"The Path is a Slow Game," its makers warn, and perhaps that should have scared me off, for I am a Slow Gamer. It's not merely that I'm dunderheaded. I'm also a plodding, open-mouthed, rose-smelling completionist. Games that others play through in five, 10, or 40 hours routinely require 10, 20, and 80 hours of my time. So when The Path's designers, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn of the Belgian game company Tale of Tales, predict that players will need "about six hours" for "a satisfying experience," I should have anticipated that I would need more than 12 just to get an alternately frustrating and curious one, and that it would take me seven hours just to figure out what in the name of all that is holy I was supposed to do.
I would have handed over my $10 anyway, just for the chance to download and play the current It Game of the game blogosphere, the title that the Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott called "a small milestone in the evolution of an art form." And I might even recommend that you do it, too. I can't tell you that The Path is worth playing in its own right, and I wouldn't call it a milestone by a long shot. But the game is pleasingly weird and a good proof of concept that a video game needn't include any fighting or puzzles in the course of telling a story (something I'd like to see more of). It is also, however, an even better demonstration of the reality that every kind of game requires smart design, intuitive controls, and an easy-to-understand user interface to communicate its vision to its players.
The Path begins in a red room—from walls to carpet—with a single white door. Six girls are positioned around a black table beneath a slow, circling ceiling fan. Ginger rests cross-legged on the floor while Rose sits in a chair and pets a white bunny that is sitting in her lap. Robin, the youngest, plays with a toy car. Scarlet gabs on a phone attached to the wall, Ruby reads a book, and Carmen admires herself in the sunlight that cascades through a window. A mysterious sound—is it rain? The clamor of a nearby train or subway?—fills the room.
A yellow basket can be moved about the room to begin each girl's journey. Once chosen, each character begins The Path in a mysterious forest, beyond a shrouded cityscape, with a single instruction: "GO TO GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE … AND STAY ON THE PATH." Doing as the game tells you, however, results in a message: "FAILURE!" Only by exploring the woods can each girl find "SUCCESS!" in the form of her "wolf." The animations are beautiful. The music can be chilling. The words and images grow increasingly disturbing, and sometimes sexual, though opaque. When it's all over, there's a lot to think about, which turns out to be a more enjoyable exercise than actually playing The Path.
The game's poor design repeatedly gets in the way of its narrative ambitions. The gameplay in The Path and the instructions in its manual (which I resorted to after my first couple of hours of aggravation) emphasize the importance of letting go—of doing nothing. The gameplay mechanic is noninteraction: To get one of the girls to take an action, players must resist the urge to tap at the controls. So I resisted, a lot, but to no good end. At one point, the youngest girl, Robin, stumbled upon the façade of a ruined building in the forest and disappeared behind it. The game faded in and out, the images fuzzy then clear, fuzzy then clear. Where did she go? I wondered. Is this her wolf? The music would swell, then vanish. There was a noise. The jangle of a collar? I couldn't tell. After perhaps 20 minutes of this—yes, 20 minutes of not interacting, of letting go, of letting the game play me—I came to the sad realization that nothing was going to happen, that this was a bug, not a feature. I punched some buttons on my keyboard, and Robin ran out from behind the walls of the ruin. Not much later, Robin and the "Girl in White" got stuck in a pond and couldn't walk out. I rebooted.
It says a lot about the game that I bothered to wait, that the music was interesting enough and the animations beautiful enough for me to sit there and watch. It says a lot more about it that these bugs happened in the first place. Even when the game works properly—I recommend, even on a computer like mine that far exceeds the minimum memory and processor requirements for the game, turning down the effects so the lush forest becomes a less attractive but playable moonscape dotted with trees—it is painfully Slow.