The following is a guest post from Nicholas Kratsas, an undergraduate student in Social Studies at Cleveland State University, interested in cultural anthropology and gender studies. You can find him on Twitter @the_kostas
Jason Rohrer’s Passage is a game about life. It is a colorfully pixilated experience in which a silent protagonist moves forward, finds a companion, moves forward, and then ultimately dies. The main character acts as a vessel through which the player may experience the banal journey from youth to death amid minimalistic and on-the-nose social commentary. More subtly than its examination of folkways and goals, this adventure inspires haunting revelations on the burden of an individual’s past. Passage contends that one’s personal history is a philosophical lens with both the judgment of a zealot and the memory of an elephant. To successfully enjoy Passage, the player must conclude that while life indeed provides few answers, when left to its own devices it also provides very few questions.
Passage’s atypically horizontal aspect ratio presents life as a wide and shallow endeavor. Such visual framing, combined with the conditioning provided by side-scrolling game heritage, impresses upon players the need to move to the right and thus progress through life. Further motivation is provided by nebulous visions of the future that exist on the rightmost part of the screen. These dancing colors represent the goals and hopes of the future, and provide a cryptic carrot on a stick for players. Such hopeful promises encourage the lie that there exists a win condition, a conclusion, and a reason for passing through youth with such an unwavering and competitive urgency. After a set amount of time, the character will reach the rightmost part of the screen and meet his demise. This resolution is absolute.
Even by deviating from this well-laid path, the player will find similar ambiguity. Moving in non-rightward directions is somewhat difficult due to the biased visual perspective, but can allow the player to uncover treasure chests. These provide a boost to the game’s scarcely contextualized scoreboard, which also increases as the character moves rightward. Aside from the distance traveled and the number of chests uncovered, the game’s other meaningful variable is that the player may or may not meet their character’s lifelong companion. While these alternatives to the well-laid path may provide options to the player, they do not contain any inherent worth, or provide any meaningful revelations. Taking Passage’s road less traveled does not suddenly imbue one’s journey with clarity or meaning.
In the last few coherent moments before reaching the grave, memories stir in the protagonist’s aging mind. The past rears its head much like the future once did. The mirage-like colors that formerly appeared before the character reveal themselves at the leftmost side of the screen. The journey’s briefness sets in amid memories of the distance traveled, the dearly departed companion, and any illusive chests that were left closed or undiscovered. These memories add discomfort to the abrupt and lackluster conclusion to Passage. One is permitted to walk through the game however she/he pleases, accumulating whatever rewards or experiences she/he finds valuable. Nonetheless, it is only a matter of time before a gravestone appears, followed by a title card, and then a fade to black.
The game’s ending contains zero fanfare, and does not provide the player with any idea of how “well” she/he performed. The game’s goals, and the worth of the scoreboard, are left entirely up to the player. Therefore, the player’s own performance is similarly left to her/his own judgment. Upon the game’s end, the player might claim a humble success, based on a seemingly large numerical score or the variety of backgrounds traversed. But it would be an act of hubris to claim success without an apparent struggle, clearly stated goal, or condition for failure. The presence of the character’s hazy golden-age recollections is likely to stir such doubt in the mind of the player. It is impossible to interpret said memories as either misgivings or cheerful recollections. Success and meaning are ill-defined constructs within a world that is almost entirely comprised of one’s own perspectives and values.
I challenge anyone to play through Passage only once. To do so would leave one feeling utterly defeated and ill at ease. The game takes mere minutes to conclude, but it takes many playthroughs before the player will feel comfortable with the game’s brevity. If the player incessantly runs to the right, has a companion all the while, and yet feels an aching regret upon being faced with old age and reminiscence, then they are likely to play again and do the opposite. Upon completing the game with different goals in mind, the player may feel similarly unsatisfied. This is because Passage successfully brings to light the fallacy of the notion of one’s past. For as long as we allow ourselves to look backwards, the past defines the present, and thus the future. Furthermore, the past is untouchable and permanent, and thus can be far more influential than something as fleeting as the present or as intangible as the future. It is imperative to remember that while the present and future are painted on a long and shallow canvas, they remains ours to create, and we remain our only scorekeepers.