The Path and the slow video game movement.

The art of play.
May 26 2009 6:53 AM

The Slow Video Game Movement

The Path asks gamers to stop shooting and start soaking in their surroundings.

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And that is, perhaps, the point, to ask gamers to resist the "fast food" of twitchy action spectacles and shoot-'em-ups in exchange for something more contemplative. The Path does at least try to present an interactive way for game players to experience empathy rather than to exert agency—to walk in the footsteps of young girls without trying to author their stories for them. And it's also worth praising a game for having girl characters who look like neither Lara Croft nor Barbie.

The game has hit a nerve with many players and critics because we're so used to eating french fries instead of steak, even if the meat is a bit mediocre. Like Michael Abbott, Tom Chick (of Sci Fi's Fidgit site) gives The Path an A for effort, for presenting an experience that is "a set of powerful images revolving around a unique theme" instead of a set of impenetrable puzzles. Nevertheless, The Path's poor design makes it feel like a puzzle—after all, I spent the majority of my time with the game figuring out what I was supposed to do.

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The Path's concept, while laudable, is also not as innovative as some would have it. The game it most reminds me of is 2006's Dreamfall, which also jettisoned most of the trappings of gameplay in exchange for interactive storytelling. Granted, Dreamfall did include the occasional bit of fighting or traditional puzzle-solving, so it was not as pure an attempt as The Path. But it was also better designed, with a more ambitious story.

Too often, The Path unfolds like Dragon's Lair or Space Ace (crossed with Flowers in the Attic), those animated 1980s arcade games that required one to guess the right combination of joystick moves in order to earn the privilege of watching an animated sequence. The scenes are intriguing and sometimes haunting. In the forest, I stumbled across a playground, a teddy bear, a knife, a lonely bit of chain-link fence. A girl in a white dress, the sounds of locusts, the snarls of a wolf, the gasps of a girl in very serious trouble. Did it unsettle me? A little. Was it pretty? Definitely. Was the journey that led me there fun or interesting? Not really.

Fun is not everything, of course, and games are often hobbled by the requirement that they be "fun," rather than simply engaging or attention-grabbing. Choice is also wildly overrated as a characteristic of video games: "Games let us author experiences," designer Jonathan Blow told game journalist Stephen Totilo in an interview two years ago. That mandate allows for narratives like The Path that require players to interact with them without allowing players to insert themselves into them.

It's a promising path (pardon the expression) for games to take. If you want to see the seeds of how such a game might work someday, then The Path is for you. It's interesting, head-scratching, exasperating, and occasionally rewarding. Too bad it more often feels like a promising false start rather than a satisfying journey in its own right.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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