Dubious Games: Passage turns the side-scroller into a twisted game of life

In 2012, 14 video games were selected as the inaugural additions to the Museum of Modern Art’s new video game collection. Most of the titles – Tetris, SimCity 2000, Flow – fit into easy categories as puzzlers, platformers, sims, and the like. But Passage, developed by Jason Rohrer in 2007 for the Montreal International Games Summit, stands out as an exceptionally non-traditional sort of “game.” You could technically try to go for a high score, but there’s not really any way to “win.” It is a rigidly confined experience.

Life in Five Minutes

That confinement is built both into the structure and the presentation of the game. It plays out on a very narrow strip of screen against a black background, with the player having to navigate a 2D maze while seeing very little of it at a time. You get exactly five minutes to play. When those five minutes are up, your character dies. Along the way, you’ll watch him slowly but surely age from a young man to an old one.

The game’s look is an expert flex of minimalism, using heavily pixelated art to suggest time’s relentless march in some extremely clever ways. Your avatar’s gradual aging is expressed via elements like an increasing hunch in posture, as well as a graying and recession of hair. One subtle aspect you won’t notice at first is that your character’s position on the screen changes as the clock runs out, starting on the far left and ending up on the right. At the same time, what’s either before or behind you (your entire life, essentially) is represented as a mashed-together blur. At the beginning it’s potential, at the end it represents memory.

Over the runtime, there’s not much to do besides accumulate points, which you can accomplish both by moving forward and by uncovering treasure chests hidden in the maze. Many games assume this kind of setup: You have a limited amount of time in which to do whatever it is you do to score points, and generally you attempt to get as high a score as possible. But by reframing this as a lifetime lived, Passage seeks to make the player think about just what they are doing.

Memento Mori

Rohrer describes Passage as a “memento mori game.” Like many games, it emphasizes player choice, but the focus on aging and death puts into question what the point is. That would normally be a bad thing, except ruminating on the point is the point, so much as the game can be said to have one.

In this light, play style becomes less about what nets the most points and more about what you decide to prioritize. If you want to see as many different backgrounds as possible, you stick to the route you start out on, which is mostly free of obstacles – though also of treasure. Early on you meet a woman whom you can join up with. Having companionship makes for a sweet image, but it also restricts the number of places you can explore and the treasure you can reach, since she’ll be glued to your side. No matter how you proceed, the result is the same: your grave. Think over how you’re going to do it.