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Passage vs. The Room Tribute: Narration, meaning, and gameplay

Today, I played through two "indie" games, Jason Rohrer's "Passage" and Tom Fulp's "The Room" tribute. What did I learn? Let's see...

There's a lot to read on the internet about the indie game scene (what a confusing word, indie). Two websites I often check, indiegames.com and knowyourmeme.com (that's fun), taught me a lot today about two things I never knew about before, Jason Rohrer and The Room video game.

I played through Rohrer's "Passage" because indiegames.com told me that it would be a profound experience. The game makes you control a man as he wanders this 8-bit surreal countryside, growing older as he gains points.

What I really loved about the experience was that there is a wife you can obtain, but unless you walk into the little blob that she is, you'll miss her. I missed her, thought if I touched it, I would die or something. My girlfriend, on the other hand, picked up the wife immediately. It's funny because if you have the wife, it's tougher to maneuver around the terrain. 

"The Room" tribute, featured on knowyourmeme.com today, was fantastic. And a completely different experience. Looking like a 16-bit RPG and playing like an old school adventure game, "The Room" was super linear and super hilarious. The random making fun of the genre (when you read a diary, it gets added to your huge diary entry inventory) and the detailed spritework just made the game so compelling and funny and I enjoyed every minute of it, despite the fact that I wasn't really playing anything, practically watching the movie. 

I'm one of those fans of The Room that has actually never seen the movie, so there wasn't any particular nostalgia in the dialogue or scenes, other than the gorgeous 16-bit art. It stood on its own as an absurd tale.

So why is it a video game?

Like I said, it's basically like watching a movie, or more closely related to the turning of pages of a book. People will argue that unless a game has gameplay that is subjective adjective, it is not a game but an interactive movie, like Heavy Rain. "Heavy Rain is not a game," some say. 

What's that have to do with us?

Henry James says the novel can only be judged in this way: do you like it or don't you like it? You should not have to worry about the metaphysics of Beauty and Form, Aristotle. And to be honest, Wordsworth, you were on the right track, but still too confined in your definitions. 

Of course, Henry James has been dead for almost a hundred years. Oh, and he was talking about the novel, not the video game. I do not want to argue that they are similar, but all forms of art and entertainment are related. It's fair to take his literary criticism and apply it to video game theory.

Did I like Heavy Rain or didn't I? Personally, I didn't. I was bored. The graphics were nice, I guess. The end. But I love Xenosaga. And that game was thirty-percent cutscene. 

Why do we have to sit around and discuss video game narration? To find out what makes a good game and then figure out how to make more and then advance the medium? I really don't think it works like that. We need more Rimbaud video games, more DADA game designers. People didn't just sit around and invent modern art (heaven forbid) or stream of consciousness techniques. There does need to be more revolution. 

In learning narrative outside of gaming, we learn that genres are supposed to help us, not hinder us. If Kurt Vonnegut wants to use dramatic text or a recipe for cookies in his novel, good. If Nabokov wants to write Pale Fire, a novel consisting of an epic poem, the actual novel being the footnotes, I cannot say anything but hell yes. We do this in games, too. For instance, the action RPG. But that is gameplay genres, not narrative genres. Why can't we do what La jetée for film, completely do something different with the storytelling and visual element?

"Oh wait, Heavy Rain did do that," said the boy, sighing, scratching his head. He was over thinking it, again.

And that brings me back to Rohrer. "Passage" lasts about five minutes. When I tricked my girlfriend into playing it, she kept giving me dirty looks like "what is this? did you PAY for this?" But at the end, she clicked out of the window and told me that this thing only reaffirmed that life was meaningless. It actually touched her. It was a nice experience, and was brought about by a video game. It had some more meaning to it, than say, a Mario title, but it really wasn't much fun to play. Does the idea alone make up for this? For me, it did, but for my girlfriend, not really.

But the amount of laughs and intrigue I got out of "The Room" was much greater than the few seconds of profound thought that "Passage" gave. One was funny, the other sort of philosophical, both hardly with any gameplay. 

Are they "good" games? Does it matter what I think when thousands of other people have differing opinions? Is there such a thing as a game everyone can agree is good, or is that too subjective, like all art? I agree that with some psychological Joseph Campbell stuff, we can make better games, but it's impossible to please everyone. Technology is allowing designers and such to make games and real life closer to each other more than ever, but is this the best way to go about things (basically, do we need to kill the cutscene)? 

Is this a call to revolt against talking about games and instead just start making them? Not really, no. I hope the two or three people that read this prove me wrong and help me learn something about games. I'm just trying to wrap my head around all of this.

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