Continuing through my queue of games that I’ve learned from, here’s what I learned from playing The Path. (Special thanks to Link Hughes for buying a copy for me, even if he mocked me later for playing it.)
Before I dive into this, The Path is really one of those games you absolutely love or absolutely hate. I’m going to be upfront: I didn’t enjoy it. I know this game is quite the darling in the indie video game scene, and that’s awesome – I wish Tale of Tales the best of luck in continuing to make games that work for them and their audience. I’m not their audience, but as someone keenly interested in the design of games and other interactive media, I can and will play things I don’t like to learn from them. So if you’re gearing up to leave comments or send me emails telling me how I should have loved the game, save us both a lot of time: I don’t love it, and probably won’t no matter how much you tell me I should have.
“Artistic” should not trump “game,” nor should a game mean we don’t need to be artistic. Video games are still a young medium, and for the medium to grow and evolve, we need to explore more artistic expression in games. I’m not refuting that at all. However, an artistic expression that ignores the fact that this is an interactive medium is just as bad as a non-artistic expression that ignores that this is an interactive medium.
I had this frustration when I played the demo of The Graveyard. Sure, I got to move the main character around, and that led to some stuff happening, but really, I was just there. The game had its story to tell, and I was only the vehicle for the game to tell that story to me. While The Path is better about trying to embrace its game elements, it does them in such an ironic way that it almost feels ashamed to be a game.
And I get that, too. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the word “game,” and in order to evolve, we have to move past that. But if we’re embarrassed about our chosen medium, then others will wonder why we’re embarrassed by it, and we won’t progress. And The Path feels like it really doesn’t want to be a game.
Old stories still have power. The conceit of The Path is a vague retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. And it really works here – I was able to quickly get a lot of information through the symbols and language of the game, without a lot of prompting. Dog-like paw prints on the screen told me that maybe the Big Bad Wolf was coming, which was probably bad. A location called “Grandma’s House” immediately tells me that that’s probably where I need to ultimately go. This is something more visceral than a license or an adaptation – this is using the language of common myth and legends to communicate a staggering amount of information in a very concise space. This is something I would love to see more of, instead of endless windows and pop-ups.
Interface needs to balance storytelling and approachability. The interface of the game is… difficult. I was willing to accept a lot of difficulty for this experience, but at one point in the game, the character only takes one step if you hit the W key, and she does so very, very, very slowly. I spent five minutes hammering on W just to get to a building I could clearly see in front of me. I understood that the idea was that the walk to the house is meant to be difficult and painful, but the threshold from “communicating experience via gameplay” quickly moved from confusing to artistic to fucking irritating in short order.
The same is true for any style of game, I think. A role-playing game that is meant to be fast-paced and exciting shouldn’t have lumbering dice rolling or excessive record-keeping. A board game about exploration should have an expansive board and a feeling that every space has something meaningful to discover. I always look back to the original Deadlands as a great example of flavorful gameplay with using poker hands to cast magic spells – for a game about the Wild West with weird elements, it gets you right into the world through the act of gameplay. But when the flavorful gameplay interferes with the act of actually interfacing with the game, it’s a problem.
Unreliable narrators can work in games, but we haven’t found the right balance yet. The Path starts off with two rules, and if you follow them, you lose. It’s a bit of a shock, because we rely on games so much to communicate the concept and world of the experience to us. To realize that the game is not wrong or flawed but actively lying to you is extremely disorienting. It’s very similar to unreliable narrators in literature, and I think it’s one of the concepts that translates well from one medium to interactive media. But The Path lets you realize that it’s lying, and then just shrugs and keeps its mouth shut. You’re left with aimlessly exploring – which isn’t a bad design, but in this case a game with open exploration needs an even stronger interface than usual. I have another game with unreliable narration in my queue (The Void), so I’ll be able to see if this is a specific failing of The Path or if it’s a concept that’s still gelling in interactive media.
Gameplay doesn’t have to be comfortable to be entertaining. After I played this, I got into a couple of rants with (sympathetic) co-workers about it. As a horror writer, I understand that sometimes our entertainment can (and maybe even should) be uncomfortable. A good horror movie should make us squirm, and there are some great movies that I loved and will never watch again. Games cannot and should not be exempt from this. But “uncomfortable” does not mean “boring,” and I don’t think games as a whole have found that line yet – as designers, we still err on the side of “entertaining.”
All in all, I think The Path is an important game. I am glad it was made, and I think that people really interested in pushing the boundaries of video games should at least watch some videos of it or borrow a friend’s copy for a few hours. And like all important things, it invites divisive opinions and sparks complicated commentary. But at the end of the day, “important” is not the same thing as “good.”