February 24, 2008

PvP: Portal versus Passage

by Nick Montfort · , 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.

68 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 B.S.ing, 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 B.S.ing.

    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. […]

  30. iddqd Says:

    I don’t think you’re entirely correct. Actually, I think you’re more or less wrong.

    You see, video games are a medium – like any other, and perhaps most similar to film, with the main difference being that one is interactive and other is passive. As such, there are many merits to what you might consider ‘art’. I think that a stylized, crisp environment and interface design is art. Also the humor that doesn’t slap you in the face with itself (a certain bard’s tale comes to mind) while being amusing to nearly everyone. Based on those two categories, much like a movie winning academy awards only in directing and screenplay can be considered a work of art.

    At the end of the day, you can argue up and down to what is and isn’t art, and probably won’t get anywhere. Art is what you can get away with.

    As for Passage, I’ve played it. I can’t say I drew any connection to life (and if I had, so what? life is mostly terribly boring). When you look for something, especially if you look for meanings in this and that, you tend to find them – whether they’re there or not. I’ve over analyzed Shakespeare so much through my academic career that I’m quite convinced that the man’s only intention was to make a living playing with people’s emotions – through comedy or tragedy, and if we could go back in time and ask him about any of our loony theories about his work, he’d look at us like we’re some sort of time-traveling apparition. Er, crazy. Point is, you could find something in Portal too, if you dug deep enough. For me, neither game is trying to be too blatantly preachy.

    So in conclusion, up is down and right is wrong.
    And the internet is serious business.


  31. Kevin Says:

    Clearly, the Portal / Passage comparison has become a fruitful one! Perhaps because they are among the only games that most of us have played to completion? I thought of them quite a bit at GDC last week and wrote up a quick blog post urging people to make smaller games.

  32. Dominic Says:

    That the author of Passage tells us that he meant something when he designed the game tells us just that – that he had an intention of conveying meaning. It doesn’t tell us squat about the game itself. If the author’s intention is all that matters in establishing that the game tries to tell something, then the experience itself is trivial, and I can just read the interview to learn what the game was supposed to be about, or what he tried to do. But sometimes people fail to express what they meant, or produce mumbo-jumbo. (that’s why we penalize papers that miss several key points in their argumentation when they are handed over by students whom we know to be brilliant – “maybe you do know your stuff, but it’s not in your paper”) Sometimes they produce symptomatic meanings, unintended side-effects (on which psychoanalysis feeds). For all his intentions, the meaning is to be found in the game (some would say), or in my encounter with it (I would say), because I bring assumptions etc. to interpret it as I see fit. That games are seen as interpretable by some does not mean it is to become the sole criterion for judging success or pertinence.

  33. Arun Says:

    Ha, I alright you like Passage. And maybe you like Portal too. I couldn’t say from the article. If you’re comparing them on subjective merits, fine, YOU’LL remember Passage for the next 25 years – but deep message or not I’ll remember Portal for much longer because it gave me more enjoyment.

  34. Joseph Says:

    This article seems to me as text book, reductionist, academia that makes that tries to take on games and apply the same tired criticism that makes modern critical theory so fucking boring.

    It’s as if the more something is inaccessible, the cooler it is, and the cooler you are for defending it.

    It’s as if I wrote an article saying ‘How is “Wavelength” (a film that is *literally* a 45 minute long zoom shot) is better than Antonioni’s L’Avventurra. Because, after all L’Avventura is a studio picture made within a studio system, as opposed to Wavelength made by one man.

    I guess I fell into the trap though, because I am here commenting on this false choice. To assign a value on a piece of work solely based on the political world view of the artist or the critic is something that is frankly very tired, and while those world views do merit a place in the discussion they should not be the end all be all.

    The Intentions of the artist are, frankly, a interesting anecdote at best. They should have little bearing on the criticism on an artistic work. Assholes, Racists, Misogynists, and ‘corporate sellouts’ have long produced fantastic works of art just as great well mean ‘deep’ people have produced lost of crap (and folk music). The two are not connected, and to make that connection is undergrad media studies bullshit.

    The only thing that’s missing in your article is a name drop of Deleuze, and how passage is ‘rhizomatic’ and portal isn’t.

  35. Etchasketchist Says:

    Can you imagine a world where your aesthetic whims were elevated from this blog to conventional wisdom? A world where Eric Wolpaw and those people at Valve did not stop at “cake” and instead soldiered on past those 15 silent minutes until they decided on which philosophical truth they need to base their gameplay around? Where Passage was the model which other developers followed and games like Portal were just considered neat little trivialities? Can we all not agree that this would be a horrible dystopia full of shit games? A place where we all long to have our heart broken over and over again and never get to play around and learn to shoot cool guns? I’m all for games being art, but they should be games first and they should be fun. And games that do nothing but advance the science of fun should be celebrated, not dismissed. Maybe we’ve reached a point in the development of interactive media that it’s time for a split. The Interactive Art people can go off and do their thing and break each others hearts, and the video game people can stick with the cool guns.

  36. nick Says:

    I’ve tried to reply to one important thread here in a follow-up post, but here are a few more replies. I do appreciate everyone’s comments.

    Etchasketchist, I appreciate that, even though you dismiss the years of thinking that I’ve done about video games as “aesthetic whims,” you think it necessary to come and fly into rage here, suggesting that we start a split between art and videogames (as if we didn’t have one already). You didn’t sell me on it – among other things, I’m not ready to give up on videogames as having no artistic value.

    Joseph, I’m sorry that you had a bad experience with Deleuze in the past, although I’m puzzled about how you connect that to my post. I agree with you that art shouldn’t be limited by the artist’s intentions. But I wonder if the people denying that Passage is a game agree with us?

    Kevin, thanks for the link to your post urging people to make smaller/shorter games, as Josh also mentioned much earlier. Clearly that’s one factor responsible for the success of both of these.

    Dom, I’m sorry that you ended up thinking “Really, in the end your message is simply ‘indie good, corporate baaad!'” as Xagarath also did. I thought it was remarkable that one person with limited resources can make an important and influential game, so I felt like I should remark on that. (Passage seems to be somewhat influential as, for instance, it was discussed more than a few times at GDC.) And I think that if you don’t have any concept, any question, or any principles to inform your game design, you’ll fall back on something. For commercial game-making, that’s trying to appeal to the audience and sell more games. But, artists can end up going through the motions as easily as corporate teams do, being concerned about how prominent their artworks will make them, where they will be able to exhibit them, and so on. The solution is not to completely forget making money or to forget the context of the art world – it is to have some questions, ideas and concepts that drive your design. The game I compared to Passage was a corporate production, A Mind Forever Voyaging (by Infocom). I discuss another commercial game positively in my follow-up-post, Space Channel 5 (UGA/Sega). So it’s not that I categorically object to the corporate production of video games; I just don’t think that monitoring the marketplace or trying to please players is a good substitute for an idea.

    Xagarath, by the way, I would love to know more about why you see Portal as masterful at narration.

    Izzy, besides potentially offending one of my favorite game-makers, Jeff Minter, with your repeated references to dead llamas, you also bring up something mentioned by Jonathan Leenman and Jezebeau: That Passage is not a game. I have recently been reading arguments by artists about why commercial videogames aren’t art, so it’s nice to see that it isn’t just the artists: People are trying to erect a wall on both sides of the border. First, considering Jesper Juul’s definition of a game:

    The game definition I propose finally has 6 points: 1) Rules: Games are rule-based. 2) Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes. 3) Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative. 4) Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (I.e. games are challenging.) 5) Player attached to outcome: That the players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and “happy” if a positive outcome happens, and loser and “unhappy” if a negative outcome happens. 6) Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.

    Passage, by having a score among other things, seems to fit all but 5, and players can certainly choose to be attached to the outcome and to try to get a high score. So it seems pretty close to a game, or it seems like it is a game sometimes. Second, the argument from institutional authority: Passage was submitted to a game event (Gamma 256), accepted, and exhibited. Much as that thing hanging on the wall in the art museum is art by virtue of where it is, Passage is a game.

    I tend to agree with LCom’s statement, “My pants are existential.” Portal can be interpreted and it can be the starting place for more general sorts of thought about life, but so can Space Invaders. I think there is something games can do besides blaring an authorial message or just being capable of being “read.” Games can be well-done, abstract simulations of aspects of our world that we care about: The changes that cities go through, the course of a life, a marriage, a breakup.

    Harry, thanks for your discussion of both games. I have to mention that in Portal male and female (or in this case, just female) also seem to be symbolized mainly by hair length!

    Obviously, there are different things we get out of different games. We might play an adventure game once, think differently about the world as a result, and keep talking about it years later with others who played it. Or we might occupy a huge amount of our time playing Minesweeper and never discuss it with anyone. I don’t think that means we should refuse to compare such games. Comparing them helps us understand what is good about each and where one exceeds the other. Minesweeper is clearly the better game for filling short periods of time at the office. But if we didn’t have it, we could read Ask Metafilter or something instead and it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The adventure game may not lend itself to replaying, but if we had chosen another game to play instead, we wouldn’t have gotten the same thing out of it.

    I enjoy games that are visually beautiful, have well-crafted interfaces, have interesting game mechanics, and are interesting to think about and talk about – not that say things, particularly, but which allow for different types of thinking. Although I do appreciate the low-res aesthetic, Portal is perhaps better than Passage along the first two lines, and definitely with regard to the third. While Portal gives me things to think about, they tend to be confined to the realm of game design. Passage breaks far beyond this, which is why I think it’s the better game.

  37. savetherobot Says:

    As someone who was rather awed by Portal last year, I feel its virtue shouldn’t be measured by its storytelling or how well it might have carried a message. I’d compare it to a music – an experience that is judged largely by its formal innovations and rigor, the performance of the players, and how strongly the experience engages the listener. Throw on a work like Morton Feldman’s “For Philip Guston,” which isn’t “about” anything but listening to three excellent musicians play a piece of music for four hours. (No, seriously, it’s worth it.) You’re supposed to experience it, moved by it, let it set and reset your expectations. You’re impressed by the rigor of the composition and the skill and grace of the performance. It’s not conveying a message: it’s leading you to a new way of appreciating music itself. Which is what Portal did for me as an interactive experience.

    I feel like we’ve been bashing our heads for years against the problem of how to rate games as stories. Maybe we should’ve been judging them like music.

  38. It’s All About the Beat « Save the Robot - Chris Dahlen Says:

    […] about games were cast aside and laboriously reeled back in. It’s all ’cause of a post on Grand Text Auto that argued that Portal, my game of the year last year, is just product – a great exercise in game design that’ll move copies and influence its descendents but […]

  39. Pixeles életjáték | miafene Says:

    […] így, iránt érdeklődők pár kör Passage után átnézhetnek a Grandtextauto blogba, ahol a Portallal veti össze a szerző a maréknyi pixelből készült életjátékot. Elküldés | Hozzászólás | Hozzászólás RSS | Trackback […]

  40. Ian Says:

    Passage would never sell. It is a game only in the most airy sense. It is painful to look at and painful to play.
    I do not consider it a game, as it offers little personal gratification, as well as no competition through multiple players.
    Portal does not have multiplayer, but the story’s execution and delivery are excellent.
    I think I’ll stick with cake.

  41. Shai Says:

    “While Portal gives me things to think about, they tend to be confined to the realm of game design. Passage breaks far beyond this, which is why I think it’s the better game.”

    I think this is where you and those disagreeing with you break apart. You simply consider a game better if it makes you think about it more. While you have other points for judgement, it seems as if this is your most important aspect of what you call a game, and if a game is lacking “visually beautiful, well-crafted interfaces” and “interesting game mechanics” but is “interesting to think about and talk about”, then you would still consider it superior.

  42. Verum Says:

    What makes a video game great is the game play. I bought Portal because of how the game played, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and it was glorious. The game would not have been so popular if it had been a typical FPS. As far as passage goes, I too can make a platformer using GameMaker.

  43. Anon Says:

    Passage sucked.

  44. Gregory Block Says:

    The problem with Passage is that it’s not a “game” in the sense of being a celebration of gameplay; it has more in common with interactive fiction than it does with Portal. As interactive fiction, or even as the game equivalent of a short story, it’s fantastic.

    Portal spends hours teaching you a mechanic and then unfolds the actual game in the last level; what Portal is and does is a factor of the fact that it has a gameplay mechanic to teach you; the length of the game is almost exactly “long enough to learn the mechanic + 1 level”. As a window into game design, Portal does an amazing job.

    Passage isn’t the same kind of beast. Not in any way.

  45. Azshiris Says:

    **Warning: Contains Spoilers**
    Most of my opinions have already been reflected in other people’s. I am wholly in the camp of ‘This is like comparing Apples to Oranges’. Sometimes a game is meant to be pure, simple fun. Portal itself challenges the player’s thinking as has been mentioned in previous articles. The whole scene where the player descends into the fire pit (reportedly) challenged players because they had a momentary thought of ‘This is how it’s (the game) supposed to end, I can’t change my fate.’ I had it, and then I realised that I could escape. It made me think about games in general how we always expect the end to be the end. I play RPGs which often have boss fights that you just can’t win and are meant to lose. There is always a moment of “How the heck can I win this fight?” when I lose. Then elation as I find out that it was how it was meant to happen. It’s a reflection of life, sometimes we resign ourselves to a fate because we think there is no other way and this is just how it’s meant to be.

    Oh look, I just found the existentialism (hooray, a buzz word) in Portal. If you want to go even deeper, Portal can be analagous to life. You start off (are born) in a room, no idea who you are or what you are doing. Then you are slowly coached by the parent figure GLADoS on how to get through life. She gives you a key tool to explore your world and live. Then you find the cube. It is not your parent, it is a fascinating other person who you’d rather spend time with. GLADoS, the over protective parent, gets you to dump them and never see them again. Then, when she sees that you are no longer her child, she tries to destroy you. You escape and start to learn your parent was wrong about the world and there is more to it. Eventually, you cannot escape her clutches and the only way to live your life freely is to kill her.

    So now we can say Portal is a dark look at the life of children who live with over protective and controlling parents.

  46. James H. Says:

    I think it really depends on what you’re going for in a game. If you want the game to be involving, addicting and a bit humorous, Portal is that game. If you want an emotional bomb dropped on you, Passage has few peers – if you can get past the sparse graphical content.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the power of games to do that kind of thing is dangerous. As the author mentions, A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the most powerful works in gaming. When I played through it, it gave me nightmares. If it were rendered with modern, realistic graphics, I’m not sure whether I would have finished it, though if I had the ending would probably have been that much more uplifting.

    I’m also tempted to agree with the author that Portal is primarily focused on commercial value, not that that’s a bad thing. The thing is, it would probably be commercial death to set up something more emotionally charged. Gamers like playing through games in a haze of mild addiction, and then try to discuss their play experience as if it were literature, for lack of other ways to discuss the game. Portal fulfills that with lots of subtle cues, but if you wanted to go for artistic impact, it fails where it would all add up to something, right at the ending. The boss sequence was, like most boss sequences, *mildly embarassing* in its obvious machinations. Once you’ve sat through the long, contrived monologue, things are deliberately left unresolved. No deep, hard-hitting revelations. That’s no way to end an “artistic triumph.” That’s being geeky and clever and highly marketable.

  47. FatboyTim Says:

    Look at the Emperor’s new clothes. They’re beautiful!

  48. Brand_X Says:

    Passage was a wast of time. I can think of much better things to do to stimulate my thought. Its a gimic that dosent work and more of interactive abstract art than a game.

    Portal is a puzzle game pure and simple. Can be fun or can be boring. I cant think of a single reason Passage would be considered better. Why try and compare things that are so different.

  49. FAC73 Says:

    While I havent played Portal, I can tell you that Passage really didnt do anything for me. I’m supportive of indie games that attempt to create powerful emotional experiences that aren’t necessarily “fun” in the traditional sense, but Passage bored me to tears. There was too little to interact it, and the pixellated graphics just seemed ugly rather than stylised.

    Like someone else said earlier on, I “got” what was happening about 10 seconds in, but it just didn’t move me in the slightest.

  50. Expertologist » Monday Games: Interesting Choices Says:

    […] about it, leading me to wonder if I wouldn’t end up just retreading old ground. But between a piece by Nick Montford for Grand Text Auto (best read after you’ve played the game for yourself) comparing the game to Valve’s […]

  51. PurpleChair Says:

    (Re: Comment 14)

    Johan Huizinga was full of shit. You can’t say Passage isn’t a game just because it deals with real life issues… EVERY game deals with real-life issues, once you look at them long enough. No, what makes Passage not a game is the fact that there’s no objective. Players can decide on their own objective, sure, but that’s something THEY bring to the table, to turn their experience INTO a game.

    That said, I think you just mean ‘game’ in the general ‘interactive experience’ sense, in which case you may well have a point. Portal is a good game, but I think it’s more likely to be remembered as a prelude to HL2: Episode Three than for the game itself. Of course, Passage will barely be remembered at all, since so few people will have played it, but it does have an interesting message at least.

  52. DefAcid Says:

    I hate it when people talk about how one game is better than another. It’s an opinion. I also didn’t really enjoy Passage very much, though it was a little interesting at first, it’s very predictable and monotonous when you’re halfway through the game. :(

  53. Matt Says:

    The conclusion reached here seems a little confused in differentiating the idea of a potential evolution of Portal to that of Passage when it would be the same thing; somebody is influenced by one of the games and then builds on it. You cannot simply state that Portal will not evoke the kind of emotions that Passage does in everybody.

    Personally, I think that passage is an interesting little game that touches on some issues that most games don’t (mortality etc), but it is not the first to deal with such issues. Planescape: Torment, for example, was largely focused on the idea of (im)mortaility and the memories one collects through their lifetime, however long.

  54. Trevor Says:

    The following point in the article is false,

    “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”)”

    Not true. The music – especially the music – the ambiance, the inevitable tombstone, they all usher you to a certain conclusion. And what is the definite conclusion? Nobody says it better than the developer himself,

    “Your score looks pretty meaningless hovering there above your little tombstone.” – Jason Rohrer

  55. Kriss Daniels Says:

    yes portal isn’t really that good

    but at least it isn’t hippy bullshit masquerading as a game

    holding up a non game as an example of what games can be is not actually a very helpful thing to do

  56. Gravitation as an Artistic Game » GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development Says:

    […] game before reading that explanation. This game got high praise when it was compared to Portal at Grand Text Auto: “Portal is neat, and its design accomplishments and high polish are real. It just isn’t […]

  57. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » More on Death in Games Says:

    […] of Passage, a game where the points mean nothing and you inevitably die alone. Nick Montford has argued that the game is superior to recent award-winning favorite Portal, though I think that’s kind […]

  58. MW Says:

    Hey Nick, could you remind us again what Passage gave you to think about? Did you really not know that people die, or that some of life’s big choices involve big compromises, until you played this game (or whatever it is)? You talk about how people can potentially use Passage’s model as a tool for exploring their own lives, but you don’t say that you’ve done this yourself. You say Passage shows people that games can model our world and what we care about in it–but you don’t say you’re one of these people. The only value you seem to have directly gotten out of this game, other than the chance to talk critically about it at great length with various dudes in this blog (which I consider to be outside the game, and thus not part of its value, though some would surely disagree with this), is that of the heartbreak it gave you. But you say it’s better than Portal because… it made you think? Won’t you give heartbreak its due?

    Incidentally, when I first played Narbacular Drop–not even the awesomely polished Portal, but instead the goofy little chunk of coal it was chipped out of!–I felt utterly intoxicated with possibility. Nobody had ever given me such a wonderful tool as that portal gun before, with which to explore a model of my world and some of the things I care about in it (i.e., its geometry and mechanics)! Sure, after a few minutes the feeling faded… but Passage is only a few minutes long. Where were you during that part of Portal? Were you busy thinking Deep Thoughts about Love and Death? Come on guy, there’s more to the universe than that.

  59. Gravitation | Gamin.ru - Блог об инди-играх Says:

    […] очень высоко оценили. Один человек даже написал статью, в которой доказывается её превосходство над […]

  60. John Says:

    Thomas Taylor is right on the money. If you want to have a good time, go play portal. If you want to learn something useful or important, guess what? It’s time to go read some nonfiction… like a REAL man.

  61. Daxa Says:

    You fellows are ridiculous.

    Passage is beautiful. Portal is more fun, but is beautiful in a different way. I believe Passage excels because of its blandness. I’m not sure whether or not you can consider Passage a game – it seems to me more like art disguised as a game. Portal has artistic elements, but is certainly a game.

  62. Grand Text Auto » Link Madness, Part 1: the Hyperbolic Says:

    […] Daxa on PvP: Portal versus Passage […]

  63. Peter Says:

    I am so thrilled to finally have unearthed this blog–I’ve known about this place for a while, but never looked much into it until today. This article is excellent and I agree whole-heartedly. …perhaps except the use of the word “better”. If I were you, I would’ve used “more influencial in a long term” instead, which is basically what you’ve said in the article. Portal certainly is more entertaining, and thus, probably a better “game”–that is, if we define “game” as more an entertainment than a thought-provoking artistic piece of work.

    Recently I’ve been suspecting that today’s gamers, who become so angry and defensive when games are criticized or analyzed in a negative way, actually think of games as mere entertainment, not as art works, themselves. People just don’t like what they love being discussed in degrading way. I think the responses on this blog is a testament to my suspicion; most here consider games’ priority lies with entertaining players, and thus, boring and trite Passage can never be a better game.

    And one of the comment likens Passage with painting, and Portal with short story. I think it’s wrong comparison. I think of Passage a small but focused and thought-provoking painting (maybe Mona Lisa?), and Portal a big and fun (probably Roccoco, at best) but with accompanying music playing next to it to heighten the viewing experience.

    Thank you for such a great discussion. I’m off to your follow-up post. And any word on next Facade-like interactive drama?

  64. MW Says:

    Peter, you describe games as things that some people love, and Passage as more artwork than game… yet you say Passage will be more influential in the long term than Portal, though Portal is an excellent game. Do you mean to say that art is more important than love?

    At any rate, y’all sure do seem to worship “thought” and the provocation thereof. Why is this? Some commenter above makes a goofy effort to extrapolate Nick’s original argument into a hypothetical world wherein every game tries to be serious art and to break your heart. To me that doesn’t sound so bad… it might be more interesting than what we have now, anyway. What bothers me is the thought of the hypothetical world in which y’all seem to get your wish and people come to consider the highest calling of humanity to be Important, Thought-Provoking Criticism, and instead of games OR art we have nothing but words words words from men who sit in chairs while the world passes them by.

  65. Panic {RE}_Programming » Blog Archive » Rhizome News: The Game of Life Says:

    […] entry has become a micro sensation on its own, garnering kudos in scads of the most widely read games blogs as well as mainstream press. In Passage, you play a character who travels across a narrow […]

  66. The Independent Media Channel - New Media Art News from Rhizome Says:

    […] entry has become a micro sensation on its own, garnering kudos in scads of the most widely read games blogs as well as mainstream press. In Passage, you play a character who travels across a narrow […]

  67. Post Position » Well Played Says:

    […] comparing two of the top games of 2007. Thanks to everyone who discussed this comparison with me at Grand Text Auto when I first blogged about this pair of games. My article is, I think, both more extensive and more […]

  68. Untrustworthy Source Says:

    Am I the only one who didn’t find Passage profound or thought-provoking? What were the thoughts being provoked anyway? Was it an epiphany about how you get old and die? Some of us had worked that out. Was it trying to present that view in a new and not-really-all-that-effective way? That’s one of the infuriating things about the indie games scene; if you say that, after all, it wasn’t really that deep, you get heads shaken at you as you are told that you just don’t get it. You’re also told that the game is all about your personal interpretation in the same breath that the meaning of the game is exhaustively explained.

    All this debate about if games are art or whether they should be seen as poetry smacks to me of incredible pretentiousness. A game needs to be judged as a game, not as an interactive art piece or a short story or a blueberry pie, and a s a game Portal is a success.

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