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A Passage to games as art

posted on January 24th, 2008 by stefan

If you have not yet encountered Passage, don’t google it. Don’t go read reviews, don’t even read the comments to this post.
It only takes 5 minutes to play the game, and you would have spent that long reading. So just play it, and remember that you can explore up and down as well as left to right.

Here’s the Windows version
and the Mac version
and Unix source (SDL libraries required)

Try to beat my high score…1563

Then – and only then – read the creator’s statement, and play it again.

I’ll wait…

Congratulations, you have just experienced games as art. And now that you’ve played the game at least twice come discuss it in the comments, where I have left a more detailed and spoiler-filled reaction.

6 Comments

  1. Stefan said on January 24, 2008:

    ****SPOILERS BELOW****

    The first time I played passage, I just walked left to right. About halfway through, I realized that my character was aging, and soon also realized that I could walk up and down as well. I began exploring the mazes, but did not run across treasure. When I got towards the end of my life, and my character became hunched and decrepit, I actually quit the game rather than watch the death, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever done before.

    Reading the creator’s statement not only solidified the metaphor within which the game operates, but also helped me to realize that a spouse and treasure chests were waiting for me. I played again, and traveled with my wife, delving deep into the maze for treasure, but finding myself continually frustrated and unable to fit through passages because of her presence. I found some chests, however, and got a higher score than before…but by this point we were both old, and I realized we would die soon. At this point I abandoned the search for treasure, and moved back up to the top, out of the maze. My wife and I made a mad dash to the right, hoping to get “further” along the other measure that the game offers aside from points. I was honestly shocked when she died before me, I had been expecting us to go at the same time…and having quit before it was the first time I had seen that instant change from a person to a grave. I tried going on a bit further, but it didn’t feel right, so I returned to wait out the rest of my time by her grave, working out the placement so that ours would be exactly one “pixel” apart, next to each other.

    I played again, leaving my spouse where she stood and going after the chests myself, pursuing them as my one and only goal. By the time I started losing my hair, I had amassed a score of over 1500 points, far higher than any so far. It all seemed kind of pointless though, and I found myself abandoning my goal and racing back towards the start as fast as I could, trying to reach my spouse before time ran out. I found her, and was struck by the fact that she had aged as well. I died just before I reached her.

    I played again, joining up with my spouse and traveling to the right, deciding to get as far as we could before dying, and to see the new backgrounds. Exploring new areas with a spouse nets you more points as well, although not nearly as many as going after treasure without one. The changing pattern of the backgrounds was fantastic, and we had seen three or four beyond anyplace I had been before when she underwent her abrupt transition into death. I thought about staying by her side, and I thought about continuing on…but in the end I hobbled south into the maze, bent and broken, in search of one of the treasure chests which I had abandoned in favor of a life of exploration with my wife. I reached one and opened it, desperately hoping it wasn’t empty, and died as the blue star appeared.

    I played again and again, setting a goal I must reach before I think about marriage, or setting no goals, and simply running out my time alongside my wife in the spot where I met her. One constant emerged from these sessions. In old age, as death approached, none of the goals I pursued earlier seemed to matter. There were lives when I achieved something close to a balance, although it’s hard to say between what exactly, and I died feeling content. Far more often, however, I died thinking of the things I had chosen not to do.

    I don’t expect that everyone will have the same reaction I did, and I think that if everyone’s reaction was even similar it would greatly weaken my argument that this game is a true work of art. I found Passage to be a touching and evocative commentary on the human condition, conveyed through the well-crafted metaphor of a game. I hope you find it meaningful as well.

  2. Shota said on January 24, 2008:

    Stef,

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed it as I know you knew I would. It is Art. It is more Art than anything I have seen in this medium. As a matter of fact I think I’ll use this as the basis of my first lecture in the class I’m teaching this quarter. I liked it so much that I don’t even want to talk about it. I almost want to keep the experience private.

    I will say this though: I found the creators statement to be terribly objectionable. It offends my intelligence and treats me like a baby. Edgar Allan Poe has a long and protracted essay about the exact meaning of every line and word in the “Raven,” and it’s the worst thing to happen to that poem. Unless you read it ironically of course and that is a whole other can of worms. This guy’s ‘explanation’ reminded me of it.

    In the end my experience was similar to yours in that I experienced everything you did (in two playthroughs) just in a different order. I think the variance in the order of experiences/emotions is the only variance in this game. But in the end most people will feel most of them. Like life.

  3. chris said on January 24, 2008:

    Stefan,

    I would like to say thanks as well. This is the first game I enjoyed playing without any instruction or even inkling of how to play in a long time.

    I can’t describe all the emotions I felt while playing this game. Whereas many games are light-hearted, or make you feel emotions insulated via a strong avatar of some kind, this game made me feel excited, restricted, lost, found, occasional twinges of greed, the onset of a gradual fear, loss, and finally some sense of peace, all in the scale of five minutes.

    This game is powerful. It’s simple and yet dense. I don’t actually know if I can bring myself to play it again right away; I want to explore, but at the same time I don’t want to feel the same way I did nearing the end.

    Thanks again.

  4. jay said on January 24, 2008:

    This nearly brought me to tears. Like most good art it is about death but it is also about my other favorite topic – meaninglessness. Perhaps upbeat people will find the journey in itself was rewarding but after it became apparent I was aging the entire game became about futility to me. As the creator mentioned, the score is ultimately without meaning because what you did and did not do is irrelevant. To add a little more perspective to it all I’d have made the grave crumble and turn to dust slowly while the player watched.

    I do not want to play a third time.

  5. Christian said on January 24, 2008:

    wow this is interesting.

    I knew about this game for a while, but only now did I give it a shot. I played it as soon as a I got home, when I was so tired I slept for an hour an a half immediately afterwards. I did not look for instructions, or controls or anything.

    And so I just walked. I didn’t know about treasure, I got the wife be accident. I didn’t think there was anything to the game. I figured it could have been done as a flash movie and that this was a load of BS.

    Now I know different, though that doesn’t save my poor experience. In the end I thought he was trying to make some profound message about how we’ll miss out on the scenery in order to look at the score in the corner of the screen (that’s what I did).

    Now that I know more I really respect what this guy did, even if I wasn’t moved by it. It is still important to me however, because it showed me how extreme experiences with one game can be, and how that can shape our opinion. Makes me wonder with some game reviews I have read.

  6. Stefan said on January 25, 2008:

    Like Shota says, this game can come across as a very private experience. Because of this, it felt like more of a risk sharing it out on a public site, but I’m glad I did, and that you guys liked it – or were at least moved by it.

    And Christian, that’s a really good point about game reviews that hadn’t quite struck me. Sandbox games in particular might approach the variety of play experiences that this offers, and in fact I’d argue that Passage is really an extremely simple, well-balanced sandbox.

    It’s certainly going to make me think twice about their reviews from now on.

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