Review: The Path
I have completely embraced the concept of “walking simulators” over the years, to the point that I don’t even consider that a derisive term. Some of the most touching and memorable experiences I’ve had in gaming have been from simply wandering a place and piecing together the story. It’s taken a long time for atmospheric exploration games to gain wider acceptance, something that titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home helped set the stage for. Some might put The Path in with that group of trailblazers, but after revisiting it for the first time in over a decade, I think it may have done more harm than good to that cause. Others may find value in this one, and if you think you’re one of them, forget about this review and play it yourself. I can only speak to my experience with it, and I will explain in spoiler-heavy detail why I still hate it as much as I did when it was fresh and new.
The Path is an abstract retelling of Red Riding Hood, serving up six Tim Burtonesque ladies for you to make the fateful trek through the woods as. Your first (and only) instruction upon being deposited into gameplay is to stay on the path, which I did faithfully. A slow stroll eventually takes you to a horrific-looking cottage, and within its dark recesses, your chosen character finds their corpse-like grandmother and lays down beside her. The game then informed me that I had found no items, unlocked no rooms, not encountered the wolf, and that I had failed.
I need to point this out because it’s the clearest example of why The Path doesn’t work. Obviously the game wants you to wander off of the path and find things that we’ll get to in a minute, but right from the outset, it deceives you. This is worse than simply providing no direction, which is what smarter games in this genre have done in its wake. The Path actively gets in the way of the points it’s trying to make, and it starts by straight-up telling you to do the wrong thing. Having unreliable narration or direction in a game is a powerful tool, but that’s something that has to be established with the player through characterization or example, not simply having the only direction in your entire game be the opposite of what’s intended.
Anyway, I have since picked other ladies and wandered far and wide from the titular path. There are items and scenes scattered throughout the woods, which you can interact with simply by approaching and doing nothing. Now, when I say “interact with”, what actually happens is the camera zooms in, a little animation happens, and some nonsense text appears on the screen. You may also find items like knives and two-headed teddy bears, or other characters that spout random lines at you. Also, there are 144 flowers you can collect if you want, I guess. Somehow I doubt they do anything.
Since we’re talking about interactables, I discovered something on my recent revisit to The Path that made me hate it even more than before, actually. In my last playthrough, I found a knife that I naturally took with me. Later, I came across a lumberjack-looking fellow at a campsite. I hung around him for a bit to see if he would do anything, sat by the fire for a spell, looked at the outhouse, and then left. I found out after the fact that each of the six ladies you can play as has a metaphorical “wolf”, and that lumberjack was the one for the lady I picked! I even had the right item to trigger their special interaction, the knife. However, sitting by the fire was the trigger event for this revelation, and apparently sitting by it for a full thirty seconds was not enough to make anything happen. I put the time in to explore the woods, I found the right things in the right order to start gaining some insight into this weird vision of a game, and it still wouldn’t open up.
This is what I mean when I say that, whatever The Path is trying to do with its message and experience, it completely fails because it is constantly getting in its own way. It tells you the wrong thing to do, gives no indication of what the right thing is, and expects behavior far outside the norm for any kind of progress towards insight. These failings extend all the way to the interface and gameplay itself, as your normal walk speed through the forest is painfully slow, and running makes the camera zoom out and circle overhead for some reason, limiting your vision to even find things to fail at interacting with. The game is also lousy with weird filters and silhouettes that obscure your vision and make it harder to find anything in the woods at all.
Don’t mistake my hate of this game for hate of what it’s trying to do. I respect The Path for trying something different at a time when really no one else was, and I respect Tale of Tales for being so experimental with their designs. But they missed the mark with this game so badly, I honestly think it may have detracted from wider acceptance of games in this style. Whatever messages are intended here are lost in a sea of ugly visuals, misdirection, and terrible gameplay decisions. I’m sure there are folks with the patience and persistence to get something out of it, but I am absolutely not one of them. The Path is one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a game, and hopefully the lessons of this failure have been thoroughly learned by both its fans and detractors.