So I went ahead and tried Passengers, which you can do as well. Sadly, it’s another example of the games industry’s continued immaturity, but in this case it’s a specific window into the jejune understanding of art and life by the people who make games. Sorry, did I say that? I have no idea what they think about art and life, or if they even see this as art, or just activism, or if art can be activism as well as art, which I think it can, but anyway. I wish Ian Buruma could write an article for the New York Review of Books about this.
But, after the jump, you are stuck with me.
My point is that whatever the Passengers developers understand or intend, which you and I and the French literary critics know is irrelevant, they approached it with the kind of perspective you’d expect in a young adult novel that tries to teach you empathy for poor people in countries that you don’t understand because you just haven’t met someone from there that is a grocer and gee he’s just like my grocer, only from a poor country and in a young adult novel. Is Judy Blume still alive? I think I saw a thing about her in the New York Times recently. Dammit, I keep getting sidetracked. But even Judy Blume could do a better job at this than these developers, even with the same starting point. When you were a kid, do you remember reading a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? It was about these two kids who ran away from home and hid in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because they thought that no one cared about them, but then they discovered a secret about Michaelangelo and everything was all right. I actually think that book gives me a better understanding of the migrant experience than this game does, what with all their hiding in restrooms and joining crowds of children to go unnoticed during the day, basically living a metaphorically subterranean existence. But this game approaches things from the perspective of the human traffickers, which is like telling the Frankweiler story from the point of view of the museum guards. It’s pretty clear that the traffickers are completely depraved, willing to abandon boats filled with migrants at a moment’s notice to escape the authorities, or to drown boatloads of people in order to extort further money from them. Just last week, there was the story about the truck on the highway from Hungary to Austria filled with 50 decomposing bodies of migrants. Needless to say, none of these things are in the game.
But before you say, well, you play games about Nazi warplanes that don’t have anything about the Holocaust, I think it’s possible to separate the activities of some Luftwaffe squadrons from the activities of the Einsatzgruppen from a simulation standpoint, even if you can make an argument that you can’t do so from a moral one. But the whole reality of the trafficking industry is that it’s a criminal syndicate with zero regard for anything except money. The practice is clearly just about collecting as much money as possible without any concern for the lives of the migrants. But the game gives the impression of human trafficking being like a small business, much like playing Merchant Prince or Patrician or whatever and buying a boat here, deciding between someone who can offer a few hundred dollars there, a few hundred more from someone else, like you are buying rivets and then paying suppliers for their product and comparing prices. Which is of course the point of Passengers — it even states that it is trying to “show some of [the migrants’] individuality and how powerless it is in front of the acting monster, you” – except that it utterly fails to portray this “individuality” because you don’t interact with it in any way. You can just hit [RIGHT ARROW] to load your boat as quickly as possible, or go through and grab the highest-paying customers by hitting [LEFT ARROW] (as though there is some limited supply to force you to make decisions, which is a ridiculous assumption), and you get some money, but it doesn’t really matter if you have a few extra thousand or not, and as you travel across the Mediterranean you are told that so-and-so died (but you can’t remember who that was if you even knew) and then you get to Spain or Italy with 35 people or 31 because four died, or whatever. Then you are back in Africa, buy a new boat, and repeat. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a virtual 8-bit console to be able to depict the pathos in this situation in a way that connects with adults and still stays true to the format, but then these developers chose that format, so I can’t help them with that.
And the sad thing is that even as dehumanizing as this is, the reality is incomparably worse. I dont know if you heard NPR’s recent coverage, but there was a pretty brutal description of what is actually involved in the human trade into Europe. Far from being some kind of superficially inhumane aquatic version of Freelancer, its an abhorrently gruesome convergence of malign actors that in its actual form is about as appropriate for a computer game as a terrorist beheading. Smugglers torture migrants and force them to call their families while they are torturing them, making them beg for more money. Rates are set by how affluent the smugglers feel the migrants’ countries are. Rather than the quaint I have two kids but I’m sullen and don’t appreciate your smuggling efforts tradeoff between the smuggler and migrant, whose hurt feelings about not being appreciated for his risk-taking are the game’s most grotesque invention, the reality is that the only goal of the traffickers is to separate the migrants from their money, whether it is by subterfuge, robbery, or murder.
In the end, I feel like I’m reading some earnest high school or college student’s outraged manifesto about how awful the migrant situation in Europe is, but when questioned about it, betrays the writer’s appeal to an assumption about the existence of a general essential humanity that does not exist in many. The assumption is obvious because it ignores the fact that the traffickers are willing to abandon their ships (which you cannot do in this game) and set the autopilot to simply head north and leave the passengers to their fate (which you cannot do in this game) or try to extort more money from the passengers and then sink the ship deliberately if they don’t get paid (which you cannot do in this game). Never mind the torture I mentioned earlier, or the ruses to separate migrants from their money without any intention of fulfilling your end of the deal. Instead, you are a kind of small entrepreneur who tries to build a business and is willing to suffer the consequences of the failure of his business decisions, in the form of actually going down with your ship! Which smugglers who sink their boats deliberately are certainly not doing. I feel like Theo Padnos could have written this game.
I think it would have been much more interesting to make this game from the perspective of someone in the employ of one of these criminal syndicates, being told you need to drive from Budapest to Vienna with this truck, and if you are captured and traced the criminals will come and kill you, and then have the player make decisions based on a more constrained set of choices. But I think Papers, Please already did a nice job of this, and Passengers is no Papers, Please.
I found this interesting.
And that’s all I’ve got on this.
Passengers is a game where you play a smuggler of migrants in Europe. Migrants are all over the news. They're treated as a group of people, not as individuals. We wanted to go beyond that, to show some of their individuality and how powerless it is in front of the acting monster, you.