The video game industry has its fair share of prominent personalities; celebrities one could almost say. Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmack, Cliff Bleszinski, Hideki Kamiya, Gabe Newell just to name a few that leap immediately to mind. Influential designers, producers and coders on blockbuster titles delivering a swathe of experiences across an expanse of genres. However, the names of independent developers are less likely to be found on the tongue of every-day gamers and enthusiasts. Jonathan Blow perhaps the most recognised for his excellent Braid, and it’s possible the name Markus Persson could tweak the memory registers as the creator of Minecraft.
One independent developer that is no stranger to the focus of attention from the more adventurous gamer and journalist alike, is Jason Rohrer. His projects align succinctly with the interests of the Digital Romance Lab scientists and is, in this writer’s eyes, one of the most interesting people in video games today.
And not just for the games he creates, but for his ideals, philosophies and engaging insight in today’s life and times. A man who practices what many preach though hardly walk the talk, he and his family live on a 14,000 dollar yearly budget, and codes on computers that others have thrown away. These boundaries not of necessity but of choice and for which I greatly admire. Indeed, when I discovered the world of Rohrer via Robert Ashley‘s podcast A Life Well Wasted, I have been fascinated since.
The games are as interesting as the man himself, and his passion for creating emotional engagement succeeds where most others fail. Computing power notwithstanding.
One such game born from these constraints is Passage, which may indeed be his most known. Released on PC and later iOS, Passage presents the player with a limited horizontal plane in which up, down, left and right movement are the only options. There is little way of instruction and the player is free to go where they choose, though right – through gamer instinct or visual cue – is the most trodden and immediately explored. Indeed, some have commented they were unaware there lay any other path.
Venturing right, the player – who has taken the role of a young man – is soon met with a young lady and the two join as companions. The pair will traverse this landscape with the horizon ahead long but unclear at its extreme. As time goes on both become visibly older and move at a slower pace. The reverse direction lengthens representing wisdom, but ahead the view shortens as if to show future prospects limiting. Soon the couple reach so far to the right as to almost touch the fog of pixels ahead, a hidden goal just out of reach, when the now much older woman passes away. Here the player may falter as this event is unexpected, and will likely question the next course of action. Subsequent play throughs however will reveal that standing firm by her side reaps little reward as the player soon passes as well, and moving on does the same. The unspoken goal, the very right side of the screen, unreachable as you pass away regardless of your unrelenting march.
Going backward likewise offers no safety from the inevitable.
In moving downward you soon get lost in a maze of walls and obstacles, however unlike the top section, chests lie about offering points. Here the player can run around as if in a rat race collecting as many chests as can be found. Interestingly, if you traverse the maze with your companion, movement is limited as the two of you are too large for most gaps, leaving you both to expire with few points and even less progress. Rohrer is perhaps hinting at the futility of chasing wealth over love and the adventure of life. Or, perhaps, simply the difficulties and frustrations faced in doing so.
Regardless of your goal in Passage — run to the right and live a full and easy life, venture below to collect points, or a combination of the two — your companion will die and so will you. There are no obtainable objectives and, seemingly, no reason behind any actions at all other than to make what I believe to be Rohrer’s ultimate point – that there isn’t one.
Life is a journey of limited scope, the experience better in sharing it.