08 June 2009

Game Review: The Path

Duly warned (and simultaneously encouraged) by reviews in Slate and elsewhere, I dropped the $10 download fee for The Path.
I've not 'finished' it yet, so all comments here are still provisional.

The people at Tale of Tales call The Path a horror game, but it's horror in the way that many old folk tales are, or that Pan's Labyrinth is, which is to say it's eerie and disturbing, and deals with dark subjects, but it is not a bloodbath. It is as odd and slow and (potentially) frustrating as the reviews say. It is also a beautifully scored and drawn as they say, though I find the girls suffer a bit from the Uncanny Valley effect. It is buggy -- I encountered the same wall and pond bugs Chris Suellenthrop describes in the Slate review, only I wasn't able to get the girl out from behind the wall. I've discovered another bug on my own; examining the contents of the 'basket' of weird things the girls pick up will sometimes freeze the game.

Screenshot from The Path
The concept of game-as-interactive-story is an interesting one. The mechanic of interacting with the game world by letting go, rather than poking or clicking is also interesting, though I am very slightly resentful of the way the game sometimes seizes control from me. Asking me to let go is one thing, forcing me to do so is another.

I appreciate the idea that by walking instead of running, you see more, and that by walking without a map, you're more likely to pay attention to what you're seeing. There does come a point where this begins to seem pointless -- it's not as though there are oodles of usable landmarks which help make up for the fact that there is no usable map; or maybe the goal is to give you that disoriented sense of walking endlessly in circles.

And I appreciate the idea that gaming needn't be a speed contest; that the goal isn't necessarily to set a record for how fast you finish the game, but to enjoy the experience of where the game takes you. I am always a little baffled by people (mostly guys) who will brag about how quickly they 'beat' a game -- if I've paid for a game, I want to savour every bite of the confection the designers and developers have put before me. Computer gaming needn't be a competitive experience; it can be like reading a book, or watching a movie. Do you brag about how fast you watched a film?

(That said, I am so trained in the prevailing conventions of gaming that I regarded every non-backdrop thing I saw as a potential piece to a puzzle and had to remind myself often that there wasn't any 'solving' this one).

It does seem to me, though, that there's a point at which the slowness of the game ceases to be part of the appeal and becomes self-indulgence on the part of the game designers. For example, when purely by luck I found Ruby's wolf within about 15 minutes of stumbling out the door, I was then treated to a 10 minute long pan out and fade to black. This was followed by a 15 minute long sequence as Ruby reappears and walks some 50 yards to Grandmother's door. Then, another fade, a fresh scene, which then faded to almost-black and the flashing of small line drawings of lips and eyes, set to a soundtrack of lupine snarls and grunts. It took another 10 minutes of staring at them before I realised it was time to take back active control of the game and accomplish one last 'objective.'

I do not attribute the length of these scenes to poor game performance; my computer, while not state of the art, exceeds the recommended system requirements for the game, and the game handled well in all other respects. That leaves me looking at 25 minutes spent on two scenes that have neither much action, nor any dialogue, and suggests that perhaps the designers are too much in love with their work. They can't imagine that anyone would want to look away from it.

It also makes me wonder how much of this slowness is compensation for there being not much there there. I may be misled by the fact that I did find the one girl's wolf so quickly, and haven't finished the other five chapters yet, but for the amount of time one's expected to put into this thing, one wants some recompense in the form of toothsome content. Long tramps across the game terrain, or ridiculous numbers of items to collect (for reasons yet unknown, The Path expects you to collect 144 gold pinwheels in the forest), and similar requirements are strategies employed by game developers to keep one playing despite limited content. Blizzard did this in many of the quests in the original release of World of Warcraft-- in one, I was required to travel across several zones on one continent, visit an NPC nowhere near a flight point, collect an assortment of items, take these to an NPC on another continent, and then collect 6 pieces of wolf meat, which required killing somewhat more than 6 wolves.1

Well, all right. The Path isn't an MMO with a huge development budget and subscriber base. And yes, it's going the interactive storytelling route rather than a more traditional RPG/puzzle game route. Nevertheless, I'd argue that games of the type The Path is trying to be need rich content as much as, or more than, the traditional kinds. No one would read a book the length of The Brothers Karamazov if it had only the plot of The Pokey Little Puppy to sustain us over 800 pages.

I can't tell yet if The Path is trying to extend a Märchen into something the scale of a novel, if the slowness really is a cover for overstretched content, or not. But I am suspicious.

1 Why does one put up with this? Because one wants the quest reward for one's character, because one wants the experience points from completing the quest, because one likes completing quests, and because one knows that over the top of that hill, there is more content to experience. To their credit, Blizzard has both enriched their content and improved their quest design (and quest writing) in the two expansions to WoW. They've also smoothed out the leveling curve, so the doldrums are less onerous than they were originally.

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