The Path was released on March 18, 2009, from Tale of Tales, Steam and Direct2Drive simultaneously. Since then, our Little Red Riding Hood-inspired horror video game has met with both mean-spirited criticism and over-the-top adoration, and not much in between -- a divisive title if there ever was one. And most definitely a breathtaking journey and a deeply personal experience for Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn, yours truly, designers of The Path.
This is the story of how The Path came to be.
Through the dark forest
History of the project
1999, San Francisco, Triton Hotel: we meet in person for the first time. We had found each other via our medium, the networked computer, and had a brief but passionate virtual love affair. We got to know each other doing what we loved doing most: making websites and interactive artwork online. We begin living and working together soon after.
2003: Leaving behind careers of net.art and web design, the two of us radically redirect all our creative attention towards the medium of video games. February 2005: After two years of designing and prototyping, our first project, 8, is rejected by games publishers, then the only source of funding. We are devastated but determined to continue and to keep our independence.
Reboot. September 2005: Launch of The Endless Forest. October 2006: presentation of the Realtime Art Manifesto at the Mediaterra festival in Athens. January 2007: Drama Princess engine complete. March 2008: Launch of The Graveyard. March 2009, San Francisco, Triton Hotel: launch of The Path.
The idea for The Path is almost as old as Tale of Tales itself. In a June 2002 business plan, we presented our first project -- 8, a dreamy adventure game based on Sleeping Beauty -- as part of a series of games, each based on a classic fairy tale and with a number as its title. In another description of the 8 project, from October 2004, we express that we have "plans for a survival-horror game based on Little Red Riding Hood". This game would be called 144.
In 2005, we started looking around for a production budget for 144. Some early requests with local Belgian arts funding bodies were rejected. But at the end of the year, the USA-based arts organization Creative Capital came through with an initial grant of 10,000 U.S. dollars.
We were still working on the Drama Princess project at the time, but started directing it away from its original goal of driving the autonomous behavior of the main character in 8, towards the more general character behavior manager required by the new project. Not that The Path was a very clear idea at that time. But motivated by the support of Creative Capital, the design gradually became more concrete.
In July 2006, a first prototype was committed to our 144 repository.
The Deaf Mute Girl in the Pretty White Dress from the 8 project grew up a bit and became the Girl in White in 144.
We decided not only to re-use the Girl in White character from 8 and the Drama Princess engine for autonomous characters, but also the environment rendering system of The Endless Forest. This re-use was one of our ways to reduce the development budget. After not being able to secure the -- for us -- gargantuan sum of 1.5 million dollars required for 8, we were determined to make a game for a budget that was so small that we didn't need the support of the games industry.
For this reason, The Path was going to be a short game that was mostly non-linear (no plot-based narrative, emergent behavior, few cut scenes). And we were going to focus on digital distribution exclusively, not only because it makes sense in terms of technology, but also because it reduces production and marketing costs while drastically increasing the revenue share for the developer (meaning a much smaller volume of sales is required to break even).
At the very start of the project, we weren't really sure if The Path was going to be a commercial title or more of an artistic experiment. As we continued to refine the design, we realized that the concept had several things that spoke in favor of commercial exploitation: it was going to be a horror game, thus easy to categorize by the market (unlike 8, for which the main problem with publishers was that its genre was undefinable.)
In The Path, we knew we were going to have stylish, dark, girl characters at a time where Gothic Lolita style and Pop Surrealism were very trendy. Cult rock star Jarboe had agreed to do the sound track. But most of all, we felt a sort of obligation, to at least try and make this step towards a market, instead of safely playing in the margins. Up until the day of launch, we had no idea how well this was going to work. But we decided to take the risk.
By the end of 2006, we had secured another 26,000 euro from the Flemish Audiovisual Fund and Design Flanders for a first phase of the production. The support of Creative Capital continued throughout the project until the day of launch (which they funded). Ultimately, they have contributed almost 50,000 US Dollars to the budget (sadly, at a time when the dollar was at an all time low).
In January 2007, we implemented the Drama Princess engine in the 144 prototype, which signified to us the start of the actual pre-production.
Making a commercial game and deciding to publish it ourselves immediately meant that we were going to have to work on our marketing. In February 2007 we stopped resisting Web 2.0 and started the Tale of Tales blog.
In March of that year, Michael gave up on his five year old ban against traveling to the USA to attend the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. We were offered the opportunity of sharing a booth with other Belgian developers, cheaply. So we took it. It was then that we decided that we needed a more descriptive title for the game. However dear the cryptic 144 was to us, we felt we had to give up on being obscure and do as much as we can to make it easier for the audience to connect to our work.
In May 2007, a first prototype of The Path was sent to our collaborators, animator Laura Raines Smith, and musicians Jarboe and Kris Force, after which they joined the project in earnest. With their help, we created one of the six chapters of the game, featuring Ruby as its main character. This demo was entered in the Independent Games Festival in October 2007. You can watch the first teaser.
In November 2007, we showed this demo to Valve and to Sony in Liverpool, but neither was ready to sign us up for their platform (Steam and PlayStation Network) at the time. They seemed a little bit worried about where we were going to take the rest of the project, afraid that it might turn out to be too much art, and too little entertainment (which was considered a liability back then).
That same month, November 2007, things got really serious when we signed a contract with CultuurInvest for a 90,000 euro loan. As of then, working on a commercial project turned from being an exciting experiment into dealing with a scary Sword of Damocles that would play a part in each and every decision we were going to make. We realized all too well that paying back 100,000 euro (the loan plus interest) is a serious commitment for even the most commercial independent company, let alone an artistically-motivated two-person collective.
Michael in our booth at Game Connection, Lyon 2007