"The Path is a Slow Game," its makers warn, and perhaps that should have scared me off, for I am a Slow Gamer. It's not merely that I'm dunderheaded. I'm also a plodding, open-mouthed, rose-smelling completionist. Games that others play through in five, 10, or 40 hours routinely require 10, 20, and 80 hours of my time. So when The Path's designers, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn of the Belgian game company Tale of Tales, predict that players will need "about six hours" for "a satisfying experience," I should have anticipated that I would need more than 12 just to get an alternately frustrating and curious one, and that it would take me seven hours just to figure out what in the name of all that is holy I was supposed to do.
I would have handed over my $10 anyway, just for the chance to download and play the current It Game of the game blogosphere, the title that the Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott called "a small milestone in the evolution of an art form." And I might even recommend that you do it, too. I can't tell you that The Path is worth playing in its own right, and I wouldn't call it a milestone by a long shot. But the game is pleasingly weird and a good proof of concept that a video game needn't include any fighting or puzzles in the course of telling a story (something I'd like to see more of). It is also, however, an even better demonstration of the reality that every kind of game requires smart design, intuitive controls, and an easy-to-understand user interface to communicate its vision to its players.
The Path begins in a red room—from walls to carpet—with a single white door. Six girls are positioned around a black table beneath a slow, circling ceiling fan. Ginger rests cross-legged on the floor while Rose sits in a chair and pets a white bunny that is sitting in her lap. Robin, the youngest, plays with a toy car. Scarlet gabs on a phone attached to the wall, Ruby reads a book, and Carmen admires herself in the sunlight that cascades through a window. A mysterious sound—is it rain? The clamor of a nearby train or subway?—fills the room.
A yellow basket can be moved about the room to begin each girl's journey. Once chosen, each character begins The Path in a mysterious forest, beyond a shrouded cityscape, with a single instruction: "GO TO GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE … AND STAY ON THE PATH." Doing as the game tells you, however, results in a message: "FAILURE!" Only by exploring the woods can each girl find "SUCCESS!" in the form of her "wolf." The animations are beautiful. The music can be chilling. The words and images grow increasingly disturbing, and sometimes sexual, though opaque. When it's all over, there's a lot to think about, which turns out to be a more enjoyable exercise than actually playing The Path.
The game's poor design repeatedly gets in the way of its narrative ambitions. The gameplay in The Path and the instructions in its manual (which I resorted to after my first couple of hours of aggravation) emphasize the importance of letting go—of doing nothing. The gameplay mechanic is noninteraction: To get one of the girls to take an action, players must resist the urge to tap at the controls. So I resisted, a lot, but to no good end. At one point, the youngest girl, Robin, stumbled upon the façade of a ruined building in the forest and disappeared behind it. The game faded in and out, the images fuzzy then clear, fuzzy then clear. Where did she go? I wondered. Is this her wolf? The music would swell, then vanish. There was a noise. The jangle of a collar? I couldn't tell. After perhaps 20 minutes of this—yes, 20 minutes of not interacting, of letting go, of letting the game play me—I came to the sad realization that nothing was going to happen, that this was a bug, not a feature. I punched some buttons on my keyboard, and Robin ran out from behind the walls of the ruin. Not much later, Robin and the "Girl in White" got stuck in a pond and couldn't walk out. I rebooted.
It says a lot about the game that I bothered to wait, that the music was interesting enough and the animations beautiful enough for me to sit there and watch. It says a lot more about it that these bugs happened in the first place. Even when the game works properly—I recommend, even on a computer like mine that far exceeds the minimum memory and processor requirements for the game, turning down the effects so the lush forest becomes a less attractive but playable moonscape dotted with trees—it is painfully Slow.
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.
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.