The Path is an atmospheric horror game based on and inspired by several variations of the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story, set in modern times. In it you take control of one of six sisters, sent individually on an errand to see their sick grandmother. The game gives you the simple imperative of "Stay on the path," inferring of dangerous wolves waiting just beyond the boundaries of the dirt road for inquisitive girls who choose to disobey. Despite its simplicity the game is exceptionally successful in conveying both the story matter that's inspired it as well as a variety of themes, most of them melancholy and disturbing.
WARNING: This section contains potential spoilers; if you don't want the game ruined, skip past it!
Drawing upon inspiration from various renditions of the classic Little Red Riding Hood story, The Path begins by having the player select one of six possible sisters. They're sent on an errand to visit their sick grandmother at her home and instructed to strictly stay on the path and not stray from it as dangerous wolves lurk waiting for them to come near. However the player will quickly discover that staying on the path accomplishes nothing, and curiosity is actively rewarded for those who choose to disobey the rules and enter the neverending forest. The game is short and simple, but its replayability lies in the ability to repeat the process with each of the sisters one at a time. Despite the fact that there's no violent content the game is incredibly successful in generating a tense atmosphere all the same; through the use of unsettling music, sounds and visual artifacts the game generates tension and fear even when nothing inherently frightening is in sight. Make no mistake, this isn't Disney's version of Little Red; pulling from old versions of the story (some of them graphically violent and disturbing) the game makes heavy use of unsettling sexual themes touching on molestation and rape. If the player sticks to the rules and simply travels down the path, they'll find their grandmother's cabin with grandma safely resting in bed. If they disobey and encounter a wolf, the game restarts with a broken, dejected girl sadly walking down the road in the rain and grandma's cabin is now a deeply disturbed horror indicative of the violation she went through. Again, absolutely none of this is carried out in the game and there's no sexual or violent imagery shown to the player. This is perhaps the more disturbing aspect since it leaves everything to the imagination of the player, leaving their reactions to the sisters' waylaying completely personal. The music is ambient and sad, while violins and other instruments punctuate the soundtrack in response to the activity of the player. Sound effects are also used well; as the player runs through the forest, the rustle of a dog's chain leash or animalistic panting feels like it's just over your shoulder. Mechanized, overdriven girl's screams echo through the trees frequently. Common to each of the sisters' experiences through the forest is a mysterious girl in white who always seems close by no matter how deep into the forest the player roams.
The Path's visual aesthetic is extremely stylized; the game makes heavy use of post processing effects, overlaying the screen with scratches and half-glimpsed writing as they progress through the forest. The overlay effect also plays into the game mechanics as well– when near an item that can be interacted with half the screen will be occupied with a translucent rendition of the object. There's frequent use of film grain and motion blur and repeated motifs of visual artifacts that give the game a slight "The Ring" feeling. Objects and characters will blink into existence a brief moment only to vanish entirely, or appear nearby, doing something else. Combined with the music and sound effects this surreality makes the player feel less like they're running an errand and more like they're stumbling through a personal and deeply upsetting nightmare.
The controls of the game are extremely simple; all movement can be handled through the keyboard, mouse, or even an XBOX 360 controller. Control essentially consists of walking or running. When near an object or item that can be interacted with, releasing all controls causes the player's sister to use the nearby object. The game itself is just as simple as well. As the site's description explains, there is nothing to fight, no difficult puzzles to overcome to progress, no goals to accomplish. The player can simply follow the instructions to the letter and proceed to grandma's cabin, but the beauty (and sorrow) of the environment exists for those who venture off the path. The game rewards wanderers and much of the story happens when the player accidentally stumbles upon it. The longer you stay outside in the forest, the clearer it becomes that something disturbing has happened, and each of the items the character can collect (haphazardly referred to as "memories" early on) add pieces to the puzzle of what that was.
The Path was a beautiful game; despite its simplicity it is accomplishes its horror namesake, notably without the use of any violent gore or "jumping out at you" shock attempts. While its subject matter is not new, The Path gives it a fresh spin, and its value lies in its extremely disturbing emotional undercurrents. Even though the game has no violence or sex, it is still a dark game and clearly for maturer audiences. The game rewards players who wish to explore the forest at their own pace, but the cost of that reward is revealed well into gameplay. While its somewhat amateurish graphics aren't cutting edge, their stylization fits the theme of the game well. The music and sound (the former which is available as a free download from the developer's site!) establish the tone well and players will likely find themselves looking over their shoulders as they play, even without seeing more than a glimpse of the boogeyman. The game is very much in the "psychological" subgenre of horror, and as players reveal more and more of the story they're likely to stumble onto a sad, melancholy lesson that will linger with them long after they've finished playing.