PHOTO COURTESY OF TALE-OF-TALES.COM
The hairs on my arms are standing up like living, quivering antenna of distress. I'm nauseous in my belly and full of contradictory emotions in my chest. I feel sad, afraid, and wistful all at once. (Did I mention afraid?)
I'm playing The Path, a new videogame from Belgian independent studio Tale of Tales, and I don't think I've ever felt so scared and so upset while playing a videogame in my life. I would describe the feeling as horrible — except it's only horrible in the way that watching The Shining is horrible. It's horrible because it lays open the ugly, dangerous, sorrowful side of life, which is to say it's not really horrible at all, just scary as all hell.
How to begin! The Path opens in a room of five girls ranging from quite young to nearly grown up. It's a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, and each girl — dressed in red and black — must try and make her way to Grandmother's house. "Stay on the Path!" the game warns as you start out with each new girl, but of course the whole point is not to stay on the path, but rather to wander through the forest that surrounds you on either side, where you run into rusty playgrounds, old graveyards, creepy campsites, and a wisp of girl in a white slip who sometimes runs past you and sometimes stops to hold your hand, play patty-cake, or even hug you. In fact, if you do stay on the path and make your way to Grandma's without encountering that infamous wolf of the fairy tale, you "Fail" that round automatically. In other words, the game is all about the necessity of facing what's hard, even ugly and brutal, in order to "Succeed."
"Sometimes you have to go through something very cruel to get somewhere very beautiful," says Michael Samyn, who co-designed the game with his work and life partner, Auriea Harvey.
Harvey and Samyn were both trained as fine artists and graphic designers before becoming videogame designers in the early 2000s. They were part of a mid-1990s Internet-based scene, wherein creating virtual worlds and playing in Flash and designing interactive experiences was the cutting edge of the art world. Both Harvey and Samyn remember discovering videogames in 2001 and thinking, "My God, what could be done with this! " Samyn said.
And, my God, what they've done with it!
The Path is hardly a videogame at all. It's more like some kind of futuristic adult toy. It's an environment wherein you wander (full of plants whose blooms are actually replications of medieval ornaments), picking things up if you choose, or simply wandering until you stumble upon something. For some gamers — judging from the game's blogasphere — this was incredibly annoying. I found it relaxing and pleasurable. It allowed me to fully immerse myself in the experience without worrying whether I was doing everything the game wanted me to.
And it's hardly like nothing happens. In my first run through the forest, I climbed into a little boat I found on the edge of a lake — I think I was fleeing gasping sounds that seemed to echo through the forest, eerily indistinguishable between a gasp of pleasure and a gasp of pain. I hopped into the boat and next thing I knew "the wolf" was upon me — the wolf is not always in the shape of a wolf — and there my young girl self was, whirled into the air in a burst of circulating white light. It seemed both annihilating and blissful at the same time. And then the screen went blank, opening again on my young girl self crumpled in a heap, in the rain, at the foot of Grandma's house. (I'm not even going to get into here what actually happens in grandma's house.)
That's when I started to feel a little sick with fear and anxiety.
The next character I choose was the youngest girl, actually dressed in a red, hooded coat, with a cute, little-girl walk. I took her into the forest, knowing I had to, but hating to take her off the nice, well-lit path. When she entered a grove full of flowers, with each flower picked, a white, masklike face appeared on the screen — that's when the hair on my arms started standing up.
My little girl ran away and into the little girl in white and they walked together hand-in-hand for a while. I didn't want to part with the girl in white. I felt she represented all that could go wrong in the forest — all that inevitably goes wrong in life — and the courage it takes to survive and grow despite even the bitterest attacks on one's person. I let the two girls play for a while and hug each other. It was strange how much I didn't want to take my little girl back into the woods. I was scared — really scared, watching The Shining scared — but I took her back in, even as I found myself pleading for her — to whom, I don't know. We came upon an old graveyard, and my heart literally jumped a beat when I saw the wolf, up on his hind legs creeping around the edge. Up to the graveyard I marched my little girl, and then it was a montage of fangs and moans and bristly hair, and then images of my girl riding him, roughly, round and round the cemetery. Again, all faded to black. Again, my girl was dropped, in a crumbled, broken heap at the foot of her Grandmother's door.
And so it goes. The next girl, a bit older,
sits next to a young man on a bench next to a playground in the forest, and he looks at her — and she looks so tiny in her slim girlhood next to his muscled manhood that my heart breaks with the yearning to save her — and all turns to black before her twisted body is found at Grandma's.
After that, I brought out the oldest of the young women, and said, "Fuck that" and marched her straight up the path to Grandma's house, walked right into the door, found Grandma in bed with a funny look in her eye and "Failed" the round. Okay, I thought, but at least I saved her.
The last girl was in some ways the most difficult. She's a teenager who walks lasciviously, swishing her hips from side to side, arching her back and batting her eyelashes. I let her play by the side of the path with the little girl in white for a long, long time. It was as if I knew I had to take her into the forest to meet the wolf, to facilitate some process that, inevitably, had to be, yet I kept thinking, "A little longer, a little longer."
Maybe I'd just been playing too long at that point, but I swear that when it was time to go into the forest, my girl knew just what she was doing. This time she (I?) was looking for the wolf — not dawdling about gazing at foliage or collecting flowers; not hiding from him, but flat-out hunting him down. This girl wanted her fate as much as she feared it.
When I came into a campsite with bloody Xs on the trees, a cooler of beer and a man with an ax chopping away at the surrounding trees, I knew we'd found him. Might as well let her sit down on top of that cooler and wait for him to come.
You may have noticed that I seem to be putting a lot of my own feelings and interpretations unto these little pixalated characters. And I'd have to say, well, yes, I noticed that too. In fact, I think that's part of what's so powerful about The Path — it gives your mind enough material to set your imagination in motion, and then pretty much leaves the rest up to you. When I asked Harvey and Samyn what The Path was about, they simply laughed and said that would depend on who played it.
So I'll just tell you what it was about for me. For me, The Path is about what a remarkably fine line it is that separates childhood from adulthood, innocence from cynicism, and how utterly not black-and-white most things in life are. It's about the fact that, as much as we might like to believe otherwise, sometimes the places that should be the safest — figuratively, childhood and literally Grandma's house — are actually the most dangerous; that sex can be both brutal and transcendendant; that females, at all stages of their girlhood, are vulnerable in a very particular way; and that there's a certain inevitability to that vulnerability — no one gets through life without growing up. And sometimes growing up can be an experience that leaves you crumpled and nearly broken on the ground.
But maybe that's just me. You'd better play it yourself to see for sure. (The Path can be downloaded at tale-of-tales.com.)