The Path of Motus is an indie game with a strong working-person’s ethos. Developed by a small two-person team, the game bills itself as an anti-bullying game, in which resilience is the only power-up. Designer Michael Hicks chronicled the game’s production with artist Goncalo Antunes on YouTube, providing insight into building and marketing an indie game circa 2018. The message conveyed by these videos, one of which appears embedded in The Path of Motus, is that anyone can and should design video games.
I won’t argue against that sentiment here. The democratic undercurrent of The Path of Motus is probably my favorite thing about it. The art and music, both handled by the same two developers, are deceptively uncomplicated but offer genuine surprise as the game progresses. Aesthetically, the whole game recalls the consistent gigging of your above average local rock band.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t run with that feeling, instead presenting confusing mixed messages about the nature of bullying and an equally motley set of mechanics that, while competent, never have the room or time to realize their full metaphorical potential.
Take the pictographic line drawing puzzle for example. This idea is used early in the game to build a bridge. This same type of puzzle, it turns out, is core to progressing in The Path of Motus. The intended metaphor isn’t exactly subtle: building bridges can help us get through the trials of life. This puzzle is almost charming once, but by the third time, I was left wondering how this same design decision could have been leveraged to build other objects and still resonate with the game’s core messages.
When you’re not solving line puzzles and collecting melancholy snippets of lore, you are dodging the harsh words of bullies in a series of platforming challenges. The game’s touted “verbal combat” mechanic is simple enough. As a metaphor for how to deal with bullies, however, it’s ponderous. Bullies will sling words (typically “Nope!” or “Give up!”) corresponding with a certain color. Motus, the protagonist, can counter these words with his own (“Hey!”, “Yeah!”, “Why?”) by matching the color of the bullies’ words. The result is an oddly compelling pattern matching combat system. Unfortunately, if some of your own words are used to do more than counter the bullies’ words, those bullies will be struck and presumably killed. However, there are “high roads” the player can take to get around the bullies without saying anything.
As game design, the verbal combat and high road systems work well enough. They’re a refreshing enough way to keep things interesting when you’re not solving puzzles or collecting cryptic lore. As a metaphor for dealing with life’s bullies or trolls, however, the concepts strike this reviewer as reductive. The idea that one should just ignore or work around the trolls everyday life presents us rings hollow in the age of Gamergate, where hordes of bullies can issue endless harassment or worse en masse behind the protection of keyboard-powered anonymity.
The narrative dissonance is even more palpable as the same contingent of online trolls has been able to gain parasitic control of larger studios to get game developers fired, as was the case recently at ArenaNet. Though likely unintended, I thought it was especially troubling that the game’s bullies were unilaterally a different skin color than Motus, without much else to differentiate them. It’s worth noting that Motus himself will gradually transform into a troll if he dispatches too many people with his words. To be clear, I’m not accusing the developers of being complicit the toxic behavior of online trolls, I’m saying the idea that one becomes “the enemy” if they don’t ignore bullies is naive at best and damaging to the discourse at its worst.
I would be remiss to not mention the technical struggles I encountered while trying to play The Path of Motus. I ran into some frustrating, graphics-attributable crashes on a more than capable PC. The developer was very responsive to these concerns and released a patch to address the crashes, but even after I thought I was out of the woods, I experienced yet another crash in the game’s closing minutes. I was ultimately able to find a workaround, and I trust that Michael Hicks is working hard to fix these issues, but they bear mentioning here.
The Path of Motus feels like a labor of love, but one where the supposed universal themes aren’t quite universal enough. Even the more resonant moments languish in an undefinable limbo between too specific and ubiquitous. I can’t help but wonder if the game veered one way or the other, it would have been more successful in conveying its messages about following one’s dreams, avoiding toxic people, and tackling the insurmountable head on. As it stands, however, The Path of Motus doesn’t say enough about the nature of bullying and harassment narratively or mechanically to provoke much useful discussion.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided by MichaelArts.
The Path of Motus is a competent, sometimes fun indie game with a naive take on the nature of bullying.