Reposted from my blog.
Playing through The Path, I began to wonder what it was that was so enthralling about it. How I could spend an evening accomplishing little but still enjoying the simplicity of wandering around an unending forest looking for “something?” I realized something wonderful: Despite blindly running off into the woods, I never once felt lost.
The game reminded me of the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Except it’s more like, “Wherever you go, you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
It’s a cool idea, but the level at which Tale of Tales pulls it off is what’s impressive. I’ve read that FarCry 2 was also modular and designed to lead the player into the story no matter which direction they head off in. I’m still interested in seeing how well it works with the idea, but based on The Path’s implementation (and my previous positive bias towards the idea) I am, more than ever before, convinced that such a design structure is the way to go whether your game is open world or linear, unless you specifically want to give the player an on-rails experience. In fact, I would say that this design structure eliminates the need to distinguish between linear and non-linear types of progression. Perhaps now we can begin to discuss games more in the sense of deterministic and non-deterministic, far more universal concepts.
Contrast The Path with Prince of Persia (2008), which was desperate to constantly remind you that you were, in fact, always on the path. It was like they couldn’t put enough of those light orbs as obviously as possible straight in your path. In fact, the platforming was so restrictive you could never even leave the path if you wanted to. The level design was so linear this didn’t necessarily obstruct your ability to move through it all, but it completely killed any potential the world had to spontaneously generate a sense of surprise and discovery. It certainly left me longing for the days of Super Mario Bros where some fluke of poor control or innocent curiosity could suddenly leave you walking on top of the screen. Prince of Persia was simply incapable of surprise (as far as gameplay went).
Aimless, But On Target†
The Path’s design succeeds in allowing infinite aimless wandering, encouraging it, and making sure that no matter how far off the path I get I’ll always feel like I’m moving forward in terms of my objectives. Sure, I might not find exactly what I’m looking for, but eventually a flower will pop up, and dammit, that alone makes all the wandering worthwhile, not that they seem to do anything, but that doesn’t matter, I’m making a pretty garland around my inventory. It does well in setting long term and short term goals, a dichotomy far too many games ignore or obfuscate. It lets me set the pace of progression, and an intoxicating power indeed.
It succeeds where every open world game I can think of (Oblivion, Godfather, Mafia, Saboteur, Infamous, the Silent Hill games, all of them (though mostly the less linear 1&2)) fail on a basic level. Those games have plenty to do and discover, but ultimately you’ll find yourself walking in circles, hitting a border, forced to use your map and follow the arrow.
The Path has just the right mix of ingredients to maintain a feeling that’s never frustrating, that never feels like time is being wasted, that doesn’t make me feel helpless and lost, and there’s never that nagging feeling of “Ok, I know I should be advancing the story, time to get serious about this game and get back on the critical path.” Its level of ambiguous hints (the briefly appearing map, the swirly lines along the edge of the screen), concrete goals (the empty boxes in the basket), filler (the 144 flowers), hand holding (literally with the girl in white) and randomness (in forest layout and relative relation of items/appearance of flowers) all help to assure the player never feels, “Well… nothing’s happening… what do I do now?” And if the player ever does come to a stop, unable to take another step, they’ll be shown straight back to the path. I never really felt an inclination to consult a walkthrough.
Most importantly, throughout all this aimless wandering, the player gets to know their character. That’s the true reward, the most delicious carrot: Someone for the player to connect to, to see a part of themselves in, and a world for the player to reflect on. It’s not just a journey of discovering the outside world, it’s a journey of realizing what lies within our own inner universe.
The only point the game fails on is when a wolf area is encountered. Usually there are several things to interact with, but which will trigger the wolf? These were the only moments I felt uncertainty and apprehension. Interestingly, this anxiety only arose upon first discovering its existence. Perhaps what triggers the wolf should have remained unpredictable, as once I learned what clue there was to danger (triggering the camera flyby cutscene) I became much more careful in my interactions.Otherwise, the game was like rolling about in a huge bed or splashing about in an Olympic sized pool, not having to worry about the repercussions for wildly exploring.
In these days of giant yellow !’s we’ve ignored or failed to build being lost into the experiences we craft, and more importantly, surprising the player by showing how they weren’t lost after all, how they were, in fact, contributing to their overall progress with their seemingly aimless and random acts that don’t turn out to be so extraneous after all. This might be mostly due to our audience (and ourselves) having far too many experiences with bad design, where if you feel lost you probably are actually lost and will never get back onto the main path without a walkthrough.
Perhaps those early games were a bit too traumatic for one too many game developer and we became too eager to shift toward the ideology of making sure the player never doesn’t know what to do. Not only do we try to keep the player informed, but we take it a step further and do our best to tell and convince the player why they should focus on staying on the path, to reject the temptation to push the boundaries of our games. I’ll forever see the mini-map and its ilk as quick-fix, knee-jerk overreactions that treat a symptom but not the underlying problem of the player failing to progress.
A linear games makes it easy for the player to feel as if they are progressing, and that’s an important feeling to impart, but I feel The Path shows linearity isn’t needed for that in the least. Maybe now we can consider designs similar to those of old which inflicted trauma of aimless wandering without decrying them for their failings, but hailing them for the opportunity they provide to us in being able to create a deeper, more positive experience for the player.