Game designer artist Jason Rohrer has done some pretty neat things. I admire the ambition of Sleep Is Death, an experimental foray into two-person storytelling, even though it can be hard to get a networked game set up. Inside a Star-Filled Sky is beautiful to watch in motion. And the drama surrounding 2011’s Chain World was absolutely fascinating.
His most widely-celebrated work, however, is a game called Passage. It never fails to come up in discussions of “art games,” or of “smart games.” A “pixellated metaphor”, designed specifically to make gamers cry. This heavy praise used to just make me roll my eyes. Sure, I’ve played the game, but I honestly didn’t get the excitement. Then, after a while this reaction morphed into something more like… anger. I didn’t just feel it was over-rated, but, there was something about it that has always bothered me. It was a reaction I forced myself to examine.
If you haven’t played it, then you might feel a little lost now. It’s downloadable here. But, it’s basic enough to explain. (Spoilers now.) A small, heavily pixellated character, your avatar, walks from left, to right, on the screen. He can’t go back. As he journeys, he will be able to go down into a maze, to collect treasures that he finds, if he wants. He can also join up with a female pixellated character, who will then continue on with him. As he reaches the right side of the screen, he starts to slow down, and then he turns into a little tombstone. Game over.
This takes five minutes. If you don’t have five minutes, here is the same rough experience, in ten seconds.
If it was just that the game is too basic to get the reviews it’s gotten, I would be merely annoyed, rather than actually angry at it. So what is it, then? I think I’ve figured it out.
Sometimes, Kotaku finds an article on a personal blog it thinks will generate some hits, and brings it over. This article, posted earlier in the week, is by John Scalzi. He is a sci-fi author, but occasionally writes in his own blog about social issues as well. This article is about white straight male privilege. Given that this post generated massive comment traffic on his own blog, as well, and was almost-vaguely-video-game-related, it was bound to drive some hits to Kotaku. It also stirred up Kotaku comment controversy and lots of discussion elsewhere on the internet. Lots of people were offended. Most of those people were the people the article was about: straight white males.
Now that I’ve linked this article, I do find it a little problematic. Not because I disagree with Scalzi’s thesis, or even with his use of metaphor. But the article is still only able to preach to the converted. As is easy to gather from even a small sample of the comments, the straight white men of Kotaku are not receptive to a message about how life is easy for them. From their perspective, it isn’t, and they resent anyone who wants to tell them otherwise.
Here’s why I went there. It may just be my perception, but it seems like the sort of gamer who was oh-so-moved by Passage, its simplicity, its way of showing you “how life is,” is also a straight white male. The same kind of straight white male who was offended by that article about privilege.
Passage has few meaningful choices, but the important one is “do you take a woman with you or not.” At some point in your journey, you will encounter her, and you have the choice to walk past or to join up with her. If you choose to take her with you, she prevents your avatar from moving through parts of the maze below him. She increases your scoring potential, and people argue she’s just “nice to have,” but at the same time, she’s deliberately designed to be an obstacle and sort of annoying.
From the creator’s statement about Passage:
You simply cannot fit through narrow paths when you are walking side-by-side. In fact, you will sometimes find yourself standing right next to a treasure chest, yet unable to open it, and the only thing standing in your way will be your spouse. On the other hand, exploring the world is more enjoyable with a companion, and you’ll reap a larger reward from exploration if she’s along.
So: women. They get in your way, they’re not much help, but having them around is “more fun.” That’s how it works, right? When your avatar’s wife dies, if he had one, he will walk even slower than if he had never had a wife at all, hampering his progress. Burdensome. And no, it’s not her choice whether or not she will come with you. It’s just your choice whether or not you take her. She hasn’t got much say in the matter.
Passage, then. A game about a man, and a woman with no agency, who slows you down and holds you back, but sure is nice to look at, I guess.
While we’re at it, let’s more closely examine the fact that the wife always dies first. This certainly does not match the experiences of any of my female relatives. Nor does it match statistics. The wife dies first in Passage, because the story is about the man.
So, yes, I’m irritated by Passage because I am a woman. That’s the primary source of my anger as it turns out. I guess I’m just okay with female objectification in a game that tries to make that light and silly. And I’m less okay with it in a game that’s supposed to be deep and meaningful. But that’s not all.
Here’s short list of things you don’t have to think about, in Passage:
- When you will die. Conveniently, you die of a nice ripe old age every time. There’s no unfortunate accidents like being randomly shot, starving, or being just too ill to continue on into your golden years.
- Who you will marry. Congratulations, you’re straight, so no worries there. You will marry a woman, if you choose, and of course this is fine and acceptable.
- Your identity. How people will perceive you. How that affects the amount of walls that will be in your way.
- Anything inconvenient happening at all.
Am I arguing that Passage needs to be universal, to try to mimic everyone’s possible experience? No. I’m arguing that straight white male gamers need to stop treating it like it does. As a story about life, I feel as if it has very little to say, and what it does have to say actually upsets me.
And now that I’ve gone here, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Passage: was it moving to you? Did you notice the way it treated the female character, and was that bothersome or fine?
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.