Grand Text Auto

PvP: Portal versus Passage

by nick @ 2:37 pm

Portal partial screenshot Passage partial screenshot

How is it that a 2D, five-minute, public domain videogame with an effective resolution of 100×12, developed by one guy who uses a 250 MHz PPC computer, can be better than a 3D, five-hour videogame that runs at 1080i, is the product of a well-funded and well-equipped corporate workplace and has been named the best game of 2007 by numerous publications?

I’ll explain.

The two games I’m discussing are Valve Corporation’s Portal and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. They are both named for openings, narrow spaces of transition. You might not guess it, but besides this similarity, and besides being released in 2007, they have some other things in common. Both of them are innovative games, both are worth playing, and both are quite well-designed and stimulating. Yes, the highly-touted assemblage of voice acting, 3D models, levels, puzzles, sound, textures, and processes that is Portal is a fine game - nothing less than excellent. I don’t at all deny it. I’m just going to describe why Passage is even better.

As I do this, I’ll incidentally give away the secrets that are locked within both games. Please, play the games before you read the rest of this post!

SPOILERS for Portal and Passage are below!

Passage is about life, about how your movement through a virtual space using video game conventions maps to our experience of growing up, 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.

Players can choose to join the (non-cube) companion who appears early in the game. This allows them to progress through the game with company. Or, they can steer away, in which case they’ll be alone, but able to get into spaces where two people won’t fit. Players can try to collect treasures, explore the environment, or race to see how far ahead they can get. Some of the seeming-treasures turn out to be empty. The game mechanics and the simulated environment do not make a definite statement about life (”money is meaningless” or “life is better alone”) or about moral choices (”you killed the puppy, you are a bad person”). 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 it doesn’t, because they perceive games as something separate. If there is a connection, though, this can also be a space in which players can live different sorts of pretend lives, imagining what the pleasures of being a treasure-seeker might be.

Portal is about how to deploy an innovative game mechanic by honing iterative level designs, using QA and being observant about player behavior. You can reach no other conclusion from listening to the developer commentary. At no point do any of the recorded comments include anything along the lines of “we thought this reflected a basic truth about the world and people’s experience of life, so we put it in the game.” Instead, they relate how, for instance, players were observed to do something that wasn’t expected, and the design of the game was changed in reaction to this. They focus on how the design trains players to do more advanced manipulations of the environment. This statement from Realm Lovejoy is a typical bit of commentary:

Breaking this tube gives players a chance to test out their newly trained rocket-redirecting and glass-breaking skills in a slightly different context, which helps them at their training.

Despite having his tongue planted in his cheek, developer Erik Wolpaw put things pretty clearly in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun in which he described the origin of cake as the purported goal for test subjects:

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.

There are a few reasons that people might prefer Portal to a “message game” with “stuff to think about.” Sometimes people don’t want to think; they just want a new gun that shoots something radical, and to be trained in shooting something radical with their new gun. Actually, the gun in Portal allows you to do different types of abstract thinking and to encounter physics and combat tactics in a new way. So Portal isn’t a total reprieve from thought. It’s just a compartment for thought, an underground testing complex hermetically cut off from the world, purportedly message-free. Like a game wholly game, fluttering its empty sleeves, as Wallace Stevens might have said. (Note that Steve Meretzky, in his clever presentation praising Portal, didn’t actually say that the game is anything more than this; he just said that the game was a relief from the drudgery of life.) The decisions made to craft such a game are, of course, aimed at enhancing playability and amusement, at increasing sell-through. They cannot be based on any attempt to make the game more meaningful or to make it relate to life in a more interesting way. Even the most emotially charged sequence — the final, beloved one in which “Still Alive” plays as the credits roll — has a very simple primary “story” or “message” function: Leaving open the opportunity for a sequel.

So there are really two big ideas in these two games: The passage of a person through life and the idea that takes control by default in the other, supposedly message-free game, the passage of SKUs through retail stores.

In about ten years, I suspect that few people will engage with Portal unless they are being nostalgic or are specifically looking into the history of commercial video games. The game will probably have the status that the 1997 Mario Kart 64 has today. It will remain remarkable for its design, will be recognized for its technical accomplishments at the time, will still be fun at parties (an admirable quality for a single-player game), and, overall, will be seen as an interesting stepping stone to whatever evolves.

In about twenty-five years, on the other hand, I think Passage will have something of the status that the 1985 A Mind Forever Voyaging (by none other than Portal-praiser and recent GDC Game Design Challenge winner Steve Meretzky) does today. People will not play it at parties, certainly. But they will remember it because it showed them, for the first time, how games can model our world and what we care about in it. They will study it, modify it (recall that Passage is in the public domain) and build new games in response to it. They will play it for the first time and stop stunned, or cry, or imagine the reactions of all the others who have also gone through this miniature life.

Portal is neat, and its design accomplishments and high polish are real. It just isn’t the true heartbreaker of this pair of games. And, of the two, it also isn’t the game I wished I had developed.

29 Responses to “PvP: Portal versus Passage

  1. Patrick Says:

    This is dead-on, who wrote this?

  2. Patrick Says:

    Nevermind, my answer was just a click away. Yeah, it seems like this is the example people are pointing to, and it’s a good one. Raising the bar.

  3. J. Robinson Wheeler Says:

    Hmmm, I was wondering the same thing (about authorship). It is a little odd that the posting author is listed on the front page but not on the permalink page…

  4. nick Says:

    I’m Nick Montfort, and I approved this message. And wrote it. (I have no idea about this bug that causes authors’ names to disappear from permalink pages, but we’ll look into it.) Thanks for your reply, Patrick.

  5. josh diaz Says:

    right on. passage is well and truly brilliant; the productively cynical part of me wants to say it has an excellent function as well, in being a short but shining retort to hand to someone confused about games and their aesthetic capabilities.

    one of the messages i came out of last week’s GDC with (in part due to the ‘indie games’ folks, and in part due to kevin driscoll’s insistence on theme) was about the ’short form’ of games and how important it was right now. It doesn’t seem too crude to me to say that both of these games are salient examples of how a game does not (and should not) require the investment of literally days of playtime in order to resonate. portal is efficient, but passage is elliptic. i hope that the explosive success of the former (and of ‘indie’ games in general) does not overshadow the latter.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    One problem…. passage is the most boring game I have ever played. FAIL.

  7. Jake Says:

    I hate to say this, but I found Passage a bore. I didn’t have any spoilers, but figured out what was going on in about fifteen seconds. It suffers from the worst aesthetic crime of all: being _obvious_. This is obviously a personal opinion, but I just didn’t find it that profound.

  8. Jezebeau Says:

    How can Passage be better than Portal? By not comparing them as games. Passage isn’t one; it’s a work of visual art. Holding down either arrow key to facilitate the viewing of that art doesn’t make it a game. It is entertainment, but not really an activity. I enjoyed Passage thoroughly, but if one compares the two as games, Portal comes out ahead because it’s the only game in the running.

  9. Thomas Taylor Says:

    Excellent game design? I play Super Mario Galaxy.
    Thinking about life? I read Plato.

    “Plato vs. Passage” would be a rather excellent article too, although I tend to think slightly one-sided.

  10. Dave Says:

    I have to say, the main point of this article–Passage is a better game than Portal–feels to me like exaggeration for shock value, and little else, trying to capitalize on the success of Portal to promote a lesser-known game. I would agree with pretty much all of the points individually in the article, but taking them as a whole, with arguments wildly skewed in both cases, and jumping to a conclusion that is not much more than schlock? I’m afraid you lost me there.

    Somehow, an unspoken assumption was made that the only valid metric for judging games is how thought-provoking their underlying statements are. If a game doesn’t encourage a critical re-examination of one’s life, then it might as well be left for the dogs. Sure, this is important. But would you judge a painting solely on this criterion? Should you ignore technical aspects of painting? Throw that away, and a master’s landscape and a child’s doodle stand side by side in their ability to depict countryside life. Would it be wrong to consider gameplay when evaluating games? Otherwise we might as well have interactive museum exhibits taking “Best Game” awards.

    Yes, Passage is underappreciated, and Portal is overhyped. But Passage isn’t all roses, and Portal isn’t driving gaming into a watery, artless grave. The gameplay of Passage is barely out of its infancy. While I am fond of the aesthetics, I won’t hesitate to admit that they depend heavily on the current 8-bit fad for both graphics and sound. Passage also fares badly outside of its indie game incubator; without the proper context–usually a blot post extolling its virtues–most people would discard it after a few minutes. While you could say the same about a lot of art, I’d fault them for it just the same.

    And I’m still trying to grasp some of the criticisms of Portal. The storyline, with its innovative delivery and interesting topic–letting what is essentially a character piece for GLaDOS take center stage–is reduced to “not philosphy-ish.” The game is criticized for trying to sell copies–this is basically turning what should be praise (the game tries to appeal to people) into an empty, backhanded insult. How does the commercialization compromise Portal as a game? Detail that, instead of appealing to elitism.

    In case you accuse me of being subtle with my points, I’ll lay it out simply. Catharsis is not the end-all judgement of games, or even art. It’s nice, of course. But not all great art produces catharsis, and not everything that produces catharsis is great art.

  11. Gregory Weir Says:

    Apples and oranges. Passage is analogous to a poem, and Portal to a short story. Of course Passage dispenses its “message” more completely and concisely; it is short and simple. However, it does not have characters beyond the generic “man” and “woman” figures, the setting is stylized and simplistic, and even the “goals” are generic. Yes, it’s profound, but it’s a piece in which the form of the work, like a poem, is just as important as the content.

    And as for Portal, I would remind you that the author is dead. The fact that the creators of Portal did not have art and depth as a goal when designing the game (or claimed not to) does not change the fact that the game ended up having deep insight. Portal is an existentialist work: Chell does not know why she is being tormented, or whether she did anything to deserve it. Life is pain and struggle because God/GladOS says so. The characters (GladOS, Chell, and maybe wall-writing-person) are fleshed out to an impressive degree, and the game leaves you with a feeling of melancholy and thoughts about why we obey authority. (Hint: because there will be cake.)

    Comparing Portal and Passage this way is like asking which is the better work (where “better” apparently means “deeper”): Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

  12. Thomas Taylor Says:

    It seems entirely meaningless to laud one very slightly ‘meaningful’ game over a very good, but necessarily meaningless FPS puzzler. Is Passage supposed to be the first signs of ‘games as art’, or ‘games as intellectual commentary’?

    We already have art and intellectual commentary, and the more of these ingredients games contain the less they will be games. In fact, one big criticism of Passage is that it is not really a game at all. You could argue that people who argue this are missing the point, but they do not think they are - they think the game is missing the point.

    If Passage is good because it is somewhat profound, then I hope you take your socks off before you read any Plato. They’ll fly to the moon.

  13. BigBossSNK Says:

    To clear things up:
    Portal is a delicious and moist chocolate cake. Passage is the tiny portioned exotic dish you eat at the French restaurant.
    Sometimes you want the cake, sometimes you want the chef’s dish.
    All I’m going to say is that you’re biologically programmed to like chocolate, whereas the chef’s dish depends on personal preference.

  14. Jonathan Leenman Says:

    Hi Nick,

    I absolutely can’t agree with your statement that Passage is the *better* game …

    Sure, it has a very good message and is pretty impressive, but you can’t define “better” as “with a better and unique message or story”. Actually I think you should focus less on explaining why you think that Passage is a *better* game and more on explaining why you think that Passage is a better *game*. What we should do here is to define “game”, which is really hard, and then explain why either Passage or Portal would fit better in this definition or why one is *more* game. I suspect that Portal will turn out to be a better *game* than Passage, as it’s clearly designed with a focus on entertainment and play-experience while Passage focuses more on the message.

    Interesting is this definition of “play” by Johan Huizinga:
    “A voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’ ”

    I believe that Passage doesn’t have its aim in itself (but in the real world) and that the feelings of tension and joy in general is perceived by the players as less present than these in Portal. In fact, if you look at it like this, this would make Passage a terrible game, as it, by simulating a lifespan, relates to the ordinary life and aims to stimulate the player to *think* about ordinary life.
    Now I suppose that the reason you feel like Passage is “better” is because, according to the definition of play, it’s not a game. Passage is meaningful by having it’s primary aim in real life and so we could discuss if this would make it a “better” *product*, but the better product isn’t necessarily the better game.

  15. Joe Says:

    Passage succeeds in communicating meaning through game mechanics. It does this in an overt and distinctive way that we are not used to seeing in computer games. The game’s observations on life are delivered through mechanics, rather than plot and dialog, as is more common. In this, it is unique. However, it is also simplistic. Put brashly, the conceit is to show that life is clunky and myopic by making a game that is clunky and myopic.

    I can’t agree that Portal is “message-free”. Of course, the choice of cake as a philosophy seems to suggest this. But the game’s offhanded tone shouldn’t stop us making a serious analysis. Gregory Weir is on the mark in calling it existentialist. The themes are authority, slavery and alienation, and are presented largely through plot and dialog. In my opinion, these themes are underdeveloped. But the game is not “message-free”.

    Portal does, in fact, use game mechanics in a meaningful way. Escaping incineration is the game’s decisive moment. The motivation to obey the silky disembodied game-tutorial voice is suddenly overruled by the survival imperative. The player is forced to re-evaluate their priorities in a very short space of time. The effect is largely absurd, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it.

  16. Harry Giles Says:

    I’m tending towards Greg Weir’s view above, although I’m doubtful about the comparison to the divide between prose and poetry.

    Passage is a highly stylised symbolic work. It uses computer game symbols as a metaphor for the passage of life, and this is a high artistic achievement. However, I found its symbols constrained and normative to the point of triteness. Rendering down of human subjectivity into two groups of well-coloured pixels (note, still, that even in this minimalist rendering the social constructions of male and female are considered essential and important enough to be symbolised by — uh — differenty hair lengths) is either mechanistic and rationalistic in the extreme, with the game portraying absolute truths of subjectivity through its simplicity, or they are simply ciphers to the point of being empty signifiers. Similarly, though the game provides putative goals, these go undifferentiated in terms of value to the player — they have no content. Is this moral relativism or authorial laziness? Either way, what the game reminded me most of is a tricolour Mondrian: an exercise in laying bare the simplest semiotic structures of the journey through life. As a result, it can never tell us anything we don’t already know: just like a Mondrian, it’s a cold aesthetic exercise in the proportional relationships of reduced entities. There is no confusion, no chaos, ultimately little value as a critical text.

    Portal, regardless of its commercial genesis, is an exercise in confusion, disorientation. It presents multiple representations, all of which are not content-free but rather ambiguously determined. GladOS has character — she is the universe that presents both the promise of reward structures and denies them with cold arbitrariness; her psychosis deprives her vindictiveness of moral meaning to the player (the universe seems vindictive at times, but really it is all only so much stardust) — but at the same time she has a relationship with the player and with the player character (subtley different relationships in each case). Thus she is no a dead symbol, but something living, multiply determinable, critically rich. The same can be said of any of the entities in Portal, but perhaps the most fascinating is the Weighted Companion Cube, which seems to satirise the very idea of the NPC as something we can justifiably relate to. GladOS is not just God but also the Author, who in Her infinite wisdom has provided us with an NPC with which to relate — except that, in this case, the NPS (within the game universe) is emotionally dead, its only emotional expression a pixel-rendered heart. How is the weighted companion cube different from any other NPC which, after all, can only ever be a version of Eliza, with all responses pre-determined? For that matter, this strikes to the heart of the virtuality of computer spaces — how is the weighted companion cube different from a PC on a MOO? From someone we think we meet in “real life”?

    No, Portal is certainly a far richer text, critically. I’ve barely begun to delve into its multiplicities.Certainly from the perspective of art as a scientific pursuit of intellectual-aesthetic perfection, Passage is the greater game. But living in immanent life, where everything is both a symbol and a determined entity (the map laid over the landscape, the Net of Indra in which every jewel reflects every other), Portal provides us with a far greater allegory. Perhaps this is actually because of its commercial nature. Passage is the product of an auteur determined to present us with his own conception of life (and the auteur is always male). Portal, however, is the product of design-by-committee, collaborative design with players. How can it help but be a critically rich multiplicity in that case? Because it is designed to please as many as possible (people who want to shoot things, people who want to laugh at witty dialogue, people who like abstract puzzles, &c &c) it must present multiple levels. Passage is a fixed text (and because of this it is really no text at all; nothing can be read into it because all content is provided by the player; everything/nothing in it is pre-determined); Portal presents multiple possible texts.

    Rohrer (in appearance an independent subjective entity) is certainly a greater artist than Valve (in appearance a collective of multiple subjectivites), but I know which text I find more interesting. And I know which game I have more fun playing.

  17. Jonathan Harford Says:

    Harry Giles, you are my hero. Were I smarter, I might have posted something along the lines of your fantastic piece.

  18. Hendar23 Says:

    I have to disagree with this completely.
    You know those ugly abstract modern art sculptures, or weird experimental short movies? You could write eloquently for pages about their intellectual merit, but in the end people look at it and think ‘thats crap’. Sorry, but Passage is in that category. It’s trying too hard to be art. To me, art has to entertain as well as inform, regardless of the subject matter, and Passage is immediately dull. It doesn’t matter how hip and indie and original it is. I found no motivation to continue playing it, and during my first (and last) game I was quickly just running straight for then end hoping the guy would die asap so I could get on with my life. This doesn’t mean I don’t ‘get it’. I’d just rather be playing Portal. And it doesn’t mean I’m an ignorant philistine who never considers the deep and meaningful stuff of life.

    In fact I don’t think Portal is as shallow as is made out either. Glados is actually a pretty deep character for a psychopathic computer. I mean shes trying to kill you, but she really, really, genuinely wants to be your friend too. Figure that out. :) I think someone above already mentioned the twisted emotional conflicts created by the ‘companion cube’.

  19. LCom Says:

    While I agree quite heartily with the above two, I think both games are being given too much credit.

    On occasion (quite possibly even more often then I’m aware of) there comes a piece of “game art” like Passage. I think this is a silly term, but only because I have a love-hate relationship with art to begin with. Is art something which aims to convey a message? Or is art anything which has message derived from it, even if one needs to force message out of it? There are many I’m sure who would call Portal art, but I hesitate to do so. At least, not in the sense that the Companion Cube calls into question the way people relate to the “characters” around them. Portal could be art in the way that a toy car is art, if “fun” can be a medium. But I doubt this, and am far more inclined to believe that fun is an experience.

    Imagine a deck of cards. They can mean so much. They are a symbol of loneliness to the person who plays solitaire night after night in a small apartment. They are fellowship to the group of players who join for bridge once a week. They are high tension and reward to the competitive poker player in a tournament that could mean easy streak for the rest of their lives. They are tools to the aspiring game designer, toying around with some basic ideas of game mechanics. They are even a way to break the mold and re purpose common objects to the artist trying to make the best house of cards ever.

    But, come on,. They’re a deck of cards.

    Any of that gotten out of them are mainly contextual and tailored to the individual. And to be honest, if you’re looking for some deep meaning, you’re missing the point of the work. Far be it from me to say you can’t find such things in a game like portal. I am simply saying that’s not it’s purpose, and to look for deeper meaning is almost a pointless exercise. People can find deeper meaning in anything they want, even the intangible or completely non-existent. Existential is a made up word that usually acts as a sign that someone has gone beyond the original point, is currently, and you can stop listening to them. My pants are existential. If you ask me to defend that, I will gladly do so, from the top of my head, because I took a high school literature class, and no one could tell when I was lying, being honest, or just

    If the author of Passage had described it as existential, I would seriously begin to consider that he just couldn’t program anything more complex and so was trying to make due with what he had. However, the fact that the download page is so simple and vauge means he’s allowing the work to speak for him, and doesn’t necessarily care if you ever actually get it or not. I’m willing to give him my full support for his art. Barely a game, but quite surely art. But Please don’t compare it to Portal, because Portal isn’t art. It’s fun.

  20. Rack Says:

    There was once a world.
    In this world there is a God, and there are subjects.

    Gives subject the freedom of choice.
    Offers to reward subject if choice is used in Gods “appropriate way” and threatens to kill subject if choice is used “incorrectly”.
    Uses subjects drive for self preservation as primary motivational technique.
    Informs subject that if they succeed in assigned tasks, the reward will be theirs but only after they die.
    Sets up a system in which morals are assigned, but which require subject to work against morals to proceed.
    Professes love while threatening to kill subjects.
    Once destroyed the world with a flood.

    Complete unawareness as to the extent of thier surroundings.
    Unaware of where they come from.
    Is aware of God only as a voice of omnipotent authority.
    Is one step removed from “perfect” state.
    Is presented with dual perspectives, one claiming to benevolent and offering love and reward, the other claiming that the first one lies.
    Discovers that though life is possible outside of the Gods plan, it is seemingly directionless and more hostile then within Gods plan.

    Portal not intended as analogous to anything my hairy arse! Though I havent payed it, passage simply seems (by review) to deal with a less controversial subject and be more heavy handed about it.

  21. Why? « The Kemp Says:

    […] ever to ascend to the level of art in any way, we must begin to wrestle with the Why. (Check out this article, too.  It talks about why Passage wins over Portal as Game of the Year in many people’s […]

  22. Xagarath Says:

    Article dramatically misses the greatest achievement of Portal, sadly, in its desire to rail against all things made for commercial gain.
    Portal’s strength is not in the story it tells, but in how it tells it. It has a mastery of narrative in the medium that I fear Passage cannot match, no matter how more significant its pretensions.
    The fact large number of people manage to miss this and focus on the mechanics is somehwat equivalent to people thinking, say, that Citizen Kane is just a story about the life of a magnate, and missing the cinematography it pioneered.

  23. alexjc Says:

    Well, measuring from the quality of the responses, it’s a great blog post :-)

    I knew what to expect fromm Passage before playing, but yet it still got a tear out of me. I thought the whole thing was absolutely brilliantly put together; the way the space was distorted relative to time, the melancholic music, the fact that you and your spouse can’t fit through certain obstacles, the sad animation at the end, the way it trivializes “life” in general…

    That said, I wish I’d written Portal too!


  24. Anon. Says:

    You’re a wanker, plain and simple.

  25. soundofsatellites Says:

    I have to confess i’ve enjoyed by far, hands down, reading these looong comments than the article itself.

    I think the core of this argument is not about gaming rather than the way we perceive gaming. I mean, there is this notion of games-as-art that is specially strong within the indie scene.

    for this kind a disclaimer, I’m sorry but many issues already adressed that I would like to comment I’ve already forgot who wrote what, and i’m so da*n lazy to read everything again taking notes, so please put up with me.

    That being said, though asking “are games art?” a total valid question to ask, it’s not a question to answer lightly. I’ve enjoyed so much reading about semiotics, interpretations, a depth level of the applications involved, however there is one thing that I think people should start discarding when discussing this theme. And that is comparisons. I don’t think games should be compared to films, stories, poems or whatever. Yes, as the movies, games are an hybrid media. But we also need to recognize the own particularity of games, and the elements that are an unique part of them, and how those element interact to make what we call a ‘game’.

    So, are games art? well I don’t really think so. One of the comments before reminded me to an old article by Jan Mukařovský related to the difference between art and artisanal objects. To make it quick, the conclusion was that the definition of art is given by the functionality of the object produced. So the better is the artistic object to convey the social sense of what is perceived as art, the useless for the practical use it becomes. I know this is a rather simplistic definition -not a closed one by the way-, but to explain more eventually would lead to ask other questions, whether the object is being consumed as art -a spoon in a drawer is a spoon, but in an art gallery?- or the ontological definition of the artistic object -does the art lie in the object or in the subject?-

    Then, yes I love overanalize games I like, their depths level, what interpretions can I get from it, etc.; down to the ground there is a question I have to ask to EVERY game i play: is it fun? I know that fun is in the eye of the beholder, and by this criteria passage can be a game, and a funny one. But to be sincere i got bored. I did understand the point the author was trying to make. I might be biassed because I actually read the authors comments on the game, so I was expecting somethin arty-like. But it was certainly no fun for me. I do acknowledge that games or the gaming world can be related to art: deviant-art anyone? or how about the work of mary flannagan? but ultimately I play games because I enjoy them as games, not as art.

    quoting Jezebeau above

    “How can Passage be better than Portal? By not comparing them as games. Passage isn’t one; it’s a work of visual art”

  26. Izzy Says:

    I may be biased, but your article is right…..

    Right off that is. Passage is not a game at all. Comparing Portal to, say a Mario game is like comparing apples and oranges. Comparing Passage and Portal is like comparing Napoleon with a deceased llama. Passage is not a game at all. As somebody else put it, the title is for “shock value.” It should have been titled, “I enjoy contemplating my life more than having a good time shooting things.” That is a fine title for a fine article that I couldn’t care less about.
    You fooled me into thinking Passage would be fun and deep. I don’t want to be opinionated. I’ll just state a fact.
    Fact: Portal is considered “fun” by multiple, even many people.
    Assumption: I assume that many people do not find Passage “fun.”

    I mean, if you enjoy having your heart broken, than go right ahead. But if you find this 8-bit, 5 minute, piece of deceased llama (I wouldn’t call it crap, that’s too strong) deep, than you are as shallow as a kiddy pool. It’s like a garbage bag in an art museum. I’m sure that the artist had deep feelings when he put it there, but if I want to see great art, I’m staying away from that gallery.

    Passage will not be remembered. You want deep and fun? Play Shadow of the Colossus. That deals with some pretty intense stuff.
    Even the colorfully demented Psychonauts deals with some deep psychological problems.
    Something doesn’t need to be artsy and pretentious in order to be deep.

    Oooh, death is so intense and deep. This game did not represent life at all. Yes, it was kind of emotional and I did almost shed a tear, but in hindsight, it was not so revolutionary. Did it display any new or important philosophy on life? No. I want deep, I’ll read Spinoza. Great philosopher, that guy was. Anyway, I want to have fun or contemplate my life. Passage did neither for me.

    In my humble opinion, the following conclusion can be made.
    Portal is fun and funny, though not too philosophical.
    Passage was not fun, and attempted to be deep. In my opinion, it failed.

    Congratulations, you wasted my time. I hope your pretty happy. It was only 5 minutes, though. Thank God it was only 5 minutes.

  27. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    I think this thread is evidence that Nick has successfully demonstrated why criticism matters. It gets us thinking — and talking. Criticism assumes an informed reader who already has an opinion of the item under discussion, hence the necessary inclusion of spoilers.

    When I first played Portal, I ran to the right as fast as I could because I wanted to see what was there. I didn’t find a single treasure because I didn’t even look. The second time I played it, I got interrupted as soon as I restarted, and when I came back my PC was already bald and gray and 3/4 of the way to death — and I found my first treasure shortly before the end.

    I see Passage as an expressive work of digital art that uses the conventions of gaming to good rhetorical effect. A better game than Portal? That depends on your definition of “better.”

  28. Dom Says:

    Your bias against Portal, a game tainted by commercial interests, versus the “pure,” non-commercial and uncommerciable Passage shines through this essay. While your essay is interesting, I can’t help but say it is also subversive and disingenuous. Really, in the end your message is simply “indie good, corporate baaad!”

    Don’t get me wrong; Passage nearly brought me to tears. Among other things, it really brought to the surface the anxieties I feel about the ephemeral nature of life and, in particular, my fear of being alone (the second time I played this, even though I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to pass the companion.)

    However, Portal is simply a completely different beast. It was designed by “academic” game designers, as is reflected in the commentary. It is finely and carefully crafted using well-established principles of game design and an established type of thinking that has served designers well. And this game shows off fine craftsmanship through a wild romp through a rather sterile testing facility livened up with a humorous and manic AI guide who eventually becomes probably the most comical villain ever to be featured in a video game.

    It’s ridiculous how you pan the goals of playability and amusement as merely means of “increasing sell-through.” How dare they make a game that people enjoy playing, the greedy bastards! Did it ever occur to you that maybe the designers of Portal actually took pride in their work and innovative game design, or that it’s a good thing that people enjoy the games they play? Or maybe that a bit of fun that doesn’t have an oppressively profound message is a good thing every once in a while?

    And to write off “I’m Still Alive” as merely a way to keep open the possibility of a sequel… I just don’t know how to respond to such an absurd and ridiculous statement. Well, yes I do- it is suppose to be ironic! The computer is trying to kill the main character, and the main character’s goal is to escape and survive. On the other hand, in GlaDOS’s twisted mind, SHE’S the one fighting for survival and the integrity of the testing facility. Remember how she kept going on about how fighting her (GlaDOS) wasn’t being “heroic,” it was “murder?” Remember how she said that if the main character wanted to survive, killing GlaDOS was the last thing she should do? There are so many allusions to survival and maintaining the status quo, which in this case is an insane system of testing and then executing subjects, and these themes are wrapped up in a humorous way in the final song.

    Hmm… fighting to maintain a system of insanity… I wonder if we can think of anything like that in real life…

    Oh sorry, I forgot… this was a corporate production whose only goal is the bottom line. There couldn’t possibly be any themes in the story. The irony was just there to “increase sell-through.” Check.

  29. Grand Text Auto » Message Me, Videogames Says:

    […] Following up on recent discussion, I’ll describe here why I think Portal has more of a message than Passage. […]

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