You take games too seriously.

Jason Rohrer and Passage: Part 1 – Art, Ebert, and General Nelson

Passage by Jason Rohrer

Many of you have played Jason Rohrer’s passage, a five-minute indie game about “a Journey through time.” It you haven’t played it yet, check it our for free here. (Oh no! Spoilers ahead!)

I was fortunate enough to speak recently with Mr. Rohrer over e-mail. He was very kind and generous not just with his work, but with his thoughts and feelings. I hope you enjoy this two part take on Jason Rohrer and his indie-hit, Passage.


I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.
-Roger Ebert


21 October 1805: Vice General Horatio Nelson, with his modest fleet, overcomes the combined efforts of French and Spanish battle ships in the Battle of Trafalgar. He dies from a fatal wound.

21 October 2005: The Britons calmly celebrate the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar Day, honoring Nelson, the great fallen war hero. After World War I, the celebration of Nelson the heroics of war have both lost esteem. Still, a small group of British nationalists partake in festivities and a toast in Trafalgar Square.

Across the pond, in Chicago, Illinois, Roger Ebert, established film critic, and sole-survivor of televisions “Siskel & Ebert” writes a controversial one star review of Doom, a film based on the video game of the same name, regarded by many as an artifact of nineties gaming culture. The review receives little press, until a reader shoots Ebert a letter claiming Doom was misunderstood; it should not be viewed as solid film, but a testament to an influential video game. The writer compares Doom’s situation to Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, a film that disobeyed, remaining loyal to its source text.

While Ebert offers a complete, intelligent response, the videogame community (perhaps rightfully) boils it down to Ebert’s unintended declaration of war: “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.”

This is a new war, not pitting the underdog Britons against the established powers, France and Spain but videogames against the impenetrable film and literature industries. Gamers want credit for their hard work and dedication to the medium. They want to be recognized not as children, but as fellow connoisseurs of art. Artists, afraid of losing their inclusive stronghold and with a disdain for popular culture (see: television as art), bolt the doors to keep games locked out of their circles. The game community digs in for the long haul.

This is a digital war. Unlike the film industry’s battle to establish itself as an art form by publishing critical journals, the video game front is generally made up non-professional critics who wage their battles with open source media like forums, blogs, and YouTube. Their method is both progressive, like the detailed discussions by the IGDA ListServe, and regressive—flame wars.

The battle rolls forward for over a year, as both sides offer little ground. Ebert cedes games may be art, but will never, by definition, be high art, while a handful of game designers admit video games inherently lack complete authorial control. Eventually, the sea calms until Clive Barker, a game designer and novelist, uses his keynote at the second annual Hollywood and Games Summit to make a messy argument for games as art.

Passage by Jason Rohrer 2

28 July 2007: Jason Rohrer, a small game designer in Potsdam, New York, writes a novel, dialogue-style response to Mr. Ebert and Mr. Barker on ArtHouseGames.com. It attracts attention from niche blogs, and is the first time I hear of Jason Rohrer.

Rohrer on Ebert, Passage, and the artist’s life (oh la la!) after the jump…

Mr. Rohrer is a fan of Roger Ebert and a gamer like Mr. Barker. Rohrer makes a conscious effort is respect to both sides of the argument. I spoke with Mr. Rohrer recently, and he explained his position as a gamer and as an artist:

…I’ve liked games a lot my whole life, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found fewer and fewer of them to be worth my time. I don’t read books or watch movies or listen to music as “timewasters,” and I don’t want to play games that are timewasters either. I generally find artbooks, artfilms, and artmusic to be good uses of my time. They enrich me as a person, make me think about things in new ways, etc.

Thus, I want to make artgames, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time in making them, nor wasting other people’s time who play them. Desktop Tower Defense is really fun and really addictive, but I don’t find that it enriches my life at all. I find that I need to force myself to stop playing it

It’s an argument equal parts Clive Barker’s praise for the video game medium, and Roger Ebert’s disdain for the medium’s addictive and empty qualities. This isn’t to say Jason Rohrer’s a pacifist, because over the next few months, he puts up a good fight to release and spread Passage.

Mr. Rohrer is not with life’s conflict and struggle. He’s almost thirty, and has a family of four. He reportedly lives on $10,000 a year, all in donations to his webpage. Though Rohrer rarely discusses his personal life online, he does discuss life’s challenges through the lens of Passage:

Passage represents life’s challenges with a maze. The screen geometry only allows you to view a narrow slice of this maze at any given moment. You can see quite a distance out in front of you (and, later in life, behind you), but you can’t see anything to the north or south. You may see a reward up ahead but not be able to see a clear path to it. In fact, after a bit of exploration, you may discover that a seemingly nearby reward is in fact unreachable

15 October 2007: Rohrer re-appears on ArtHouseGames.com one last time before the release of Passage to discuss Fez, a platformer by Kokoromi where a “3D world [is] compressed down to one of four 2D projections, where only the 2D versions of the world [can] be navigated.”

Though only a few weeks from release, he never mentions his current project. Instead, he focuses on Fez and the long in development and equally anticipated Braid by Jon Blow. Near the conclusion of the articles, Rohrer asks Arthouse Games’ obvious big question, “”How does Fez measure up as an art game? One view of art holds that interpretation is essential…” Though he goes on to discuss interpretation in Fez, it’s clear this big idea, this use of interpretation as art, sits heavy on his mind.

passage by Jason Rohrer 3


Stay tuned for Part 2: Passage‘s release, the blogosphere’s reaction, and life’s big question answered–sort of.

What’s your opinion of Passage? Are games art? Are there things to be done for games to become art? Are you tired of this silly games/art debate? As always, fill us in!


(Pictures: Jason Rohrer’s personal webpage for Passage)


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  1. […] Jason Rohrer and Passage: Part 1 – Art, Ebert, and General Nelson4.8 […]

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