Passage (2017)


Passage, designed by Jason Rohrer in 2007  is a video game with very simple controls but deep and profound meanings. It is a touching “game” about life that lasts a mere five minutes. Overall, it is a somewhat cynical metaphor for the journey of life. It also helped legitimize the cultural and artistic relevancy of artgames in the early 2000s.

As someone who doesn’t have much experience playing video games, Passage did not pose any challenges. There are only four simple controls to this game – up down, right and left. The game starts with one main character – a simple blonde sprite. I could direct my character to walk down various paths, search for treasure chests, and accumulate coins to increase the score.  The game shows scrolling landscapes (or as much as 100×16 pixels would show) and a somewhat synthesized music. Halfway through the game, I realized that I was aging and approaching death. I began charging forward to progress through the landscape as quickly as I could, ignoring my surroundings and only touching treasure chests if they crossed my path. Moreover, I didn’t stop to investigate what the colored gems on each chest represent or what lay inside. I adamantly hit every chest, without stopping to think that it might be more beneficial to look carefully and choose wisely. Soon after, my avatar was slowly moving to the rightmost portion of the screen. I actually felt a tinge of sadness, as the end of the game was near. The music began to take a subtly funeral tone as I realized that all the adventures, obstacles, and treasure-searches were coming to an end. I would never reach any true “end.” There is nothing that would save me from death, and to keep going would be pointless. However, I still kept playing because I did not know what else to do. I felt lonelier  and began to view my actions as meaningless. Finally, I died. I was unsure if a high score translates to success if my character simply turns into a grey, immovable tombstone at the end. 

My second time through the game, I actually noticed the female character. I believe Jason Rohrer is trying to show how sometimes we move through life too quickly. We’re constantly distracted by our goals, hopes, worries that we miss the lovely people right in front of us. These misencounters could have turned into lifelong friendships, companionships, or marriage. As soon as I touched her, she became my companion. As a pair, we could no longer fit through the routes as easily. However, we were able to collect more points.  In this game, the choice of companionship proves to be a limiting and enabling factor. Nevertheless, the avatar still dies alone at the end of the game. I believe Jason Rohrer designed game this way to show the limitations and benefits of companionship and marriage. With the female character by the avatar’s side, I felt less alone when the end approaches. However, I was sometimes frustrated by the newly imposed travel limitations.

One of the most noticeable elements of the game is the primitive graphics and sounds. Jason Rohrer did not embed the game with exciting, mesmerizing graphics or fascinating game play.  The game has no sound effects, and the background music is a slow, repetitive march. Rohrer really simplified and cut the game down to the bare essentials. This forces the player to think about the deeper meaning behind the game, as the graphics and sound aren’t what this game is about. As primitive as the graphics and gameplay are, Passage serves as an expressive, artistic vehicle for exploring the human condition. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes. The long, horizontal screen represents a lifetime. As you age in the game, your character moves closer and closer to the right edge of the screen. Upon reaching that edge, your character dies.

To me, Passage points to the lonely, meandering nature of life. The game takes on a deterministic view of aging and death. It encourages reflection and contemplation because you realize you get out of the game what you put into it. The way you play through the game determines not only what sort of gamer you are and perhaps what sort of person you are. Some players would search every corner for every last secret, while others would move onward in hopes of seeing new things and reaching the end. Some players search eagerly for and open every treasure chest, even though not every pursuit leads to a reward. Some players also choose not to explore the landscape or search through any treasure chests. It makes you think about your motivations, actions, and life choices.

The early stages of life seem to be solely focused on the future. Your thoughts consist of what you’re going to do when you grow up, who you’re going to marry, and all the other things you hope to accomplish or experience someday. At the beginning of the game, you see your entire life laid out in front of you. The past is nonexistent, so you can’t see anything that’s behind you. As you approach the middle of the game, you can still see quite a bit out in front of you, but you can also see what you’ve left behind — the memories you’ve built up. At its midpoint, life is about the future and the past. You think about the things you still want to do and what you’re going to do when you retire. You also reflect on the past and tell stories about your youth. As the end of life inevitably approaches, there really is no future left. Life is mainly about he past, and you can see a lifetime of memories behind you.

In terms of socio-cultural context, Passage popularized the term “artgame,” and represents the emergence of artgames as a category in the early 2000s. Around 2007, digital games entered a process of cultural and artistic legitimation, just like how popular music, dance, and television are legitimized. Artgames like Passage helped reframe and redefine what constitutes an “indie game” in the sociocultural context, and allowed more game developers to position their work as art, rather than entertainment.  Passage shows how the independence of artgames is an important component of their claim to artistic legitimacy. It was produced by an individual developer with no budget, released as a free download outside the game industry’s distribution networks, and with no creative constraints. Artgames contrast against the big-budget, glossy, hyperrealist titles that dominate the game industry. The small download size, short duration, low price, and playability of artgames like Passage brought about accessibility and share-ability. It reinforced the idea that games are meant to be replayed, contemplated, and discussed. Overall, artgames such as Passage reveals another side of gaming. Compared to mainstream games, which are usually goal-oriented and action-driven, artgames are slow, meandering, with no sense of accomplishment, definitive conclusion, or narrative closure. Passage helped brought about the independent status of artgames. For this reason, it has been categorized as an aesthetically significant work of art by critics and scholars.

Jason Rohrer, Passage (2007). PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo DS. Jason Rohrer, Sabarasa


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