Recently, I had the pleasure to play the now-famous art game Passage (at Brenda’s suggestion, as usual). I found my reactions to be very similar to hers: I felt compelled to travel with the woman, I tended to disregard my score, and when my wife died, I was struck dumb and lost all interest in exploring further–I remained near her grave, feeling lost, waiting for death. The game, if you’ve not played it, is the first real example of a game as art I have ever seen, and it is a remarkable work. The metaphors and allegories are not subtle, but the power lies in the way the game uses long-standing gameplay conventions and assumptions to tell its story: it speaks the game language and uses it to express its art.
When I returned to my parents’ house for the holidays, I asked them to give it a try. My parents are in their fifties, their professions are minister and schoolteacher, and they are by no means gamers. They played board games once, when my siblings and I were children, but they are of a generation before gaming became mainstream entertainment. Thus, they have none of the “literacy” with games my generation takes for granted. So when they sat down to play Passage, I was curious to see how they would interpret the work from their ‘external’ perspective. The results were very interesting…
I told them nothing about the game beforehand except how to move. Each played it twice, in much the same way both times. What I found was that the full effect of the art of Passage was inhibited by their lack of familiarity with game mechanics. Most players who grew up on RPGs and adventure games like Zelda know what to expect from a 2D maze: clearly, the objective is to explore everywhere and find all the secrets. Treasure chests are a well-understood symbol for reward and success, as is the score. And most of all, the implications of increasing your characters’ bounding box by traveling with the woman are immediately obvious to a player who knows how environmental puzzles behave in sprite-based games. These assumptions are critical, because it is these conventions that the game challenges in order to present its message.
But my parents’ lack of literacy meant they approached the game from different assumptions. My mother didn’t understand that bumping into something meant acquiring or activating it until she had done it a few times. She didn’t immediately see the connection between treasure chests and her score, nor for that matter the importance of the score at all. The first time through, she was busy enough just trying to figure out what she was supposed to do that she completely missed the aging of the characters until the last stages. My dad was a little quicker on the uptake, but not by much. He more readily accepted the formalized “explore and discover” directive as the de facto point of the game, and thus was more attentive to the ways in which the game challenges that endeavor. But the consequences of this distance between them and the medium was undeniable. When the woman died, both my parents plodded on, believing this is what the game meant for them to do. Neither one was struck in the same way I was by the loss of the companion, I suspect because neither one fully appreciated just how remarkable that companionship was. With no frame of reference from past experience, all the game mechanics were new–and thus none were extraordinary.
When I talked to them about it afterwards, it was clear the game had not impressed them in the same way it did me and Brenda. I tried to explain the position from which gamers would approach this and how the game was designed to act on the set of assumptions a gamer would bring, and they understood a bit better… but I still doubt they’ll ever really appreciate the full depth of the work without a gaming background. I find their experience fascinating–a window onto the evolution of games as an art form. If, as most game designers believe, games are an art form, how will it be understood by the masses who are not game literate–people like my parents? Will they ever be able to see games the way we do? Will our art forever be lost to them?