Comfort in Discomfort – The Path (Video Game)

My comfort game is a horror walking simulator.

More specifically, my comfort game is The Path by developer Tale of Tales. Inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, the game focuses on six sisters (Robin, Rose, Ginger, Ruby, Carmen and Scarlet) who each travel through the woods to their Grandmothers house.  The only rule is to stay on the path; but breaking this rule to wander the forest allows each sister to encounter a ‘wolf’. Being a walking simulator means the experience is more about exploration and uncovering the narrative rather than in-depth mechanics; interacting with items and triggering cutscenes require you to stay still. And this lack of complex gameplay, combined with the focus on story and exploration, makes it easy for me to get into walking simulators. They aren’t perfect, The Path is the only one I would list among my favourite games, but I’ve developed a fondness for the genre.

While this type of gameplay may be relaxing, I also said that The Path is horror. There are no jumpscares, no enemies and the story, while there, is vague and open to interpretation. It draws more from the older, darker versions of the fairy-tale and focuses on a psychological approach instead of actively telling you what happens; several people have indeed tried to analyse each sister’s personality and the meaning of their wolves based on the details fed to us piece by piece. That can be interesting, especially if you enjoy speculation and implicit storytelling, but I highly doubt anyone will get nightmares from playing this game.

I could be wrong, but any of you reading could easily name a game that is far more terrifying.  

But what The Path lacks in traditional scares, for me it makes up for in atmosphere. Apart from a beautiful art-style which is far more vibrant and colourful than many other horror games I’ve played, the soundtrack is a wonderfully atmospheric combination of ambient tracks, lilting melodies and haunting choirs. The first time I played The Path I  felt nervous as soon as I entered the forest, and that effect lasted the entire time I was walking. Repeated playthroughs lessened the effect, especially when I was looking for secrets, but I still find myself sucked into the atmosphere.

What I’ve said so far may have piqued your interest in The Path, or possibly put you off, but it doesn’t explain my initial statement; that this is my comfort game. I’m sure everyone has their own definition of a comfort game; some would choose something light-hearted and casual, while others may pick old nostalgic titles from their childhood. Others may even go for shooters or hack and slash games, using the violence to relieve stress in a safe environment. Any of these options make sense, and I’m sure each one of you could make a convincing argument for your own comfort game.   

But horror, by design, is not supposed to be comfortable. It works to dredge up every primal fear, every twitch of paranoia and every negative emotion inside you. There’s nothing wrong with liking horror (read nearly anything on this blog and you will know that I love horror), and there’s nothing strange about enjoying the experience. The thrill of a monster triggering your fight or flight instincts can be exhilarating, and sometimes it’s good to have a space you can safely explore darker thoughts and fears. But that still doesn’t make the experience comfortable, and with a game like The Path which loses its effect upon multiple replays, even saying that I play it for the horror is strange.

I don’t play it for the horror of the experience the developers intended.

I play it for the atmosphere.

At the start of the week I saw a tweet asking people about their comfort games, and I responded with The Path. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn’t know why this was the case. So, I booted up the game, did a full playthrough with all six sisters (wolf scenario and the safe route) and even recorded the footage so I could watch it again and maybe notice things I missed while I was playing. But after finishing with every sister and reaffirming that feeling of comfort, I still couldn’t explain why. I liked the wolves, but I often found myself avoiding their triggers, and the Grandmother sections only got interesting after I’d unlocked some new rooms. Nothing was clicking. Nothing made sense.

Then I picked my favourite of the sisters, Rose, and just started walking.

No wolf.

No path.

No Grandmother.

I just walked in a straight line.

At one point I timed myself, and found that I had walked for nearly 16 minutes (give or take a minute for any objects I came across, and those were only the few that were directly in my way; I ignored quite a few in the distance).

Doing this made me feel at peace.

Walking through the forest as trees continually materialised into view was a hypnotic experience. My computer isn’t that powerful, so I had the graphics set quite low, but having flowers and other plants suddenly pop into view added to this feeling; it was like watching them sprout out of the ground. By this point I’d unlocked the map symbols for what areas I could visit, letting me avoid anything that would trigger the end of the game was easy, allowing me to just hold the analogue stick forward and watch Rose walk. The objects were a pleasant distraction but not an active hunt; something to briefly add to the scenery before letting me return to my walk.

The tension and paranoia didn’t disappear, mostly due to the music. Tracks would often transition and layer over each other, but the beauty of how this is done is that there is no clear catalyst. You could be walking to the sound of choir voices for several minutes, then suddenly get the droning tone of a violin even though nothing in the environment has changed. I didn’t realise just how many different tracks there were for the forest before I looked up The Path soundtrack on YouTube, which goes to demonstrate how much thought the developers put in. It’s unnerving during those brief moments when two or three tracks are playing at once, slowly petering in and out in a way that flows naturally even as the mixing makes each tune distort. Furthermore, the music would occasionally be joined by sound effects such as rattling chains, gasps and growls, seemingly coming from right behind me. At first, I thought these sounds were indicators that I was getting close to the wolf encounter, but there were times when I was nowhere near that part of the map and I still heard them.

The music would keep me constantly tense, but I still wanted to keep going.

Speaking of the wolf encounters, I’m not going to go into the details of what happens in them just in case anyone wants to play the game themselves (plus there are plenty of other people who have broken them down in detail) but there is something I want to bring up. Each wolf has an area where the sister meets them: a cemetery, a field of flowers, a park, a campsite, a theatre and a lake. While each sister has their own wolf, there will always be at least two other areas you can visit as a different  sister without the wolf being there.

And stepping into any of these areas fills the game with colour.

Colour was brought up recently in a video by Painticus about the 2018 Call of Cthulhu game, and he mentioned how the game used a particular colour palette so that the change in colour during the moments of horror would provide an effective contrast. I didn’t realise it at first but that’s what I like best about going into these wolf areas. Colour is interesting in The Path, as the central safe path to Grandmothers house is colourful but as soon as you enter the forest all of the colour drains into a far more muted, saturated palette, which oddly acts to add to the hypnotic feeling I get when walking. But going into a wolf’s area floods the screen in colour once more, even more vibrant than that on the safe path.

It’s a twisted parody of the moment Dorothy steps into Oz, bringing you not into a world of wonder but into the den of the wolf.

In a way it was far more engaging to enter these deserted areas, to feel the wash of colour break me briefly out of my trance before I returned to walking. That isn’t to say I don’t like the wolves, although watching them without triggering the encounter creates an odd fascination; rather like watching a predator attack on a nature documentary. For example, Rose’s wolf is a strange, skinless man covered in mist and hovering over a lake (hence why there are theories; these wolves are weird). He’s very easy to spot from the edge of the lake, meaning I spent several minutes just watching him float there while his theme played in the background. Then on my most recent playthrough, I found the cemetery and the lake were close enough that I could stand next to a grave and watch the Cloud Man floating in the distance.

There’s one last thing which added to the bewildering comfort walking through these woods were giving me, and that’s the Girl in White.

She is a friendly AI who can be seen wandering around, dancing or running or peeking out from trees. I’ve often suspected that she is the one making all those gasps, but the only thing I can say for certain is that she’s there to help you. If you stand perfectly still in the forest for several minutes she will come over, take your sister’s hand and walk her back to the path. This is all done by the AI, you can put the controller down and just watch them walk. And while this didn’t have the same effect as walking through the trees myself, it still made me feel relaxed.

Just as a random side note, the Girl can either take you to the start or the end of the safe path, but no matter which one she brought me to I would always walk a little away from her then just run back into the trees. You play as her for the epilogue if you encounter all the wolves, so when you are walking her towards Grandmothers House, I just imagine her grumbling to herself about how ungrateful the sisters are.

Maybe me rambling like this doesn’t explain the point any better (heck reading this back I don’t really know why I started writing in the first place). And I still think The Path has some positive points and potential, plus it also opened my eyes to games I have since come to adore but would never have considered before playing The Path; the most notable of which is The Void and, eventually, Pathologic by IcePicklodge (both of which involve a lot of walking, have deep and at times vague stories, and do everything to make you feel unwelcome despite the beauty of their worlds).

Back when I first told my friends and family about my depression, several of them told me to lay off horror for a while. That I should focus on more upbeat and light-hearted media. Each of them meant well, worrying that it could aggravate my condition, but doing so was difficult. From when I was young I loved things like monsters, the paranormal, abandoned buildings etc; anything associated with horror instantly drew my attention, I find it beautiful even when it scares me. I tried leaving it for a while but found that I still felt happier being able to indulge in horror when I felt like it, and nothing about it aggravated my depression. It’s true I didn’t actively seek out intense experiences, but just being able to surround myself in that kind of atmosphere made me feel so good.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been playing The Path for between 10 minutes to half an hour; each time I picked Rose and would walk through the trees with only the occasional detour. Every time I do, I become unsettled, but I also close the game feeling as if a weight has been lifted from me. The game allows me to spend some time indulging in a creepy atmosphere, hinting I could do more but never forcing me. And in the end, I think that may be what keeps drawing me in.

I was surrounded by things that created discomfort, yet I felt very comfortable.

So, I’ll say it again; my comfort game is a horror walking simulator.

And I’m happy with that.

*

This is kind of a re-write of an old piece I did back when I was getting into game reviews on a website called Niume (the site suddenly closed and I didn’t back-up anything I wrote on there so they’re lost). However it turned into more of a personal piece, and honestly I have no idea why I wrote it. It was written in kind of a haze, I barely remember half the points I made, and I don’t even know if it’s good.

It might be crap.

But it was fun to edit and add in screenshots, and I did want to get back into doing pieces about games so maybe this is the push i need. And if not… what the hell, I need at least one random piece on here.

Note: All of the pictures are screenshots from my recorded playthrough. The Path and all it’s content is the property of Tale of Tales. The image of the The Void is also a screenshot from a recorded playthrough, and it’s the property of Ice-Pick Lodge.

The Path store page – https://store.steampowered.com/app/27000/The_Path/

The Path Soundtrack (in case you’re interested) – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqi7u2TUgl2cnDJI0fTjj4y02q-jLc3f2

Here’s my favourite set of articles interpreting the story and themes of The Path, all written by Shamus Young – https://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=4511

Low Expectations, High Demands: Call of Cthulhu Review by Painticus – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juX9QoqoO6E&t=457s

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