Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Wandering off the Path

So after last week’s revelations, I thought I’d continue the confessions theme, and ‘fess up this time around to being a bit of a girly cliché when it comes to computer games. I was addicted to the point of mania to The Sims whilst studying for my finals and my housemates were practically forced to stage a group intervention in order to save my degree.

To this day, I imagine myself ‘plusing’ when I meet someone new and find out we have things in common. Much as I hate the kind of lazy marketing that leads companies to fall prey to the ‘paint it pink and girls will like it’ school of thought, if it’s cute, quirky or pretty to look at I’m probably pretty excited about it.

It’s not just computer games either. Board games set on complex and not very beautiful mining ships three thousand years in the future don’t really do it for me. Whereas, trolls, dwarves and elves (Hello Small World!) kind of do.

Before any hardcore gamers stop reading in absolute disgust, let me attempt to redeem myself by pointing out I also used to be a bit of a dab hand with an Arctic in Counter-Strike and its various spin offs. But more importantly, despite a bit of a predilection for the cutesy, what I really care about is narrative. A compelling story with something to say. And this is as true when it comes to gaming as it is when it comes to great comics, or movies, or TV.

At the risk of returning to controversial territory then, I want to talk about a game called The Path. Although I’m really only using the word ‘game’ for the sake of a convenient label here. The Path is a beautiful, puzzling, compelling experience that stays with you like the fragments of a dream. I know this must sound unnecessarily artsy, but that’s kind of the point. The Path is a computer game. But it is also unapologetically, passionately and assuredly a piece of art.

The Path is loosely based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which instantly grants it a licence to deal with all of the darkness, nastiness and suppressed sexuality that are mandatory components of all of the best fairytales. Tale of Tales, the independent company behind The Path, describe it as a horror game and despite an absence of any obvious visceral gore, it really is. There is something deeply unsettling about guiding the female protagonists through the gorgeous forest setting of the game, through sunlit meadows, past forgotten childhood haunts, and finally amongst the tall trees in the unyielding battering rain en route to Grandma’s house.

I want to say more but to do so might spoil it; if you haven’t played or even heard of it then I urge you to do so immediately! Don’t try to find out any more about it. The experience itself is kind of the point and all of the best experiences should be enjoyed first and analysed afterwards. Especially when the experience is as atmospherically dense as this one.

The thing is though, like The Sims before it but with much more potential loss to the world, The Path is in danger of being labelled a "game for girls". And as such, of somehow limited appeal. Female gamers are largely aberrations, right? Everybody knows that your average gamer is male, white and geeky. Aside from the obvious and dreadful stereotyping inherent in this, it does men a disservice to assume that they only play games to shoot stuff, blow things up and pretend to be heroes. Like comics, computer games are an under-used but incredibly rich medium for cultural expression, and it seems crazy to narrow down the audiences for the brave ones that really push the boundaries even more.

So maybe I *am* a girly cliché when it comes to gaming. But actually this idea that girls like pink and baby animals and proper stories, whereas boys like guns and explosions and women with authentically bouncy cleavage (I’m looking at you Mortal Kombat) is limiting us all. So go on, I’ll give Call of Duty Black Ops a go, if you’ll just try The Path.

Kate Townshend is plus-ing all over the place. (Not a euphemism!)

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