Passage: A Game That is Beyond Widescreen

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?