Games. UR Doin It Wrong

by Wardog

Wardog wanders at tangents in her non-review of The Path.
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There’s been a little bit of a buzz recently in the Indie gaming community (not that I hang out in it, just for the record) about The Path, a “short horror game” by Tale of Tales. The internet seems pretty much divided straight down the middle into those who believe “it’s art man art and if you don’t like it, you just don’t get it” and those who believe it’s completely worthless. Intrigued, I decided to take a look at it. Fool that I am.

The Path is a twisted, fragmentary re-interpretation / re-imagining / re-telling, or whatever other arty “re” word you want to use, of Little Red Riding Hood. At the beginning it invites you to choose one of six little Red Riding Hood figures, each in a different stage on the journey from girlhood to womanhood. The youngest, Robin, who looks most like the little Red Riding Hood we would recognise from the story, is 9. Voluptuous, flirtatious Carmen, near the other end of the spectrum, is 18. Having picked yer girl, the game places you at the end of a road on the edge of a forest. “Go to Grandmother’s house”, it tells you, “and stay on the path.”

And, uh, that it.

I instinctively and unerringly got my girl lost in the woods after about 3 seconds of play but, on later attempts, I discovered that if you do follow the instructions, you’re told in no uncertain terms that you’ve failed the game. Gameplay, and this is a generous term, takes place in two distinct but connected phases. In the first, you wander around the forest from a third person perspective, travelling excruciatingly slowly, exploring and finding things (including, usually, a wolf, literal or otherwise). Control is minimal and there’s no interface at all. You can walk forward, turn around, sprint in a way that obscures the screen, using your choice of either mouse or keyboard, but if you want to interact with anything you have to park the girl in front of the desired object and let go. In the second phase, if you should make it to Grandmother’s house, the game switches to first person and all you can do is walk forwards through the changing montage of creepy rooms and splintered images you find in there.

As with all (most?) self-consciously “unique” Indie games, there’s an air of the Emperor’s New Clothes about The Path in that nobody is quite willing to admit it might be naked. “This is a slow game” the developers warn you in the manual, implying, of course, that if you don’t like it, it’s your own fault because you just couldn’t appreciate what they was trying to achieve with the game. And there’s a fair degree of that filtering down into the reviews I’ve read as well: “it’s more of an experience, than a game” they say, “at first I was bewildered then I understood” and so on and so forth. Like a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for the bored.

Because, let’s face it here, The Path is as boring as fuck. I know it’s consciously designed to be counter-intuitive, a commentary on the nature of games: we give you one instruction, but in order to succeed, you have to disobey it, d’you see, d’you see. In order to interact you have to stop interacting, d’you see, d’you see. To get anything out of the game at all, you have to seek out the wolf, thus making you complicit in the destruction of these girls, d’you see, d’you see. But this doesn’t alter the fact that it’s still really fucking dull. And games who take as their central tenant “d’you see” are really fucking smug I apologise for the amount of emphasis in this paragraph.

The Path is meant to be an extended metaphor, for life, womanhood, growing up, gaming, you name it, but it’s expressed without subtlety and without taste, by people who could just have read some Angela Carter and saved us all a lot of time and effort. Also, given the fact the only thing to do in the game except wander endlessly round a massive forest is figure out the best way to get your girls “ravaged” and, later, murdered, I actually consider that slightly distasteful. Not, I hasten to add because it’s outside my comfort zone, but because the game expects you draw moral and aesthetic conclusions about the way you choose to interact with the only thing it lets you do.

Perhaps I’m getting bitter in my old age but I really hate explorations of “complicity” in interactive media. I mean, you’re complicit by default as it’s the only way to progress the game but there’s no depth or profundity to that because the games as a whole are structured around certain choices and juxtapositions. If you play a game in which you are presented with the option to a rape a girl or give her a cookie, and you decide to rape her, ultimately you also have to accept that somebody designed that choice in the first place. It doesn’t act as a metaphor for the way society makes us all complicit in the widespread raping of women. In fact, and this is a wild tangent, one of the few explorations of complicity and exploitation that I’ve witnessed in a long time was The Judgement of Paris which we saw in Edinburgh. It was visually gorgeous and, through the themes already present in the classical story and its own status as a burlesque show, it was able to engage the watching audience in an exploration of the uncomfortable intersection between eroticism and exploitation.

At no point, did it say “d’you see.”

Also, while I'm on tangential things that are irritating me in my old age (why won't those damn kids stay off my lawn?), how annoying is the central conceit that you have to leave the straight and narrow path in order to get on in life? Even it does mean you get ravaged by wolves. It's the only criteria for success or failure in the whole game. Robert Frost has a lot of answer for. What the hell is wrong with the road well travelled, that's what I want to know.

The problem (well, one of many problems) with games like The Path is that they’re very difficult to criticise, not because there’s nothing to criticise, but because playing it through (which, I have to confess, I haven’t in its entirety) is such a torturous process that you have to convince yourself you got something worthwhile out of it or face up to the fact that you’ve just wasted a not irrelevant chunk of your life. My favourite of all the brainwashed reviews is this one which includes the immortal line: “Even the slow pace of the game can be taken as a satirical commentary against the desire for instant gratification in today’s society.” Um, no. Resentment and frustration engendered by the slow pace of the game is not symptomatic of a deep issue with society, man, it means that people don’t enjoy being bored.

I occupy a much less extreme position on the “Are Games Art” spectrum than, say, Dan does but unfortunately games like The Path only serve to fortify his arguments, rather than bolster mine. It is absolutely a chore to play, partially due to some technical issues (bad collision detection, extreme slow-down, clipping etc.) but mainly due to the pretentious design choices that have carefully and systematically obliterated any traces of fun from it.

Interesting, isn’t it, the underlying notion that if something is fun, it cannot have artistic value so in order to make games artistic you have stop them being fun … and that’s the point at which they stop being games so what you eventually end up with a big pile of pointless.

The Path is trying very hard to be art and it’s certainly not a game (or, if it is, it’s a bad one), with the result that it is neither art, nor a game, and ultimately attempting to play it is an experience utterly devoid of any value whatsoever.
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