game from a perspective standpoint becomes almost sensory overload the heavier, and scarier, it becomes.
It is hard to actually categorize The Path as a pure horror game, but the label does fit well with its atmosphere. This is something that Samyn and Harvey also struggle to define. “The Path is neither about shocks or suspense,” they state. “Maybe it's not a horror game after all. It's gloomy, it's melancholic, it may be unsettling or even depressing. But there's no blood or ghosts or monsters. The design plays with your imagination and counts on the fact that the things in your mind are infinitely more frightening than anything we could depict.”
In a lot of ways, Tale of Tales represents the auteur side of video games. It is arthouse gaming at its finest, complete with basic but playable mechanics and a message that is ultimately player-specific. The Path has no endgame; once you are successful in all of the stories of the girls, it simply resets. It follows your collections and gives you a score, but it’s arbitrary, based on what you find and how you break the rules of the game versus playing the game properly. As a game, The Path is arguably terrible, something that Tale of Tales acknowledges due to its off-beat design.
Instead, The Path is shooting for an experience by the player that is ultimately personal. Analysis of The Path is just a side-effect of the experience, trying to understand the product as it is showcased and find hidden meaning behind the imagery as presented. Such analysis is interesting at the very least; it shows that the hidden context of the game, however pointless it really is (again, something Tale of Tales has acknowledged to be the case), becomes the ultimate allegory to the game's very existence. Good, cerebral horror is not just strange and off-putting; it serves as a metaphor for various themes and ideas that enhance the experience of the horror that is presented.
Regardless of the definition of what The Path is, the horror aspects of the game are more than just what you discover in the woods. Grandmother’s house is also a surrealist nightmare at times with spinning walls and darkened hallways. The game transitions from a third person to first person view in the house, and this in turn adds a lot more atmosphere than before, with everything from the music to the shadows on overdrive before often abruptly ending with grainy slide-show shots of the girls usually deceased. The change of perspective makes the game more personal, and the traumatic effects more visceral for the player in this way, and it does enhance the visual interpretation of the events each girl goes through.
Through all this, The Path as a video game may be off-kilter, but this simply enhances its design. Reviewers even have trouble explaining their allure to the title, many commenting that The Path is not a good game due to its gameplay, but a very important game due to its presentation. It is certainly not for everyone; fans of more concrete gameplay goals and objectives will hate the nonlinear form of The Path for sure. For horror fans, or simply anyone looking for something unique, the game will certainly fit the bill. It is a horror game unlike any other ever made, a horror game where the underlying creepiness is personal over purposeful.
I hope you all enjoyed this episode of Gaming Obscura. Do you have any suggestions or comments? Please leave them below or message me @LinksOcarina. See you next time.