So I have been playing…or…err…interacting with…sort of…for a value of "interact"…this game…for lack of a better term…called "The Path."
What follows may have spoilers. I’m not…actually…sure, so I’ll cut-tag it, just in case.
I heard about it on NPR, which probably I should have realized meant that it was not exactly God of War-style hack-and-slashery, and it was being talked about in terms of abuse and recovery, and one of the people being interviewed said that after playing, she found it much easier to discuss her own history of abuse, which means that anything I can possibly say is pretty much moot, since shit, if it works on that level for anybody, kudos game designers, I’ll let myself out. Kratos was a lot of fun, but I don’t see him volunteering at the rape crisis center, except in a capacity about which it would be in poor taste to joke.
So the game was…odd.
I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it as a game, although as a sort of…piece of interactive storytelling…it was…odd. (Many reviews are similar, I gotta admit–"We can’t actually recommend this to our usual gamer audience, but…well…we feel like it was a valuable experience. You’ll hate it, but…it was interesting. Say, do you like David Lynch movies?")
Basically, you’re playing through various metaphorical versions of Little Red Riding Hood, as one of six sisters. And some parts are sort of slyly amusing as a commentary on being well-trained AS gamers…you start out and the command flashes across the screen "Don’t Leave The Path."
So you don’t. Because it told you not to, and when games tell you things like "Don’t fall in the acid!" and "Don’t get bitten by the tigers!" you obey. And so you get to Grandma’s house–very slowly, the characters move like wounded snails–and the game ends and you failed, because you didn’t meet the wolf.
I wised up after one run. Some reviewers apparently drove themselves nuts trying to play before they realized that you have to disobey orders. (Similar point–there are 144 paper flowers. Collect all 144, and absolutely nothing happens, because geez, who the hell cares how many paper flowers youpick up in a video game? If you pick up a couple, it’ll give you a point on the screen to navigate to where your character says something significant and character developing.)
So you leave the path, and you wander around picking up stuff and looking at stuff, which your character comments on. There are no puzzles. There is no combat. You are just learning more about how your character thinks. Eventually you meet your wolf, which ranges from the literal to the metaphorical, and there’s a cut scene, and you wind up at Grandma’s House, collapsed on the path, in the rain. You stagger to your feet, walk veeeeeeeeeerry slowly (seriously, I got out a book) into the house, whereupon there is a surreal low-poly journey over which you have almost no control, except that if you don’t click the button, the screen goes dark and you hear really unsettling growling behind you, and at some point you die.
Or you’re already dead, and this is the afterlife. Or death is a metaphor. Or you’re all Grandma, and this is stages of her life and loss of innocence passing before your eyes, and all the wolves are metaphors for either rape or getting your period or falling in love or all three simultaneously and the awful thing with the barbed wire is about being a lesbian or maybe about why you shouldn’t climb through barbed wire and that one thing was either a wolf or a werewolf or a child molestor and you probably got killed but possibly it’s a death of innocence thing or…err…something and god, nobody has a clue what was up with the one thing and the boat.
Regardless, it ends, the world goes black, a completely made up score flashes on the screen, and you wind up back at character selection with only five sisters left in the room. And then four and then three and…you get the idea.
If you’re like me, you play through one of these, go "Um. Dude. Um….what?" and wind up on the forums trying to figure out just what the hell happened, where you can read in-depth analysis which proves that either somebody’s a genius or this is some kind of visual poetry with a game engine or we of the internet have way too much time on our hands, or possibly all three.
I’m being overly glib here, because what I haven’t yet conveyed adequately is that this game is pretty frickin’ creepy. The music does most of the heavy lifting, and it is seriously unsettling. You spend the whole time knowing something horrible is going to happen to you and wondering what (what actually does happen in the cut-scenes is fairly tame…what happens afterwards is…open to interpretation…) And it’s really quite honestly unsettling in an almost uniquely female way…you really do kinda wander around with a shadow of that sick am-I-about-to-get-in-real-trouble uneasiness that you feel walking through a bad part of town at night, and I’m not talking about just getting mugged. And then, in a really perverse irony, once you figure out how to tell where any given character’s wolf is, you wind up driving them off to their fate deliberately.
It is a sign that I am a bad human being and perhaps too MUCH of a gamer to be the target audience that by about girl four, I was saying "Okay, let’s get you killed!" and sending them toddling off to meet their fate, because hey, I’m a completionist, and I needed to finish the game, if it was a game, which the jury is still out on.
It felt almost more like a piece of…oh, viral marketing, say, where you’re wandering around trying to find clues to patch together what’s going on. In that sense, had there been a little more concrete non-metaphorical stuff, I think they might have attracted a wider audience–I think it’s a place games could go, easily, and do interesting storytelling stuff with. The thing is that people DO give you a lot in video games, because they become the main character–that’s YOU wandering around doin’ stuff, and you have to be an appallingly unlikeable character or weirdly iconic in some way* to avoid that. In that sense, I think this might have been more broadly successful had there been ANY puzzles at all–even just a use-object-on-thing straightforward puzzle, because I think it would have cemented character identification much harder.
Alternately, animal sidekick. Seriously. I have played games with combat engines that would make Jesus projectile vomit because they had an animal sidekick. (Rule of Rose being the major one, but Bard’s Tale gets a nod here too.) Have a confused bunny follow Little Red around, and perhaps nudge her beaten body a few times, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
…yes, this is me missing the point. Still. Everything’s better with bunnies.
*See "Rule of Rose" for I-want-to-drown-this-moron, and any of the Riddick games, because you’re always Vin Diesel, and…well…you’re just not cool enough to be Vin Diesel.