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You can't save everyone: the difficult choices of 'Road Not Taken'

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A poem of a game

I left a child to die.

Road Not Taken isn't a game about harrowing moral decisions like The Walking Dead or Gods Will Be Watching. It's more of a puzzle / strategy game, where each in-game year you have to save a group of children stranded in a forest. But it's also a game about life, and how you can't always do everything you want no matter how hard you try. I had saved five of the six children stranded in the woods, but due to a stupid error I trapped the last behind some immovable stones. I couldn't save her. There was nothing I could do. The mayor was happy that I rescued most of the children, but that didn't make it any better. Who could be happy about leaving a kid to die?

Released this week on Steam and the PlayStation 4 (a Vita version is also in the works), Road Not Taken is the latest release from Spry Fox, the studio behind the devilishly deep and addictive mobile puzzle game Triple Town. At first glance the two games look surprisingly similar: there's the charming cartoon art, for one thing. There's also the core mechanic, which involves combining objects to create new, potentially more useful ones. But once you dig just a bit deeper you'll find them to be vastly different experiences.

Road Not Taken

In Road Not Taken you play as a cloaked stranger, a new resident in a quaint, snowy town nestled beside a strange and dangerous forest. Every year children find themselves lost in that forest, and it's up to you to save them. Strangely enough, this is done primarily through picking up objects and throwing them around. When you enter a section of the forest, you'll come across everything from trees and stones to spirits and angry wolves, and your glowing, magical staff lets you pick up the vast majority of these and fling them across the screen.

Some can be combined to make something new — three beehives makes delicious honey, while three logs turn into a comforting fire — and others are harmful, like the pesky raccoons or the terrifying dark spirits. I never knew quite what I'd be up against when I ventured into the woods: sometimes it would be a section filled with annoying bears (they don't attack, but instead just like to get in your way) other times I'd luck upon a stash of apples to refill my stomach.

Picking up and moving things costs energy, as does being attacked, and once you run out of energy you die. So each section of the forest becomes its own puzzle: how do you most efficiently get the children back to their parents while dealing with all of the objects in your way? Because the forest is procedurally generated, and thus different every time, it's a new challenge each time you play.

Stay the hell away from raccoons

And it's definitely a challenge. I died frequently in Road Not Taken, primarily because it's not the kind of game that holds your hand and explains every little detail. Outside of a few helpful signposts, learning how the game works is left entirely to you. I only discovered racoons were rabid little monsters when one chased me down and wouldn't stop attacking me. I died, but I learned a valuable lesson — stay the hell away from raccoons. Road Not Taken features permanent death, so when you die you start over from the beginning. It can be frustrating, but like any good roguelike, it also makes the progress you do make all the more satisfying. The only thing you carry along from one life to the next is an important book that contains all of the secrets you've come across so far. There are 200 in total, and with each death you'll hopefully add a few more pages.

Road Not Taken

Unlike most hard puzzle games, Road Not Taken is also a deep and meaningful rumination on life. You only have 15 years to do everything you want, which includes not just saving children, but also befriending townsfolk and potentially falling in love. It's about finding your own path through the metaphorical forest — only in this case it's literal. The more you put into the game — the closer you pay attention to the details, the more time you spend with the people in town — the more meaningful it becomes. The name is inspired by the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken." "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I," wrote Frost, "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by."

The creators say they aren't necessarily trying to get across any specific message with the game. "What I like to do is provide a context and a set of rules and then let the player come up with their own meaning within that," says designer Daniel Cook. "Mostly I'd just like to have some players feel something." And though it's a seemingly cute puzzle game, it definitely made me feel something. The first time I was forced to leave a child behind, it was horrible, and it made me want to be smarter about how I approached these challenges the next time. Passing by a grieving mother on my way out of the forest only made me feel worse.

Road Not Taken is a deceptively deep game. The core mechanics and ideas are easy to grasp, but there's so much to do and see that I feel like I've only scratched the surface, despite playing for more than a dozen hours. I've yet to last all 15 years without dying, for one thing, and my book of secrets is barely half full. This structure also means it's the kind of game that can be expanded on pretty easily. "Road Not Taken is explicitly designed to be a very expandable game that can have lots of new experiences added to it as time goes on," says Cook, "but a lot of it will depend on whether it has a decent community around it after release."

The depth and difficulty also mean that it's a much less approachable game than Triple Town, and one that will likely appeal to a much smaller audience. But for those who do decide to invest energy in it, Road Not Taken also has a lot more to offer. "I'd rather make a game that a small number of people love," says producer David Edery, "than a game that a large number of people feel 'eh' about."

The children need saving, no matter how many lifetimes it takes.