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Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Path, and the Use of Fairy-Tales to Communicate Deeper Truths About Growing Up

Editor's note: This is a guest piece written by Edward Utter. Edward is a student at the University of Michigan, where he is studying writing in the context of game design. He has also been a guitarist for eight years and an artist of sorts for seven. He likes vinyl records and single origin coffees that he grinds and pours himself, long romantic walks through the heart of the city, and magic.

Fairy tales are often cautionary stories, things used to warn the young and restless or to scare them into behaviors that they wouldn't otherwise understand until they were older. Other times, fairy tales have been used to communicate some ethical truth, much like a fable. It is a genre thoroughly steeped in its own long history, utilized almost to the point of excess — but not quite. When Tale of Tales released their indie horror title, The Path, in 2009, they showed how a fairy tale, revitalized in the context of a game, could craft a story that is both incredibly large in scope, while remaining intensely personal in depth.

The Path is often described as an indie horror game, but, like so many other creations which push the boundaries of their genres, it is much more. It is, at its core, about exploration and growth, and those insights which lead us to a deeper understanding of the world around us, and of ourselves. The game takes place in several key zones (The Path, The Forest, Grandmother's House), all of which are navigated in a play-through by the player's choice of one of six heroines, running the gamut of ages and personalities — from the childish nine-year-old Robin, to the sexually charged nineteen-year-old Carmen. The dark and personal journey undertaken by the game's cast of characters, the use of the color red throughout the entire work (down to the main characters' names, all of which are inspired by this color), and the imagery of the path, all work to set the game firmly around the image of Little Red Riding Hood, arguably one of the most recognizable fairy tales ever written. The Path pushes the boundaries of the classic tale, of following and straying from the path, in a way that gives the player a chilling, moving, and detached look into the psyches of its heroines.

As the player explores the dark, outer world of the forest, they gain insight into the fragile, inner worlds of the girls' minds. You begin each play session with your character standing at the place where the road leading to the city becomes the dirt path through the forest, literally on the threshold of a new beginning. You are greeted with two ornate commands, which appear onscreen briefly before fading away: Go to Grandmother's House and Stay on the Path. Simple enough, and you can indeed follow the path all the way to grandmother's house, at which point you will creep through the dark, eerie place, until you see your grandmother, who is sick in bed. You will be greeted with the game over or end session screen, which will give you a failing grade. But why, when you did just as you were told?

In order to actually “succeed,” each girl must venture off of the path, into the dark forest, and find her wolf. This is as simple as walking off of the path until it dissappears, at which point it becoems literally impossible to reach without the help of a certain NPC who wanders about the forest. These wolves exist in key places that represent the internal state of each girl, and though you can find all of the locations with any one girl, the wolf that pairs with your girl will only appear at her special location. Each wolf is unique, and encountering it represents the clash with reality and adulthood that every person must face in time. In essence, it is a brutal allegory for coming of age, an experience that is different for everyone, but which we all hold in common. Once you have found your wolf, the screen fades to black, and you find yourself in front of Grandother's house. It is changed now, a dark and surreal place — nightmarish, at best. After making it through Grandmother's house, you are returned to the character selection screen, only to find that the girl whose story you had just followed is no longer there. Your character selection pool has just shrunk by one, and the girl you chose has, at least in a metaphorical sense, met her end.
The game also utilizes player control, and the lack thereof, in a way that draws from the sense of inevitability often found in fairy tales, and the notion that, like the girls whoe choices are unfolding before us, there are certain trials we all have to face. As the authors state in their post-mortem of the work, “Due to our method of control, you do not really control the girl at all. There is a moment where you realize that all outcomes are the result of her choices.” While the player does control the girl in a sense, directing her movement with the arrow keys and interacting with objects in the game world, your options on a grander scale are fairly narrow. Even your ability to interact with objects is hampered, initially, by the game's design - you interact with them by simply doing nothing. You could wander around endlessly, reach grandmother's house without ever finding your 'Wolf,' find your 'Wolf' and trigger the end-game for that character, or quit the application. This lack of choice in determining the girl's fate is used beautifully — rather than feeling aggravated, the player feels like an outsider, an observer helpless to do anything but learn from the trials and mistakes and inner thoughts of the girl before them. This, combined with the close third-person view the game takes, from which we are privy to a few of the girls' thoughts on the occasional stray object, but little else, becomes the key to the game, as it puts the player in a space of silent introspection, from which they can deeply empathize with the character without actively becoming her.

The voice through which the story is told, that of a close third person, where the player has nothing but what they see and snippets of the girls' thoughts to go off of, gives the designers a unique standpoint from which to tell a tale that is all too personal — that of growing up. Each girl in turn meets her wolf, and reaches a symbolic epiphany. Some of the individual tales these girls' paths tell will, naturally, be easier for some to relate to, and harder for others, but the overall work presents a surreal and powerful look through the lens of a classic fairy tale, into the way in which the decisions we make bring us closer to our eventual fates, and to that specter of truth that we call wisdom.

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