And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
“The Road Not Taken”
Road Not Taken is a puzzle/logic game by indie developer Spry Fox that showed up quietly on my radar as a free game to PlayStationPlus members. The artwork was quirky enough that I downloaded it, and, amazingly or tragically depending on how you look at it, I have logged more hours into this game than I care to admit. The gameplay is addictive and brutal, implementing the permadeath of yore us old farts cut our gaming teeth on. You lose, you start at the beginning—stop crying; your tears only make me stronger.
The “story” revolves around a hooded ranger coming to a small village whose economy is based upon the collection of berries that grow only in a dangerous, haunted forest and must be picked by the hands of children. Your role is to venture into the forest at the end of the berry-picking season and gather up the remaining children, lest they freeze to death or be eaten by the ninja bears who corner you only to ask, “Do you love yourself?” It is your job to rescue the children before they, or you, meet a grizzly death in any of a seemingly endless array of ways.
Your avatar can collect and earn resources, which can be given as gifts to NPCs in the attempt of establishing relationships. Sometimes they give you helpful items in return; sometimes they decide your relationship is built upon fake platitudes and social expectations and never speak to you again. You know, just like in real life.
And losing is something you definitely do in Road Not Taken. A lot. The point of the game isn’t to win—it’s to stumble and trudge through frustrating and endless puzzles. Inspired by the poem by Robert Frost, the game is brutally nihilistic in its narrative. If you win, it doesn’t matter. If you lose, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t save all the children . . . it still doesn’t matter. (If you make the tactical choice to leave some children behind, the mayor gives you a light guilt trip but reassures you they’ll “just make more.”)
The limited dialog is as fatalistic as the rest of the game, with one of my favorite quotes being from a villager in response to you giving them a gift: “People have children because they think they are passing on part of themselves. Passing on their hopes, their dreams, their ambitions. Did you ever realize how people seem to stop being people when they have children? All they are passing on is more broken people. More disappointment. More shattered dreams. And the cycle continues.”
Road Not Taken has a very high learning curve, but if you are a fan of puzzle games, this one stands out for its black, poignant humor.