Time Goes By

By Alec Meer on December 7th, 2007 at 4:06 pm.

I’m a little sad today. Why? Because I’ve been playing a short game about death. Not just my death, but also the death of the woman I love. Happy Friday, everyone.

Jason Rohrer’s free indie experiment Passage is a pixel-art, 256 colour maze game, of sorts. While you can head in several directions, there’s only one ultimate destination – and that’s your death. The game lasts for five minutes, and as you move forwards, two things happen.

One, your tiny sprite visibly ages – his blonde hair turns dulller, then whiter, then starts to disappear; he gradually hunches, and eventually slows down, until he stops, forever.

Two, he moves further and further towards the right of the screen – which is just a 640 pixel wide and 96 pixel high tunnel, whose background changes every few steps. The further you go, the more backgrounds you see. At the beginning, he stays on the left on the passage – even if you’re heading right, the camera sticks him to the left border, so the length of the screen, and his whole life, is still ahead of him. As he ages, the camera moves him slowly to the centre, and ultimately to the far right. When he hits the border, he has nowhere left to go. Cue tiny grave icon, and quiet sense of trauma.

It gets worse (in terms of morbidity, not in terms of the game). Right at the start of Passage, you encounter a woman – a wide-eyed redhead who instantly attaches herself to you. A heart blossoms above you, and you’ve found your soul mate. Wherever she goes, you go. It really is better to have her there – her devotion is a diversion from the crushing futility of your journey. She ages with you – at least you’re in it together.

But having her with you makes the journey more difficult. It’s harder to navigate this claustrophobic maze when there’s two of you. There are insurmountable obstacles you have to back away from, and take the long way around – burning time but seeing nothing new. If you went it alone, you could squeeze through smaller gaps, taking a more direct route that means you see more of this passage before you die. You can choose to avoid the woman, and never meet her. All that happens should you do so is you journey alone, and die alone. You may find treasures en route, but they mean nothing – they just glimmer for a second and fade. The woman would have been with you, always.

What if you journey together? Then she too will die. And always before you do. So you still die alone, whatever choices you make on the way. The sense of loss when she goes is horrible – you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going, and you certainly don’t know why you’re going there. You have nothing. All you can do is head towards your own death.

You can earn points on the journey – I’ll leave you to figure out the various (there is no ‘best’) method of doing so, but all they amount to, in the end, is a number over your gravestone. So what has your high score achieved you? Clue: it’s probably not everlasting paradise.

What a lot of metaphors. And how morose they’ve made me. Passage is a darkly beautiful (if one-play only, as its credentials as actual game versus interactive experiment are debatable) thing, an emotional suckerpunch in 256 colours and a midi soundtrack.

Mind you, I am a big wet blanket.

, , .

61 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. The_B says:

    At some point do we insensitively shout “emo”?

  2. Kast says:

    Well… it was touching, yes. But honestly, Alec, the post here had a stronger effect on my than Passage itself. Not particularly impressed this time.

  3. R. says:

    Good grief, I never thought there was anything capable of making me feel like Jesse Ventura in Predator.

    Until today.

  4. kid says:

    this game really makes me sad.

  5. Tr00jg says:

    I played it, but didn’t find the girl. I didn’t even realise there was a girl in the game.

    0_o.

    Have you tried “Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much”? Its also a game pixelly game from the same festival that this was showcases at. Very cool too.

  6. Tr00jg says:

    Man, “I made lots of silly booboos”. Excuse the crappy writing.

  7. Kieron Gillen says:

    I just walked from left to right. I didn’t realise it was a maze.

    KG

  8. JP says:

    This game had quite an effect on me. If you don’t find it at least a little moving, you are made of stone.

  9. Dracko says:

    Yeah, I did the same thing too at the start, Kieron. When I realised I could go down or up, I didn’t see much of a point. And I don’t mean that as criticism either.

  10. Zerimski says:

    And in one final metaphor, I can’t find any easy way of quitting without forcibly ending the process.

  11. Acosta says:

    Very metaphoric, nice game and better writing. Thanks for it Alec, I wish Passage had a bit more of something, maybe some type of minimal relationship between the two characters to make the player more interested on her. But I like it, it´s quite an elegan design.

  12. Mark says:

    I really liked it. Very poignant.

    @Zerimski – press Q to quit.

  13. Bob Arctor says:

    But women on average live longer than men!

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Bob: I thought that too. Also, I was expecting her to die before me – which didn’t make it any worse when it finally happened. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point.

    (I also like how the future and past is signified on the screen, squashing up and decompressing)

    KG

  15. MPK says:

    Good grief, I never thought there was anything capable of making me feel like Jesse Ventura in Predator.

    A sexual tyrannosaurus?

  16. I_still_love_Okami says:

    I played it, but had some weird graphic issues for most parts of the game and could only guess at what was going on. Anyway, I think the inclusion of enemies like ninjas, robots, arabs od nazis could have made the game better. Oh and you really should be able to ride in some kind of vehicle. And some minigames too. Come to think of it, a crafting system would have been a nice touch. And it definitely needs online multiplayer. With a coop story campaign. And achievements.

    Also, you need a dog. Every game is much better if you have a dog. It could be your interface. Or something.

  17. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    I really felt it would’ve done better as a card battle, deck-building type game.

  18. Evo says:

    Zerimski – is that my big Z?

    Gonna give this a whirl…expect my laptop to blow up with my tears…listening to Brothers in Arms at the same time won’t be good :P

  19. h4plo says:

    One of my favorite touches to this game is the shift in the coloring of the treasure that erupts from chests; when you’re young, it’s golden and bright and explosive, but as your life atrophies, it becomes dull, gray, and minimal.

  20. JP says:

    Actually, some treasure chests have nothing (dust) in them, others have rewards (the big star). You can eventually learn which will have which by the sequence of colors on the chest. The guy’s “creator statement” explains the design and its rationale in more detail.

    That combined with the scoring system gives the game a bit more traditional gameyness than other similar games like Rod Humble’s “the Marriage”, but it’s not exactly Diablo and nor is it trying to be.

  21. Nick says:

    That’s pretty depressing.

    Now I have to find something to cheer me up.

    Elves it is!

  22. yns88 says:

    I dunno, high scores have never really meant much to me in games, so playing this did not give me much of a sense of “gameyness.” I think it’s mainly because there’s no possibility of premature death in the case of a mis-step in life (probably the one thing missing from the metaphor).

    That said, I really did enjoy it as an interactive artistic statement, though. The first time I played through I didn’t realize that I was aging until I reached about the halfway mark; I had been going mostly rightwards since I didn’t see anything of interest in the few tiles below the top. As soon as I realized it, I tried returning to the beginning to see if I could “reverse” time.

    Next time around, I was determined to reach the end of the passage; I grabbed my wife and marched straight forward to death…not much to say there. But the third time I decided to ditch the girl and try to reach the bottom of the maze, and it really did surprise me when I saw all the flowers and treasure chests hidden below.

    Also, I love how when you’re young, the future appears as a mirage, while when you’re old, the past is a mirage.

  23. Matthew Baldwin says:

    Yes! I beat the end boss!!

  24. Tim says:

    This game is excellent work. I love it so. I’m sure his girlfriend will hug him after she sees it. He says in the creator’s statement that he hasn’t shown her yet, he’s waiting for the right moment.

    I’m big wet blanket too.

  25. Sören Höglund says:

    He should get lots and lots of hugs. That was *really* good, and very affecting. Add me to the big wet blanket brigade.

  26. fluffy bunny says:

    Am I the only one who didn’t manage to go on after the girl died? I just stood by her gravestone and waited.

  27. Merijn says:

    This is retarded. It’s not a game if you only have to press the right arrow for five minutes.

  28. No Picnic says:

    To me, this is definitive proof that video games can be art. It is not the kind of art the can be compared with a painting or composition by one of the masters, but it very elegantly and poignantly lets the reader explore his own mortality. This is a beautiful creation not because of how it looks but because of what it says.

    Bob Arctor wrote:
    But women on average live longer than men!

    Yes, on average, but that’s not always true. Ask my grandfather who is very much like the hunched figure at the end of the game. The author wanted to use the game to represent himself. It would be hard to have the game express what he really wanted to convey if he left a widow and not the other way around. The transition from an upright walking man to a hunched walk is as much an expression of grief as it is of old age.

  29. drunkymonkey says:

    When she died, I started to walk back. I only lasted a few seconds.

  30. Thelps says:

    You need a councillor at the rear edge of the screen to ‘help you move forward with your life’ Drunky.

  31. roBurky says:

    Fluffy bunny: I did the same.

  32. Pesh says:

    drunkymonkey- Did the same thing.

    Infact, I didn’t even know you could move up or down. I just held the right key for five minutes. Got a ~750 score.

  33. drunkymonkey says:

    You need a councillor at the rear edge of the screen to ‘help you move forward with your life’ Drunky.

    Ha. Too damn right.

    Actually, one of the things the game could have had was a child half way through to join with you, being your offspring. I think that seeing yourself die and your son/daughter react would have been tear-jerking, but alas.

  34. THECowboy says:

    When I saw this headline and read the story it instantly reminded me of the Dirty Vegas video Days Go By

  35. Nikos says:

    There is a related, beautiful, interactive-text game called Photopia…

    http://www.wurb.com/if/game/255

  36. Nelson says:

    Thank you for making us aware of this game, and your review. Nice to see some subtle emotions.

  37. GiGinge says:

    Man I can’t believe I missed this at the time, I havn’t played such a moving piece of interactive….whatever it is….for a very long time. I have to admit when my life partner died I too just waited by her gravestone…too much of a softie me, this game opened up some hard memories for me, but I’m glad, it’s a really effective statement about life and the inevitability of death

    Big soppy blanket, and proud!

  38. Στέλιος says:

    ANother excellent post. Thanks chaps.

  39. Poltergeist says:

    I enjoyed the clever metaphors but it sadly didn’t move me much.