How ‘The Pathless’ Explores Our Fear of Freedom

If narrative-rich, triple-A video game series like Red Dead Redemption and BioShock contain the most polished “prose” you can find in the medium—hundreds of hours of dialogue, characters and themes that fold back on themselves in layers—some of my favorite independent titles tend to function more like poetry. Similar to its spiritual predecessors Journey and Abzû, The Pathless embraces minimalism not just in terms of its art style and game mechanics, but in its approach to storytelling, as well. Dialogue and exposition take a backseat to lyrical imagery and Austin Wintory’s beautiful score as the Hunter (the game’s otherwise nameless archer-protagonist) sets about freeing an empty world from the curse that made it so. Other than the occasional woodland creature gallivanting around the forests, the Hunter meets no one living on the island. The only ones who speak to her are the dying Eagle Mother—a majestic land-spirit who tasks the Hunter with freeing her children—and the one who corrupted them: a being known as the Godslayer.

What does this “Godslayer” want, exactly, and how did he come into power? Why has he emptied this realm of its human inhabitants? The Pathless hopes you’ll get curious about these questions, but it’s not interested in handing you answers. There’s no map or HUD telling you where to go next, no master list of quests laying out all your options, and no requirement to examine to the memories of the island’s dead, where bits of backstory are hidden in bite-size pieces. Likewise, you can complete the game’s puzzles without stopping to read a single one of the etched lore-stones strewn across the world’s major landmarks.

In short: It’s up to you to piece together the truth—and, very much to the game’s point, there are dozens of ways to arrive at that truth.

No maps, no guides. Just your trusty eagle buddy and your own curiosity.

The game’s traversal and puzzle systems reflect this theme, as well. The speed-boosting talismans that dot the terrain don’t suggest any one direction to you; they cover the world indiscriminately. The puzzles themselves involve either identifying a hidden path in the environment, or creating one out of assorted objects. The Pathless is a game of pattern recognition that rewards experimentation and attention to detail rather than reflexes. As I played, I thought about how well its unguided structure reflects a universal truth about … well, truth. And that’s this:

Nothing means anything unless you discover it for yourself.

It’s easy to doubt or dismiss what we’ve been told. What we’ve lived, on the other hand, is irrefutable. All the wise mentors and practical guidance in the world can’t replace wisdom gathered through experience—especially failure. The lessons I’ve learned by dead-ending my way through life are the ones I’m able to most creatively apply to new problems, because at that point they’ve become a part of me, as much as a limb or an eye.

But who likes making mistakes? Owning the consequences of our actions is uncomfortable at the best of times; at the worst, it can be terrifying. In our weaker moments, we might prefer following a path (an opinion, a cause, a vocation) vetted for us, rather than one we’re invited to help create. That way, we at least have someone to blame when it all goes wrong. That way, we manage to avoid the personal responsibility that comes with freedom.

As it turns out, that’s the Godslayer’s preferred modus operandi.

One of the most fascinating details that players discover while piecing together the history of the island is that the Godslayer was once a man called the Pathfinder. Disturbed by the “pathless” nature of the world around him, he set out to discover what he calls the One True Path—certainty in a world of uncertainty. But in The Pathless‘s fantastical realm (as in ours), a single path of purpose simply doesn’t exist. Just as there’s no one way to write a song, build a house, grow a garden, or tell a story, there’s no universal way forward that’s right for every individual. To collapse all that far-ranging freedom into a superhighway, you’d have to destroy every seed of possibility in the world—which means you’d have to destroy every other being in the world, in which those possibilities are born.

This is precisely what the Godslayer has done.

That’s why the island is empty.

Eliminating contingencies.

In its final scenes, The Pathless finally indulges in some extended dialogue. The climactic conversation between the Hunter and the Godslayer unfolds like the solution to a larger puzzle the game’s been asking you to decipher all along. “Godslayer, there can be no single path to truth,” the Hunter says. Do you feel a knee-jerk reaction coming on as you read that statement? Pause. The Hunter doesn’t say, “Truth doesn’t exist.” She says: There can be no single path to it.

Their exchange continues:

THE GODSLAYER: But the people … with no clear path to follow, they will never find salvation.

THE HUNTER: To follow another’s path to salvation is to never truly know it. Each person must find their own way … the truth is a pathless land!

The Hunter is right, of course. Each person’s journey in search of meaning is always, necessarily, kaleidoscopically different, because capital-T Truth is something alive, something that requires us to develop our own relationship with it, not something that lives at a specific location on a Treasure Map of the Cosmos. Even Christ, who says follow me, asks us to imitate not his conformity to a particular tradition but his trust in a living and active reality underlying all things—one that, in his time, led him to bust open stultifying interpretations of God and Scripture.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as good theology or bad philosophy. But life isn’t a cosmological guessing game, a multiple choice question with one right answer. I’m learning to think of it more like an essay question. You need to do the work of charting your way to the truth, in your own words. Otherwise, do you truly understand why you believe anything?

Where to next?

Theologian Jared Byas puts it this way in his book Love Matters More:

Jesus asked 307 questions in the Bible. He is asked 183 questions. He directly answers 3. It’s almost as if Jesus wasn’t interested in giving us answers as much as he was in growing us into people who can make a nuanced decision based on a wise reading of the circumstances.

Whether you’re a person of a faith, an agnostic, or a committed atheist, I think it’s important for us to find some kind of common ground on what constitutes healthy personhood. Perhaps we might begin here, with what Byas describes and The Pathless implies. Wise living is about carefully reading each new set of circumstances life brings us—not taking shortcuts, not presuming, not resorting to generalizations or categorizations as endpoints—and choosing a course of action that honors the nuances inherent in those circumstances.

If the universe is continually growing in complexity, we should cease being surprised by the fact that life is so darn complicated (and only getting moreso, it seems). That’s why one size cannot and does not fit all. Our world evolves at the point where differences collide. When paths intersect in an evolutionary sense, the complexity of their entangled systems enhances the capacity of the next iteration. In a societal sense, unity is immeasurably stronger than uniformity. Instead of erasing our quirks and divergences, it makes room for them; unity finds a way to harmonize difference.

Such life-giving juxtapositions can’t happen, however, if we’re all walking the same path. History would become a flat line instead of a web. It would collapse into a single dimension instead of exploding outward toward the infinitely new. It would become the Godslayer’s realm as he seeks to impose the One True Path: static and dead.

Freedom restored.

There’s one more bit of dialogue at the end of the game that I love. The Eagle Mother, speaking to the Hunter as she absorbs the world’s curse (whew, talk about your religious metaphors), says:

When you began, you were young. You knew not where to turn. You were tested, you endured. Together you grew stronger. You were brought low … you found the very depths of your resolve. And still you charged forward. Now you are here. You have found your path. Together, you will bring back the light!

Maybe real certainty, as the Eagle Mother suggests, comes from enduring the challenges that uncertainty puts us through. Maybe God doesn’t give us neon signs because it’s only through exploring all the possible directions we could go (much as a quantum particle does before it collapses into a particular state)—the dead-ends, thorny brambles, sheer cliffs and open plains—that we begin to recognize which roads will grind us to a halt, and which will lead us someplace new.

Maybe the truth is a pathless land because learning how to read the landscape is the most important thing we can do for our growth. Because truth is too big, too multifaceted, to be captured from a single point of view. Our angle on it matters as much as the next person’s, but at the same time, we need to include each other’s perspectives if we hope to get anywhere close to a Big Picture.

In nearly every world religion and spirituality, creativity is a divine impulse, one we share with the first Creator. If we’ve truly been invited to co-create the future alongside the rest of the cosmos, then to squander that opportunity out of fear would demonstrate a fundamental distrust of that same Creator.

Howard Thurman still says it best, I think:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

May we all have the courage to walk our own path. The world doesn’t need another echo.

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