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I’ve been slowly, slowly winding my way back through Lost Garden‘s archives, and his thoughts on game design and the mechanics of creating joy are always a treasure to read. Today I picked up Road Not Taken, which is currently about $7 on Steam.

In my first playthrough, I spent six winters meticulously saving all the village children from the cold and dark of the woods. No child was to perish on my watch. I was pleased with myself. I grew cocky.

The seventh winter, I took the hard path, and I struggled. I wasted precious energy moving boulders around, fruitlessly. At last I pressed on, pushing with my last chilled breath to the final clearing, where the last child was shivering, huddled – surrounded by a pack of wolves.

“Something terrible has happened here,” the game told me. Unthinking, I leapt into the fray, hoping against hope that I could prevent a tragedy, but I was immediately torn apart. Game Over.

The art strikes a delicate balance between creepy, cute, and absurd – importantly, the exact balance struck by the mechanics, and the story, and the presentation. The game feels uncommonly cohesive. Rarely do I experience dissonance, even when I’m learning the recipe to create an axe out of three fire spirits. There’s such an aura of mystery that the inexplicable or weird aspects of the game feel like part of a ritual I have yet to learn, for some dark purpose I have yet to gather.

Someday, if our species can survive long enough to realize a hundred-thousandth of the potential of interactive art, it will be games like this that we will look back on and say, “This allowed us to become what we are now. We let it seep into our bones, and we let it change us, and now we are ourselves. And look – Look! At all we have accomplished.”

Until then.

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