I’m not making a judgment call on Passage here. The game is free and can be downloaded here. It takes five minutes to play through and may or may not give you some food for thought. Either way, I’m going to be talking about game in detail, so if you don’t want to hear “spoilers,” stop now and go play it.
Actually, if you have played it and are perfectly happy with what you took away from it, you can stop reading. Nothing good can come from looking at the pointless discussion ahead. Just stop now.
Passage consists of a single style and game mechanic. From a third person overhead view, you walk around a map (left to right, generally) that resembles a broken maze. Early on you are able to have a female companion join you, but it is not essential. You frequently find different chests which may or may not increase your score. As you walk, your character slowly and inevitably ages while getting closer to the right side of the screen; when he reaches it, he dies and the game ends.
Visually, the game consists of Atari-level graphics, which do a good job of obscuring the aging process and little else. As for the music, it’s singular, somber, grating on the ears, and matches the level of graphics perfectly.
It took me a long time to get up my courage to take Passage for review and it has proven to be the most difficult game I’ve ever reviewed. Without a doubt, the game makes me feel uncomfortable to play and talk about. Additionally, Passage is an “art game,” which all seem to get a free pass when it comes to reviews. If you dislike an “art game,” many are quick write you off as being thick or oblivious to developed tastes. You don’t like the game because you don’t “get” it.
The truth of the matter is you can find art in almost all video games and it is useless to try and avoid the discussion for the ones that really try to be expressive. My issue is that many of these “art games” (e.g. Dear Ester) want you to know that they’re art. In the pursuit of cultivating emotion and thought, they often sacrifice gameplay. They lose much of their true art because they want to be “artistic.”
But, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Passage may just be one of those. I don’t want to write it off as just another “art game,” because it is so basic in its approach. It doesn’t just remove enjoyable gameplay, it removes everything. It’s not trying to force feed you narration or stun you with spectacular imagery; in fact, it looks/sounds terrible and there is no plot at all. If it is an “art game,” where is all the art? Moreover, where is the game?
Eventually, I went to check out some of Jason Rohrer’s other games so I could try and find answers there. After playing Gravitation and reading about Inside a Star-filled Sky, an interesting thought occurred to me. Most “art games” make the mistake of trying to create something like a visual novel. They make us sit and pay attention to as they drag out a story, asking us to become invested in character development and external conflicts. But Rohrer isn’t trying to make a game into a novel; he makes his games into poems. They consist of a single concept or problem isolated and expressed in simple terms.
Like I said, if you were happy with what you took away from Passage, this review doesn’t help at all. But personally, I’m not sure if you were supposed to take anything away from the game. You don’t learn anything or enjoy the game, you just deal with it. The game presents problems that are as inevitable as they are in real life. It can evoke emotion and serves as a reminder of serious issues, but Passage does nothing to help… because nothing can.
And do you know what? I am OK with that.
I’m not saying Rohrer’s games are genius (I haven’t played most of them), but his consistency across them suggests that they are to be taken more as a collection of expressions than individual games. I wasn’t kidding about him being more of a poet than anything. You don’t have to like his games, but I think his artistic expression is one of the most genuine I’ve seen and his views are vital to the future of videogames as an art form.
Passage was developed in 2007 by Jason Rohrer. The game was quickly noticed by indie and mainstream videogame circles and has frequently been considered as a triumph of indie gaming. It is available for Mac, PC, Linux, and iOS.