This review will contain spoilers, so skip it for now and buy The Path if you’d rather not know what to expect on your first encounter with the game.

“Where shall I put my skirt?”
“Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.”

—Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, The Doll’s House

Developer Tale of Tales is doing some of the most interesting and progressive work in video games that I have ever seen.

You could call Tale of Tales’ 2009 game The Path an adventure game or a horror game, and you wouldn’t be wrong, although it only faintly resembles most other entries in those genres. The Path is based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Upon starting a new game, you are presented with six sisters, all listlessly occupying a single red room. One by one, you will lead the girls from their home in the city through a woodland path to their grandmother’s house. Each girl has her own personality and her own worldview, and each will be tested by her journey. Follow the path and you will be safe, but bored. Stray from the path, and you will be rewarded with an experience that can be haunting, magical and more than a little unsettling. The narrative is vague, and whether the events are meant to be interpreted literally or metaphorically is an open question.

This is a game for people who watch a lot of David Lynch.

I touched on Tale of Tales’ disdain for established gameplay tropes in my review of their previous effort The Graveyard. This attitude is palpable in The Path as well. Try to play The Path the way you would a more traditional game, by collecting all items, avoiding danger and trying not to die, and you could be shown the dullest possible ending and told that your effort was a failure. The game does reward diligence—finding things in the forest drives what there is of a narrative, and this requires exploration—but it does so unevenly, and there’s little point in visiting every corner of the world, less still in collecting every coin. Many games evaluate player performance with letter-grade “ranks”; the ranks in The Path seem to be awarded arbitrarily. The most fundamental error you can make is to obey the on-screen instructions you are given, to follow the path to grandmother’s house and not to stray.

“I’m going to pick the goth girl this time…”
“They all look like goths to me.”

Me and my wife discussing character design

The Path is a game for adults. Its thrust and allegory will not mean much to younger players, and the often-frightening atmosphere is punctuated by several genuinely disturbing moments. Ghostly apparitions wander a desolate forest. Sexual moans and screams of pain and terror seem to emanate from your avatar’s subconscious, or perhaps foreshadow her fate. Household items in grandmother’s house change in ways that recall deep traumas. Several sisters seem to die; one at least seems to be raped. Tale of Tales themselves describe the game as “unsuitable for children.” The slow pace, dark tone, surreal storytelling and emotionally damaged characters remind me of Silent Hill 2, although The Path‘s plot is not as detailed nor as cleanly “solvable.”

“Our entire raison d’êtreis that mechanics follow content, not the other way around.”

Tale of Tales on their philosophy, interview with Dark Zero.

Some reviewers claim that The Path is not a game, arguing that it is instead an “interactive artistic landscape“; that because it does not aim solely to provide “entertainment and recreation,” it should not be judged according to the “yardsticks for evaluating games“; or simply that it’s just not because they said so, and because it “all feels incredibly… messed up.”

I think there’s a better case for this regarding The Graveyard, in which player choice and possible outcomes are much more severely limited. The Path is a game, it’s just a game with simple gameplay. Every element is is streamlined, and most of what exists in the game serves two masters, plot and gameplay. The mysterious girl roaming the forest doesn’t just have a crucial (though ambiguous) role in the story, she also guides you when you become hopelessly lost. Running doesn’t just help you get from place to place faster, it also triggers visual and auditory cues (wolf paws on a darkening screen, shrieks and dissonant string music) that seem to suggest something about the dangers of hurrying through the forest, or through life.

The game’s deliberate pacing irritated me, but I can’t deny that even it served a purpose: the slow crawl of text across the screen as the girls commented on some strange discovery made the words feel like spontaneous thought, or poetry; and their slow movement speed forced me to pay attention to their body language, robbing me of the sense of superhuman ability conveyed by avatars in other games. As characters, the sisters have minds of their own, a point driven home by the fact that there is no “action button.” Just let go, and if they are interested in what’s nearby they will interact with it on their own.

The debate over whether games can be art was stupid and is over, but the debate over what constitutes art in games has just begun. Here’s a comment from “YuRiPa,” posted on IndieGames’ review of The Path:

“I don’t get the deal with ‘art’ games.

A painting is art because it looks nice.
A book is art if it is a good read.
So a game is art if it’s fun to play, right.

I’m fine if the developers want to stir up emotion and feelings or whatever, but can’t I just have some actual fun while doing so? Not indie, but Mother 3 is a good example.”

The game isn’t always subtle in its symbolism.

I don’t agree with this argument. I think creative works are elevated to the level of art through some alchemical combination of having something to say and having the skill to say it; saying it in an entertaining way is a bonus. At least YuRiPa is asking the right questions, though. What makes a game good as a game is subjective. Except in cases of outstanding brilliance, those qualities bear little relation to what makes a game good as an artistic work (artistic quality is also subjective). If you insist that your games be instantly gratifying confections or power fantasies, you will not enjoy The Path. It’s not a good game by those definitions. But if you can give yourself over to the experience, you will find images and ideas that stay with you and make you think and feel. The Path is a new thing in games, and that’s too rare.

“So far, it doesn’t look like a project like The Path is commercially feasible without arts funding—at least not within the current games community.”

Tale of Tales on why they receive arts grant funding, interview with Kotaku