Thinking In Play Symposium: Visual Design & Modding Passage

As you may have seen through various press reporting, the inimitable Jason Rohrer’s work has been the focus of a solo exhibition at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College for the past couple of months, culminating in a reception and a symposium around his work, entitled “Thinking in Play”. I was invited, along with the wonderful Leigh Alexander (who joined remotely) to be on a panel specifically about the visual design of Jason Rohrer’s work. The day then followed with subsequent panels featuring the also-wonderful Robin Hunicke and others reflecting on the game mechanics of his work.

It was an unusual format, certainly, but if you’re interested, here is the presentation I gave.
The Visual Design of Jason Rohrer's Games

PPTX (with notes) | PDF

The key part is that in the context of 9-years-ago games history, Passage and Gravitation were, along with things like Rod Humble’s Marriage, heralded as games whose minimalist visual aesthetics were discussed in certain circles as being a marker of the idea that they contained some ‘universality’ and ‘truth’. Certainly, they reflected parts of real, human experiences for real people, but at the same time, the games heralded as being part of this movement told the ‘truths’ of a narrow demographic; namely the interpersonal struggles of cisgender white men and their heteronormative relationships.

And yet, at the time, Passage did mean something to a younger version of myself; the idea of conflict and mortality is certainly a universal one, though perhaps not with the particular ‘skin’ that the game comes with by default. Not everyone has the privilege of having one of their central struggles as being around balancing relationships with creative goals, for instance (though this was, at one point my own experience, to an extent).

So, as a tiny experiment for the above talk, I did a quick (and I mean very quick) mod of Passage. It took me less than 10 minutes.



You can download it here:

Passage_ThinkingInPlay_Win || Passage_ThinkingInPlay_Mac

I did this for (at least**) three reasons:

  1. To mess with the ‘visual design’ of the game, for the purposes of the talk.
  2. To explore whether the mechanical underpinnings of the game, with its constraints around time and space, still give rise to the idea of conflicts and mortality, no matter what the nature of those particular conflicts may be, or for whom.
  3. To reimagine & redefine a game which received way too much attention in games history (through no fault of the creator, necessarily) for being some kind of ‘universal experience’.

Here is what I changed:

  • The player character sprite is now a woman of colour.
  • The ‘partner’ character is also a woman, though I changed the sprite slightly so as not to represent Jason Rohrer’s wife.
  • The treasure chests are now ‘family members’.
  • The stars are now ‘hearts’.

That’s it.



To Passage‘s credit, I think the mechanical underpinnings of the game are such that this mod works, and the particular implementation of the visual design changes those dynamics slightly.

I’d not only love to hear your thoughts, but also would encourage you to make your own mod of Passage, reflecting the particular conflicts in your own life.

Creating a mod of Passage, it could not be any easier. Simply download the game from here for your particular OS, and find the folder named ‘graphics‘. Note: the Mac download doesn’t seem to work with newer versions of OSX, so I’d recommend getting the Windows exe and running it in Wine.

Within the folder where you’ve installed Passage, you’ll see these files:

Passage files

You can easily open them up in the paint program of your choice and start messing with them. Good luck, and I’d love to see your mods.

** There are other, more personally expressive reasons too, of course.