If there were any lingering doubt as to the status of video games as a viable art medium, Passage lays that argument to rest. I’m not saying Passage is the first inventive concept ever, nor am I denying the artistic merits of video games up to this point. However, Passage is undeniably one of the most original ideas in gaming today and, more importantly, it is executed with a minimalist perfection that you simply must experience for yourself. Oh, and did I mention it’s a free download?
So, video games are a legitimate art form? Of course, the debate is over (and has been for some time from my perspective). However, for all the skeptics, Passage is the final nail in the coffin; the fat lady singing Queen’s “We Are The Champions” right as she delivers a knockout punch…on Judgment Day (in the biblical sense, not Terminator). My metaphor mangling prose aside, Passage is without a doubt the most artful and imaginative gaming concept I have seen in twenty-two years of playing and it accomplishes this feat without harnessing the graphical horsepower of cell processors or utilizing a production budget that puts most third-world countries to shame. The question is, how?
Let’s face it; video games lack something these days. I won’t go so far as to say that I don’t enjoy the current state of gaming; it’s just not quite what I imagined it would be when I picked up my first NES controller over two decades ago. It’s certainly not as disappointing as the automobile industry–those bastards promised flying cars in the year 2000 and, eight years into the new millennium already, I’m still driving a landlocked Nissan Versa hatchback. So comparatively, the gaming industry isn’t a complete disappointment. Back on point; let me also assure you that I’m not just another crusty old dinosaur shaking my cane with contempt at each new generation of technology insisting incessantly that the video game industry peaked with Ms. Pac Man and everything since is crap. Besides, everyone knows that Dig Dug was far superior.
While I love the classics, there is no denying that high definition graphics, realistic physics engines and increasingly complex A.I. routines are incredible. The mere sight of a game like God of War or Assassin’s Creed would surely have caused the six-year old me to wet himself with unbridled delight (I’m over that now). Nevertheless, somewhere in the transition from sprites to polygons, during the evolution from CRT to 1080p, some infinitesimal yet essential ingredient was lost. Why is it that a minimalist game like Passage sparked something inside me that I’ve never felt while playing a game before? As odd as it sounds, the answer lies in the story.
At this point, you’re probably scratching your head and saying story, what story? The game is five minutes long and resembles a bathroom tile mosaic designed by a blind monkey. You wander through an empty world whose only other inhabitant is a woman willing to marry you at first sight because you’re her only option. Whether or not you choose to accept her indifferent proposal, you live a sexless, homeless, nomadic existence where the most exciting occurrence is opening treasure chests that serve no purpose other than to increase your score, which is completely arbitrary and has no effect on the game’s outcome…which is always death. Mmmm, that is good narrative. No need to review the other Pulitzer nominees, this one is a lock.
Now, before hoards of Final Fantasy fanboys jump in my face and attempt to deliver a spontaneous lecture on the essential elements of a good story, let’s establish what, in fact, comprises a good story. Good story telling (regardless of whether we’re talking literature, film or video games) is nothing more than an artist providing a narrative framework which vividly expresses his or her idea so the audience can share it. It is important to note, however, that the creator’s vision should allow enough leeway for the audience members to project their own perspectives into the narrative. A truly great story will take its audience on a journey and, although it guides them all along the same path, each individual experiences it in a completely different way. This is where Passage edges out the competition; by presenting a focused, yet deceptively mercurial tale that forces the player to realize the journey itself is the reward because all endings are the same regardless of how you play it. More importantly, although Passage certainly presents the Cliffs Notes version of a human life, it remains open-ended enough to affect every player differently.
For example, what struck me the first time I played through Passage was that the available in-game spouse has red hair and green eyes, just like my wife. It’s a coincidental occurrence, but it immediately gave me a connection to the character. Several minutes later when my aged spousal avatar spontaneously transformed into a tombstone, I’ll admit, I experienced a twinge of sadness; not because I had any profound connection to this prude pixel vixen, but simply because it made me consider the sudden loss of my wife–an unfortunate but realistic possibility as we age. So what’s my point? Although I am undeniably a towering tribute to masculinity (my corneas have five o’clock shadow), I’m not embarrassed to admit that the occasional novel/film has made my gruff, testosterone-soaked pupils turn slightly misty. Up until this point, however, no video game has ever had that effect on me. And yes, that includes Aeris‘ death in Final Fantasy VII. World saving flower girls are a dime a dozen in my book. Besides, I’ve always been a Yuffie man myself.
During my second playthrough, I again chose to link up with my virtual spouse, but took a more exploratory approach the game, often back tracking to see where certain paths led. On my third jaunt, I chose to ignore the idea of marriage altogether, embrace the swinging bachelor life (very difficult in a universe offering just one woman) and explore the map as fully as possible. I played a few more times after that and, although I tried to play each session differently, none of my subsequent playthroughs affected me as profoundly as the first. This phenomenon is a stark contrast to just about every other game I’ve played. With other games, repeated playthroughs serve to enrich the experience as opposed to numbing it–so why was Passage different?
Passage is a brief depiction of a human life from inception to conclusion, stripped down to its most basic levels (regrettably, sans reproduction, but that’s fodder for another article) and, like life, you only get one shot. Make of it what you will–enjoy it, hate it, it’s yours to do what you wish–but know that once you reach the finale that’s it. The end. Fin. To be continued…except not. Repeated playthroughs of Passage, for me at least, only served to dilute the experience because in life, you get one shot. Period. No continues, no resets, no extra lives. Mistakes would be meaningless if you could simply restart and correct them. Conversely, accomplishments would be empty if failure was consequence free because you could reattempt any endeavor ad infinitum. What makes Passage so special, is that it accurately portrays the unstoppable progression of time and lays bare the fleeting nature of humanity.
Still not convinced? Consider this. Passage conveys a simple yet insightful message in less than five minutes of gameplay, managing to touch on a concept universal to the human condition. I’ve rambled on in excess of 1,300 words and (admittedly) haven’t expressed this message half as eloquently as just playing the game.
Maybe that’s indicative of my lackluster writing skills or, maybe, just maybe…Passage is truly a work of art.
Anthony is Editor-in-Chief, co-founder and regular contributor to the Chicago Gamers Club.