Warning: You should play this game before proceeding. We as a culture are obsessed with the idea of SPOILERS: that there are plot points or character developments that we wish to experience on our own. This essay contains a different type of spoiler, one that removes the element and the experience of the game from the gamer—it removes authorship from the author.
I am being serious. Go download it, play (it takes five minutes), and come back.
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This is almost not a video game.
The first thing you need to know is that there are no levels. There are no experience points to be gained, no power-ups, nothing to help you go faster. You cannot jump (can’t you always jump? There must be a way to jump), you cannot shoot things from your body like crude pixels spilling out from your torso in hopes that one of them hits something other, causing a chaotic explosion, a scattering of color across the landscape. There are no bad guys (visible, at least), certainly none capable of turning you to a flicker at a single touch. You can’t upgrade your armor, your weaponry, your bionic arm, your size, your ability to fly. You can’t do a lot of things.
This is how we define Jason Rohrer’s Passage: by what it is not.
What it is remains debated by gamers and critics alike: an object so distanced from the run of video games and so close to a work of art that it has become a part of the MoMA’s permanent collection. It is at once understated, overrated, and beautiful. It is painstakingly simple.
What it is, is what perceives to be a video game: it is presented as such. You extract the file to your hard drive. You double-click on the icon and it launches full-screen. If you are familiar with gaming, you are familiar with this process: the idea that your entire computer is hijacked by something, that there is nothing left to pay attention to but the game itself and how it shimmers to life.
If you are not, you might be a bit taken aback by the whole process. Computers, we recognize, are meant to multitask: tabbed browsers, toolbars, Word documents only taking up a part of the screen. But now your cursor is gone—the things that you have grown accustomed to functioning on your laptop no longer function. All that is left is this game filling the screen—rainbowish in color, crude in execution. This is what it is like to play a game, you might think—but there is an outside chance that you might believe that something has, in fact, gone wrong. It is a bit discomforting to engross oneself in a world that is outside of the safety of our GUI-based operating system, and so, an initial thought might be that this is something of a virus. That what is happening is not supposed to happen: this cannot possibly be Passage, I must have been tricked.
Perhaps you have been tricked. Passage does an excellent job of presenting itself as a video game: the simple block aesthetics, the chip-tune music. There is a counter on the top right of the screen that gradually increases the more you move forward—you can also acquire various treasure chests that are hidden throughout the game which will increase your score. At a base level, we are mostly familiar with what gaming is: leftover remnants of playing Pong on an Atari 2600, or perhaps a row of arcade games in a pizza parlor. There is something that needs to be done. In the traditional sense of games, we expect the goal to be one of a few things: to be the player with the most things at the end, or the only one left, or to make it to the end of the story, where we will be deemed victorious (A Winner Is You!) and the credits will roll. Video games, even at their most basic level, require an element of play: if we think back to a game such as Pong, there was a simple objective: to keep the ball in play longer than your opponent.
Jason Rohrer’s Passage has a difficult time fulfilling our perception of what a video game entails: in a sense you feel as if you are being tricked, much like when you realize your babysitter’s suggestion of playing “The Quiet Game” is just a ruse to get you and your brother to shut up for a few minutes. The object is unclear. Those familiar with gaming know that there is always a natural draw to “go right”; side-scrollers and platformers begin with our hero needing to press forward through the journey—right, always right, as if the reader is unrolling a scroll in order to get to the next section. It is, in a sense, a book unfolding: the right-hand page is the one that is always flipped first. There is no excuse to go backwards, nor is there a reason to remain static.
This is our draw in Passage as well: we go right because it is the only way we know how to advance the story. There are barriers that appear—sometimes suddenly, other times less so. We move around them to gain treasure, to go right, to go further. Early in the game, we see a female figure—if we touch her, she becomes a part of our posse. There are no villains here, no bad guys with a poison touch, no projectiles to avoid. Passage is not a competition. In most video games your enemy is immediately apparent: alien horde, bottomless pits. Here, there is nothing coming after you. In a sense, the game is extremely quiet, even lonely. One would understand why you would want the company of the only other thing on the screen. The female joins you—there is love here. You move in twos. Gaps that were once easy to slide through become cumbersome. Love makes you no longer alone, but love makes you clumsy, slower.
You won’t recognize that your avatar has gotten older: at least not at first. The change is subtle: the pixels grow shorter, the colors change slightly. You move a little slower; the music changes.
When you go right far enough, your wife turns into a tombstone. There’s no elaborate death scene: she does not fall to the ground in slow motion, you do not mourn her, there is no cut scene. There is no way to save her. One moment she is there; the next, she is a rock with a cross on it. You have little choice but to continue forward. At this point, you get noticeably slower—your character becomes hunched over. The world around you becomes bleaker—in the past, it was filled with color, but now it fades to a black and white checkerboard before becoming all-white.
And then, another tombstone: it is over. You, stone. No leaderboards, no Game Over screen. It simply ends.
If the description sounds simple, it is. Not a lot happens. The story is classic and predictable: a person lives their life. They meet someone else (or don’t). They die. The same basic plot points are found in a lot of classic literature: the true story is found not in plot, but in the development and crafting of characters and the world they inhabit. One of the things where the video game form differs from the written word is that the predictability of expectation can be circumvented in ways that books cannot. Video games themselves have expectations the same way writing does. When we sit down to read a book, we expect the book to operate in a certain way—there are pages to be turned, there will be writing on each of the pages. We don’t expect to open a book only to find out that the pages disintegrate the second we touch them: we are familiar with the operating system of spines, of typeface, of how everything moves. However, games have their own rules: they do not need to operate within the same realm as one would expect from a book. The construct, of course, is digital, and therefore its presentation is beyond categorization. Even though Passage presents itself as a video game that we are at least somewhat familiar with, it can change and shift perceptions in its expectations much more than a book can.
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And if you're wondering, I do have light hair and blue eyes, and my spouse does have red hair and green eyes. When I was younger, I wore a green shirt, blue pants, and black shoes. Now my favorite outfit involves white shoes, brown pants, and a black shirt. My spouse used to have a light-green dress that was her favorite. And yes, my hair line is starting to creep back. That's me and my spouse in there, distilled down to 8x8 pixels each.
—from Jason Rohrer’s "Creator’s Statement"
Jason Rohrer is an oddity in the video game developer world. Normally, when we think of famous video-game developers, we associate them with outspoken bravado—the Will Wrights of SimCity, the Hideo Kojimas of the Metal Gear Solid Series. Rohrer, by contrast, is very much a loner. Shortly after Passage was released in 2007, Rohrer was profiled in Esquire Magazine. The piece held dearly to the fact that he lives in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, where he has grown a meadow surrounding his house that keeps him secluded from the rest of the town. He relies almost entirely upon food that his family grows, and he lives well below the poverty line. In the Esquire profile, Jason Fagone hypothesizes:
But there's a deep logic to the way he lives. If he didn't live this way, he couldn't make the games he makes. By carefully constructing an alternate reality, bit by bit, Rohrer has been able to make the same creative leap that many artists have made in the past. His games start with an emotion, an observation about the poignancy of a certain set of trade-offs inherent to being alive; Rohrer then figures out how to abstract and encode these trade-offs using math and images. This is why Rohrer's games, while sharing a common aesthetic—often pixelated, retro cute, allusive to video-game hits of the past—feel so different from one another.
If this manifesto sounds suspiciously, well, writerly, in its mindset—the secluded auteur crafting his manifesto in a cabin in the woods, or in a lonely apartment—that’s because it very much is. We can picture authors scribbling by candlelight, doors to home offices closed while novelists tap away at keyboards while dinner grows cold. The act of writing is a very lonely thing: the writer is alone, with only their thoughts. They are expected to craft a world with nothing but their brain and their ability to process these concepts and emotions except through the written word. The world that they exist within needs to be completely shut out in order to understand and re-cultivate it into something that is both cohesive yet stunning, familiar yet foreign.
Rohrer is a huge success in the video game and developer community. He is widely perceived as the most successful independent video game maker in the world, and certainly his work is the most recognizable. He is the recipient of many gaming awards, from receiving a Jury Award at IndieCade, to winning the Game Design Challenge at the prestigious Game Developers Conference. When Passage was released, big-name video-game developers passed the game along to each other—the equivalent of Spielberg being blown away by a small independent YouTube clip.
When we think about a video-game designer, we do not think of a single person scanning lines of code. We imagine large companies where people go to work: cubicles of action figures and character mock-ups. We think of collaboration: that there are artists, level designers, modelers, and folks dedicated to solely to online play. It is much more cinematic in its approach: hundreds of people coming together to create something much larger than what they could create alone. Tom Bissell, in his excellent collection Extra Lives, talks about spending a day in 2011 at Epic Games. That massive video-game–development company created the Unreal Engine at the heart of most first-person shooters developed today, and the XBOX’s Gears of War series. When an employee raised concern about a particular weapon being too strong, Bissell remarks, “Discussion at Epic is collegial and to the point; modern game design is too complex and collaborative for any individual to feel proprietary about his or her own ideas.”
Perhaps it is this contrast that makes Rohrer so appealing to his devotees. Working by himself on these projects, he has sole creative control over every aspect of the game. He has no fancy office to speak of: he codes on an antiquated Dell laptop in his home. As a result, we get an essence of the loneliness that permeates through his work: that for once, we are connected not to the company that creates the games, but we are connected to the author and only the author—that his vision is the one that we are able to identify.
In an interview with Leigh Alexander, he jokes of his work: “oh, another game where you get to play as Jason Rohrer.” But to consider his games autobiographical is to miss the point of their effectiveness. When talking about his newest release, The Castle Doctrine, a tower-defense-like game where your goal is to protect your family from a burglary, he states “It's a game about this relatively-backward tradition, where, as egalitarian as we are, modern men are . . . still supposed to turn into some kind of protectors. We like to pretend it doesn't exist, but then something happens that makes it bubble to the surface.”
One gets the sense that Rohrer has the same issue that writers have: here is a drive to create a type of art out of one’s personal and private thoughts. However, it is not enough to create: we must take our work and present it to the world for others to consume—to truly become an author, or an artist, or a game developer, it is imperative for us to have an audience. It is what turns diaries into essays, home movies into film. What makes the video game so special is the need for interactivity: that instead of reading about someone’s voyages, we become the author—that when we play, we become Rohrer—his anxieties about watching his neighbor die from cancer become our anxieties; his fears are our fears.
When we choose to participate in a video game, we are entering what Johan Huizinga termed “the magic circle,” which is to say “the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.” Within this temporary world, we agree to play by Rohrer’s rules, and, therefore, we agree to take on Rohrer’s anxieties.
These temporary worlds exist within the ordinary world; sometimes the temporary even appears infinite, much like a dream that we realize only upon waking was not real. Often, we hear that the goal of writing is to be so enrapturing that we forget that we are reading a book and we begin to visualize what the author has put out in front of us. We become lost in books: almost to the point that when we find ourselves at the end of a particularly affecting story, we wish that it would not end; we count the pages, dreading the last blank one. We search for this in games as well. We don’t want to leave the world created for us just yet; we find ourselves searching for other treasures to collect, new caves to explore.
In the Virginia Quarterly Review, Richard Nash talked about the business (and therefore the future) of literature. In a conversation with Kevin Slavin, professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, Slavin states that even as literature and video games appear to be two different mediums vehemently opposed, they are strikingly similar:
What books have in common with games is that they reward iteration. The more you play, the more you read, the better you get at it, the more fun you have. The way I have integrated that into my own mode of thinking is: In games you get to wonder what door to walk through; in books you get to wonder what the character was thinking, walking through that door. You get to imagine the color of the door, the material, the kind of doorknob, whether it was warm or cold to the opener’s touch.
In both instances, creativity is rewarded: in books, the author is able to craft something to conjure images in the reader’s mind—to immerse the reader in the author’s world. In games such as Passage, it is up to the gamer to layer their own imagery with what is being presented by the designer. Therefore, it could be argued that if the true essence of writing is bridging the gap between reality and unreality, a successful video game accomplishes the same thing by connecting the gaming world to the gamer.
This is all to say that Passage is a game to be experienced. At the University of Alabama, I taught this game to a creative-writing class. It was a huge mistake: not because of the game itself, but because I played it for them, instead of allowing them to go through the world themselves. Anyone who has been subject to watching a friend play a video game has suffered this problem. Either the onlooker is completely disinterested, or itching to get their hands on the controller. My students were bored; they didn’t get it. They thought the game was too simplistic, too pointless. I felt awful—I had robbed them of the experience of playing the game for the first time. Their role had changed from active to passive, from traveler to tourist. This is the reason for the warning at the top of the essay—this is a game that is extremely private. We are accustomed to video games being social: either to be played with someone else or with a group of people watching. Passage is private—we do not write with anything but our own thoughts. We read alone. We must treat this game with the same respect; simply to watch and not interact would diminish the experience entirely.
Rohrer even experimented with the idea of audience in his game Chain World: a game that was under such limited release that there was only one copy of the game in existence, which resided on a USB drive. The idea is that the person would play the game, and then pass it on to the next person. This transforms the game into something more than an experience: it becomes an artifact, a sort of bragging rights. In one sense, it is the idea of watching a video game being magnified: we are the ones perennially waiting for our turn with the controller, clamoring to be a part not only of the story within the game, but the story about the game.
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Passage is a throwback to when video games were simple; a far cry from what the general public regards a video game to be these days, with the rise of the genre of the first-person-shooter as well as incredibly complex role-playing-games. Video games used to be relatively simple affairs, partly due to the memory constraints of the cartridges as well as the processing speeds of the consoles or personal computers themselves; the games typically had one protagonist, a someone or something that was controlled by the player, and an endless slew of nameless antagonists rushing en masse to the slaughter. Typically, you, the player, were required to manipulate your controller in order to avoid these obstacles or to brutally murder them in an attempt to ensure your own continued existence. In the early days, these were your only options.
Take, for instance, the 1985 classic Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo Entertainment system, of which to the non-gamer, Passage will be the obvious parallel. Here are the things that Mario can do: move left, move right, climb a vine, duck (only as Super Mario). Mario can jump (by pressing A), run (by holding down B), and shoot fireballs by pressing B (provided Mario has obtained a fire-flower). Add a very basic “swim” function in the underwater levels and we’ve cataloged Mario’s tool chest, if you will.
As players of video games, why should we accept this Neanderthalic process? Why is Mario so ill-prepared for a world in which he is Public Enemy Number One? Where are Mario’s AK-47s, his switchblades, his ability to reason with slow-moving turtles in order to avoid violence?
I am, of course, expressing myself in hyperbole: it is ridiculous to assume that something this thorough could be expected in something as simple and harmless as a basic platformer, and yet in playing these games we subscribe to a methodology and an acceptance of parameters in how the world operates—we are expected to move forward (to the right, always), and we are expected to excel in order to further the story along. In the same sense, we should expect more from the character in Passage: there is no courting process in which he (you?) acquires a wife—she is there for the taking. There is no place to rest. There is nothing about this that simulates a real life.
Jesper Juul, in his introduction to Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds writes, “To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world.”
In this case, the rules are simple: if one presses the “right” directional button, our character moves to the right. There are certain things that we cannot do and we accept that as such: our frustration level when playing these games can be quite high, but our frustration is never higher when playing a game in which the player input does not match the output: anyone who has an older sibling or has gone over to a friend’s place to play video games has been struck with the “sub-par controller” in which various buttons stick and cause incredible amounts of rage. At this moment we are taken out of the game because we become aware of the artifice: the game is doing something that we did not wish for it to do—suddenly, we are the author: we are the one who has pressed the wrong button, and we are therefore aware of our own flaws, the same way we become upset when we accidentally spoil our own reading, either by flipping to the wrong page, or accidentally seeing what the last word of the novel is, instead of traversing through the book in the way it was intended, page by page.
The main purpose of a video game is an attempt at immersion, and when this bubble pops, we are left feeling cold. Video games, especially those created in the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-generation consoles (e.g. Sony’s PlayStation series, Nintendo’s Wii series, and Microsoft’s XBOX series) have always attempted to draw the participant into the game through the creation of avatars and the ability to change the appearance and names of the characters in the games—this dates back to the language of early video games where developers were uncertain as to how to deal with the disconnect between the avatar and the player. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!’s opening credit scene introduces the player to all of his opponents until it gets to the main protagonist, a diminutive black-haired kid named Little Mac, at which point it states “and playing the role of Little Mac . . . is you!” One of the more famous moments in Japanese-to-English mistranslations is in the game “Pro Wrestling”—after your character pins their opponent, the screen declares your character the winner via pinfall, and the next screen reads “A Winner Is You.” In one sense, the player is controlling a character, and yet in another sense the player is the character: when we get hit by a hawk and fall into a pit, we exclaim that we have died—we do not exclaim that “my character is dead,” or “Ryu died”; we are the ones suffering and lifeless, if only for a moment—we take on the victories and we take on our failures.
Therefore, the genius of Passage is in its simplicity: that much like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, we are supposed not only to identify with the character, but to be the character. We are the nameless small man, wandering this bizarre and ever-changing landscape on an unexplained search for treasure. We are the ones who choose to fall in love, to experience loss. In some fiction, the vagueness can easily throw us out of a story, but here, it allows it all to be open-ended. Perhaps this is why there is such a love of retro-gaming, even in light of the multi-million dollar blockbuster games being released on next-generation consoles: that instead of being told the story, we are the ones creating it through our imaginations and our connections to a eight-by-eight mass of colored pixels.
Nowhere else has the success and failure of video games as an art form been so evident as in a single four-minute YouTube video. Its premise might be laughable: a child playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2—a platformer game for the Sega Genesis that had a plot point as simple as “collect all of the emeralds, save the world.” The kid, who could’ve have been more than twelve years old, was narrating the entire game as he played (hilariously with Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life, “his favorite song,” playing in the background), creating an entirely different story than the one that was provided to him. In the small YouTube video, he is able to spill out an entire story of friendship, betrayal, excitement, and adventure, all the while collecting rings throughout the first level of the game. This child was unsatisfied with the story that he was given, and therefore, he is there crafting something new on top of it that is so much more advanced and majestic than anything the designers could have crafted at that time.
I think a lot about that video when I play Passage. It seems like this is the goal of the game: to have it be as simplistic as possible, so that the player can layer their own experience and concepts upon it—it is a game (to borrow a line from the late Maxine Kumin) that has been released into the world, and therefore it is up to the ages to do with it what it wants. This sentiment is echoed on Rohrer’s download page for the game where he has a quote by John Holt: “Writing is a kind of magic or deep-frozen speech, which the writer can use, day after day, to say to everyone who looks at it whatever he wants to say.” This is a game that says little and provides zero instruction, and yet it has the ability to craft an emotional and narrative connection between machine and operator. Passage is not a lot of things, but it is about you and you alone: Rohrer is there too, making sure that the space you inhabit is something familiar. When the game ends with the word Passage scrolling across your screen, it is Rohrer’s final twist: at that moment, he is relinquishing his authorship. It is your story now, even more so than it ever was his.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction, and has been twice selected as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays series. He is the author of So You Know It's Me, a collection of Craigslist Missed Connections, and Level End, a series of lyric essays about video-game Boss Battles. Leave Luck To Heaven, a collection of essays about 8-bit Nintendo games, is forthcoming from Uncanny Valley Press.