Passage is a very short art game about life and death and the passage of time. It is intended to be played before you read anything about it, so I would highly recommend that you download and play the game if you have not yet done so. It will take you about five minutes, and is very much worth the time.
Since Rohrer summarizes the game well, I won’t waste time rephrasing:
Passage represents life’s challenges with a maze. The screen geometry only allows you to view a narrow slice of this maze at any given moment. You can see quite a distance out in front of you (and, later in life, behind you), but you can’t see anything to the north or south. You may see a reward up ahead but not be able to see a clear path to it. In fact, after a bit of exploration, you may discover that a seemingly nearby reward is in fact unreachable.
Approaching the Game
Like most art games, Passage has met with a variety of reactions. Because it has become particularly famous, those reactions have been especially strong. Many people have found the game to be quite profound, while many others have turned up their noses at Rohrer and this effort, claiming it is pretentious at best, and a piece of dog poo at worst (well, actually, that’s not the worst).
It is, on the one hand, understandable to see the game as pretentious. It seeks to be something better than the rest, and almost proudly proclaims its own humble nature. But to take that stance is also the lazy way out. People who disdain art games are generally the same people who say that games are not mean to be art, and that anything which attempts to be more significant than a blazing gun is laughable. Perhaps these people are trying to keep themselves safe from disappointment, but they are also keeping themselves safe from potential meaning.
Back to the Beginning
Passage is not a game that tries to be art for art’s sake: it is a game that is trying to help a medium and an industry make the smallest budge towards being significant. It returns to pixel art, low resolution, and basic controls because we never asked how those first building blocks could be used in significant ways, to express emotion and convey meaning. We have been so eager to advance our graphical prowess, and sometimes our mechanics, that we never stopped to think about meaning at all. So the place to make the attempt at creating meaningful interactive artworks is not with a multimillion-dollar 3D world and all the latest technology and gizmos: such an attempt would be doomed from the start because it would be using shoddy building blocks that were all shine and no substance. Rather, the place that we must start is back at the beginning: we must return to the first building blocks and ask how we can build substance from the ground up, so that later generations might have giant 3D games that are also meaningful.
And so Passage is small, and its humility is not a sham: it really is unimpressive from an “objective” view that wants big change RIGHT NOW. Passage is not a novel, but rather a sentence, a poem, a haiku at most; and as such, it cannot compete with works that convey meaning with piercing depth and insight: you will never get from a haiku what you can get from Brothers Karamazov. But computer games never had a powerful haiku: we jumped straight into writing epic-length books full of half-formed phrases and a lot of boring BS; and so Passage is not out of place, and it is not pretentious: it is where we should have started twenty years ago.
The Thing Itself
So we will not blame it for being a haiku, but is it a good haiku? My answer is a resounding yes. This game, with its bare bones existence made me look at my own life more deeply than any game I have ever played, period. The graphics are simple but they are perfect, as are the game’s design and mechanics: all is symbol, and all the symbols are clear and striking: the haze of the future, the explosion of love, the awkwardness of being dependent—but also the joy; the passage of time, the deserts, the oases, and the meaning of life: what are these treasures that we seek? What do they mean, and what is their longevity?
And of course ultimately the game makes us look at death. Of those we love, and of ourselves.
Passage is a life in a bottle, and if you will play it closely without expectation, without judgment, I think you will find that it is your life in a bottle. My only real complaint about the game is the fact that you cannot choose your gender or sexual orientation at the start of play: I can say that as a heterosexual male (and one with blond hair at that) I was able to relate to my character without any difficulty, but my wife did not have as easy a time. This game is too good for Rohrer to say that it is only meant to be autobiographical, and not universal in scope.
- Read Rohrer’s creator’s statement.
- Check out all the reviews and discussion this game has inspired (see the bottom of that page).
- For an insightful article on Rohrer that features Passage prominently read The Future of Video Game Design in Esquire.
- Still want to know more about Rohrer? Try to get a hold of this episode of the German TV show Into the Night, where Rohrer and Chris Crawford chat up games and art: all in English, and fantastically interesting.