Video Game Art: ‘Passage’

Posted by @ 1:40 am on May 27th, 2009

There’s been a lot of discussion of video games and their influences on literary art.

Here, then, is a rather rare and interesting entity in the realm of conceptual gaming: Jason Rohrer’s ‘Passage.’ (Free to download and very little time required in the playing, give it a try, you’ll see).


Because the point and nature of the game are not immediately apparent, you should download and explore it, paying attention, and then, if you are interested, follow for more thoughts after the break.

If you didn’t quite follow, or ‘get’ what’s going on, (or if you just read on without trying it out, which loses the appeal) here is a particularly well-stated summary of the ideas from Edward Champion’s blog:

Jason Roher’s surprisingly touching game, Passage, freely available for download and released a few months ago, quite easily destroys Ebert’s thesis that the video game is incapable of poetry. Roher achieves a unique poetry both in limiting the player’s perspective to a 100×16 window and through the deceptively simple manner that he has designed this game for the player. Play the game once and you will follow a strapping young man from left to right. He finds a woman along the way. A pixelated heart soon follows. As the man advances further along this horizontal tableau, he (and his sweetheart) begins to age. He goes bald. As he continues to age, his position on the axis shifts further to the right. Near the end of his life, he is hobbling. Then a tombstone crops up. The End.

Or is it?

The game isn’t limited to left-to-right movement. Play the game again, press the down arrow. and you will find yourself exploring a maze below the top, collecting many stars and stumbling for a way out. But with this simple design, Rohrer has done something very interesting. If you choose to fall in love with your sweetheart, the two of you can only explore certain areas. Because with your partner in tow, you collectively take up a wider space and can only fit into specific territory. If you choose to go through this life solo, then you’ll be able to collect many of the stars denied you and your sweetheart, but you may get lost in the maze and be unable to find your way back to where your sweetheart waits.

I love the idea of making a game entirely around a constraint or concept, over playability, but leaving it for the player to uncover this constraint, rather than making it plan faced. While some of the work of the Oulipo, for example, can be so bold in its definitions that you are so attended to their rules that you lose some of the hit, the great subtlety of the constraint, and the epiphany of the restraint for the player as they interact with the art object, makes for a much more powerful impact that simply something constructed in an arbitrary manner.

This ‘epiphany’ (yeah, gag me on the word, but ‘surprise’ in its own way is more what I mean) can be the difference in what makes a piece of constraint art memorable and impacting over simply an exercise in artistic splaying.

I’m thinking, then, of Coover, whose constraints work as an end to a means over a syntactical method, and Dennis Cooper, whose constraints are often so well embedded that they may not even be made aware in a reader’s head, or even conceptual ideas in David Foster Wallace or Brian Evenson, where the work has certain rules or concepts about themselves that operate not as a gimmick or a form body, but as a vehicle for taking the object itself to another level in its expression to the reader, and as the object.

Beyond all of this, it’s a memorable experience, if a brief one, as most all art is: one that comes and goes, and maybe, if you are lucky, sticks longer than the time in which it takes to take down.

For more on video games as art, be sure to check out Ian Bogost’s excellent blog, which is packed to the gills with more of this sort of work, and thoughts on them in spades.

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