You take games too seriously.

Jason Rohrer and Passage: Part 2 – Release, Reaction, Revolution (?)

passage top 2

Welcome to Part Two of HardCasual’s look at Jason Rohrer and Passage, his recent indie-hit. We left off with Jason on the verge of showing Passage for the first time at Gamma256.  Read on for his big release, the blogosphere’s reaction, and life after internet stardom…

If you need to catch up, check out Part 1 HERE.


1 November 2007: Rohrer shows Passage for the first time at the Gamma256 contest. The contest derives the name Gamma256 from its key design tenant: all participating games must take place within 256 pixels or less. On Gamma 256’s webpage each of the designers offers a concise description of their game.

Doomed Planet by Nick Sheet

Abduct Earthlings without getting shot down!

Bloody Zombies by Petri Purho

Mow down zombies and use their blood to get around.

Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much by Jimmy Andrews

Really cute puzzle solving.

Passage by Jason Rohrer

A journey through time.

Clearly, Rohrer is odd man out. Though, it’s unfair to say each game doesn’t have its own grand aspirations, Rohrer’s deals with time, love, and death. On his personal webpage he discusses his inspiration for these themes:

A close friend from our neighborhood died last month. Yep, I’ve been thinking about life and death a lot lately. This game is an expression of my recent thoughts and feelings. Passage is meant to be a memento mori game. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes. Of course, it’s a game, not a painting or a film, so the choices that you make as the player are crucial. There’s no “right” way to play Passage, just as there’s no right way to interpret it. However, I had specific intentions for the various mechanics and features that I included.

In an instant, Jason Rohrer fires a torpedo into Roger Ebert’s engine room. Passage offers a distinct emotional narrative, one where the author has control over the philosophy, the conclusion, and the message of the story, but the experience itself is uniquely derived from the user’s game play. Passage must exist exclusively in the videogame medium. The blast does not go unnoticed. Passage receives much attention at the contest, and the word-of-mouth quickly spills onto the web.

Jason Rohrer confronts popularity, message boards, and death (but not all at once) after the jump…

1 December 2007: Ian Bogost at Water Cooler Games praises Passage and begs readers to try out the game, now published on Rohrer’s webpage. Regarding Gamma256, Bogost says, “All the games were very good, but the standout for me was Jason Rohrer’s superb specimen, Passage.”

2 December 2007: Kotaku, celebrated by many as the go to gamer blog, follows Water Cooler Games’ lead, though author Maggie Greene seems perplexed bit it, “It’s a weird little game,” she says, “but sweet, and worth spending a couple of minutes with. But weird.”

A Winter of Un-Discontent: Over the next few months, Passage along with many other “Rohrer games” skyrockets to internet stardom. Between December 2007 and March 2008, over 60 unique publications, from the Wall Street Journal to Joystiq, 1UP to The London Guardian, all cover Passage. And one cannot help, but feel joyful for Mr. Rohrer.

Back on his personal webpage, he describes his outlook on life through Passage:

So what can you do with your life? In Passage, one possibility is to search for and open treasure chests. Of course, not every pursuit leads to a reward—most of them are empty. Over time, though, you can learn which pursuits are likely to be rewarding. Each treasure chest is marked with a sequence of gems on its front, and this sequence indicates whether the chest contains a reward. During your lifetime, you can learn to read these sequences and only spend your precious time opening worthwhile treasure chests.

Like learning a games rules and tricks, Rohrer seems to have learned where to find the chests with perfectly sequenced gems.  But it’s not always easy for Rohrer to open these chests, even with Passage, which he says was “pretty easy” to make (“everything just clicked into place along the way”), he confronted emotionally difficult hurdles while developing it,” especially at the moment when I realized that I had cast myself as the main character,” Rohrer said. “This was a game about my own death. I was crying when I had that realization.”

14 March 2008: Videogame analysis and web magazine The Escapist hires Jason Rohrer for a monthly column titled “Game Design Sketchbook.”  Each month Rohrer assembles a new game prototype and pairs it with a discussion on a new topic. First up, Perfectionism. He continues to set his goals high-perhaps unreachably so.

20 March 2008: Jason Rohrer returns to Art House games to write about famous art game designer, Rod Humble’s, new piece, Stars Over Half Moon Bay. Humble’s Marriage is a success amongst videogame scholars, and recognized as a step forward for games as art. This time Rohrer takes his metaphor argument for Fez and expands it to describe Humble’s work. “Creativity is not about pulling a completely new idea out of thin air,” Rohrer says, “but instead about the process of making connections where none were noticed before—indeed, perhaps even where none truly exist at all.”

That concept rings true to Rohrer’s process. His games are not efforts to create pompous work of games as art, but they instead draw interesting connections previously ignored. He draws the line from game to philosophy to spirituality to process and back.

Passage’s visuals and mechanics amount to little more than an NES game. Yet, it grabs fans worldwide, not just as a game, but as an appreciable work of art. For example, Xbox360Master discusses it on the 1UP.com forums, “Holy…frickin’…crap. Forget little sisters. Screw the weighted companion cube. David Jaffe, eat your heart out. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Passage – the very first game to make me cry.” While some gamers, like Ocha, are less amused. “Thank god it was only 5 minutes,” says Ocha. This strong, full-spectrum reaction only strengthens Rohrer’s work as an art form. Perhaps Xbox360Master was right, and Passage revealed a touching connection between life and games. Or maybe Ocha’s write to presume there was never a connection. Whether they agree with the connections, statements, and conclusions Rohrer makes means little as long as the work evokes something from its audience. Jason Rohrer does not appear eager for praise, rather he seems to love his work, and enjoys bringing an audience with him as a paves the way for new method to the medium.

One last return to his webpage, Rohrer discusses death in Passage.

Yes, you could spend your five minutes trying to accumulate as many points as possible, but in the end, death is still coming for you. Your score looks pretty meaningless hovering there above your little tombstone. This treatment of character death stands in stark contrast with the way death is commonly used in video games (where you die countless times during a given game and emerge victorious—and still alive—in the end). Passage is a game in which you die only once, at the very end, and you are powerless to stave off this inevitable loss.

Death is important to Rohrer; he further extrapolates on it himself:

I still struggle a lot with the big questions. I’ve been a life-long atheist, so I’m stricken with feelings of existential terror from time to time.  I’m generally happier than most people, though, and some would say that there’s a trick to this:  the only way to be happy is to contemplate your own death on a daily basis.

Whether you enjoy Jason Rohrer’s work, there is a palpable excitement in the gaming community to see what he does next. What treasure chest has he yet to open? Where will he go?

Britons regard Vice General Horatio Nelson not as a one-man army, but a kind, strong, and determined, figure of hope who stood up to war that seemed destined for failure. As videogames struggle for recognition as art, Jason Rohrer represents a Nelson-like figure, not pretentious or exclusive, but eager to fight for what he believes in. Gamers can hope one day, the games as art conclusion is so clear, so common knowledge, that it might be celebrated like Trafalgar Day, with a few hurrah and a toast by those few dedicated to the past.

I hope to keep in contact with Mr. Rohrer to learn more about his work, his process, his ambitions, and what these projects mean to him. Or it may all be meaningless. As he modestly states “Your interpretation of the game is more important than my intentions.”



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