“What is the game about?” might be the most asked question that I least like to answer. Generally, when people ask they want a small, contained statement that can encapsulate a game. But I like to talk, a lot, and if it’s a game I like it’s not uncommon for me to be a little effusive. Someone once asked me what Skyrim was about and I ended up writing a 2000-word piece of fan fiction. Another time I completely turned someone off of the Portal games because I said it was about “angular momentum.”
So when I got to play Road Not Taken and people asked me what it was about, I ran into some trouble. I might have described it as Spry Fox CEO and developer David Edery did, and bring in Don’t Starve as a point of comparison, or as creative director Daniel Cook did, and bring in Dark Souls. You play as a ranger aiding a town to rescue their berry picking children, who have become lost in the woods as winter approaches. With your magic staff in hand, you can lift and hurl any object in the world, often lumping them together to create powerful combinations of objects.
The game is incredibly unkind in the way it punishes players in their quest to rescue the town’s berry-picking, much like From Software’s influential opus. The lord of the forest, or, as Spry Fox calls it, the “level designer,” is devious, methodical, and totally without compassion. There are also some similarities to Spry Fox’s previous game, Triple Town. Playing through Road Not Taken I was taken by the similarity of the bears between the two games, a small visual link between the two games. Cook told me that Triple Town “ends up being this very limited campus,” and as such has defined and specific boundaries. When playing Triple Town it’s not hard to find them: certain objects simply go together, progression is defined and able to be tabulated. A tree, a house, and a church all have very specific value in the game and specific methods of creation. In contrast, Cook says that Road Not Taken is about breaking boundaries; it’s a game with a more open design process.
Still, all of these influences sell it a little short. In the company blog, Edery compares the design process to Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, and by extension Edery and Road Not Taken, are interested in looking at an image in all its possible states as it completes a task. It’s a trip to see and to view. But the implicit connection between Duchamp, Edery, and Road Not Taken is that Duchamp wanted more from his art than for it to be seen, for it to please the eye. It also needed to do work on the mind.
This is the beauty of the game: it leaves you wondering. Characters speak cryptically about life and death. “Road Not Taken is about living and it’s about living in a context,” said Cook. In the times I’ve played since our conversation I’ve come back to that a couple of times. Roguelikes have always seemed, to me at least, to be about dying, or struggling and then dying. Success is limited and always mediated through some kind of cost. But the idea that Road Not Taken is about living and doing so in a particular place and in a particular way pushed me to finally commit to what I think the game is about: It’s a game about cheating. It’s about cheating the rules, cheating death, and cheating yourself.
It readily invites this kind of play. Experimenting with object combinations and movements is more than a neat trick; it’s Survival 101. The more you learn about the properties of an object, the more interesting combinations and uses you can find. In many events, those combinations have more combinations. It’s these combinations, and combinations of combinations, which make it a game about “cheating” and about becoming smarter as opposed to becoming stronger. Slapping three beehives together to make some honey is great, but when you add bees and flowers to the mix, suddenly you have a honey engine. Often in games, when faced with a problem it’s because my character isn’t strong enough yet. Here, the source of all my problems is located squarely between my ears. My little guy might not be getting stronger or faster, but the game is inviting me to become smarter, to learn its nuances and the purposeful gaps in between its rules.
Edery told me that almost none of the people who have played the game have the same strategies. Cook confirmed that of people who have “beaten” the game, about 4 kinds of essential strategies have emerged. But our conversation also revealed that as smart as I’ve become at the game, I’ve still got a long way to go. Cook off-handedly mentioned a very powerful ability he’s mastered, and try as I might I still can’t figure out how he does it.
Cheating goes deeper than making honey. You need energy to cheat the specter of dying alone in the woods. You need wits to cheat a spider out of its meal and save a child (something I am terrible at because spiders freak me out and I pretty much run out of any room with a spider). You need to cheat the lives of some children, as your choices and energy efficiency might cost you your life in making the attempt. And you always cheat yourself, because Road Not Taken essentially inevitably ends in your death.