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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Paul Barnett, since he's the creative director and all, and I have gotten into many discussions about video games, video game trends, video game designers, philosophies, etc. And they all usually end with me in tears, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes not.

Today we opt for not. Paul, while simultaneously ribbing me about my new game purchases, showed me Passage.

Now, in order to even remotely simulate the experience that I had today, I want you to stop reading, download that game, and play it. It only lasts five minutes long. I don't want you to look it up or read any further until you've played one five minute game of Passage. If you don't, then you will ruin the experience.

Go now.

Read this when you come back.
When I started playing Passage, I began moving around with my character. I was attempting to find the bounding boxes of the playspace, I went all the way up, all the way down, and I began heading right. It seemed that right was the best way to go since there was so many different things ahead (even though they were fuzzy).

Once I discovered the boxes with the stars in them, I became obsessed with the stars. I looked for every box I could find, sometimes even going backwards, searching every nook in cranny. I wasn't quite paying attention to anything but the star hunt and my point total, which climbed up to 1300-some points until I finally became a gravestone. It felt so unfinished.

Then Paul assumed control of the computer and said he'll play it for me and narrarate.

And he began...

"When you start life, you can't see very much behind you. There is a lot ahead of you, but it is fuzzy."

He walked right and instantly bumped into a little girl sprite.

"You may meet someone and fall in love."

I had missed her! At this point the female sprite attached herself to his character permanently, making him, effectively, two people wide.

"Your companion will stick by your side, but her being with you closes off some routes to you."

He attempts to go down into a single-person wide passage and the female blocks his movement. So he kept plugging along.

"And so you go and progress through life. As you go on, some things may become more clear. Your past will seem very clear, but the future is still fuzzy. And so you continue along."

He began picking up the boxes and deducing which ones had stars and which one had nothing but dust. At this point I realized that the character was beginning to age. And he continued to narrarate, pointing out the metaphors of life, the clarity of perspective, the pros and cons of having a constant companion, life goals and objectives, and then his female companion died.

"And when she dies, you are crippled, nothing but a shell, and you move slowly toward the end."

By the time he turned into a gravestone himself, I was in tears. I hadn't even found my companion, I had just obsessed over exploration and point totals. It was scary, it was heartbreaking, and it was poignant.

And he turned to me and said "and that's why I have no time for Gears of War. I want to make games that matter."

And so do I.


Milkman519 said...

I didn't see any boxes or stars anywhere. I just kept going forward (right). I met the girl who eventually died around 700 and then I died soon after at around 734. Even with this one path, it was really amazing. I need to go back and see the rest of this. Because this is just fascinating. Thank you for this.

Tuffgong said...

The moment I saw that you can't go through certain passages with your partner, I got it. It came down in a cascade of amazing when I saw that they were aging. It's heart-wrenching because the moment you see them age, you know what's happening, especially the closer they get to the edge of the screen.

Mind blowing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing info on that game. I started going right at the beginning of the game without knowing what to to. Then after the companion appeared i went back to the left until i reached a cliff. Then i realized the game was a metaphor for living life and moving was progress. So i kept moving right and watched them age until the companion died. So i let my character stay at the tombstone until he also died and the two stones where sitting right next to each other. Very philosophical.

Caro said...

I will totally beat your high score in Passage!

But seriously, I stumbled on Passage recently after seeing it mentioned in the blog on Braid. At first I didn't quite grasp the game's visual language, but it quickly became clear to me why things off to the right started off hazy, and what the changes in the game's presentation in this regard meant as it progressed.

As far as memento mori experiences go, it's right up there with the final moments of Six Feet Under for me, an exhilarating, goosebump-inducing, painfully effective reminder that yes, you are going to die. It was so intense that I don't think I want to play it again. But those five minutes are far more unforgettable than entire forty-hour games I've played.

You should also check out Gravitation by the same designer, Jason Rohrer, about the constant push-pull between our responsibilities to others and our longing to fulfill our potential as individuals. Or something.

Don Pachi said...

Thanks for the link, I must have missed this when it first came out. It was nice.

I instinctively went straight to the right, avoiding obstacles, getting to the end as quickly as possible. I ran into the girl right away. I knew I could move up and down or backwards but it seemed to run counter to the "goal". I picked up the boxes that got in my way but I was much more interested to see the conclusion, so I didn't go out of my way for them. I noticed my score accruing as I moved to the right; positive reinforcement.

It's interesting that the girl leads the boy, though the boy finds the girl.

I heard the upcoming sequel adds way more girls you can run into along the way.

Jimmy said...

Wow, that Gears of War quote was really immature and unnessecary. Is he so ignorant that he cant see that Gears and Passage matters in completely different ways? Why even compare them if you pronounce yourself as a deep philosophical, emotional developer.Ive heard and seen alot from Passage and I gotta say "so what?!" Just because it somehows tries to resemble some kind of married mans path in life and how people age and die alone you dont have to be all "oh my god it simulates a pessimistic view of life, oh its mindblowing". I dont think it is, at all...I rather feels its something people tell them selves to think because they want it to matter. There. I brought some balance to the neverending stream of undeserving Passage praise.

Bobby said...

A professor of mine showed this to us in class recently and it had quite the remarkable effect. We were watching one person play it on a projector in front of everyone, and you could sense the chill that poured over the room when we started to understand what was going on. It's amazing what a minimal approach can do when the concept is so strong.

Don Pachi said...

@jimmy: Well said, though I don't think it's contradictory to appreciate both Passage and Gears of War. Games like this shouldn't be pitted against each other. Nothing about them is in opposition, not even the investment since Passage is free and of a trivial length.

Most likely the Gears comment at the end of Carrie's post is out of context. I can't imagine any clear-thinking game industry professional being dismissive of that game and its well-deserved successes. Gears of War helped remind everyone that not everything has to be a watered-down, sanitized sequel in order to make it big. It's already spawned immitators that are nowhere near as good, even when they had that game as a blueprint to try and copy. But like any big success, it's easy to spurn.

Carrie said...

It's not really out of context, entirely, but I should clarify. I personally love Gears of War, but its assets and its strengths aren't the same as Passage's.

And I think that from some perspectives, wading through all of Gears to get to the nuance is more time-consuming than a five-minute game that is-a-point-within-itself.

But ultimately, while making a game like Gears would be a tremendous success for anyone, the inspiration I took from Metal Gear Solid and something like Passage, is that I wanted to make a game that makes a very strong statement. And that's very important to me, no matter how it is accomplished.

DiGiTaL_SiN said...

That was beautiful, eventhough I feel very depressed right now.But It was worth it.

DiGiTaL_SiN said...

Metal Gear Solid (specially the first PSX one) had the same effect on me when I was a kid. When I played that game it really blew my mind how great the story was. Indigo Prophecy (to some extent) had a great story to tell too (that's why I'm STILL looking forward to Heavy Rain). Dreamfall's story was also great but in a different sort of way. I can't remember any other games that really speaked to me emotionally, which is a really sad fact. (NO, NFS:MW doesn't count!)

Casey "Rev/Mopar" Cannon said...

I really did not know what to make of Passage when I played it, I wouldn't even say you "play" it to be honest.

Like most others have said, I went through, got the girl, traveled a bit, she died, I died, the end(I didn't pick-up any boxes or see ones with stars on them though). I got the metaphor of life with a companion and walking on with them by their side until she dies and your all alone. Then, I did as you asked and read what Paul had to say about it, then I fully got it.

My impressions of it are thus, a interactive silent flash film that reminds people for the millionth time that they are going to die. The thing I like about it is its unique approach, yet it seems to me about as overdone and "eh" inspiring as one of those anti-smoking "truth" commercials. I apologize if that sounds like I'm being hard on it, as it is not my intention, but rather that it's in one word, "okay".

Passage is not a game. It isn't fun. It isn't meant to be. Compare that to games today, that are meant to be fun but aren't. Most are all kill, x-button, shoot, nitrous, badass, save the world, over. Very few games are different, and those that are are only slightly. Take Metal Gear Solid, its kill, x-button, shoot, badass, save the world, over, but it has strong dramatic overtones that make it so much more memorable and amazing.

I just hope that if someone decides to make a full-on, big-budget morality / drama / psychological game, they don't burn off all of what makes it a "game", and become what Passage ultimately is to me, an amusing lecture.

Paul said...

Games can be art. Many are. Some can even make you cry.

Yeah, I listened to the HotSpot back in the day.

The beginning of Passage spoke to me particularly deeply. The blur was actually a perfect metaphor, if I do say so my self.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I’m just a jerk, but were most of you really that blown away by this? I mean seriously I played it when awhile ago, I immediately knew what it was (it’s called passage, that’s a big enough hint), I lived I walk to the right and I died. Instead of being a metaphor for life, it is literally life! Great? There is enough stuff about there that “a metaphor for life” maybe this one is interesting in its obviousness like The Seventh Seal or something, but whatever, I don’t get the appeal.

jonz said...

I started working at Gamespot shortly before you left so we never met, but I was fortunately led to your blog by clicking around on the site. I found Passage to be as emotive as you described, in fact your description of it heightened the experience for me, so I want to thank you. Also the music is very beautiful and appropriate.

Jonathan said...

If I'm going to comment here, then I really need to be open, honest and say exactly what's on my mind. I read your most recent entry, not long after you posted it and since then, I've wanted to ask both of you the following question.

Is it possible to make a game that matters, while working for EA? EA has published some noteworthy titles but when it when it comes to development, Games That Matter, don't seem to be part of their repertoire.

Your hearts and minds seem to be in the right place and I do hope, in all honesty, that the two of you do in fact make a game that matters.

Carrie said...

Thanks everyone for your honesty, even those of you that didn't like it/get it. I know it doesn't have the same effect on everyone, and it might be difficult to please everyone when you're making games, but I'd like to try.

Jonathan, it's a great question, but I have little basis for comparison since I've never worked anywhere but EA (in development). I feel, in my current position, to have a tremendous amount of freedom to make the game as good as I can. If the Tome or the UI fails, it will not be because the EA overlords got in my way, it will be because I failed. We've now been given three delays, strictly to bring the game to the highest possible quality level, so in my experience the "EA thing" has had zero impact on my work.

Now, it's a corporation and there are money, time, and resource issues... there always will be. If I had my way, perhaps the game would never come out because I'd be working on it so long.

That's why it's nice to dream about a game as simple as this. I'm working on perhaps a game that is Passage's opposite, because it is MASSIVE, and so it is going to be very difficult for me to bring the same level of heart and dedication to every aspect of the game.

But I'm trying, believe me, I'm trying.

Anonymous said...

Carrie, I played the game without reading the second half of your post, and initially I did pretty much what you did. Having read the narrative, it means so much more, though I did enjoy the game for what it was before reading the rest of the blog...the narrative is absolutely amazing. Games these days don't focus much on narratives that matter, I find, and in turn, are forgettable, long after you've finished them. I can only think of a handful of games that really use narratives like this...ones that really mean something, and it breaks my heart, because I love gaming...but I can only name 5 out of the millions out there, that have truly touched me in any emotional way. Losing your "soulmate" in this game (because who else could she be, being that you die pretty soon after she does), and the commentary on life, and how unclear everything is...and how we can sometimes miss the obvious because we spend our time looking for the things that don't really matter...Well, it's just incredible. Not a lot of games have heart. That's definitely what this little 5 minute game has. Heart. Thank you for posting this. :)

Anonymous said...

found myself here cause of a Twitter post. Thanks for the pointer to PASSAGE. Yes, I down loaded it, launched it and stumbled on the right arrow. I'm not a gamer usually. The 5 minute limit caused interest. The heart was the give away. I'm rambling with a "right arrow" now for over 34 years. Yes, hair falls away and turns gray. I do hope one thing though, that some how the tomb stones appear either in different order or simultaneously.