Cry me a river, part I: Obscure and emotional art games

| Cadenza Video Game Editor

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite art games that I’ve come across during my time on the big beige box that acts as my personal computer. Whether or not you think “art game” is an oxymoron, these short and emotionally charged games are each worth a few minutes of your time. Today’s choice will leave you with a newfound fear of death. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but there’s no way you can find out without playing the game for yourself.

“Passage”

It’s five minutes long, 96 pixels tall and one of the most striking renditions of death in any medium. It’s received so much attention that you may have already heard of it.

Two years after I first played it, Jason Rohrer’s “Passage” still lingers in my memory. The game tells the story of a man’s entire life using nothing but minimalist pixel art and the saddest MIDI tune known to man. In the game, which is played in a tiny window much wider than it is tall, the player guides a man through a maze, racking up a high score in the top right as he moves forward. There are treasure chests strewn about the maze that greatly boost your score.

The score tells you it’s a game, but the game tells you it’s something more. As time passes, the man shifts forward one pixel toward the edge of the screen. Take your hands off the keyboard, and time marches on, taking the man along with it. After a minute, you’ll notice the man has changed. His shirt is different, and his 6 pixels of bright yellow hair have somehow dulled to brown. Wait another minute and the top pixels will fade, leaving the man bald. It’s not hard to guess what happens when five minutes have passed.

In keeping with the game’s minimalist style, there are no sound effects, only a haunting MIDI track on repeat. The world is yours to explore and plunder, but even if you run backward, time marches on and so does your character toward the edge of the screen. In your short time with the game, you’ll experience love, success and failure before tragedy strikes. And what about that top score, sitting just a few pixels above your tombstone? The metagame that every game is supposed to have, that every person plays for, is meaningless in the face of certain death.

There’s more to “Passage” than what I’ve described. I haven’t said anything new, and the game has been so meticulously dissected that there’s very little left to say. If games are art, they must then be subjective experiences, so go play the game yourself. It can be found on the creator’s Web site a http://hcsoftware.source​forge.net/passage/, or for depression on the go, it’s also available in the App Store.