Digital Life


Okay, enough of old media. When there's controversy around a video game, it often has to do with the kind of trouble you usually associate with boys at play: explosions, body counts, that kind of thing. Here's one video game, though, about the kind of trouble girls can get into. It draws directly from one of the oldest stories about girls in danger: "Little Red Riding Hood." Heather Chaplin tells us about the video game called "The Path."

First, though, a warning: Some listeners may find this story disturbing.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: The classic story of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a warning to girls about the dangers of strangers, particularly male strangers. The game "The Path" begins with a warning also. It says: When you're going to grandmother's house, stay on the path. The game's co-designer, Michael Samyn, however, says the warning is a ruse.

Mr. MICHAEL SAMYN (Co-designer, "The Path"): Whenever you go to grandmother's house without meeting the wolf, the game will tell you that you failed. You can roam around in the forest quite a bit without meeting the wolf. So, that's the next challenge in the game, of course - do you have courage to do that?

CHAPLIN: Facing the wolf is what "The Path" is about.

(Soundbite of video game, "The Path")

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CHAPLIN: In each level of the game, you play as one of six sisters.

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They are willowy and vaguely Goth in appearance, ranging in age from 9 to 19, each of whom must make the long trek through the forest, each of whom must meet her own personal wolf.

Ms. AURIEA HARVEY (Co-designer, "The Path"): But in some ways, the girls are all one girl, you know, or one girl at different stages of her life. And in some ways, this is about the various stages of life that a girl has to go through in order to become a woman.

CHAPLIN: That's Auriea Harvey, the game's other co-designer. The moment you step off the path and into the forest, the terror of the game begins. Sunshine fades to murky darkness. You hear low moans, but you can't tell if they're from pleasure or pain.

(Soundbite of video game, "The Path")

And you know all the time, that out there waiting is the wolf. In one of his incarnations, he's a white light that sweeps you into the sky. It feels ecstatic and horrifying at the same time. When it's over, you're left lying in a heap. The game is nothing so much as a rumination on the vulnerabilities of girlhood.

(Soundbite of video game, "The Path")

This is seriously unusual terrain for a video game. Beware when you play "The Path." The hairs will stand up on your arms; your heart will pound.

Ms. BRENDA BRATHWAITE(ph): I just cannot recall another game evoking that level of emotion for me, ever.

CHAPLIN: That's Brenda Brathwaite, a fan of "The Path."

Ms. BRATHWAITE: And you know, that's been playing games for 20-some years now.

CHAPLIN: Brathwaite was particularly struck by a moment in the game where Ruby, the 15-year-old sister, stumbles into a deserted playground in the forest where a young man, sitting on a bench, offers her a cigarette.

Ms. BRATHWAITE: He sits back on the bench, and he's just sitting there, and I wonder like, what am I supposed to do? And it was then that I felt like, the most anxiety. And the actual thought that went through my head at the time is, you know, oh my God, am I going to be raped?

CHAPLIN: Brathwaite says she, herself, was violently attacked when she was younger.

Ms. BRATHWAITE: You know, there's things in my past that it certainly echoed back to, and I was amazed that the game could allow me to think about that in terms that were, shall we say, safe.

Mr. SAMYN: I think we've succeeded in making a game that is about the player, and I think what is frightening about it is the confrontation with your own interpretations of things and probably realizing that they're your own.

CHAPLIN: That's Michael Samyn, the game's co-designer. Before playing "The Path," Brathwaite, who is herself a game maker and professor, had only ever talked about being attacked to a few close friends. She said playing the game somehow made it okay for her to speak publicly about it. Women and girls simply haven't had a chance to explore these themes in video games, says co-designer Auriea Harvey.

Ms. HARVEY: The vulnerabilities of girls, it's something that people don't deal with much in this particular format, you might say, but the games are a very powerful medium. And giving girls a chance to be embodied in a virtual world is kind of interesting without treating them like, oh, this game should be pink, and there should be horses and ice skating - but really dealing with these sort of issues that girls have on an unspoken level.

CHAPLIN: Players everywhere, beware.

For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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