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Time Goes By

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.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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