Tuesday, 10 January 2012


"The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with our lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence" - Haruki Murakami.

I have yellow hair, and I’m standing in the middle of an empty field. To my right the screen is folding in on itself, a taster of places to come, ones I may never reach. I only have five minutes to do as much, or as little as I want. Within a few steps I meet a girl, she has long brown hair, and the heart that briefly blooms between us suggests that it’s love. We keep walking, and the floor turns grey. The city, perhaps. We’re not holding hands but it’s clear that we’re inseparable. For every step we take, a counter in the top right corner increases. Every so often the screen blurs over, and the colour begins to fade from the both of us. The yellow hair loses its lustre, and I start to bald. As we’re crossing a tiled floor (a kitchen, perhaps) my wife, whose hair has kept its length and now turned a beautiful grey, is suddenly replaced by a gravestone. As soon as this happens I lose my posture and I hunch over, unable to walk with the same vigour as before. It’s heartbreaking. I know I don’t have much time left. My journey ends in a park, by a tree where I stopped to take a rest.

Passage is a game that’s been sitting on my iPhone for almost two years now. It’s designer is a guy called Jason Rohrer, whose ingenious approach to play was perhaps best exemplified in his winning Minecraft mod at last year’s Game Design Challenge segment of GDC 2011. In this take on the phenomenally successful construction game Rohrer’s world exists on just the one USB stick, the idea being that only one player at a time would be able to experience Rohrer's particular version. Once the current player dies he or she would then have to pass the USB stick onto the next player, creating a ‘mythical’ videogame experienced more through word of mouth and cumulative momentum than through shared player narratives within identical game frameworks. Rohrer described it thus: “We become like gods to those who come after us”.

Games designed to interrogate conventional ideas of play are conceptually limited for the following reason, the various restrictions encourage us to re-assess where and how we find meaning in game design. For example if a game, like Rohrer’s Minecraft mod, can only be played once, then the accepted structures usually taken for granted in videogames (e.g repetition of a pleasurable feedback loop, the ability to master a certain style of play, gradual progression) cease to carry any meaning, and the boundaries of what is possible within the interactive medium are re-drawn in simple, suddenly obvious ways. Such experiments are understandably easier to take in alternative macro-budget development, and Jason Rohrer has been one of the most notable designers in pursuing these approaches. In the case of Passage, because the end of the game is inevitable and pre-determined, the goal isn’t ‘completion’; instead it’s the journey you take that is important. Passage may not be something to play or think about when you’re feeling sad or vulnerable - but then how often can you say that about a videogame?

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