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300 Word Review – The Path

The Path is a remarkably sexist game.

The Path adheres closely to the conventions of the adventure game.  Players wander around an environment interacting with objects and getting little bits of media fed to them.  In this case players control six women of different ages as they explore a dark, wooded area, each having different experiences with similar themes.  The game’s psycho-sexual atmosphere is clearly inspired by Silent Hill 2 and is just as effective.

However, the problem with adventure games is that unless they’re skillfully constructed the player’s choices will seem like a charade.  This is unfortunate for a game that exclusively features female characters.  In The Path players take on the role of several different women but the situation is always the same: they can explore all they want but have no real effect on the environment. They don’t make things happen, things happen to them. Their only form of participation is passivity.

Structurally this presents the female condition as one of victimhood far more than any game with a princess.  The Path should be contrasted with a game like Queens, where victimization is the beginning of a journey, not it’s climax.

What is sad is that The Path‘s sexism feels like the result of the developer’s, Tale of Tales, choice that the media in the game was more important than the play.  The Path has no undercurrent of questioning or subversion in its  portrayal of women because the avatars and the player are both meant to do one thing, namely experience what Tale of Tales has carefully planned for them.

Games are a richly empowering form of culture; they celebrate possibility more than inevitability.  It’s a shame really, The Path might not be so retrograde if it had been worse as art but better as a game.

23 Comments

  1. But the Path girls do actively participate in their fates. They are willful, so willful that they will act on their own if you stop controlling them. Each Wolf doesn’t ambush his girl; the girl participates in the attack, whether it’s hopping onto the Wolf’s back, rowing out into the misty pond, or flirting with the woodcutter.

    The overriding command of the game is to “Stay on the path,” yet the result of obeying is very clear: to stay on the path is to accept the status quo, and to develop as a person one has to step off of the path and make one’s own way through the forest. Each girl’s first act is to disobey, and as with any life transition, it is bound to result in the destruction (literal or figurative) of the girl she was before.

    None of the wolves, to my knowledge, will victimize the girl without the girl first interacting with them. That isn’t to say the girl is “asking for it,” but she does play an active role in her own Wolf attack.

    In my mind, The Path is not a game about victimization, but about the inevitable cost of self-actualization: that when you make your own choices, you will inevitably get hurt… but that the pain is a necessary part of growing up and becoming one’s own woman.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  2. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Gregory, thanks for dropping by! I’ve really enjoyed your games!

    I think that your interpretation is fair, and is probably closest to what Tale of Tales intended. As I’ve said, I was surprised by my reaction to The Path. There are just some things about it that bother me deeply.

    “None of the wolves, to my knowledge, will victimize the girl without the girl first interacting with them.”

    This is true, but the very fact that all one can do is be victimized, even if one is complicit, is what disturbs me.

    “…when you make your own choices, you will inevitably get hurt…”

    Certainly making your own decisions will sometimes lead to you getting hurt, but that’s not the situation The Path presents. What The Path says is that you will ONLY get hurt when you wander from the status quo.

    Also, I’m not sure where you’re getting the self-actualization angle from. I’ve played through a couple of times now and all I’ve ever seen is that you wander into the woods, you ALWAYS have to meet the wolf because you can never get back to the path, you wake up in a clear state of shame, walk into Grandmother’s house to relive some disturbing memories (at least that’s my interpretation), and then you die.

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot of learning and growing going on.

    Like I said, I certainly entertain that there can be other ways of looking at this game, but I don’t think that my perspective is without basis.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:47 am | Permalink
  3. Ian Bogost wrote:

    You can get back to the Path. If you sit around for a while, the white-dressed girl comes and leads you back. You can also make it to the house without finding your wolf. Right?

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  4. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Fair point, my mistake about getting back to the path.

    You can go to Grandmother’s House before meeting your wolf. The consequences are that you’re told that you’ve failed, which isn’t really a big deal, and that the woman/girl is still selectable (each girl that meets their wolf is removed from the character select screen).

    So, meeting your wolf is the only way to advance/change the state of the game.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  5. Ian Bogost wrote:

    “So, meeting your wolf is the only way to advance/change the state of the game.”

    Right. Unless you like wandering around the woods, or walking down the Path, and consider that advancing/changing the state of the game. I’m not being facetious.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:40 am | Permalink
  6. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hmm, I see what you’re saying, but ultimately those decisions will be undone, so maybe it’s helpful to pull those two apart. You can certainly change the state, but you can’t really advance it.

    Besides, the fact remains that you only have three real options: wander the woods, go to Grandmother’s House, or find your wolf. There are things you can collect but those tie into meeting your wolf.

    So the first two options result in no actual progress or change, which is fine, but that says something in and of itself. The third option is what the game clearly pushes you towards and results in a terrifying death (in my interpretation).

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:13 am | Permalink
  7. Ian Bogost wrote:

    You’re correct. I’d simply point out that ToT’s work has a history of strongly emphasizing unproductive action (Endless Forest, The Graveyard), and I think that the Path continues that tradition. So, in their work in particular, effort that doesn’t advance the game’s state can’t be construed as empty space. At least not entirely.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  8. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    You’re definitely right that it would be unfair to consider it empty space. I think though that we have to take the game as a whole and judge it based on all the options available to the player.

    Which is really my point. The options you’re presented with are either neutral and “unproductive” or trivial and overwhelmingly negative (thematically).

    Thanks for dropping in by the way! I forgot to welcome you earlier!

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  9. Ian Bogost wrote:

    Happy to drop by. Interesting read.

    I’m still not sure what to do with the “overwhelmingly negative” observation. Isn’t the game very blatantly about a particular family of threats (the wolves)? I’m not sure I yet understand the problem you want to underscore… as for minimal choices, yes, but again that’s something of a characteristic of ToT’s work. The sexism argument is provocative, but I’m not sure the evidence is there in this short blog post. Even if the game is about victimhood, so what? It is, after all, a very deliberate retelling of the Red Riding Hood story.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  10. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Well, I guess I would say a couple of things:

    First, it may be true that minimal choice is present in a lot of ToT games, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t adding to a particular affect in this game, one that might be different than their other games.

    Second, it’s true that the game is about particular threats and victimhood, which in and of itself isn’t a problem. The problem is that the only real choices the characters and the player are presented with (and by ‘real’ I mean productive) lead to very negative results (thematically speaking).

    To me the game seems to reinforce the idea that when women make choices of their own (ie. don’t follow the path) their actions are either non-productive (in other words don’t actually change anything) or put them in danger. Maybe it is a deliberate re-telling of Red Riding Hood, but let’s not forget that that story can’t really be considered ‘progressive’.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  11. Kateri wrote:

    You say nothing changes, and that the girls don’t achieve anything… Does it make any difference if you think of the deaths as non-literal, or even the girls as one girl, getting older and growing up?

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  12. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Kateri! Welcome!

    I didn’t mean to suggest that nothing ever changes. What I was trying to say was that the one avenue the girls do have to change things is terrifying and ends in death (in the sense that they are removed from play).

    I’m not sure that thinking of the deaths as non-literal changes anything, since it seems disingenuous to suggest that meeting the wolf is presented as anything other than negative.

    As for thinking of them as one girl, this was actually my initial interpretation. The first time I played through I did so chronologically, youngest to oldest. However, I think that there’s a lot that contradicts this interpretation, least of which is the fact that they all have different names.

    On the other hand, I do think that they’re all meant to be archetypes of different stages of a female life.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Heather Chaplin wrote:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more Charles. I think like any good art, it’s not cut and dry, i.e., yes, there are contradictions in the game – like whatever you do you die in the end, even though the experiences may be about conflict and ambivalence as much as victomhood. It’s also a genre game, namely horror.

    All I know is that i FELT so much while I was playing. Again, like a good piece of art, it evoked emotion in me, that yes, was probably as much about me as the piece of work. But that’s good I think.

    I don’t think it’s sexist – I think it’s about the fact – and game designer Michael Samyn might say otherwise – that girls are vulnerable in a way that is particular to them as girls. I think Michael would say it’s abotu the fact that you cant’ avoid difficult or downright awful situations to grow as a human being. (And that’s what I mean about it being contradictory – you still die at the end no matter what – I just think being a little contradictory is fine.)

    Also, unlike a lot of people i know who didn’t care for the game, i found it utterly engrossing. I loved that there weren’t a million things i had to do to succeed, but rather I could relax and take my time and wander about and see what happened to me in this environment. Also – I was scared shitless. More than I’ve ever been in a game.

    also, i think it’s kind of a game for non gamers. i’ve noticed that several friends have bought it since i did my piece and are really enjoying – people who’ve never bought a game based on any work i’ve done before! (and yes, they’re all women. and yes, they all find is super-freaky.)

    ok, that’s my two cents

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Kateri wrote:

    “I’m not sure that thinking of the deaths as non-literal changes anything, since it seems disingenuous to suggest that meeting the wolf is presented as anything other than negative.”

    Painful, sure. Negative? Depends how you look at it. Take Robin, who comes face-to-face with mortality. It’s disturbing for a child to realise they’re not immortal, but it’s part of growing up. It depends on how traditional your view of “innocence” is, and whether you see it as a good or bad thing. Obviously some of the other girls have more unpleasant experiences, and if you take the view that, say, Carmen was raped, I’m not about to claim that as a positive growth experience! I think what I would say is that each experience is in some way transformative, through a gaining of knowledge/experience. A loss of innocence, if you like that way of viewing things.

    It’s interesting to me that the only people I’ve seen taking issue with the game in these terms have been men, and all the women I know who have played it have loved it. (That’s just anecdotal, of course,there may well be women out there who have issues with it) Still, I agree with Heather that the game rings true. You may say: these girls are put into terrible situations where they are vulnerable! That’s sexist! I say: yes, and that’s reality. If this game can make men understand that, I think it’s a good thing.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  15. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Heather! It means a lot to hear your response as you were the one that turned me on to the game in the first place.

    Like I said to Gregory, I certainly entertain that there are other interpretations. I think it can be taken for granted that my review is simply my opinion.

    Along those lines, my interpretation is based on the fact that I felt something as well. I’m not suggesting that the game isn’t effective. I really was engrossed and I really identified women that I’ve known in my life with the characters in the game, and their powerlessness disturbed me because I thought it was an unsophisticated and sexist portrayal of their actual options in life.

    As our friend Mr. Bogost might say, it opened a ‘simulation gap’ between how women were depicted in the game and what I thought was their actual situation.

    I think the key to my interpretation of the game is at the end of my review. To my mind interactive art (not just games!) is about possibilities, and as such the lack of possibilities says just as much their presence. Indeed, what you can’t do sometimes has something to say about what you can do.

    To me, it’s not that The Path needed more busy work, it just needed more choice, more agency, because the lack of it said something about how the game considered these women as characters and me as a player.

    Once again, this is my own interpretation. It doesn’t invalidate how others felt about the game, but I don’t think it’s baseless.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  16. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Kateri – I’m not bothered that it depicts women as vulnerable, I’m bothered that it depicts women as ONLY vulnerable.

    Also, as I said, I’m not sure where the growing happens. It seems to me that each time a character experiences something it ends up shaming her and then she dies. What conclusions am I supposed to glean from that?

    I admit that because I am not a woman there are things that I cannot understand. However, the women I have know in my life are not this simplistic. Sometimes they are powerless and sometimes they are powerful, sometimes they’re victims and sometimes they victimize.

    Presenting only one side of those dualities is, to my mind, retrograde.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  17. Kateri wrote:

    Well, as I said, if you see the deaths as metaphorical, and the girls as one girl, then where the growing happens is clear. ;)

    Powerful, powerless… I honestly don’t see any of the girls as powerless. I’d refer you back to Gregory’s first comment, he said most of the things I would point out.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  18. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Kateri – Fair enough. I guess I just don’t see that much evidence in the game they are all the same woman or that the deaths are supposed to be metaphorical.

    In the meantime: wow, I should write about things people care about more often! This is the best discussion that’s taken place on this blog in a long time! Thanks everybody!

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  19. Kateri wrote:

    The deaths have been interpreted as metaphorical by various people, and I’ve seen Michael Samyn himself suggest the all-one-girl idea, but it is only one interpretation, and knowing ToT, I’m sure they’d baulk at the idea that any one interpretation is “supposed” to be valid. Of course you’re entitled to your own view, and to find the game’s portrayal of women within that view as sexist. Just wanted to try to explain how it’s possible to see things in another way. :)

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  20. Thank you for the thoughtful discussion. It’s really lovely to see our little game spark so much of it. I’d like to add two things, if I may.

    1.
    The Path is made by a mostly female team. And at least one of the two men on the team -me :)- is fascinated by the way women act and think and create (being active in a predominantly testosterone-driven industry probably sharpens this interest). Our work at Tale of Tales, and especially The Path, attempts to at least _include the female perspective, but possibly errs on the side of being excessively feminine. As such, it can indeed be seen as sexist (but certainly not more so than most videogames).

    I can understand that it may be disturbing to a man to see a woman portray herself as what he sees as a powerless victim (much like it may be disturbing to a woman to see a man portray himself as an invincible hero, perhaps). But I feel that it is important that this voice is heard. Sometimes being a woman just feels like that. And it’s ok to say so. Emancipation and equality are concepts that are far too simplistic for discussing gender issues.

    2.
    The Path is an artifact. An object. One small thing. It is not a representation of the universe. Nor is it an attempt to explain life, society, et cetera. It’s a single flower that invites you to enjoy it, to ponder it. For its own sake. It does not claim to be the most beautiful flower in the field or to represent all flowers, plants or living organisms. It invites you to ask yourself “What if…?”

    The story of The Path is not important. Its effect on the player is. The Path does not exist to entertain you, or even educate you. It’s a tool that you can use to help yourself. Or not. That’s ok too. Maybe rejecting what you think it is telling you, can be meaningful as well.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  21. Lest Michael put a period (no pun intended, I swear!) at the end of this fascinating conversation regarding his product, I can see that the invited voyeurism inherent in the game’s reliance on spectacle and atmosphere (rather than say, substantial interaction with the character) could be taken as sexist. Regardless of your sex, you are invited by the very paratext of the game to watch a human being meander through a metaphorical minefield; in this sense, it isn’t so much the passive nature of the female characters (they aren’t really that passive, as others have noted above) as it is the player that calls into question the scopophiliac tendencies of the game.

    That said, I feel compelled to agree with those above that the while it is perhaps important and even essential to think critically about how these female characters are “taken advantage of,” I do not believe the game itself is a sexist product or that it promotes “sexism.” The promotion of sexism in this case would require almost a misogynistic take on awkward disenchantment and disjointed experiences of these young women. Rather, I believe the game invites a great deal of empathy–if not through its controls than through its imagery.

    Friday, July 17, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  22. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hello Mr. Samyn! It’s always an honor to have the creator of a game comment on your review, so first off I want to say thanks!

    Also, before I go on, I should say that I don’t give much time to thinking about what the creators of a game intended, or who they were, when forming my opinions. My knowledge of these things can only be imperfect and anecdotal so I try to concentrate on what the game itself is ‘saying’. Beyond that, I’m sure you can agree that sometimes a work of art can take on dimensions that the artist(s) didn’t intend or didn’t see themselves.

    So, to respond in more detail:

    “The Path is made by a mostly female team.”

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you seem to be suggesting here that a predominantly female team cannot produce a sexist game. I have to disagree with this. Sexism is not a male or female problem, it is a cultural problem and as such either sex can engage in it.

    “It is not a representation of the universe.”

    Granted, but it is certainly a metaphorical representation of one corner of the universe, and as such it is open to criticism for how it portrays that corner.

    “The story of The Path is not important. Its effect on the player is.”

    I’m not sure that I understand you here. Isn’t the story (or at least my interpretation of it) part of what has an effect on me as a player?

    “The Path does not exist to entertain you, or even educate you.”

    I’m not sure I would say that anyone (even one of the game’s creators!) can say what The Path does or does not exist to do. Works are sent out into the world and the reactions they elicit are always contingent on the context in which they are experienced.

    I hope I have been fair in my responses. I’ll just say again that I completely understand that there are different and even opposite reactions to the game than my own. However, I do no accept that my interpretation is without merit.

    Hi Matthew! I think you’re right that this conversation is winding down and my own lengthy response above may already have taken it farther than it needed to go. Still, I appreciate your contribution and I think you deserve an answer.

    “…the passive nature of the female characters (they aren’t really that passive, as others have noted above)…”

    This seems to be one of my points that people get stuck on, so I’ll try to clarify.

    The very structure of the game puts both the players and the character/avatars in a passive position because they are presented with no real choices. Perhaps the characters are animated as being at least complicit in their wolf encounters, but they have to be because they quickly exhaust their other options. They are victims before they even meet their wolf.

    As I said before, I believe that games are about possibilities and should be judged on the range of possibilities they do and don’t present. The choices a player CAN’T make can be just as meaningful as the choices they can.

    “…awkward disenchantment and disjointed experiences…”

    Perhaps I am a misogynist, but I can’t agree with this characterization. The experiences of the women range in severity, but I think what is fair to say is that after they meet their wolf they all seem to have an intense feeling of shame which is followed by a disturbing flashback sequence and then death. This seems to me to be a little more than “disenchantment”.

    “I believe the game invites a great deal of empathy–if not through its controls than through its imagery.”

    First, I would say that one can feel both empathy for the characters and that their portrayal is unsophisticated and unfair. In fact, empathy is a very important catalyst to those conclusions.

    Second, I believe that we cannot judge either the controls or the imagery in isolation of each other. They are part of the same experience and as such we have to pay attention to what they might ‘say’ together.

    Well, I think that about does for me today. Again, thanks to everyone for a really interesting and wonderful discussion!

    Saturday, July 18, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink
  23. Shilling wrote:

    I have two points.

    Firstly, Little Red Riding Hood is a remarkably sexist fairytale, so any game based on it will carry that over to some extent.

    Secondly, with regards to having no effect on the environment, I think you missed the fact that -the environment is a reflection of the girl(s)-. The woods are a psychic landscape, and they represent what is going on inside each girl’s head. As they explore the woods, they explore themselves. And in the end they are victims of themselves rather than of anyone else. Their fate may be inevitable, but it is a fate they made for themselves.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

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