Thursday 15 March 2012

Passage, by Jason Rohrer - a naive review

A screenshot from Jason Rohrer's 'Passage'
The only instruction I will give you is, at the start, walk right until you meet the girl (should take a few seconds). After that you are on your own.

On my first play-through, I did as I was told. I chest-bumped my little man into the little woman, and pulled her into my gravitational field. We headed right: I ran after her. We headed left: she ran after me. We did this for a while, like running time trials in P.E - me after her, her after me.

Then I decided I owed it to the experiment to … experiment. First, we tried to run into the green ‘sea’ - no go. Then, we started tackling the obstacles: bumping into them, and then wending our way around them. The further south we went, the harder it was for us both to pass between the obstacles. We tracked, somewhat aimlessly, up and down, back and forth.

I noticed the time (or score? I wasn’t sure) ticking over in the top right. The spaces got smaller and smaller. I began to get frustrated with the woman: she was making this harder, she wasn’t helping. Suddenly, her hair turned grey. My brain telegraphed METAPHOR! METAPHOR! And then, quite suddenly, she crumpled, and turned into a little grey tombstone. I stood next to her for a while, unsure what to do next. A dog lingering by its master’s grave. Then I, too, crumpled and died.

The next game, I dodged around the girl, and sprinted as fast as I could to the right. I encountered no obstacles, just flight: just flight and colours and sound. I was unencumbered, free. The colours were beautiful. Solo life was both richer and less complicated than coupled life. I felt a fleeting regret for leaving the girl behind, and considered, briefly, turning back to see if she was still waiting for me. But the lure of the ever-changing colours won me over. I ran my heart out until the score reached 323, when I tombstoned once again.

My third and final play, I decided to take the girl on the journey I had just been on. I picked her up, and we ran, full tilt, through the colours. When the score reached 150, we were in a palette I liked: red background, black and white chequered foreground, a purple haze to the left. I took my hands off the keys. For the next few minutes, time slowed. We stood next to each other. Passage doesn’t allow stasis though. The game eased us into the future. We closed in on the horizon. We greyed together. We neared the right-hand edge. She crumpled and died. Before I met the horizon, I died too.


After I played, he asked me: How did you feel when the girl dies?

I was momentarily stumped. Then he helped me out:

Was it just, "Oh okay, now the girl dies"? 
Or did you experience an emotional reaction to it?

I realised, when asked, that the first time round, I didn’t feel anything. I was distracted by the sudden revelation of the metaphor; I had been catapulted from trying to play the game into getting the game. I didn’t feel sad - I felt fulfilled.

My second round, I didn’t see her die. And I didn’t mind, that much. I had that fleeting curiosity about her fate in my absence, but I was on my own path.

The third time, I felt it. I knew it was coming, and there was something beautiful in that expectation: a satisfaction in how neatly and poignantly it all wound up, her tombstone slipping slowly out of sight.

Our conversation gradually came round to the topic of melancholia.

I almost always pick up the girl and walk as far to the right as I can.
The girl always dies first. ... 
and I never know what to do. 
Sometimes I hang about her tombstone. Other times I keep walking. 
There is something in those last 20 seconds that make me really melancholy.

Melancholy for me is such a teenage feeling. Not an immature one - but one that when you experience it in adulthood, is almost a willed remembrance of the intensity of that earlier emotion. A wistfulness for wistfulness, if you like. It’s that pleasant pain, that intentional pressing of an emotional bruise. A yearning for how intensely you used to be able to feel about things.

This notion of melancholy and yearning sparked the memory of an artist friend of mine. He paints little, wistful paintings in thin, thin layers of acrylic that fade back into the paper.

Early in his career, he painted beautiful women and the men who wanted to love them. Then in the 1990s he went to teach at an art school, where he was told that these paintings of longed-after women (or, perhaps, painting these longed-after women) was somehow not appropriate. So he stopped painting beautiful, distant, unattainable women and started paintings cats instead, with the same shapely silhouettes and the same emotional intensity.

He’s gone back to women. But I still like that idea of him, painting women disguised in cats’ bodies, hiding his longing inside their skins.

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