I finally played Tale of Tales’ The Path last night. I’ve been wanting to for months.
The Path is a short computer video game that has been praised a lot for its innovation and subtle horror. It’s not a super-thrilling game; like other people have said, it’s hardly even a real video game in some ways. There’s barely any action and very little interaction/choices. The horror isn’t very explicit. There aren’t really any objectives, other than to explore the woods and find your wolf.
You play each of six sisters, in sequence, who live together in a big city and are told to go to their sick grandmother’s house in the middle of the woods. The girls are: Ruby, Robin, Rose, Scarlet, Carmen, and Ginger. They are each dressed in a red and black outfit that is an interpretation on Little Red Riding Hood’s traditional costume. Robin is the only one who wears an actual red cape. You are instructed at the beginning, “Do not stray from the path,” but you must go into the woods in order to “win”; the point is to meet the Wolf.
Once you go off the path, you explore the surrounding forest and find certain areas where your character picks up items, discovers things, and encounters their wolf. When you pick up or find an object, you see a glimpse of what you’ll find at Grandmother’s house. Some of the objects can only be accessed by certain characters, including an old bathtub, a wheelchair, a piano, and a shopping cart.
The experiences and endings are unique to each of the girls, who have their own personalities, psychological traits and “weaknesses.” Depending on how many of their objects you collect, you unlock rooms in Grandma’s house that show you more of the creepy imaginativeness that characterizes the interesting quality of The Path. Each of the girls experiences a traumatic event in some form that is echoed back to them in Grandmother’s house, where it’s revealed in symbolic and implicit ways. The horror of the game does not lie in gory or explicit happenings but in the implied psychological darkness and the creepy imagery that reflects the experiences of the girls. These scenes in Grandmother’s house are the climax.
There’s not really any “dialogue,” just whimsical and somewhat abstract things that the girls say to themselves sometimes as they’re exploring and find things. There is a young girl in a white dress who is known as the “Forest Girl”; she seems spirit-like, and flits around here and there, and can lead you back to the path when you’re lost by holding your hand and walking you there. She seems very sweet and playful. When she leaves you in front of Grandmother’s house, she hugs you and walks away.
The way you encounter the Wolf is very formulaic. The “wolf” is a person, specific to every girl, that you meet in the woods who somehow influences or represents what happens to your character. You only have to make contact with that person to trigger the result. This makes it seem kind of superficial since there’s not much engagement between the girl and the Wolf and you just kind of stick around until it happens. But, this isn’t qualitatively that different from all video games, only there’s even less complexity here, I figure.
Once you’ve engaged the Wolf, there’s an ambiguous and vaguely ominous cut-scene, and it fades out in an atmosphere of sad, creepy, and foreboding expectation. Then you find yourself lying unconscious in front of the short path to Grandmother’s house and you get up and limp very slowly in a depressive, dark way to her house while it’s raining and now dark. (If you didn’t encounter the Wolf, you walk normally, and it’s not dark out.)
Once in the house, you’re led through surreal, subtly horrific scenes, filled with objects symbolic of your trauma/psychological weakness, and at the end you enter Grandmother’s bedroom, where you find not Grandma (or perhaps a twisted version of Grandma), but a kind of metaphorical death, and there flash cryptic images of the girl, the Wolf, and what happened to her. To play through the ending, you just have to keep pressing the forward key and you’re automatically pushed along through the house, and see the different parts of it that it has to show you. But that action makes it intense and seriously creepy; just the simple act of going forward and being in the driver’s seat involves you a lot in the horror.
All the girls go through this sequence, and their “trauma” has different themes and symbols based on their psychological characteristics. With Ruby, there seems to be a theme of loss of innocence, so she finds a ratty old (two-headed) teddy bear and goes to a playground to meet her Wolf. Robin has a death theme, even though she is so young, and she goes into a graveyard, where she finds a dead bird and wants to bury it. (She is the only one who actually encounters a real wolf – a werewolf.) Ginger’s theme is growing up, and she has childish adventures before going to a beautiful meadow full of flowers, where there’s a very ambiguous wolf scene. Her Wolf is a girl like the Forest Girl, only in a red dress and with all-black eyes, and when you approach her she turns into red butterflies, giggles rather sinisterly, and flits from place to place like a ghost. Then she puts her arms around Ginger from behind and they lie down together among the flowers.
Some of the trauma encounters are kind of obvious, like they suggest sexual abuse, exploitation, or just hurt; others are open to speculation and maybe not even apparently negative, like Ginger’s scene, which I see as almost peaceful. It’s all so symbolic that I wouldn’t take anything too literally.
The Path is different because it doesn’t rely on plot and typical game characteristics to drive it; it’s more about self-discovery, exploration, and a sense of quiet, surreal horror. Though it’s very slow for the most part and a pretty humble sort of game, I find its darkness really interesting, and it’s stuck with me. I love thinking about how it all fits together and the narratives of the different girls, the symbolism there.