This is my fourth and final computer game review for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. We’ve already visited the past, the present and the future — now it’s time for a story that will likely never age…
by Tale of Tales
Six sisters bide their time in a blood-red room, waiting for you to give one of them a basket. Their names are Rose, Ruby, Robin, Carmen, Ginger and Scarlet. Can you guess where this is going?
You make your choice and find yourself swept above a normal, real-world road of tarmac and painted lines, which makes way for a rough dirt track through a forest. The girl you chose to accompany waits for you to guide her, but before you start instructions are given, and advice. The instructions are simple: “Go to Grandmother’s house.” The advice?
That sounds like it’s worth heeding, because the houses of grandmothers are usually safe, and forests are notoriously inhabited by wolves and other things that good girls ought to avoid. I guess the important question might be, are these good girls? Or is the more important question, are you the type of person to keep to the straight and narrow, or would you lead an innocent astray?
If you follow the safe path, to the destination you always intended to reach, then you will succeed – but in the least profound way. You risk nothing, you learn nothing, but at least you arrive at Grandma’s house unscathed — or rather, the girl wearing red does.
So you try again, and this time you follow your nose instead of orders. Maybe you see a twinkling in the grass and find a flower to collect. Maybe you see a little girl in a white dress running between the trees, give chase, and find yourself lost. Maybe you glimpse something else in the distance — a lake, a camp site, an abandoned car, a graveyard, others — and decide to investigate.
Maybe, instead of sedately walking, you try to run. And maybe you meet your wolf…
“Stay on the path.” There may be no more central theme in the history of fantastical tale telling. Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn – the creative (and romantic) pairing behind the art house gaming company Tale of Tales – make this point from the start, all but challenging you to step off the path to Grandma’s house and into the woods all around. Yet it is a challenge meant to be denied, since if the order were ever obeyed there’d be no need for fairytales at all.
The Path is a sombrely pretty and poetic experience. While exploring the forbidden, the girls discover mundane relics and locations that lead to eerie encounters with the often irreal denizens of the forest, or trigger dream-logic musings weightier than are found in your average computer game. It is also much slower than is typical, as if we are to go on a stroll, and though running is possible we are quickly dissuaded from it by failing vision, a pounding heartbeat, and the suggestion that something pursues us move intently the harder we try to escape it…
The Path is a horror game, but eschews gore and shocks and presents something more akin to unsettling Japanese movies like The Ring and Audition which, if not always “subtle”, can be insidiously effective. There is an explicit nod to these in the aftermath of each girl’s encounter with their wolf: they wake, back on the path while both rain and night falls around them, and the player can do nothing more but direct them at a snail’s pace to where Grandma’s House awaits — now transformed in bizarre and unpredictable ways depending on the particular experiences each girl underwent before turning up at her door. I say “girl”, but the six sisters range in age from child to adult — however, when they reach the end of their more traumatic journeys, each plods slowly, head hanging, shoulders slumped, face hidden beneath her hair… The resemblance to Ringu‘s Sadako is immediate, but instead of playing the approaching villain this is an approaching victim, already damaged but unable to do anything but advance towards whatever remains ahead.
There is a long, tiresome exploitation of female characters in gaming, just as there is most noticeably in film — women (and not-yet-women) are often sexualised and simplified, made little more than goals for the real, male hero of a story to rescue or be rewarded with. The reaction to this, slow in coming, has been the occasional strengthening of female characters, either superficially (by making them over into breasted action heroes) or, better, just as protagonists of a tale that makes no default glance to their gender as a necessary element.
The Path takes neither of these options, or it takes both. The six heroines are the primary agents here, and each has a kind of abstract story to be pieced together based on what they can encounter amidst the trees, but ultimately they are all about predation and victimhood. However, instead of experiencing this as a passive, vicarious thrill, the player is made more than complicit — the wolves are theirs, but the urge to seek them out is ours, and the ramifications our responsibility.
Okay, Intermission Over. I’ll return on Sunday with the fourth story in the collection RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined, and as well as the rest of those I still have another book to discuss and a movie to watch. Hope you’ll check those out too!