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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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Live a lifetime in just five minutes Add to ...

I'm a bit late to the party on Passage, a free downloadable game for computers (it's about 17 months old now), but I thought it both interesting and obscure enough to warrant a quick post.

Designed by independent game maker Jason Rohrer and submitted to Kokoromi's Gamma 256 Festival in Montreal (an exhibition of independent games meant to promote the medium as expressive and artistic), Passage takes place within a 100-pixel-by-16-pixel box. Its visual style, which consists of blocky objects and characters rendered in a small palette of colours-see screenshot above-is akin to that of quarter century-old adventure games like Pitfall, but its message is arguably more profound than that of any modern title I've seen released through a major studio.

Each game in Passage lasts only five minutes, but in those brief moments our protagonist, a tiny blue-eyed man, lives his entire life. He starts as a young man, then quickly ages as he explores the game's maze-like environment, until, at the end, hunchbacked and sluggish, he dies.

That's it. There's no grand objective, no way to "win." Regardless of how quickly we progress through the maze or how many points we accumulate, the result is always the same: Our little hero passes away, alone and without fuss or fanfare.

Viewed as a game, Passage is a bit of a bust. Its rudimentary controls are frustratingly stiff, and its loud, old-school graphics can induce migraines. But it isn't really a game. Rather, it's a metaphor for life; a meditation on the human condition.

The maze-like environment represents the paths that stretch before us. Some lead to dead ends, others to treasures, and still more tease us with riches that forever remain out of reach. One avenue leads to a wife, but if we take a partner then many of the game's narrower corridors will become inaccessible; a clever representation of the reduction in personal freedom that comes with marriage.

The maze can be avoided completely, should you desire, by moving East along its northern edge. What's more, doing so will guarantee a steady and dependably rate of increase in one's score. Think of this as the safe route through life, the one that results in modest but respectable retirement savings. By dipping into the unpredictable maze below you can strive for riches, but in so doing you risk wasting time and forsake the reliable score wage that comes with the safer path.

Of course, one of Passage's ironic twists is that score is proven moot by the game's end. A higher score won't earn you an extra life or a bonus level. Indeed, all the riches in the world cannot procure immortality.

As the invisible, five-minute clock that is in effect our protagonist's life meter winds down, his view of the road ahead slowly diminishes. This might indicate that he can see his end slowly and inexorably drawing near, but I prefer to interpret it as meaning the time that lies beyond death remains forever hidden, that death is a wall the opposite side of which can never be seen.

Clearly, Passage can be depressing. As I played I could not help but equate the game's simple events to the infinitely more complex happenings of my life, and in the process take critical stock of my own desires and goals.

However, the game's inevitable conclusion-that the ending of one's life isn't as important as the paths one takes to reach it-is enlightening, perhaps even uplifting.

Put plainly, Passage is graceful proof that interactive media is capable of delivering poetic meaning. It's unfortunate we don't see developers exploiting this capacity in mainstream fare.

Follow me on Twitter: @chadsapieha dstb()

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