While I was in New York to visit my parents we took the time to go to the Museum of Modern Art for a bit of culture.
There was a pretty good de Kooning exhibit. I was surprised by the strong black and white early work of his as I had only ever really seen his colour pieces. I discovered a Giancometti that I had no previous knowledge of, as well as old favourites like Pollack.
The most fascinating part was an exhibit on communication. There were documentaries on the apparent desensitisation caused by war simulators, a project on the study of the phantom limb condition and a fair selection of interactive pieces on the 3-D displays. These were all good but what surprised me was that, right in the middle of all this, there was a bona fide video game.
Passage, by Jason Rohrer, is about 5 minutes long and starts with a male character coming into existence on the left hand of the screen in an 8-bit and slightly abstract world. The right hand side is blurry and pixelated, only taking proper shape as you travel towards it. As you walk the character towards the right, scrolling through the world, his position on the screen also shifts slowly. The character changes and grows, and eventually meets a female character who joins him. This complicates traversal, as you have to now take into consideration a second person while navigating obstacles.
In this I saw an analogy of my own parents. Two people who have been together for over 30 years, and of their own volition. Through some extremely tough times as well as, I imagine, some pretty special ones. It is fascinating to see the way they orbit each other. My dad is rapidly becoming more of a curmudgeon; the same grumbly old man I see myself turning into, baffled by the way in which simple button presses in the digital age can change things so significantly and instantly. My mother is still excited by technology (she has an iPad) and its intangibility delights rather than confounds. In this way, my parents have always been opposites and that’s how they’ve made their relationship work. They complement each other’s moods. Most of the time.
As you progress further in Passage, the character and his partner advance in age as they reach ever closer to the right hand side of the screen. He loses his hair and starts to hunch up, while her hair turns grey. I mentioned that the right border start off out of focus; this changes and gradually changes so that it’s the left hand border that becomes vague and artifacted as the characters draw further away from it.
I saw my parents less than a year ago, but the changes I saw in them seemed marked. Maybe it was because they were overwhelmed by a city of over 8 million people, with its towering buildings and obfuscated traffic systems, but both of them seemed smaller. My dad is no longer the imposing ex-rugby-player-come-teacher that intimidated most of my friends. He’s never had a particularly good memory, but it seems to have deteriorated more recently, with me finding myself having much the same conversations with him as a year ago. My mother has inherited a lot from her mother in turn, as she is sharper, but things like map navigation have become even more abhorrent as she’s grown older. Both of them exhibit things I recognise from my grandparents in their mannerisms and speech. I wonder if it’s as obvious to observers when I sound like my dad or when my actions mirror something my mum would do.
The fight against time is impossible in Passage. It ticks up as you get through the obstacles (well, it ticks up regardless of whether you are successful or not). The scenery shifts in colour, becoming blue and white, with the white patches looking like clouds. And then the female character dies, a tombstone marking her resting place.
A lot of the conversation in NY (or, at least, the converastion that didn’t consist of me prattling on about video games and my parents politely trying to keep up) was about our extended family. Both sets of my grandparents are in their twilight years, but the focus of the talks were about my father’s parents. Recently, my grandmother fell and seriously hurt herself and it’s left my grandfather distraughtly tending to her. Hilariously, despite this added stress, he still moans about having to spend money on taxis when they should be using the bus. Some things never change. The tribulations they are going through clearly bother my parents and, as a result, it bothers me.
By the end of Passage, once his partner is dead, the male descends into invalidity and death within a short period of time. By that point, he is stooped over, frail and no longer recognisable as his original incarnation.
This stark, sad ending reminds me of a couple that had lived across from us when I was a child. John and Silvianne were an unconventional couple. John was a larger than life Australian, constantly regaling people with stories of some sort, and permanently holding a beer. Silvianne was a thin, almost delicate French woman. I vividly remember barbecues at their house, with the smell of grilled squid mixing with open beer.
A few years later John died. It happened all of a sudden with no real indication beforehand. Shortly afterwards, Silvianne was diagnosed with breast cancer and soldiered on for a couple more years (it may have been longer or shorter, my memories of that time are already becoming vague – and I’m not even that old) before also dying. It was as if once one of them was gone the other had given up as well.
Jason Rohrer’s game only lasted for 5 minutes, but all of this was running through my head as I played. I took my parent to look at it and even managed to get my mother to play it. As she got to grips with the controls (it is literally a stick and a button) I explained what I understood Rohrer’s design to be and about some of the symbolism. I felt a bit like that guy: the pretentious art nob-end who comes up to you and tries to explain the deeper meaning of Guernica to you, along with the politics and emotions behind it; or the git you meet at a party who tells you all about whatever new prog-rock nonsense is popular (Coheed and Cambria was the last one, for me). My mother described Passage as “poignant” and I almost felt justified in my arthouse-dickhead descent.
For the sake of the photos in this article my dad picked up the controller and played some of it again. Once they were taken he abandoned the game without finishing it. I asked him why he had stopped, he shrugged and replied nonchantly:
“I already know how it ends”.
I think I know where I inherited my obsession with mechanics rather than storytelling in games.
[In an attempt to find out a bit more about Jason Rohrer I stumbled across an old blog. Amusingly, it has both an space invader and some of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in the header]