Branching Pathways

I write a lot about agency, the ability for a player to affect the outcome of events in a piece of interactivity. Most games we play have very little high-level agency; the player can determine how a battle is fought, but victory always results in the same outcome. Terry “Xoldiers” Cavanagh just released a game called “Pathways” that plays with the concept of agency. It turns out we don’t have any. Let me elaborate.

“Pathways” is all about choice. The player is presented with a path to follow. She can only walk forward, not backwards. The only choice available at any time is whether to continue forward or turn onto a side path. The graphics are simple and pixelly, with a clever use of multiple resolutions (the backgrounds are half the resolution of the foreground art). There are eight endings, sort of. All in all, it’s pretty safe to assume Cavanagh was inspired by Daniel Benmergui’s “I Wish I Were the Moon,” like I was with “The Majesty of Colors.” What’s really interesting in the game is that with all the fuss the game seems to make about choice, the player doesn’t really have any agency over the events in the game.

I think it was Emily Short who wrote about how true agency requires knowledge of consequences. A real decision involves weighing the available outcomes, comparing their merits, and making an informed choice. With “Pathways,” there is no knowledge. Each of the branching points is just an intersection: do I go down the path, or enter this building? There’s no way of knowing what a choice means until after you make it. And if that’s all there was to the game, I’d dismiss it as a well-crafted piece that missed the point of the whole interactivity thing.

But that would be ignoring the game’s awareness of its own quirks. (I’ll be discussing the ending here, so I recommend you play the game first. It’ll take under half an hour.) The first of these is the enigmatic woman loitering outside your house at the beginning of each of your journeys, who bears a passing resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Death. She, out of all of the characters in the game, seems to realize the futile choices the player character makes, and greets him with a different message each time he passes. She is, incidentally, the most interesting thing in the game; I found myself wanting more of her. I’m thinking sequel.

The other thing that makes this game notable is the collection of eight endings. These aren’t “multiple endings” in the same way as other games use them. They end the internal narrative of each path, but they aren’t endings to the game. The first seven, which you can encounter in any order, set up a recurring structure. A man leaves a woman behind to go on a journey. The journey ends, in death or in a return home. The frame story, though, the actual game, is a meta-narrative about this set of seven narratives, which brings us to the eighth ending. After playing the first seven, the player is presented with a surreal, dream narrative where she explores disjointed scenes from the rest of the game, searching for the woman that the player character always left behind. The woman is never found.

“Life is just a series of questions with no right answers,” the enigmatic woman says at one point. In “Pathways,” the right answer is “all of the above.” The player must traverse each ending to see the whole game; all she gets to decide is the order in which to visit them. There is no real agency in this game; no button to break out of the path Cavanagh provides. The game seems to argue that making decisions in life is futile, because you can’t see where they’ll lead and everyone dies alone. The readme file declares the game to be “an experiment in interactive storytelling.” The experiment is that the storytelling isn’t interactive. The same story is told each time you play the game.

There are a lot of poems about poetry. It makes sense; poets think about poetry a lot, so naturally they tend to write about it. Interactive works are the same way. Many of the more art-focused games are about interactivity itself, from “Shrapnel” to Bioshock. “Pathways” is one of those games, and it’s got some interesting things to say. Eventually, I’ll become tired of interactive entertainment talking about interactivity, but that day is not today. Check the game out… or don’t. I already know what you’re going to do.

One thought on “Branching Pathways

  1. the message i got from playing this game is that there is no going back, that you are always stuck with the things you have done. And that there is only once chance for everything, sure you may receive a second chance but it will never be the same as if you have taken the first.

    We are all doomed to death and there is no way to rewrite what we have done.

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