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October 23, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

What Sharp Teeth

Tale of Tales' The Path tells an old story: a girl dressed in red walks through the woods to an elderly relative's house. The path through the forest begins at the edge of a paved road, with a large city off in the distance. It ends at a bridge crossing the moat-like lake around the grandmother's cottage. Your choice, as a player, is to either proceed directly to the end of the path, or to wander off into the woods in search of novelty (and, ultimately, The Wolf). In either case, a significant piece of the storytelling and gameplay takes place after the "end" has been reached--the denouement, as Corvus puts it in this month's Round Table.

The Path features a lot of really... interesting gameplay choices, but one that stands out for me is the control scheme. It's the essence of minimalism: the only keys are for turning and movement. To interact with a scene in the forest, you simply stop near it--the girl will move into position and begin the scene, but you can cancel by simply choosing to move again. Combined with the translucent, dreamlike fog, the effect is a feeling of inevitability. While the game warns you not to leave the path, the real story only happens when you abandon its purposeful motion for something interrupted and inconsistent--it only advances when you stop.

Where it gets interesting is when you finish the game, either by going straight to the end of the path or by finding the "Wolf" (metaphorically speaking--it's something different for each of the characters, but each time it deposits them outside the cottage in a state of visible pain, limping to shelter from the sudden downpour of rain). At that point, the girl opens the gate, crosses the bridge, and enters the house.

Now we're in the denouement. The view switches to a first-person view, and the controls don't seem to respond. After a few moments, you work it out: pressing any of the movement keys will move a single step along a predetermined path through the house while a wolf growls and barks somewhere out of view. Tapping a key repeatedly, your trip through the house takes detours into different rooms along the way, depending on the encounters found in the forest, and ends in an unsettling sequence of flashbacks related to each girl's Wolf. (If you didn't find the metaphorical Wolf in the forest, you'll end up in the grandmother's bedroom instead, with a literal beast staring at you from the corner. This is considered failure.)

Although it's tempting to stay in one place in the house and give yourself time to recover, remaining motionless causes the screen to darken and the wolf sounds to become louder and more aggressive--it's extremely unnerving, and I've never actually managed to stand still long enough to find out what happens after that. So now the dynamic has changed, even though the gameplay remains similar: elements from the forest are recontextualized inside the house, but now stopping is a source of dread and movement is... well, not rewarded, exactly. Less uncomfortable, I guess. It also mimics a kind of nightmare logic: no matter what direction you try to go, your viewpoint drifts grimly forward.

As a game, The Path is a distinct oddity, but I generally like it, and one of the reasons is this two-act, post-'victory' structure it's got going. In a way, the cottage tour is really nothing more than a twisted version of the Mega Happy Ending that concludes most JRPGs and Nintendo games, where they revisit each character and location encountered during the game as a form of wrap-up. But Tale of Tales uses a few audio cues and a simple gameplay change to turn a linear cutscene into something a little scary, with a lot more implied agency than actually exists. I'm not entirely sure what it means--I'm not sure I'm supposed to--I only know that the combination of structure and interaction makes for a pretty unforgettable experience.

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