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A Twitter link a week or four ago sent me to Creativity magazine’s list “The Creative 50.” (The content has since disappeared behind a subscriber login.)

Creativity—the magazine—is apparently focused on marketing-related creativity, and their list of 50 of the most creative humans was consequently full of ad agency folk. So, you know, whatever.

But there were (at least) two game designers on their roll, as well. One was Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, about whom and which more in a future post. The other was Jason Rohrer, who, I discovered, was the designer of a game called Passage. Attention gameplaywright.visitors: Why did no one bring this to my attention sooner?

In all of the articles I’ve since read about Passage, there is one point of near-universal agreement: You must play Passage before discussing it. The game is five minutes long. Play it twice. MacOS, Windows, and Unix versions are available for free download, and there’s now an iPhone version that’s $0.99.

First and foremost, what a fantastic work of art. We were talking about Humanitas games, in an earlier post. Passage is clearly the kind of game one would have to seriously consider for such an award, if it existed.

At the bottom of Rohrer’s downloads page he keeps a discussion log of places where Passage has been discussed online. Browsing some of those in preparation for writing this, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that Clive Thompson, at Wired, had said everything I wanted to say and then some in his piece “Poetic Passage Provokes Heavy Thoughts on Life, Death.”

“More than any game I’ve ever played,” he writes, “it illustrates how a game can be a fantastically expressive, artistic vehicle for exploring the human condition.”

Clive’s avatar got old, like mine did; he realized that that slow process had been going on for some time without his realizing it, just as I had; his wife died, just as mine had; his game ended when he turned, without ceremony, into a tombstone, just as mine had. “Which is when I realized, with a stab of pain, just what Passage is: It’s a game about life.”

Mr. Thompson has already written my impression of Passage, down to the stab of pain. Read it; it’s a worthy piece of commentary.

One development since Thompson’s article is the iPhone version of Passage. About a year ago, Thompson wrote:

“Sadly…there’s no commercial market for what Rohrer does. More than 100,000 people have played Passage, but he hasn’t made a dime off it. Seriously artistic games probably never will make any money; most ‘high art’ never does. Artistic games won’t crack the Top 10.”

It would be interesting to learn how Passage performs in the iTunes App Store. Roher has without a doubt made at least one dime, now, based on his split with Apple of the copy that I bought.

What Thompson and Wired aren’t all that concerned about—it’s not really their bailiwick—is this snippet, a quotation of Rohrer’s from the Creativity 50 piece that I thankfully copied down before it disappeared behind the subscriber wall:

“I’m thinking about developing a strict formal design structure for these types of game, analogous to a sonnet for poetry.”

The idea half blew me away when I first read it, before I had played Rohrer’s game, but playing Passage blows your mind the rest of the way open—wide, wide open—to the possibilities of a formal design structure for games that would let you appreciate nuanced variations, rather than having to understand each game’s unique superstructure before moving on to consume its subtleties. (On the other hand, maybe non-formalized but “force-of-law” genre conventions stand in for for formal design structures as far as this goes. You tell me.)

Wikipedia tells us:

A Shakespearean, or English sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line contains ten syllables, and each line is written in iambic pentameter in which a pattern of a non-emphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times. The rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG in which the last two lines are a rhyming couplet.

Rohrer’s suggestion got me thinking: What would formal fences of similar scope look like for game design?

Passage‘s precisely five-minute duration suggests definite and inflexible length; that’s strong.

Passage also suggests—less directly—an intentionally limited color palate. Less strong, because it has the unintended effect of associating the game with that which is low-tech. A designer might want to suggest such a thing in a given work, of course, but it doesn’t seem quite right to me that the structure should force it.

A unified set of controls makes sense as a limiting factor with the desirable side-effect of allowing play on many/most/all platforms. By “set of controls” I mean “collection of buttons,” without an assumption of what those buttons do, or mean, inside the game. Different and inventive ways to make four arrow keys function in variations on a formal structure would be fascinating to observe, to see how designers introduce the ability to—for example—trigger the equivalent of a “shooting” action without a fifth button.

The more I think about it, the more I come to wonder whether perhaps Passage simply states the obvious format by example. I have in my notes for this post the exhortation to discover “Where else [i.e., not in Passage] could [gameplay] be restricted that has no analog in poetry conventions?”, and I’m coming up blank as to worthwhile formal restrictions I’d propose that are not also—and frustratingly!—already found in Passage.

In fact, my only additional deep thought on the subject falls outside the mechanical, and so departs from the sonnet analog. It was suggested by something else I was reading on the day I first played Passage, a list-of-ten style piece (talk about your formal structures!) by Trey Ratcliff on how an amateur photographer ought to think and work in order to produce a higher caliber of work.

Ratcliff’s item #5 is “Admire Impressionism,” in which he writes:

…Impressionist images go deep into viewers’ brains and evoke memories of shared scenes and events. The memory is…an Impressionist playground of fleeting colors, shapes and edges.…

Look at Monet’s work. Think about how the yellows of a sun in the distance is the same yellow as an up-close flower. But something about the colors makes the sun feel brighter than the flower. How does he do that?…

If you want to evoke the same sort of feelings, then consider how it was done without resorting to realism.

Evoke feeling without resorting to realism is the idea, but it infuriatingly falls down as a formal requirement. Perhaps it simply suggests one tactic an artist could take, or should take, inside the structure.

As a final note, and in case you’re interested, Rohrer has written a piece called “What I Was Trying to Do with Passage.”

But be warned: He opens it with the note, “Your interpretation of the game is more important than my intentions.” This admonition, when I read it, cemented my admiration for Rohrer. If you conversely find the disclaimer to be a frustration in your search for some actual-and-true meaning of the game… well… in that case, you probably didn’t like Passage all that much in the first place.