Portal of Ivory, Passage of Horn
by Nick Montfort

Two gates for ghostly dreams there are: one gateway
of honest horn, and one of ivory.
Issuing by the ivory gate are dreams
of glimmering illusion, fantasies,
but those that come through solid polished horn
may be borne out, if mortals only know them.

— The Odyssey, Book 19

Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Valve Corporation’s Portal are two of the most remarkable games of 2007. They have been widely discussed, and often praised, in sessions at the Game Developers Conference, by publications on video games, and in numerous nooks and crannies of the Web.2

From a certain standpoint, they seem to have nothing in common. Passage is a public domain, open-source, 2D video game with an effective resolution of 100×12, developed by a single person and employing almost nothing in the way of art assets. Portal, while something of an outlier in the space of first-person shooters, nevertheless stands as an innovative professional production within a familiar format, using a modified but also familiar game engine. It was put together by a team using voice acting, 3D models and textures, multiple levels, and sound design. Portal introduces a novel game mechanic; Passage does not. Portal is funny, challenging, and good to play at parties; Passage is not.

What’s not to love about Portal? Game of the year at the Game Developers Choice Awards and also according to 1UP.com, Joystiq, and Good Game; the top-ranked game according to The Onion A.V. Club and Eurogamer; lauded in numerous other superlative ways by other publications and sites. There’s that key, innovative mechanic that offers a truly new twist. The spaces are chilling at times and unfold in a particularly compelling way. The writing is hilarious, giving shape to a colorfully cracked boss computer and suggesting a strange corporate landscape with technology gone awry — perfect for the conceit of the game. The game is short enough that even those who aren’t hardcore can play, enjoy, and complete it, but meaty enough that no one would accuse it of being “casual.”

There’s really nothing not to love about Portal, an excellent production. But there are other things that games can do that go beyond these achievements. Passage, minimal and even offhand as it is, provides a model of an adult life that is compelling and that relates to people’s experiences. As with the nice-looking gate of ivory, the glimmering illusions and fantasies of Portal may be fun and entertaining, but it’s actually the more blocky, 2D vision offered by horn-rimmed Passage, the image of a life, that may be borne out, if players only know it.

Spoilers for Passage

Passage is about life, about how your movement through a virtual space using videogame conventions maps to our experience of moving on, living together or alone, growing old, and dying. Developer Jason Rohrer says as much in describing the game in his statement about it — addressed to those who have already played the game:

Passage is meant to be a memento mori game. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes. Of course, it’s a game, not a painting or a film, so the choices that you make as the player are crucial. There’s no “right” way to play Passage, just as there’s no right way to interpret it. … The early stages of life seem to be all about the future: what you’re going to do when you grow up, who you’re going to marry, and all the things you’re going to do someday. At the beginning of the game, you can see your entire life out in front of you, albeit in rather hazy form, but you can’t see anything that’s behind you, because you have no past to speak of. As you approach middle age, you can still see quite a bit out in front of you, but you can also see what you’ve left behind — a kind of store of memories that builds up. At its midpoint, life is really about both the future (what you’re going to do when you retire) and the past (telling stories about your youth). Toward the end of life, there really is no future left, so life is more about the past, and you can see a lifetime of memories behind you.

But don’t take his word for it. Play Passage yourself — the game is free for Windows, Mac, and Linux and it only takes five minutes to play. As a player, you can choose to have your pixelated avatar join a woman who appears in front of you early in the game. This allows your gangly character to progress through the rest of the landscape with company. Alternatively, you can steer away, in which case your “man” will be alone, but will be able to get into spaces where two people wouldn’t fit. It could be strictly worse to pair up for this reason, or a player could consider the choice to be between two different games. However a player chooses to think about it, Passage seems to offer something beyond what you get in Galaga, for instance, when you rescue a captured ship and face the enemy with double the firepower.

While playing Passage, you can try to collect treasures, explore the environment, or race to see how far ahead you can get. Some of the things that look like treasures turn out to be empty, while others are true treasures that give you more points. The game mechanics and the simulated environment do not make a definite statement about life (”money is meaningless,” “life is better alone,” or “life is only fulfilling with a partner”) or about morality or ethics. Instead, they provide another way of thinking about life. Players can ask themselves whether their behavior in this video game reflects their approach to life. Perhaps this is a meaningless question for certain players, because some people perceive games as something entirely separate from life. For those who are willing to connect life and gaming, though, Passage can be a space in which players can live different sorts of pretend lives, imagining what the pleasures of being a lone treasure-seeker or an accompanied explorer might be.

Passage reminds players of the span of life in a few ways: The five-minute time limit, the dwindling visibility of the past and the future as the view runs off to the left and right, and the increasingly stooped and elderly nature of the characters as time runs on and then runs out. A tombstone replaces the player-controlled figure when his time, and the player’s time, is up.

Spoilers for Portal

Portal is a disorienting, challenging, and enchanting game that incorporates a new way of linking space together, allowing for new sorts of puzzles. A ponytailed character,3 seeing the world from the first-person view that was made famous in 1993 by a marine in hell, wakes in a cell. This character, the one who the player controls, is initially unarmed and must learn to traverse the space using unusual openings — portals. There is a blue one and an orange one, and only if both are in place somewhere are the two of them open. The portals can appear almost arbitrarily, without the typical regard for established architecture and reality. The blue portal leads to the orange one, wherever that is, whether on a remote wall or even a ceiling or floor, and vice versa. Stepping through one portal causes the character to emerge from the other; if something else falls or flies into a portal, it, too, emerges from the other one. It’s like teleportation, except without discontinuity; the character can be halfway through the two portals, part of her projecting into a new space while part remains in the other.

Some surfaces are portal-proof, but this isn’t discovered until the character arms herself with a gun that shoots blue portals. Later, she augments her weapon so that she can shoot both blue and orange portals. (The portal gun can never directly hurt things, though, making it very different from what is usually found in a first-person armory.) There is a repertoire of objects to manipulate, including sinister robotic turrets, large buttons that are embedded in the floor and that open doors, cubes that be used to hold these buttons down, balls of electrical energy, and security cameras. Simply falling great distances won’t harm the character, although there are plenty of other dangers, including lakes of lethal liquid. Solving puzzles involves understanding the reimagined physics of this world and, for instance, the implications of being able to gain momentum by falling through the air, firing a portal in mid-air, and continuing to fall and accelerate.

From the very start, the female character is compelled by a robotic voice to move through levels and solve these puzzles, which have purportedly been created for testing purposes. After traversing several of these, it becomes impossible to ignore the hints that something is wrong in the Enrichment Center. The voice, which is that of GLaDOS, seems to rave, babble, and outright lie to the character. In return for overcoming a host of lethal obstacles, for instance, GLaDOS promises the character that she will be given cake. There initially seems to be no sign of other human life — some office spaces are visible behind glass, but all are empty. In the turret-filled android hell of test chamber 16, a sinister enough place to begin with, the first sure signs of other people appear: plaintive scrawls are seen and an area is found behind the clean white walls where people seem to have been hiding.

After traversing the rest of the nineteen levels and finding that death is intended as the character’s true reward, the character can break out from the test course and move behind the scenes, through rusty and decrepit areas that look like the one in test chamber 16. Going through many of these allows the character to confront the sessile, many-headed GLaDOS herself, the final boss of Portal. After GLaDOS is defeated, the real reward (even more than the image of cake) is presented: getting to hear what has become a huge hit among videogame songs, “Still Alive.”

PvP: Passage versus Portal

It would be possible to criticize Passage for its primitive graphics, but it would also be possible to criticize Portal for demanding a few hours, rather than managing to accomplish its effect in five minutes. Passage doesn’t need better graphics; it has a big idea that fits the low-res constraint on its composition, just as it fits the constraint of a five-minute play experience.4 It is reasonable that puzzling Portal, with its environment turning ever more sinister, takes more time to play than does Passage. And it’s reasonable that Portal still takes much less time than most commercial games, particularly first-person shooters, demand. If there’s a mismatch anywhere, one could argue that it’s in Portal overdoing it when it comes to graphics. Portal: The Flash Version shows that the basic game mechanic can be implemented in an enjoyable 2D game, so 3D is not strictly necessary. Super 3D Portals 6 for the Atari 2600 seems to make the same point, adapting the basic game mechanic for a super-retro platform. Or perhaps not. These games, which are clever but not nearly as excellent as Valve’s game, hardly make a serious argument against the more compelling experience of exploration and unfolding, or against the discovery of new tactical possibilities and physical implications that Portal offers.

Portal is a display of wit and mechanism. It’s fun to play and fun to watch others struggle with the game’s challenges. But even though the final sequence has the female character escape from underground into the parking lot — while the end of Passage leaves the main character dead on its playing field — there’s actually no escape in Portal from the doors that loop back on themselves, offering a new physics but no new conception of what it means to live, work, or be tested.

“No video game has ever said so much about life and death, and in so little time, as Jason Rohrer’s Passage,” wrote blogger Duncan Fyfe. It’s an extreme statement, but Passage seems to compel such statements — for every gamer dismissing it as not a game or calling it stupid, there seems to be another confessing that it called forth profound emotion or provoked a new consideration of what games can do. Like Portal, Passage is easier to share with friends than are long-form games that require extensive development of skills and dozens of hours of play. And while Passage is not as fun at parties, it does provide a lot to think and talk about in all sorts of contexts.

Are Games Allowed to Mean?

Portal writer Erik Wolpaw, tongue firmly in his cheek, relates an origin myth for the game:

Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. Like they’ve got something really important to get off their chest about the war in Iraq or the player is forced to make some dicey underwater moral choices. Really, just a whole heck of a lot of stuff to think about. With that in mind, at the beginning of the Portal development process, we sat down as a group to decide what philosopher or school of philosophy our game would be based on. That was followed by about fifteen minutes of silence and then someone mentioned that a lot of people
like cake.

This amusing anecdote — in part, probably a good-natured swipe aimed at another hit game of 2007, BioShock — certainly lacks essential truthiness. But why is Wolpaw’s mockery of a philosophy-based game so amusing? Obviously, it’s because it is hilarious to imagine a group of game developers starting a new game project based on an esoteric idea. Concepts, meaning, and philosophy are at best the icing spread atop the game mechanics, and perhaps, in other cases, on the licensed properties. They are not the cake itself.

Why should some players demand, as they sometimes do, that games actually be meaningless? And why is the idea of a “message game,” or, more broadly, a game that expresses a particular conception of the world and invites thought and discussion, so incongruous, risible, and even offensive to some gamers?

Messages and Conceptions

To start exploring this question and puzzling through it, it’s useful to distinguish different ways that games can mean. They can indeed have messages, and the gameplay can function rhetorically to help drive that message home. But they can also simulate social relationships, the growth of a city, the perceptions of a particular person, or a notion of society in a way that opens a conversation rather than mainly trying to persuade about a single point. As a shorthand, it’s possible to say that while some games have a message, others are better understood as offering someone’s particular conception.

I use “conception” as a more provisional term for “concept,” and one that is supposed to be less pretentious.5 A concept seems to be more all-encompassing, while a conception suggests at least the beginning of an idea. My conception of how Kinko’s works may not be a full concept that models every important aspect of this businesses, but it might offer enough of a perspective on it — as in Ian Bogost’s Disaffected — to provide an experience that is tedious and suggests how a copy-store employee sometimes feels.

At the Game Developer Conference in 2000, innovative game maker Tetsuya Mizuguchi said “I have poured the message of love and peace and happiness in Space Channel 5. These were the emotions and desires of this game.”6 This Dreamcast title might not be the first game players would typically finger as a “message game,” but the visual and sound design, writing and delivery of lines, and the surprising way that enemies turn into allies all work together to provide a harmonious, happy experience. Games don’t have to have a political slogan or a critique of Ayn Rand behind them to have messages.

Of course, games can feature political slogans and can have messages related to those slogans. Gonzalo Frasca’s Cambiemos (”Let’s Change”) was created to promote the Frente Amplio, a political party in Uruguay. Its message is made clear by graphics and gameplay. In the simple puzzle game, groups of people, working together, hoist and deliver puzzle pieces. When the player succeeds, bleak, black-and-white scenes are converted to happy, colorful ones. The message is fairly simple, but perhaps political campaigns are not well-suited to messages much more complex than this one. The game conveys its message well. It doesn’t let us explore virtues and possible pitfalls of cooperation or change, but it expresses this positive message without making it seem that the sentiment is tacked on or that it’s being rubbed in the player’s face.

A game with a conception does something else, though. Even if the framework is well-defined (opposing superpowers in Balance of Power or suburban, consumer society in The Sims), games that offer conceptions allow the player to explore different possibilities and inquire about their assumptions.

Passage hardly seems to be a straightforwardly autobiographical game — where are Rohrer’s kids? Where’s his meadow?7 Has he already grown old and died so as to be able to relate this experience in a game? We could take a broad view of autobiography, as apparently Rohrer himself does, and consider that the game fits this category. In any case, it doesn’t seem to fit perfectly. Passage does, however, frame some ways of thinking about life, and it models some of the things about life and aging that Rohrer must hold to be important. Portal could be read (or, really, overread) as being about some sort of workplace experience, or even some experience of life, but only in the same way that Tetris can be understood as being about coping with overcrowded schedules and an excess of work.8 The creativity is in the interpretation in these cases, which testify to people’s ability to make meaning out of almost anything. Passage, simple as it is, offers a system that more directly supports a variety of interpretations. Passage offers a conception of life, however provisional and simple, and opens a conversation about life in a way that Tetris and Portal do not.

There’s nothing wrong with message games, games offering conceptions, or even games that have neither message nor conception and simply aim to entertain. But there is something wrong with being told that games cannot be of one particular sort, whether we’re told this by a judge, a legislature, an industry, or a mob.

Summer Games

It is really cool to see a car transform into a giant robot. A movie9 that depicts this transformation is an accomplishment that may entertain us, surprise us, and amuse us. But most movie-lovers wouldn’t call such a film the “best picture” of the year, just as the movie industry’s Academy did not. Even though a movie is just a rapid sequence of still photographs, projected with sound onto a screen, we recognize that it can do more than dazzle us and fill our senses. Movies can deal with important issues in our culture and our society. They can inquire into the decisions people make in difficult times and into human nature. While a best picture should be artful in many ways, it is broadly recognized that such a film, in addition to being popular and spectacular, should also be more than fun. It should offer us something to think about.

Some have the idea that gaming deactivates our critical faculties — that to play, we must decide to shut off serious thought and avoid connecting our play experiences to life. But the magic circle that creates “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart”10 is hardly some “lasso and delete brain” Photoshop tool. It is a way of explaining why we act differently when playing games, how the space of play has its own rules and customs. The magic circle does not preclude us from applying lessons learned in a game to our lives or from thinking about the meaning of games. Nothing prohibits us from learning, while we play Monopoly, that owning real estate can be lucrative. Nothing keeps poker players from learning general signs of bluffing or excitement as they read other players during a game. And certainly, nothing prevents basketball players from learning about the value of teamwork and about relying on other members of a team — learning when to take the opportunity to shoot and when to pass the ball off to another player who is open.

Imagine a writer sitting down for fifteen minutes and thinking about a concept for a story — how a story will be connected to the world we live in, the decisions we make during our lives, and our relationships with other people. Imagine a playwright, or even an entire troupe of actors who work together to develop their performances. Imagine a filmmaker. Imagine a poet.

It’s not funny, is it?

But a group of game developers sitting down to think about something like this is funny. It sounds like part of a joke, and it makes up part of Wolpaw’s amusing statement about the creation of Portal. Those beady-eyed game developers, sitting around in silence and thinking about the philosophy they’re going to pick.

Maybe the ability to think about issues at the outset, to develop conceptions as a game is developed, has something to do with being an auteur rather than a development team. Despite some efforts, it’s not clear how the film-based term “auteur” exactly applies to videogaming, but it seems to have something to do with working individually and having total control over one’s work. That could certainly help to explain why some of the most compelling games that go beyond entertainment have been developed by individuals, from Will Wright’s SimCity and Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging (both fascinating meditations on the American city) to Rod Humble’s The Marriage and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. But it wouldn’t explain how a troupe of actors could think about a concept together, or even how a pair of collaborators, such as Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern of Façade, could work together to develop a shared conception.

Perhaps, instead, it has something to do with the pressures and demands of today’s industrial game development processes and today’s marketplace. It couldn’t be anything inherent in commercial game development, though. SimCity and A Mind Forever Voyaging were both commercial games. If there is something that makes this type of thought and planning difficult in commercial game development, it must have to do with particular industry practices and pressures.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with video games being part of “low” or popular culture. No one who has seen a few episodes would find it strange to think about Joss Whedon pondering the ethical questions and social problems that will underlie an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however mass-cultural that series is. So why is it so silly to imagine game developers doing the same before they begin work on a game?

Whatever the reason, it shouldn’t seem so odd, unless we believe, for some reason, that video games lack the expressive and conceptual power of other media. It shouldn’t seem incredulous to imagine game developers pondering and discussing the ideas that will motivate a game, or the ones they want to explore in combination with particular game mechanics and fictional elements. Every game’s development process will not, of course, start off this way. Some will begin with the idea of leveraging engines or realizing a new product based on a license. It certainly seems like it would be a richer world, though, if some of them did grow out of a desire to explore different sorts of issues and perspectives.

A New Opening

What is most remarkable about Passage is certainly not its polish, and not even, really, all that it accomplished as a finished and playable game. The important thing is what Rohrer had the ambition11 to accomplish and how this ambition is evident in the completed game, however abstract and simple it is. Through the medium of and using the mechanics of a simple computer game, Passage manages to provide some aspect of what the best movies have offered through the medium of the motion picture for decades. Although it is not flawless, Passage is a serious and solid attempt to present a simple model of adult life in a short and simple computer game. It has emotional resonance for some and provokes thinking about the future and about life decisions for others. This sort of connection to human relationships and aging, to thinking about how we make important choices, to regret and anticipation about the course of our lives, is exceedingly important. It seems quite a bit more important to the course of videogaming than is the introduction of a new gaming mechanic in a funny, enjoyable, and short first-person shooter puzzle game.

Opening additional portals can only lead gaming back into itself, into its own universe, through orange and blue and back again. Opening new passages can do more: It can bring new dimensions and new depth to gaming, showing games a way out of themselves. We can admire the glimmering illusion that games, like dreams, offer us, but we can also consider how much these visions, this play, pertains to our real lives and concerns.

There will always be those who are happy to run around in their enhanced magic circles, their gaming isolated from meaning, just as some people will be happy to watch summer blockbusters and nothing more. But some, too, will be willing to take the passage that connects gaming experience to our other experiences. These explorers — whether at companies or working individually, as artists or hobbyists or whatever else — will go on to create games that, far from just emitting messages, begin conversations that let us better understand ourselves and our environment and allow us to better negotiate our culture.

________________

1 Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Lines 652–657, p. 345.
2 Including by me and others in a nook of the Web where I write. The “Spoilers for Passage” section is adapted from my Grand Text Auto blog post of February 24, 2008, “PvP: Portal versus Passage.” This post and my February 26, 2008 post “Message Me, Videogames” helped me to work out several ideas that made their way into this essay, including those about the “message” in Space Channel 5 and the distinction between games with a message and those with a conception. Thanks to the many people who offered their comments on both posts:
http://grandtextauto.org/2008/02/24/pvp-portal-versus-passage/
http://grandtextauto.org/2008/02/26/message-me-videogames/
3 According to the end credits, this character’s name is Chell. Until the game is won and the credits are carefully inspected, a player would not have any idea about what to call her, so in describing the experience of play, I’ve avoided being on a first-name basis with Chell.
4 Rohrer didn’t devise either of these constraints by himself. He chose to enter the Gamma 256 contest at the 2007 Montreal International Game Summit. The rules specified a maximum effective resolution of 256x256 and a maximum time of five minutes for a play session.
5 It might sound more pretentious. Sorry about that.
6 Quoted in IGN’s review of the game.
7 Rohrer has a whole section of his site about his legal battle to allow a natural meadow to grow around his house, http://northcountrynotes.org/jason-rohrer/natureOnTrial/, and he has another section, http://www.northcountrynotes.org/jason-rohrer/parentWire/, and a game, Gravitation, dealing with issues related to his being a parent.
8 As Janet Murray has suggested in Hamlet on the Holodeck, pp. 143-144.
9 I mention movies at this point because they are a broadly popular medium (not something that many people would consider esoteric, like installation art) and because movies, like games, have great expressive capability and representational power. I’m not suggesting that games need to use techniques or modes of production that are more cinematic, or that they should convey meaning in the same particular way that movies do.
10 Huizinga, p. 10.
11 Fyfe points out that we seldom refer to people like Rohrer as “ambitious,” reserving that term for industry figures who are leading large-scale projects. I agree with him that Rohrer is indeed ambitious — I think in a way that is critical to the future of gaming.