My favorite element in Passage is the high score meter. Not because of its intentional thematic effect (we’ll get to that in a bit), but because the thought of some poor schmuck not understanding its inclusion and actually chasing the “best” possible score in this five-minute art game just plain tickles me. A player with that goal would run so counter to the entire purpose and thrust of the game’s message, and yet, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely such a person exists. Gamers are conditioned to put up with some pretty boring, lame-brain tasks for the sake of leader boards and higher levels, so why wouldn’t someone take that to its logical conclusion and attempt to achieve the Best Passage Score Ever? I sincerely hope this game has its own version of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell out there somewhere, locked in an eternal battle to see who can nab one more treasure or take one step further right before keeling over and transforming into a tombstone. Besides, what is the five-minute mark in Passage if not the most easily achievable kill screen ever?
Yet the use of such tropes is the key to why Passage resonated so deeply when it hit the gaming community in 2007. Unlike the work of thatgamecompany (Flower, Journey) or Braid, here is a self-consciously “artistic” game that does not hide its heritage behind a more presentable, nuanced aesthetic. Passage wears the fact that it is a video game on its sleeve. It includes a score meter. One of its main objectives, ostensibly, is to collect treasure in a Zelda-esque top-down maze. Its look, although primitive, is the sort of unmistakable pixel art that is synonymous with game culture. Even its famous death scene resembles the incidental passing of an average player character — in everything except its finality, that is. Passage is not simply a game that is also a metaphor for life. It is a game that equates the mechanics and aesthetics of the entire medium with how we live out our days in the real world.
There is an unfortunate trend within the indie development community to employ the retro, heavily pixelated style of early computer and Nintendo games for the sake of glib reappraisal and nostalgic gimmickry. These games grow out of an obvious necessity; with miniscule budgets and small teams, indie developers often must code their games with the graphics of yesteryear. Most of these games are relatively inoffensive, but it’s an aesthetic that tempts some developers to be all too winking and self-aware. Games like Retro City Rampage and Abobo’s Big Adventure are no doubt well-crafted and enjoyable homages to a simpler time, but they are roughly as much of an artistic statement as those “Like This If You Remember Rugrats” fan pages on Facebook. Passage is no less purposely steeped in the old-school, but the effect cuts to the root of nostalgia — it’s partially derived from the Greek for “pain” or “ache,” you know — instead of being content with the grinning, money-hungry Americanized face of it. Back when games on the cutting edge resembled something more like Passage, most people reading this still had their whole lives ahead of them. We’re all somewhere a bit different now.
It would take you roughly the same amount of time to play through Passage as it would for me to describe the experience to you. You start off as a young man, standing on the left side of a thin expanse of scenery. The farther to your right something is, the blurrier and less certain it appears. This view changes over the course of play; your character slowly ages, and the screen scrolls past him, shifting the visual fog over all that lays behind him. There is a maze beneath you, and exploring it yields treasures, some of them more valuable than others. However, you can also choose to meet a woman and fall in love. She joins you on your journey, and while she renders some of the material treasures nearly impossible to reach, her companionship makes the mere act of exploring worth double what it would be otherwise. Eventually, as old age sets in, your wife dies, leaving behind a simple tombstone. You can lurch forward for a few more steps, but the same fate is, of course, coming for you. Regardless of your choices, the entirety of this action takes place over the course of five minutes, every time.
If it sounds like I am head over heels for this game, I am not. Passage did not make me cry, but I am also secretly a robot who can only shed tears when art awakens a feeling of sheer ecstatic reverie within me, so make of that what you will. I respect everything the game is trying to do, of course, and it succeeds at some of those goals handily. It is certainly one of the best handled subversions of player death the medium has attempted thus far, and it achieves this simply through treating mortality as an unavoidable reality. The moment is portrayed through the silliest of game logic — a small sprite transforming into a tombstone — but through the context and finality of the moment, it’s shocking and innovative. I’m not sure if we would have Red Dead Redemption‘s fantastic ending without Passage.
I want to tell you Passage is the title that will change things and de-ghettoize video games, and in some ways, it really is the perfect candidate. It conveys a grand, universal message through the actual language and mechanics of video games, and its violence is limited to the effect time has on the player. Yet it does not sit quite right with me to declare Passage a revolution; it is a bit pat, a bit blunted in its impact due to how broadly it approaches its themes. Every element of Passage — from opening treasure chests to the slow panning of the screen — represents a big, sweeping part of the human experience; I tried to keep my summary straightforward, but I have no doubt you can put together what is supposed to symbolize what. But this sure-handed, parred down approach loses the idiosyncrasies and personalized touches that elevate other meditations on the enormity of life and death. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a game made by one man — assuredly hurried to be finished for an exhibition, no less — by these standards, but single artists have said a lot more with similar time and resources. What I would love to see is a game with Passage‘s themes and approach applied to a grander world with more than one woman and more than one type of maze to explore. Imagine a world as detailed as a Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls game, but with Passage‘s limitation, your character watching time literally fade away as he withers down to nothing, barely an inch of his virtual world explored. We will never see that game, because no one would spend that sort of time and resources on an existential practical joke, but it would encapsulate the true tragedy of death — of spending life in a maze, doggedly hunting treasure — that Passage hints at.
It almost pains me to say I found Passage a bit too straightforward, because I know this actually is a deeply personal vision. It just so happens that it’s the deeply personal vision of a man who believes in the sort of simplicity Passage attests to. Jason Rohrer is the Zen master of the indie game world. Although he somewhat distanced himself from the image in the wake of Passage‘s success, he lives simply and frugally, reportedly feeding and clothing his family for about $14,000 a year. While I doubt he is actually some sort of wild-eyed mountain man (not many genuine recluses design and publish games for the Nintendo DS), he certainly seems willing to let go of a lot of modern life’s day-to-day bullshit — that treasure in the ceaseless maze that we all take for granted — to a degree that is rare in the $40 billion a year games industry. I don’t doubt that in Rohrer’s world, there is only one red-haired, green-eyed girl waiting for him; Passage‘s sprites are specifically modeled after himself and his wife. I don’t doubt that his true passion lies in a few straightforward goals. Feed his family, grow his garden, make his games. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy him for his perspective.
I have not played Rohrer’s other games, but their concepts intrigue me. One is a two-player game in which one contributor acts as the man behind the curtain, setting up challenges and story beats for the other player. Another is a sort of fractal-esque shooter that allows the player to zoom into and out of different levels of reality. These sort of eccentric, far-reaching ideas appeal to me far more than Passage‘s platitudes. Rohrer is a major talent and one of our deepest thinkers, and I hope these other endeavors better show off the multifaceted individual glimpsed in interviews. I want to see a Rohrer game that reflects not just his ability to shoot for the stratosphere thematically, but his self-effacing side that can joke about making a Passage 2. (Indeed, Rohrer is probably as annoyed as anyone that people see Passage as the beginning and end of his artistic ambitions.) In a revealing interview with Esquire, Rohrer discusses how he fought his local town’s populace to keep his home’s overflowing meadow intact. Rohrer desired such a meadow ever since childhood, when his father refused to let the natural world around their home flourish. The telling of this tale, and the reasoning behind it, is beautiful and oddly heartbreaking; it greatly endeared me to Rohrer, a man I will probably never meet. It personalized him, gave him history, context. It’s exactly the sort of genuine, lived-in emotional reality that Passage lacks.
Maybe he should make a game about it. Maybe it would make me cry.
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