The Path, a re-imagining of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, is a small indie "experiment" in which "most of the story relies on your active imagination." It's also one of the most unusual and memorable games you are likely to play this year. There's something not quite right about it, an offness that makes it stick with you. When attempting to describe it, you'll find yourself instead listing everything that it is not; typical gaming expectations simply do not apply. I hated The Path for the first hour I played it, because its strangeness made me too uncomfortable, but it is that very strangeness that made me grow to love it.
You begin The Path (PC) by choosing one of six girls, each a different kind of Red Riding Hood. Robin, for example, represents "KidRed," while Ruby is "GothRed" and Ginger is "TomboyRed." You have to complete each girl's story in order to finish the game, but you can play them in whatever order you like. Once you've chosen your desired shade of Red, you find yourself where the road ends and the countryside begins, and are given the game's sole instructions: go to grandmother's house and stay on the path. Grandma's house is straight ahead - stick to the path, you'll reach her in no time, safe and sound. You will also have failed. In order to truly experience the game, you're going to have to leave the safety of the path and explore the dark and mysterious forest. Surely grandma won't mind if you're a little late, and besides, when was the last time you did what you were told?
(Fair warning: the rest of this review is going to flat out tell you some things you might not want to know if you're interested in the true Path experience, so you might want to quit reading now.)
Step off the path and you find yourself in a vast and somewhat forbidding forest. It's incredibly easy to get lost - in fact, that's kind of the point. The only way to find what you seek is to explore, but you won't know what you're looking for until you find it. You're not completely alone, though; the mysterious Girl in White will flit by, leading the way to something important. There's no speech in The Path, no conversation, so you'll simply have to follow her as she runs by like a startled deer. She can even lead you back to the path, should you decide you've had enough of floundering through the greenery. Perhaps she's a ghost, or maybe an angel; whatever she is, she's also your only friend in these dark woods.
A variety of items are littered throughout the forest, but they're not items in the traditional game sense. You're not armed once you find the knife, and the pills aren't there to heal your wounds, they're simply objects that make each chapter's finale in grandma's house more complete. There are plenty of items that any girl can find, but each Red has three objects that are specific to her; finding them unlocks special rooms in grandmother's house. Similarly, each girl has three locations to find in the woods, where she can experience a particular memory. Different girls might be able to visit the same location, but what's an innocent playground for one might be another's sinister rendezvous.
Of course, this wouldn't be Little Red Riding Hood without a wolf, and each girl has her own to find. Encountering the wolf is the only way not to fail, but the results of finding him are always unsettling. The Path calls itself a horror game, and though it doesn't go the more obvious route of blood and gore, the game's wolves deliver chills quite well. You won't soon forget your encounters with them.
As you might expect from a small, indie title, The Path is not the most graphically robust game you'll ever play, but what it lacks in technical specs it more than makes up for in artistry. Every moment of your time in The Path is a nuanced journey that embraces subtlety in favor of in-your-face realism. Pay attention to the edges of your screen as you play - those aren't just artistic flourishes decorating the play field, they're clues. The Path also makes particularly good use of sound, using it to underscore the menace of the wolf or suggest your final fate. The music, particularly the singing, can be a bit much at times, but it perfectly captures the game's otherworldly aesthetic.
It feels somewhat vulgar to discuss game mechanics in reference to The Path, though. It's certainly not a game in the traditional sense, more of an interactive storytelling experience, which makes things like framerate and control options irrelevant and beside the point. I'm not even sure that "fun" is the right word to apply to it, either. What I do know is that for as indefinable as The Path may be, I find myself thinking about it long after I stop playing. The Path is an odd, but beautiful experience that gives me hope for what games can be.
Bottom Line: The Path is haunting, lovely, and genuinely unnerving, but it may stray just far enough from traditional game mechanics to make it a snore for some players.
Recommendation: It's short, but the experience is well worth the $10 asking price.
Susan Arendt learned long ago that not all wolves have fur and claws.