‘Road Not Taken': Ranger’s life is hard, but you’ll connect on journey

Aug. 16, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Your kingdom is at first an empty lonely house in "Road Not Taken." (Spry Fox)

Your kingdom is at first an empty, lonely house in “Road Not Taken.” (Spry Fox)

“You’re not too old for those?” she asked. The question came from a date who arched her head and squinted at an assortment of Batman-branded pillowcases in my bedroom.

Those six words hovered on the forefront of my mind, forcing me to suddenly call into question every aspect of my life and how it reflected my level of maturity (or immaturity).

Adulthood, and how it weighs on us, has been an obsession of late. It’s at the core of Spry Fox’s “Road Not Taken,” a vexing puzzle game with magical overtones released this month for home computers and the PlayStation 4.The questions it raises linger long after a play session.

The game has a message: You’re not getting any younger. Or maybe it’s saying you’re running out of time.

This is the emotional head space occupied by “Road Not Taken,” a game where life is rough and the kittens are adorable. And thank heavens for the cats, furry little creatures that, in the words of “Road Not Taken,” are “an adorable balm for this mortal coil.”

The story is simple and Grimm — play as a ranger who must rescue children trapped in a fantastical forest filled with dire wolves and tasty swine. But how it handles themes of aging is cause for reflection, as its characters are more meddlesome than deadly.

They pester the adventurer with the sort of nagging comments that can slowly wreak havoc with one’s confidence. Are you married? Do you have enough money? Why don’t you have kids? Have you finished your work today? Couldn’t you have done your job better, and faster?

The forests of "Road Not Taken" are filled with lost children, grieving parents and creature dangers. (Spry Fox)

The forests of “Road Not Taken” are filled with lost children, grieving parents and creature dangers. (Spry Fox)

Right from the start it’s clear that “Road Not Taken” is not a hero’s journey. Our ranger, whose gender isn’t revealed until late in the game, arrives in town on a boat. There’s an important job to do because harsh winters mean children have a penchant for getting lost in snowstorms. It’s also difficult: One wrong move can doom a puzzle, all of which are solved by some variation of throwing or combining items.

Moves take energy, and our ranger gets tired. The forest is laid out like mini-game boards, and bringing children to safety is often a refreshingly difficult head-scratcher. I, for instance, have made it only a little more than a quarter of the way through the game before my ranger tires and succumbs to the stresses of life.

It should be noted that this isn’t necessarily sad. “Road Not Taken” players immediately connect with the ranger, wanting dutifully to improve the protagonist’s life and ensure that he or she (the gender is also randomly generated) is not returning to an empty, lonely house each night.

The player roots for this adventurer because the character is greeted with skepticism. “Everyone still talks about our best ranger,” one of the townsfolk says longingly. Instead of putting the player in the role of a “chosen one,” “Road Not Taken” manages to capture the sensation of the daily grind, in which rescuers have come before and will likely come long after the main character perishes.

The puzzles in "Road Not Taken" are a challenge. (Spry Fox)

The puzzles in “Road Not Taken” are a challenge. (Spry Fox)

And the main character does indeed perish. This is known going in, as “Road Not Taken” spans 15 years in the ranger’s life. As it progresses it becomes less about solving puzzles and more about bettering the quality of life for the player’s cloaked avatar (think a more adorable version of the Jawas seen in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”).

One goal, for instance, is to get married. But don’t go looking for bliss.

“Almost any game you can think of where you get married, that’s it, you get married. Happily ever after,” says David Edery, co-founder of Spry Fox. “‘Road Not Taken’ is real life. There’s a really good chance that something is going to go bad. When you fall in love with someone, they may end up getting jealous of a relationship you have with someone else and breaking up with you. They can have their own relationship with someone else and break up with you. They can get sick. They can die.”

The game was born out of very real-life difficulties. Designer Daniel Cook wrote late last year that the game was inspired by his inability to have children and the realization that he will never have a “very traditional Norman Rockwell-style life.”

And thus, “Road Not Taken” patiently becomes something rather grand, a quest to simply fill our lives with meaning. This is a game about growing pains — the choices we have to live with and the judgment we must endure.

One key tenant of “Road Not Taken” is that to be successful in the game one may have to be a poor ranger. Our ranger gets paid and praised for saving only half the children as everyone in the game’s town becomes resigned to living a satisfactory life and completing an imperfect job. Doing the minimum at your job may lower your personal stress, but you’ll also have to live with children freezing to death.

Rescue lost children by throwing and combining items in "Road Not Taken." (Spry Fox)

Rescue lost children by throwing and combining items in “Road Not Taken.” (Spry Fox)

And then there are the signs that pop up throughout the game. At first they’re helpful. Then they become, well, like your parents, reminding you that you’re no young buck and suggesting that perhaps the reason you’re single is because you haven’t outgrown Batman bedsheets.

So they don’t get that personal, but “Road Not Taken” gets close.

“The signs,” says Edery, “will say things like, ‘Have a wife yet? Have kids? No? What’s wrong with you?’ They’re more cleverly worded, but they’re constantly needling you. You have a career, so where’s your family?

“I’m really glad we went that dark. If you want to have an experience that forces you to reflect on the more troubling aspects of life, there aren’t a whole lot of options in games.”

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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