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Today I set out to do some gaming and think more about how narrative functions in video games, since I don’t have much experience with this stuff.  I don’t have easy access to elaborate game systems, so I stuck to stuff I can find for free on the internet.  On a tip from professor Mittell, my first search was for Passage.  I found something that looked about right, downloaded it, and dove right in.  The only thing I knew, per a prominent notice on the webpage, was that it lasts only five minutes.  “Cool,” I thought, since I’m not too interested in getting absorbed in a game that’s going to suck away hours and hours of my life.  I started up the program, and began a clueless survey of the keyboard for something that would control the action onscreen.  Sure enough the arrow keys moved a human-looking little figure around a simple, pixilated landscape.  I aimlessly wandered forward (left to right) for a long time, wondering what would happen and whether I would need to fight off monsters or something.
I kept going forward, anticipating something more, and I was a little confused by the lack of action being imposed on me.  Eventually I collided with something that turned into another person whose movement was linked to my original character.  Shortly after that I noticed that the little person looked a little different.  I think it was the graying hair that tipped me off to the point of the game, the “passage” is a lifetime—I had met a spouse and reached late middle age before figuring out the premise of the game, and I still had no idea what the point was.  I started wandering up and down the screen a little more, but still proceeded forward relatively quickly without finding much more.  Soon enough I reached the end and let the point of the game sink in.  As I thought about it, I actually found it quite powerful.  Most of us wander around planning things and looking forward to the future, rarely stopping to really take in the present moment.  Then we die.  It’s kind of depressing.

Luckily some more questions popped into my mind and kept me from having an existential crisis of some sort.  First: is this a successful video game?  To the extent that it makes you think and ask important questions that directly apply to real life, certainly, but I don’t think most gamers would find it satisfying to play.  As far as I could tell, the only controls were for basic movement, and there wasn’t any external conflict outside of the passage of time.  Surely it isn’t a particularly exciting game.
In class we have frequently asked questions about the relationship between style and story in film.  Often it has come down to thematic issues—there are infinitely many ways to effectively convey story information, but some choices make more sense for the thematic content of the story.  I think the same thing applies games.  The look of Passage is extremely low-tech, the figures barely discernable.  This encourages the player not to pay much attention to the story world, to move around in search of something more, different, or better.  It’s quite appropriate, for a confined gaming experience meant to convey how quickly and easily life can pass you by.  The game seems to be saying that the present usually seems mundane, but it’s all you have.  (The whole thing reminds me of the immortal words of Ferris Buellar: “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”)
After playing the game, I went back to the website and read a statement by the creator, Jason Rohrer.  It largely confirmed my interpretation.  I experienced the game and reflected on my gaming choices much the way he intended, though I didn’t think about all of the implications he had in mind for the spouse character (once you couple up, you must move together and are less agile…the sacrifices we make for love…).  It’s pretty amazing, really, that 5 minutes of pixels, with only the simplest hint of a narrative can so pointedly cause someone to reflect on the nature of life.  Part of me scoffed at the idea of gaming for class, but with so much to think about with regard to this one little game, I’ve glimpsed the wide world of narrative gaming.

One Response to “Passage”

  1. Brett – I thought you’d be interested in this profile of the creator of Passage, that discusses how people have received the game.

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