The Path Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
One of the areas in which video games have a pretty abysmal track record is the depiction of sexual themes. It's not always as bad as insipid God of War-style sex-mini games, but much more often than not, 'mature content' means that the product in question is going to be anything but mature. And of course, the whole thing is almost always told from a resolutely male perspective. Thankfully, there's the occasional game that treats the subject matter in a more nuanced manner. The Path had the bright idea of framing its exploration of female sexuality and loss of innocence as an update of the classic fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood. In the game, the player takes charge of one of six teenaged girls or are they the same girl at different ages? and leads them down a forest path to grandmother's cottage. Upon release, The Path's experimental nature divided critics, generating both glowing and disappointed reviews. While some derided the game for its stripped-back gameplay (a complaint that had met fellow indie title Dear Esther the year before), others praised it for its meaningful content and innovative, gripping approach to storytelling. In any case, you couldn't blame the title for not trying to break conventions how many games tell you at the end that you've failed, precisely because you followed instructions and went down the path straight to your destination? Only by walking off into the woods, where the wolves lurk, can the player unlock The Path's mysteries.
To craft a soundtrack that would appropriately reflect The Path's morbid sensibilities, developer Tale of Tales managed to secure the talents of two artists whose involvement would have fans of experimental rock music giddy with excitement. The developers first got in touch with American singer-songwriter Jarboe, former co-leader of legendary avant-garde rock band The Swans and a solo artist with a fiercely independent artistic vision that mixes folk elements, extreme metal, noise and the avant-garde. Hiring Jarboe was a safe way to give The Path a score that would be as individualistic as the game as a whole. The game's visceral, non-sanitised retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale would nicely coincide with Jarboe's artistic sensibilities, as her music had never shied away from exploring the darker aspects of the human mind and its desires.
On her first game score, Jarboe was tasked with conveying the game's story without the use of spoken dialogue, only relying on music, sound effects, and her own vocals. To help her in this demanding task, Jarboe collaborated with Kris Force, leader of San Francisco ensemble Amber Asylum, who had found acclaim for their trademark mix of metal, folk, gothic, chamber music, and electronica. Not only would Force's musical background also perfectly fit The Path, but she had already collaborated with Jarboe in the past on The Swans albums. Even more importantly for the task at hand, Force had also worked on the Sims franchise as part of the sound team (talk about versatility) and could assist with implementing The Path's soundtrack into the game. Due to the financing structure behind the title, Jarboe and Force had to be on call for several years, as the game was developed in several stages, each time triggered when more funding became available. Finally, The Path was released in 2009. One year later, the game's soundtrack album saw the light of day on iTunes and emusic, and via a limited 500-copy album run, which of course sold out quickly. Two years later, the album score was released via Bandcamp, giving eager soundtrack collectors a chance to acquire this work in lossless album quality.
Keeping in mind Jarboe and Force's body of work, you won't be surprised to find that The Path isn't the most melodious of soundtracks. In fact, this is one of the more ambient, and particularly one of the harsher, scores to come out of Western game music in the past couple of years. Of course, for a game that's billed as a "psychological horror" title, a largely non-melodic approach is on par. But don't make the mistake of assuming The Path is a straightforward horror score that simply wants to frighten you. Instead, Jarboe and Force have something more intricate on their minds: to lure you into a disturbing world of sounds and keep you there. One of the methods the composers use to achieve this aim is to mirror the duality that underlies the game's narrative: it might be safe on the path, but aren't the forest and all its mysteries much more interesting, no matter if it might dangerous or not outside the boundaries of the path?
In tone with this, several of the compositions on The Path weave a spell that is both alluring and frightening. The second track "Forest Theme" already subtly prepares the ground for the album's more disturbing moments, as Jarboe's ethereal, layered vocals paint the image of a haunted location, while one of her vocal lines warns us of the wolf. At the same time, Jarboe's delivery has a calm, sensual quality to it that makes the prospect of meeting the wolf intriguing rather than simply terrifying. Innocence and menace, the dichotomy that The Path is based on, begin to clash on "Forest Theme" when the tinkling, soothing piano lines are mixed with screechy violin notes and the squeaking sounds of a rusty swing. It's a repetitive composition that works with minimalist ingredients, but these ingredients are mixed so judiciously that they create a potent, disquieting atmosphere that constantly keeps the listener on the edge, unsure about what's going to happen next.
It's particularly the sensuality of The Path's music, the seductive part of its equation, that sets this score apart from many of its horror genre brethren. Even an abstract composition like "Woodsman Wolf" radiates a glowing, if claustrophobic heat. Jarboe's ritualistic chanting floats over incessant sound effects of thrusting saws and axes chopping away at wood, all of them filling the soundstage with unsettling ambience that is as sexually charged as it is violent. The walls move in closer when abrasive guitar feedback rises and makes the air even thicker with paranoia and dread. Finally, the music's sexual undertones are made even more explicit through the addition of female moans that hover uncomfortably between pleasure and pain. Actually, it's during these overly-literal moments that The Path briefly loses its footing. The music's mix of sparse melodies and densely layered sounds is subtle, yet sufficiently obvious to lay bare the game's subtext. In comparison, elements like the female moaning on "Woodsman Wolf" and the distorted, wretched "I will eat you" vocals at the end of "Forest Theme" feel like needlessly in-your-face reminders of what this music is about. But all in all, these are only brief occurrences that don't stop the pandemonium that is The Path.
Another composition that marries charisma and discordance is "Charming Wolf". Its jazzy, smooth overtones created by saxophone fragments and brushed percussion is mixed with a neverending carpet of buzzing guitars and the sounds of a motorbike the classic sign of the authority-defying male teen. It's a genre-bending, original and hugely effective take on the kind of rebellious teen whose air of danger can attract girls only here, that sense of cool and danger is not only charming, but actively menacing, as those atonal guitar riffs get more and more out of control towards the end of "Charming Wolf". The epitome of the soundtrack's striking mix of eroticism and aggression both deeply animalistic urges is "Grandmother's Tale". Essentially, it's Jarboe telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood against a background of fuzzy guitar noise. The smouldering pathos of Jarboe's delivery might feel overdone to some listeners, but the track overcomes this through the unexpected edginess of the story it tells. This is not the classic Brother Grimm version of the famous fairy tale, but a compilation of earlier renditions of the story that are a lot more cannibalistic and sexually explicit than you might have expected. It's as creepy as it's sexy, if in a very twisted way which sums up The Path's overall appeal pretty well.
On other occasions, the dangers lurking within the music of The Path don't hide behind a lascivious disguise, and it's these tracks that are most likely to turn off some listeners. Still, these pieces are in tune with the soundtrack's darker undercurrent and represent skilfully engineered variations of the score's overall tone. After the ominously tolling bells of "Werewolf" have turned more and more eerie, blindingly dissonant guitar noise emerges from the undergrowth. These furious slabs of white noise soon engulf the whole piece and do their absolutely best to pummel you into submission. As alienating as these drilling guitar effects may be, they have a visceral immediacy that makes "Werewolf" a fascinating, if exhausting listen. "Cloud Wolf" lacks this punchyness and during its almost seven minutes keeps running mainly on wispy, floating textures whose edges are just sharpened enough by buzzing distortions to not lose the listener. Still, not everybody will find themselves taken with "Cloud Wolf" and its comparatively airy nature. The composition's most striking feature only kicks in at the end. A three-note organ figure that gives the music a warped sense of solemnity takes over, and suddenly "Cloud Wolf", sequenced near the end of the album, feels like a foreboding harbinger of doom.
Herein lies The Path's second big strength. It starts out innocently enough, but this only allows the music to develop a engrossing sense of direction, and it's soon clear where the journey is going right into the abyss. The Path's opening track "Safe Song - The Path" is led by a simple, lullaby-like piano melody that is doubled by Jarboe's girlish 'la-la-la' vocals, evoking the atmosphere of a dreamy children's song. Some of Jarboe's vocal harmonies turn ghostly and hint at darker things to come, but for the time being, the sun is shining and some cello accents give the piece a rustic, pastoral tone. Once more in tune with the game's central premise, things only get really interesting when we leave the safe path on following track "Forest Theme" and disquieting sounds start mixing with the once carefree music. Later on, spliced in between the more experimental pieces, we find "Fey Wolf" and "Forest Interlude 2", two pieces that are more conventionally appealing through their unexpectedly lush string tones that exude regret. Not surprisingly, neither track simply lets the string section play in peace and instead injects the music with just enough unsettling sound effects to never let the compositions come to rest. But even so, "Fey Wolf" and "Forest Interlude" are melodic enough that their sorrowful atmosphere evokes sympathy for the girls and the distressing fate that awaits each one of them.
Accordingly, when the lighter tones of "Safe Song - The Path" return in the album's second half through the acoustic guitar melodies of "Girl in Red", Jarboe's little-girl vocals have changed since the album's start. Her breathy "Ah"s, each syllable crescendoing towards the end, feel just unnerving and sexually explicit enough to balance innocence with obvious hints at more adult desires, particularly when Jarboe's vocals get more and more pressing at the cue's end. After the finality of the closing chords of "Cloud Wolf", the unexpectedly sprightly piano melody and warm double bass notes of "Epilogue" bring hope and elation, although the slightly melancholic nature of the underlying synth chords keeps you wondering how much cause for celebration there really is. Sure enough, the emergence of Jarboe's oddly warbling vocals and industrial sound effects in the cue's final third complicate feelings of resolution. And then we're treated with "Little Red Riding Hood", another reading of the Little Red Riding Hood tale this time its better-known, 'classic' version, delivered in more straightforward manner by Jarboe than on "Grandmother's Tale". But the composers come up with a devious, cruel twist. All this sense of security and familiarity that "Little Red Riding Hood" evokes, the hope for a fairy tale ending it's all shattered when the cue simply leaves out the happy end. The girl is devoured by the wolf, and the story is over. After this disturbing finale, "Forest Reprise" has no trouble bringing the album to its harrowing conclusion through a funereal dirge whose bitter sense of finality is striking.
Just like the game, Jarboe and Kris Force's take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale will not be everybody's cup of tea (or grandmother blood). But as long as you don't mind some musical experimentation in your game soundtracks, The Path is a work that intrigues as much as it unsettles, while it turns one of the more interesting game concepts of recent years into equally fascinating music. Unlike so many other horror scores, The Path mixes sensuality and dread into a slow-burning cocktail of highly creative compositions that often enough will take you by surprise. Frequently, the soundtrack is more sound design then music in the traditional sense but it's immensely effective sound design that draws the listener into the maelstrom of destructive desires at the heart of the game. And amidst the twisted sound collages and creepy fairy tale readings, the soundtrack's melodic sections remind you of all that the game's protagonists have lost in their encounters with the wolf, and that there's no return to the days of carefree bliss. Even if you're of the more adventuresome kind, parts of The Path may feel needlessly drawn out, and on a couple of occasions, the music's storytelling loses its admirably subtle touch and turns needlessly obvious. But for the most part, the title is a fascinating journey that has few, if any predecessors in the realm of Western game scores.
Overall Score: 8/10