Passage, the latest art game hit

 Posted by (Visited 17780 times)  Game talk
Dec 072007

In the world of art games, “hit” means “it got a lot of press.” Well, Passage is getting a lot of press, and here I am giving it more.

Passage: a Gamma256 video game by Jason Rohrer

There’s an artist’s statement regarding what the game is about, but you can and should play it first, decide for yourself, and then read the statement.

  25 Responses to “Passage, the latest art game hit”

  1. , a tiny game that has been making tiny waves in our tiny community. There’s not much to say about Passage. The game is available for Mac, PC, and Linux, and lasts exactly five minutes. In short, there’s no excuse not to play it. [ViaRaph Koster] Read | Permalink | Email this | Comments [IMG]

  2. , a tiny game that has been making tiny waves in our tiny community. There’s not much to say about Passage. The game is available for Mac, PC, and Linux, and lasts exactly five minutes. In short, there’s no excuse not to play it. [ViaRaph Koster]Read | Permalink | Email this | Comments SPONSORED BY: Age of Empires III – Real-Time Strategy Game Control a European power on a quest to colonize and conquer the New World. AOE3 introduces new gameplay elements, as well as new civilizations, units,

  3. I’m unimpressed. Yes, the presentation of the game is about Deep Meanings. But I’ve been studying Art recently, and I’m leaning towards the conclusion that we game designers still think in terms of kinetic sculpture, NOT games.

    This game used interesting visuals and a poignant score to convey its message, but that’s what a movie does. What games have (that other art forms don’t have) is interaction and choice. Passage’s choice is mostly about exploring up and down, and finding “chests” to “open”. I DO find it kinda interesting that his X axis represents both space and time, to a certain degree.

    If the author is trying to make a statement about futility and how nothing matters in the long run, he succeeded. If he wanted to make a game that is open to interpretation by making the UI sparse and obtuse, he succeeded. But his notes indicate that he simply wanted to make a game that would get you to reflect on the structure and choices of life.

    I see two interesting things here.

    1) Game “Art” should be about expressing things thru gameplay, not clever audio/visual components.

    2) If the player doesn’t understand how to play and what the UI means, who’s fault is that? I’ve always assumed that it’s ALWAYS the developer’s fault, but a player can’t “interpret” the game his own way, if everything is already spelled out for him, right?

  4. I’m the guy who made this game.

    I toyed for a while with the idea of having no sound at all. No soundtrack. Like Rod Humble’s game “The Marriage.” But then I thought, games can use sound, just as they can use graphics. A game that doesn’t use all channels available to it is a bit incomplete, sort of like a silent film in a talky age. So I ended up adding music to go along with it, music that I thought would help set the mood that I was trying to achieve with the game.

    I think what you’re saying here, in point number 1 that you raise above, is more about games that express a message only through graphics and sound and not through gameplay at all. Games like that are akin to movies that show no motion. In fact, the core of Passage is supposed to be the gameplay; the choices that you make when you play. The gameplay is the first thing that I thought about when I was designing the game — the graphics, and finally the music, came much later.

    Okay, so what gameplay? You navigate a maze, and maybe decide to go after certain treasure chests, and try to learn which treasure chests are likely to contain rewards, or maybe decide to explore further to the east instead of going after treasure at all, or maybe decide to take a spouse, which offers both costs and benefits. All those mechanics were in my head before I painted a single pixel or scored a single note of music. These game mechanics, as simple as they are, are meant to be a metaphor. All other presentational aspects of the game follow that metaphor.

    Granted, the game could have been presented with little squares moving around instead of pixelated people, and silence as mentioned before. Would it have been less effective this way? I think so. Does that mean that the game design is weak? I don’t know. Could you paint a painting that moves people using only black paint and a single brush? Maybe. But we don’t require other artists to limit themselves in order to make great work. There’s no reason that we, as game artists, should limit ourselves to gameplay alone. Without gameplay, of course, there’s no point to making a game as opposed to a movie, but there’s more to the game than just gameplay.

    It’s my belief that the resonance between all elements in a game is what’s important. The problem with most modern, mainstream games is that the gameplay does not resonate with the game’s supposed artistic message.

    E.g.: What’s your game about? “Self-sacrifice and the loss of a loved one.” What’s your core gameplay mechanic? “Aiming and shooting from a first-person perspective.” No resonance.

  5. The game moved me (specifically, made me cry, goram it!), which, I think, is a strong argument for it being a work of art.

    @ Techbear: I think that a significant part of my emotional reaction to the game was that I made some specific choices in-game which resembled some of the choices I find myself making in life. The music, which was kind of old Sierra adventure game “hero” music with a strong flavor of melancholy, didn’t hurt any. But it was the actual gameplay, I think, that made things work here.

    ~ Patch

  6. I agree with everything you said, and I apologize if I sounded like games don’t need audio/visual components. I didn’t mean that.

    But I’m eager to have this discussion about what Art means in terms of video games, and the difference between a game and its A/V presentation. I certainly understood what you were expressing in Passage. From an AV point of view, you were speaking about life, the life cycle, how we perceive the future and the past as we move through life. But the gameplay itself was obtuse, and ultimately didn’t seem to mean anything.

    Yes, it’s neat that you get the choice of adding a wife or not, and you can move around the infinite world exploring it and opening chests. But what happens when you open a chest? Sometimes there’s a colored star. What does that mean? How does that affect the rest of the game?

    If it does effect the game, then I’ve missed it, which gets back to point 2 (Who’s fault is it when the player fails to understand something?).

    If it doesn’t effect the game, then I’ve understood your message correctly, that life choices are ultimately meaningless.

    Also, there’s a score-ish number in the upper-right. It increments when you travel right (into the future), but it doesn’t decrement when traveling left. When I died, it was at about 400, so it can’t be years of age, can it? Again, it could be meaningless, representing the futility of trying to “score” one’s own life. I don’t know. Should I be interpreting it anyway I want? That’s at odds with Raph Koster’s thesis that fun is learning, isn’t it?

    Anyway, I didn’t post previously to dump on you. If I make such a game (or any game, really), I want others to study it, question it, even tear it apart, and provide me valuable feedback. I assume you feel the same way, but that could be an invalid assumption.

  7. @ Patch: That’s awesome! I think you probably understood the game better than I.

    Can you tell us more specifically what choices you made in the game that affected you so?

  8. I too noticed the parallels between how I played the game and how I am in real life. I was originally confused by the game’s lack of direction, and a bit underwhelmed when I read the Statement. The (dominant) logical side of me quickly dismissed the effort with the thought that, well, things like personality tests can also reflect how I am, so what’s the big deal? The way I play other games also reflects my personality (knowledgeable in MMOs, methodical in RTS, impatient in FPS)… but unlike those games, Passage is ugly and not fun!

    Then I realized that the achievement of Passage was in how it was using the language of games to do that, rather than more established methods like questions and answers, or identifying with the characters in a classic narrative. And it was not a mere byproduct of the ability to interact, but the specific goal of each gameplay element. It was clever, insightful and deliciously simple.

    It’s a wonderful piece. Thank you Jason!

  9. The trade-offs that I’m talking about, in terms of game mechanics, are in their effect on the score. Chests that contain blue stars are worth 100 points, while empty chests (containing dust and moths) are worth zero points. The little colored pixels on the front of each chest are a code that indicates what the chest contains. The code is different in each new game, and it is meant to be a metaphor about learning which pursuits in life are worthwhile in which our waste of time. In other words, in a given game, it is possible to learn to recognize chests that contain blue stars and only spend time going after them. Of course, this seems to be the weakest aspect of my design, because no one seems to get it or even notice it. Many people, after playing the game for a while, understand that some chests contain stars and some do not, but that’s about it.

    The trade-offs involved in taking a spouse are also in terms of their effect on score. With her by your side, it’s harder to go deep in the maze in pursuit of blue stars, but you get double points for adventuring further to the east.

    All these mechanics together are meant to trick you into focusing on your score. The trick is that, in the end, you realize that your score is rather meaningless. There’s no leaderboard or anything like that. Perhaps my game partially fails, in your eyes, because you didn’t realize that you were supposed to be focusing on your score. I was trying to play with the notion of score that is present in so many video games. It’s a video game! Of course it has a score! But the notion of score seems kind of silly when it’s juxtaposed against the themes in this game. We have all sorts of ways that we try to measure success in real life (money, fame, charity, scientific contributions), but in the end, are any of them any more meaningful than score in a video game? Score in this game serves as a placeholder for whatever your current measure of life success is at the moment.

    What you’re saying is that my game does not make any of this clear enough to the player. I guess I could’ve put in a tutorial, but I think that it would have just gotten in the way. I was intentionally building the game around pretty standard video game elements (a maze, treasure chests, score) so that it would feel familiar to people and so no tutorial would be necessary. You sort of know what you’re supposed to be doing in this game, but by the end of the game, all of that activity is suddenly given meaning. You reflect on why you were doing what you were doing; for example, why you were going after a high score. The answer seems to be, “It’s a game. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.” But then think about your life, and why you are currently doing what you’re doing. If you ask the same question about your life, is the answer all that much different?

  10. Judging from my reaction to my spouse’s tombstone appearing and then fading off to the left, I really, really, don’t like the idea of my wife dying.

    I did not know this.

  11. That is to say, it’s not something I’d really thought about that much…not that I don’t love my wife. 😉

  12. Note to those who haven’t played the game: thar be spoilers in this post!

    @Techbear: One assumption I originally made about the game was that the goal was to get to the “end” (far right). So I kept going and going (and accumulating a fine high score, because I was exploring with a partner), and I kept seeing new things, and then I died, and it was actually impossible to see everything there is to see in the game. This has some bearing on the way I live my life.

    The “explore as far as you can with a partner” approach is also a legitimate strategy to employ in the game if one is shooting for a high score, so it felt like the impact the game had on me was legitimately a game-mechanical one.

    ~ Patch

  13. Of course, this seems to be the weakest aspect of my design, because no one seems to get it or even notice it.

    And I feel that this is something to explore. If someone came up to Andy Warhol and said, “What’s with the soup? I don’t get it,” he wouldn’t consider himself a failure. He’d curse the heathen and walk away. Like you, my initial reaction is, “the player is always right, so if he didn’t get it, that’s my fault.” And iteratively, that attitude results in a better game. But for an Art Game, is this still a valid way to think?

    All these mechanics together are meant to trick you into focusing on your score. The trick is that, in the end, you realize that your score is rather meaningless.

    Well, my gripe with the score was that I didn’t wait ’til the end to judge my score meaningless. Wondering what the score is != wanting to explore the score’s functionality. We can always make game systems that are so obtuse, players don’t even try to learn them; the (generally accepted) trick is to make a game system that’s not too hard, but not too simple, so players want to learn, are excited about what they learn, and don’t give up learning.

    Since you wanted the player to accept that the score was ultimately meaningless, that turns the above paragraph on its head (it seems to me), but you still got the job done. 🙂

    I guess I could’ve put in a tutorial, but I think that it would have just gotten in the way.

    I totally agree there. I’ve seen an Art Game that was about teaching the player as subtly as possible, and with zero text. In a game like yours, where one explores the game to explore oneself, an overt tutorial could damage the pure “freedom” of the game.

    Anyway, after seeing others’ positive responses to the mechanics of your gameplay, I’m willing to accept that my feelings of confusion and futility were (for me) exactly what the artist intended, and therefore it’s better, and more Artful, than I first judged. If you’re interested in iterating on this game to make it better, I’d suggest emoticons; perhaps a quick smiley-face when you open a star chest. Also score flyoffs could help players understand how the score gets modified. Finally, perhaps sickness, as an added mechanic, might be worth exploring.

    But there’s still value in pure simplicity…

  14. I thought it was a beautiful little game. I’d avoid complicating it at all costs – art games tend to work best in the same vein as a Haiku or short poem, you don’t want them too complex or the message gets lost as you try to figure out how to play it instead of just experiencing it. That may be where the chest code fails – it’s out of place with the mental state of the rest of the game: it’s a technical puzzle in a game which, because of its simplicity and its categorization as an art game, encourages you to be thinking about feeling and artistic interpretation and most certainly not what the colors on the boxes might mean.

  15. This game definitely made me reflect on my life choices: namely, the choice of running it on my macbook without skimming the Control Notes first to learn about the F key. This soon gave way to a more frantic game of “how do I quit!?”, because command-tab, command-Q, escape, f8, f9, f11, etc did not work when the game was running. I eventually killed it by hitting the power key and accepting a system restart, then canceling it once the game was killed. Please add a more intuitive way to break fullscreen or quit the game!

    That said, I really enjoyed the presentation in this game, and spent a while just walking around and observing how my sprite would drift to the right and age. I’d never seen that before, and got a little worried that the game might let me get stuck in land if I stood next to it too long :P. The blurry future sight effect and really narrow field of view really hilight our often narrow view of the present and fuzzy anticipation of the future.

    I was a bit miffed that after passing up the girl near the beginning in order to go deeper into the maze, I didn’t encounter any other possible partners later in life. Not everyone has the same trade-offs, after all, and it would be interesting to see some choices in that aspect of the game as well. Perhaps a fickle partner who leaves you when you get old, or an unattainable one who drifts away faster than you can follow, would be interesting albeit saddening additions. Also, it would definitely be amusing to try to control a polygamist L-block!

    The chest-codes eluded me when I played, but so did the chest animations. For some reason I never connected the blue stars with 100 points, but would instead watch my score as I walked over chests and notice that sometimes I got 100 points and sometimes I didn’t. I think adding a floating +100 or +0 to the chest-opening animations would establish this connection a lot quicker, and get people to pay more attention to the kinds of chests they were opening, maybe discovering the codes in the process. Since the game already updates the score constantly as you walk right, it’s hard to quickly see the chests’ effect on it. A lot of scored games have such hectic scores anyway that score-watching is far less effective than popping up significantly large numbers when the player does something good, so they can judge the goodness of what they just did.

    Anyway, I applaud this very retro and inspiring game!

  16. I love the idea of “art games”. I didn’t know there was such a genre. Seems highly cool. But I like reading about it more than I like the actual trying of it.

  17. […] Raph Koster, December 7, 2007 […]

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  22. I thought this was much better than The Marriage, whose colored blocks I had difficulty caring about. The pixel-ized people, as well as the music, make this game much more emotional. Art games, of course, are a very rare breed, but its cool that game designers are finally addressing issues that anyone can relate to. Maybe games like this will finally put an end to all those damn ignorant politicians and film critics who feel that games are “not art”.

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