Passage is a quick, 8-bit-style game by Jason Rohrer. This game is almost always brought up in discussions that contain the phrases “pretentious art” and “but is it a game?” I typically try to stay away from the “pretentious” discussion, because I’ve always thought that pretension is in the eye of the beholder. And I have a fairly inclusive definition of “game” - if it looks like a game, sounds like a game, and you control it like a game, it’s a game.
So, with that said, how does Passage stack up to other indie games of its type? I thought it was interesting, beautiful, and intensely personal. It goes without saying that if you are looking for epic battles and thrilling heroics, you will be disappointed by this subtle, five-minute story. But if you’re up for a sad and sweet rumination on growing up and growing old, there is a lot to love about Passage.
The game is basically the story of one man’s life, told from left to right, beginning (omitting childhood) to end. Your movement to the right marks the passage of time, and as you go farther in that direction, your avatar grows noticeably older, changing clothing styles and losing hair. The viewing area of the game is extremely limited. The screen ratio allows you to see ahead or behind, but not off the path up or down. In the beginning of the game, your character stays on the far left (or ”past”) side of the screen, with plenty of space ahead, though the areas on the far right (or “future”) side of the screen are too pixelated to make anything out. As you age, your character moves to the other side and the situation is reversed. The game can be interpreted any number of ways, but I took this to mean that, when you’re younger, your whole future lies ahead of you, but much of it is difficult to see. But as you age, your future becomes clearer as there is less of it, and now it is your past that stretches out behind you, clouded. This was a touching sentiment that really hit home with me.
Speaking of interpretation, the game’s designer has a document on his website that gives you his own interpretation/intent for the game, but wisely asks that you play the game first and form your own opinion before reading his, because “your interpretation of the game is more important than my intentions.” This is a sentiment I wish more game designers (and other artists) shared, and I really appreciate it. I also totally agree - please play the game and interpret it in your own way before getting any other analysis, especially that of the creator.
As you might expect from my introduction, this game is light on gameplay. You can just run from the left to the right, if you’d like, and it will be over pretty quickly. I like to explore in games, so I spent much more time off the beaten path. There’s not really much to find, though. There are a number of treasure chests that you can get if you navigate the maze correctly, but though some of them increase your score, the score feels so unimportant and tacked-on that the chests do, too. Near the beginning (though it is entirely possible to miss it), you meet up with a girl, and if you touch her, you are bonded for the rest of the game, side-by-side. This is emotionally satisfying (at least it was for me), but it makes exploration much more difficult, because many of the areas can only be gotten through by a single person. This led me to another bit of interpretation: going through your life with another person adds much fulfillment, but cuts off certain avenues and options that you otherwise might have had as a single person.
Eventually (this is a spoiler, I suppose, but I knew it beforehand and it wasn’t a problem), the woman will die very suddenly, which makes your character, already quite changed with age, bend over and slow down even more. He seems broken by her death, finally feeling the full weight of a lifetime, whereas before she had helped to shoulder the load. Not long after, the man will die as well, and the game ends. End spoiler.
With all the talk of how “pretentious” this game is, I was prepared not to like it. Instead, I found myself legitimately moved. The exploration aspects were fun, but in a mostly distracted sort of way. The real value of this game is in the experience of seeing a whole life lived - starting with optimism, then clarity, then regret - in the span of five minutes. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re into interactive storytelling and games as art, you owe it to yourself to try Passage. It can be downloaded for free (Windows, Mac & Linux) here, and you can visit the developer’s site here.