February 13, 2008Glenn Turner

Passage, Jason Rohrer's memento mori game, was one of my favorite game experiences of 2007, not to mention one of the most emotional ones. If you haven't played it yet, you really have no excuse: It's free, available for practically every major current computing platform, and it only takes five minutes of your time. That's less time than it'd take me to summarize it!

Nonetheless, I'll try. Rohrer's project has two characters, one a playable male character, the other a female non-playable character, both stuck in a randomly generated environment. The male can chose to take the female as a spouse and travel with her at his side, or journey alone across the lands. As time moves on both characters age, and their field-of-view of the past decreases as they inch further and further towards the righthand side of the screen, regardless of any movement on their behalf.

Shortly before you reach the end of the screen, the woman dies, leaving a behind a simple tombstone which cripples the primary character (if the character chooses to take a spouse). Then, right before the five minute mark, you die, leaving behind the same tombstone. Both deaths are abrupt, but I was most moved by the suddenness of my spouse's death – one might say stunned. I did try to continue moving forward, but her death nagged gently on my mind until I expired.

Upon completing the game, I was struck by the fact that my spouse specifically died before I did. I replayed the game a few more times, observing her time-of-death, which was the same no matter what. I scratched my head, murmuring "in all statistical likelihood, she'd probably live longer than me. Quite a bit longer, in fact." Women, at least in the United States, live on average five years longer than men. And when a woman becomes a widow, she typically lives longer lives than a widower does (although it's worth noting that, in Passage, the wife dies at the same time, regardless of her marriage status).

I can't help but be torn. On one hand, here's an intensely personal and moving work, a piece that Mr. Rohrer created as a way to come to terms with the recent loss of a friend and the existential struggles that lay in turning thirty. He even went as far as modeling the husband and wife characters after himself and his own spouse. But, on the other hand, I have to ask 'Why then?' She always dies four minutes and twelve seconds into the game (at least, according to my stopwatch), leaving the miserly old husband to fend for himself, crippled and alone, for nearly a minute. And while it's a startling display, to all of the sudden see and feel the loss of your spouse, this exactly-timed demise seems to be contrary to the randomly generated plots of land, not to mention the current mortality curve itself.

It could simply be about exposing the player to loss. Or it could just be a way to impart fear into the player, that the wife's death foreshadows the player's own inevitable demise. Or, it could be construed as a selfish thought by Mr. Rohrer to believe that he'll outlive his spouse, that this is how he envisions his life playing out, that those around him can't exist or continue without him.

Whatever the reason, whatever the intended effect, it certainly was intentional and that's what has me in a quandary. Is it right for me to judge this personal piece based on the intentional timing of the wife's death? Is it wrong for me to want to see how, not only myself, but how others would cope with the husband dying before her, forced to watch her from the heavens until she rejoins him? Simply giving the wife the same odds as the husband could have potentially had a more interesting and impacting effect on the player. So what's more important here, a more varied and representative reflection on mortality, or a restricted, personal, intentional one? Should I let it go and accept Passage's perspective for what it is?

Well, should I?

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4 comments for ‘Passage - A Question of Timing’

#1 jt-3d Mar 2, 2008 03:52am

I think the message is clear: Never pack a woman, ever. You won't be able to do as much as you would without one, you won't even be able to do all the things you need to do to prolong your life. And she'll lead you around by the nose and always be in the way if you want to do something fun like ... uh, watch stars come out of boxes. In short, you 'll live longer and enjoy life more without a woman. I think that's about it.

This one is just plain strange. I'd much rather play Alter Ego or even Little Computer People but at least the price is right.

psst...I think the guy who wrote it might be a hippie.

#2 lemre Mar 2, 2008 09:25pm

Thank you, jt-3d -- I think that's about the best distillation of all the problems I have with this heavy-handed game that I've yet read.

Is there any way to just get Jonathan Blow to stop talking for a while?

#3 M. Dyer Mar 15, 2008 03:53am

D. Riley's "recommendation" comments had me intrigued just to try this out - five minutes, what the hell?

The characters are incomprehensible, and my pre-existing knowledge - having read this and listened to Dave - about the finale had me doubting why I should care, but when the woman died, and my character shrivelled up and slowed to a snails-pace crawl, I actually stopped playing. I wasn't stunned by any means, but I did ponder what I felt before I finished it off.

When I finished, I didn't like it, and I still don't. I think the press this "game" - which is a hold-right walking simulator - is undeserved. That's not to say it doesn't deserve ANY, but it's being blown out of proportion. It made me feel something briefly, but it didn't achieve what it wanted to - I didn't ever feel compassion for the characters, and the melancholy melodies kind of drove me insane.

Still, I haven't deleted it yet.

#4 Gingor Apr 1, 2008 04:51pm

I liked it. I'd say that if a normal game is equivalent to a novel this would be something like a haiku, short and rigidly structured.
Made me question why i had more sympathy for this little blocky geezer than the Master Chiefs and Crofts etc.