Passage: A Game That is Beyond Widescreen

By Chris Remo, Jan 28, 2008 3:15pm PST

Jason Rohrer's free, enigmatic PC game Passage is rendered at a resolution of 600x96--that's an aspect ratio of 25:4, or three and a half times wider than the already-widescreen 16:9. Its controls consist entirely of the arrow keys, and it always takes five minutes to complete; no more, no less.

One reason I am describing the game in such stark, technical terms is because those terms are so unusual, but the other reason is because the entire point of the game is to play it yourself and make of it what you will. Still, I have my thoughts, and the designer has his, which he implores you not to read until you have played through the game once or twice.

Apparently this already made the rounds on the WEBLOGOSPHERE 2.0 but I am not hip and only saw it today, so download it, give it a shot, and keep reading.

Have fun?

That's probably not the right question to ask. Passage, after all, is less of a "game" than a potentially intriguing and metaphorical interactive experience. As you may or may not have had the patience to figure out, everybody's game ends the same way: in death.

No matter where you go or what you find, once time is up, it's up. Your accomplishments in life--represented abstractly by your point score--are irrelevant. Your companion, if you traveled with you, stays by your side every step of the way but also hinders your progress and closes many paths to you.

My initial instinct when playing Passage was that it is, at least generally, a rather cynical comment on the idea of video games. Those of us who have played many games (that's most of us here, I think) expect certain things when we play a game.

When we die, we expect to get to try again. When we find objects, we expect some kind of tangible benefit. When we get a higher score, we expect some kind of recognition. When we spend the time to thoroughly explore a world, we expect more options to open up. Hell, when we start a game, we expect some kind of goal. You could go on forever.

Outside of the context of a video game, none of these expectations really make sense, and none of them are met in Passage, at least beyond the most basic expectation of being able to directly control your character.

The developer himself had a more general intent with the game, though he stresses, "Your interpretation of the game is more important than my intention." To Rohrer, Passage is less of a comment on games, and more of a reflection on mortality, filtered through the lens of a video game.

In what is probably the most clever design point of the game, your characters are pushed slowly but inexorably to the right, whether you direct them that way or not. When you start the game, your perspective is such that you see a great deal off to the right--that is, in the future--but by the time of your death, you are crowding the right edge of the screen and all you can see is what is behind you.

The shattered expectations I pointed to above are intended to draw attention to their parallels in human existence--it's a pretty fatalistic, depressing goal, apparently inspired by the designer's approaching 30 years of age. The doomed pixelated protagonists are modeled after himself and his wife.

So hey, how's it going?

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10 Threads | 20 Comments
  • Glad you got something out of the game.

    I think it's an incredibly clever instance of making a visual metaphor in a way that only a video game could. The way your character slowly morphs from youth to old age, all in the space of a dozen pixels or so, is affecting, and the way that the unclear future slowly turns into the hazy past is just heartbreaking.

    The most brilliant metaphorical aspect in my opinion comes through the play mechanic itself. On my first playthrough, I walked straight downward and completed my "life" alone. I didn't even realize there was a wife, I just skipped her altogether. Alone, I was able to squeeze through all the tight passages in the game, grabbing many treasure boxes.

    Then, on my second playthrough, I did connect with the wife. As the two hand-in-hand, we took up too much space to make it through many of the tight corridors. I missed many potential rewards because I couldn't reach them due to being paired with the wife character.

    However, I noticed that my score at the end of my second game was higher than the first, despite the fact that I collected fewer individual prizes. I believe that each box is worth more when you collect it along with your wife than if you'd been on your own.

    And all of it expressed using only the language of video games.