Saturday, December 6, 2008

Passage, A Year Later

Have you played Passage yet?

In November 2007, Jason Rohrer released this game into the world. About to turn thirty and just having witnessed the death of a close friend, he created a game that, in his words, “presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes.” In his creator’s statement (which is a must read AFTER playing), Rohrer dubs it a "memento mori game." He also goes on to break down its mechanics – the narrow field of vision, the blurred edges of your environment, the slow, uncontrollable progression of your character toward the other side of the screen, etc. – and discusses their correlation to real life.

When the game first came out, I read a few things about it on Penny Arcade and Kotaku, downloaded it, and closed it after ten seconds because I thought it looked awful. I didn’t give myself time to adjust to his pixel art or his manipulation of perspective. I’ll come back to this comparison later on, but it was like opening Faulkner, crying “The SENTENCES are too LONG!!! What is everyone TALKING about?!”, and throwing the book under your bed.

Luckily, I read an article in the most recent Esquire (of all places) about Rohrer. Go read it. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man who, “by carefully constructing an alternate reality, bit by bit, …has been able to make the same creative leap that many artists have made in the past.” He fought a town ordinance on lawn height so he could maintain his meadow. He feeds his family bread and lentil soup every day for lunch and keeps only vegan grains in his unplugged refrigerator. The guy studied A.I. at Cornell. He hasn’t been off the grid forever, it’s just how he prefers to function.

The article inspired me to try Passage again. Enlightened by the article’s discussion of the game, I loved it. At the beginning of the game, you come across a female companion. I bring her along with me. We're in love as a heart explodes above our heads, but navigating the various mazes becomes more difficult and many of the treasure chests lie beyond our reach. The characters age before my eyes as they move toward the right side of the screen. Near the end of the game, without warning, she dies. A tombstone replaces her sprite. I feel a twinge in my stomach. A few moments later, without warning, my character dies. A tombstone replaces his sprite. Then the game ends, my meaningless score hovering above my grave. Touché, Mr. Rohrer.

Preparing to write about this, I made all sorts of connections between the game’s meticulously planned mechanics and his exploration of life and loss. Then I went and read the aforementioned creator’s statement, where he explains them all quite thoroughly. I felt the simple joy of forming my own conclusions about the work and sizing them up against those of the author – like beginning to figure out what the hell Faulkner was up to before having your mind blown open when a professor delves even deeper.

In his creator’s statement for Gravitation, a meditation on “mania, melancholia, and the creative process,” Rohrer explains his visual style: “I want to keep making video games that look like video games…I’m not interested in making games that look like paintings or pencil drawings or comic strips.” Passage works because we know it’s a game, and it manipulates our expectations of the medium. Rohrer exploits our learned hunger for points, raising questions about materialism. His unique presentation of the game board changes throughout, reflecting our shifting perspective as we age. Unlike the timer in Super Mario, Passage’s clock is hidden from the player. Its ending is all the more abrupt because you've had no time to prepare. And your character’s death is final. No respawn, no do-overs. In researching this piece, I took a look at a few forum threads about the game and found one heartbreaking expression of regret. Amid discussions of artistic merit and arguments over how to get more points, one poster said simply: “I never saw the girl.”

The whole “Video games as Art” debate sometimes feels rather silly when most games succeed by figuring out the newest, coolest way to kill your friends online. Games cannot become Art merely by looking really pretty. The most lasting Art presents us with a different perspective on the world, a new way to look at things we’ve already seen. Games present us with a perfect opportunity to do just that, and people like Rohrer are leading the way.