Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Artist Apart – A Talk with Jason Rohrer

JasonRohrer_March4_2008 Last Friday, Rob, Craig and I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with indie game programmer Jason Rohrer over Skype. We were quite chuffed, as you might imagine.

Long-time readers of the site will remember Jason from Craig’s piece about Passage, written during the very first week of this humble enterprise’s existence. Less long-time readers might recall our full review of Sleep is Death, which we ran just a few weeks ago, and those of you who are, um, between those two extremes may remember our piece on his first multiplayer game, Between. Obviously, Rohrer’s games have had a lasting impact on us, and that sentiment holds true for game writers and critics throughout the industry.

We cover a lot of ground in our 45-minute talk with Jason – we opened with Sleep is Death, which got him talking about the limitations of single-player games and his original vision for the title. Next, he discussed his upcoming Nintendo DS game, Diamond Trust of London, the challenges and advantages of developing every one of his games with no outside help, and some of the quirks of the DS. Finally, we asked him to weigh in on the great Games as Art debate – I don’t think any of us were expecting him to agree with Roger Ebert’s points, but Rohrer is nothing if not expectation-defying.

There’s nothing else that needs to be said. Read on after the jump to get a look into the mind of one of our very favorite indie developers.

Sleep is Death

sleepisdeath[11] Rohrer's newest game, Sleep is Death (see our review), looks larger on paper than any of his previous projects. It's a multiplayer, storytelling chess match with a music editor, a sprite and palette editor, and endless potential for player creativity. He sees it differently: "The core idea’s really simple. It’s this basic experiment: can you do two-person storytelling with a thirty-second time limit?"

"From the player's end, it's extraordinarily simple," he said. "There are just three buttons where they can move, speak, and act with the mouse. I didn’t want to get into implementing taxonomies of different verbs and things and building rules into the system to sort of anticipate what kind of stories people might tell."

Viewing Sleep is Death through the lens of computer science, Rohrer considers it a "Turing Complete game." The system's versatility allows the player to "emulate or simulate any kind of game" they want. Of course, there's possibility that players might surprise even Rohrer.

"I wanted to make the game sort of agnostic to what mechanics the person who’s controlling the story would implement. So it’s open to them implementing whatever sort of mechanics they want on top of the very basic systems, the atoms of the game, and then on top of that you can do whatever you want." he said. "But some of the ways that people have used it have been a little bit disappointing to me because it’s almost like a lot of people jumped on it and said, 'Well, this is just like an old-school adventure game!' So they’re trying to essentially emulate the way those old-school adventure games felt and played."

150px-Get_Ye_Flask_Shirt_Close Such imitation, loving as it may be, doesn't jive with Rohrer's intended play style. "I felt the game’s strengths are not in emulating a single-player adventure game. You can do all this other stuff with it. All this dialogue, and character interaction, and all this other kind of stuff. Why have some game where someone would even feel the need to walk up to something in the room and 'examine' it?" he said.

A little change, like the addition of text boxes to supplement speech bubbles, can transform how players use the game. Rohrer added text boxes to Sleep is Death because an early beta tester said, “What if someone walks up to a box and examines it? Are you going to have the book talk to them out of a bubble and say, ‘This is Moby Dick.’" Unfortunately for Rohrer, players began implementing them exactly as he feared. He sees no need for players to "examine" the world in his stories. "Anything that you need to see and understand – and there’s very little that you actually need to see and understand," he said, "is represented in the graphics themselves, and everything else is about dialogue and character interaction on top of that." Playing with the other person takes precedence over graphical fidelity or wordy descriptions.

This emphasis on dialogue and characters and interacting with the other player is additionally underlined by Rohrer's preference that players share Sleep is Death with someone they know well. "I don't like the idea of people playing with strangers," he said. "I never was advocating for that, and that's why I didn't create a matchmaking server myself, although I knew people would eventually do it outside of the game engine. But I always thought that that would sort of lead to generally more negative or less interesting experiences than if one person crafts a story ahead of time for somebody that they know, taking that person's personality and interests into account. I think it becomes this very personal, intimate kind of thing."

All of the close player-to-player interactions found in Sleep is Death reflect Rohrer's frustration with the limitations of single-player games. "All of our patterns and traditions for video games are so stuck in the single-player realm," Rohrer said. "It’s not really about adventure games or anything else. Our whole landscape of videogames is all single-player games, except some games that have a multiplayer add-on, essentially."

What about massive online games like World of Warcraft? "Even that is sort of a single-player game that you’re all playing in parallel and chatting while you’re doing it. It’s like you’re all running on your own treadmill at the gym and chatting to each other: 'What do you think of Obama’s new health care plan?' 'How many sewer rats did you kill today, Al?' It’s like the sheep dog and that wolf in the Looney Tunes cartoon. 'How're you doing today, Sam?' 'I'm doing good.'"

Courtesy lavalevel.net Sleep is Death is Rohrer's attempt to break out of this single-player model. "We’re so stuck in this," he said. "And then when people approach a game like Sleep is Death, they’re kind of using these single-player patterns again. They’re bringing all that baggage with them." This presents a problem when, as Rohrer said, "these tropes of videogame design are about how to create an experience that you could ship off to somebody when you the designer are not going to be there." As an example, he explained that puzzles exist in games because they "can be this thing that you manipulate in isolation and still have interest to it. So we stick these little puzzles in our games for the players to encounter in their lonely moments."

But a puzzle can only have so many solutions. Rohrer moved on to designing multiplayer games because he began to feel limited: "If you only needed to play the game a few times to get everything there is to get out of it, are we really tapping into and harnessing what makes games interesting anyway?"

Rohrer started looking to non-electronic games for inspiration. "Games like Go or Chess or German board games, they were popping up in my mind," he said. "I really started studying them, and is there a way to do this in our single-player games? I came to the conclusion: no, there isn't."

Thus we move forward to multiplayer. "Multiplayer creates these systems that are not just content to be consumed but an activity to engage in potentially for a whole lifetime." If games are deep enough, Rohrer believes we can discuss them differently: "Instead of saying, 'Have you played the game Braid?' or 'Have you played Passage?' I want people to be saying stuff like, 'Do you play Sleep is Death?' or 'Do you play Diamond Trust of London?'

"Games are not these little self-contained boxes that are filled with consumable content that you tip up and gulp down until you’re done and then cast it aside until you go on and find the next little box that you do the same thing with," Rohrer said.

The types of deep, replayable games Rohrer wants to make rely on the participation and creativity of the players. "These types of games definitely highlight issues of authorial intent, authorial control, the role of the author, abdication of authorship," he said. "I think it just gets more interesting the foggier it gets and the blurrier that line gets."

So far, gamers seem to have responded well to the experiment that is Sleep is Death, in spite of the price tag (nearly all of Rohrer's previous games have been available as free downloads). "Nobody has complained, after paying for it , about it being too expensive. No one's asked for a refund, no one's said, you know, 'oh my God this sucks, I want my money back' or 'you charlatan! What are you trying to pull here,' nothing like that. I think people sort of see the value in it."

As of April 30th, the day this interview was conducted, the game has sold about 4000 copies, with about 2,600 of them being pre-orders (at $9 apiece) and the rest being at full price ($14 apiece). These aren't numbers that would get Activision excited, but as the game's sole developer and promoter Rohrer reaps all of the rewards, instead of just a cut of the profit. "It's not like I'm giving thirty percent to Microsoft or Sony ... I'm happy. Me and my family can live for another two or three years on the money that came in from Sleep is Death."

Development on Sleep is Death is winding down, but Rohrer said another version of the game will probably be released in the near future. Going down his to-do list, he mentioned a crash that has been fixed, the fact that color palettes will become savable and searchable like the other assets in the game, and that there were some improvements that would help players keep track of all of their custom-made graphics and scenes.

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"Once you've made hundreds of resources, it becomes very difficult to manage them and find the ones that you need," he said. "And people also have this anxiety because as they're editing things and changing things, all the old versions get saved, and they're not sure which is the current one. They're scared to delete things. So this new version tracks where objects are used and prevents you from deleting something that is actually being used in another scene ... You can only delete an object if it's not used anywhere else."

These changes are going to constitute the final release of Sleep is Death, at least for the time being. "I'm sure over the next several months people will find other things that need to be fixed, but I'm thinking of it as being done."

In Diamonds We Trust - but DSiWare?

bit8 Rohrer's current project is centered around the trade of rough diamonds in Angola. Of course it is.

Diamond Trust of London is being developed by Rohrer solus, as always, but this time, he has major backing - and a new platform. Majesco, the people who brought you Cooking Mama, will publish the game for the Nintendo DS. If this seems like a sell-out, don't worry. Majesco will manufacture the cartridge, but everything else - from the graphics to the music to the AI - is Rohrer. He's even creating the cartridge and box art, he said, and as the son of professional printers, he knows how to make something look good. Diamond Trust will be pure Rohrer, the vision of a single artist.

"That makes it unique, right?" he said. "Because I don't think such a game has existed [on the DS] before."

Of course, this doesn't stop Majesco from making marketing decisions that seem a bit crude, compared to Rohrer's understated tone.

"Sometimes I"m slapping my forehead," he said, "because their press sheet says: explore eight diamond-loaded regions of Angola! Exclamation mark! Get as many diamonds out as possible before the UN cracks down! Bullet points; they have to come up with bullet points. How do you make those kind of hard-sell bullet points for a game like this?"

Indeed, Diamond Trust isn't a game sold by-the-numbers. Despite its subject, it isn't political. In fact, it's aggressively apolitical, purely and coldly focused on the business of success through espionage, double-blinds and backstabbing. Take this excerpt from the faux-memo serving as the title page of diamondtrustgame.com, a website Rohrer developed and maintains independent of Majesco:

At first we thought the Kimberly Process was just a toothless promise from the big dealers to soothe public outcry. Certify the origin of rough diamonds? Sure, we can do that. But now the district is filled with whispers about the UN. Seems like Kimberly may get some teeth in December. But that's December. It's barely May now, and we've still got our contacts in Angola. Let's make this last year count.

It sounds more like Far Cry 2 than anything ever developed for the DS. But developing for Nintendo's handheld has been something of a process for Rohrer - though he can't exactly say whether it's a chore or a pleasure.

dsiware_logo_trans "I had to learn how to program a DS, which was kind of interesting. Which I can't really talk about, because Nintendo is very, you know..." he laughed. "Very ... I don't know. It's ridiculous how tight their wraps are."

The limitations of the platform became apparent as friends at developer Sabarasa tried to port Passage, Between and Gravitation to the DSi, to be sold through Nintendo's online DSiWare store.

"The DS is a very limited platform - like I said, I can't say much about it - but shockingly limited. And they've [Sabarasa] tried their best to recreate the games. They thought, oh, we'll just port Jason's code over, it'll be easy! But," he laughed, "the DS has no floating-point unit!"

Sabarasa had to recreate the games from scratch. "Effects from Passage and Between had a lot of smooth blending that they just couldn't recreate," he said. "But they did a pretty good job of recreating DS versions of those games. They look good, and they sound good, but they did all the work. I did one tiny bit of coding when they were having trouble doing particle effects in Gravitation."

While he's pleased with Sabarasa's renditions, he seemed less invested in their success as DSiWare.

"I'm not sure where DSiWare is going to go," he said. "I guess I heard things aren't selling that well, and there aren't that many people with DSis who can even buy it. I wouldn't go out of my way to make a DSiWare game directly, myself."

The “author model”

Don't let Diamond Trust of London's platform of choice fool you. Everything in the game is the Rohrer's creation, confirming him as an independent developer in every sense of the word. This stands in contrast to most of the industry, where any big-box product represents the work of dozens if not hundreds of people.

"It is sort of a rare thing. If you move into the industry where you're going to be talking about teams of one hundred, then you're going to be talking about an auteur model, where the creative lead or whatever is wielding the whole team like a tool for his or her artistic vision." Examples of this model are not what one could call widespread, but they include industry notables such as Ken Levine (Bioshock), Fumita Ueda (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus), and Clint Hocking (Splinter Cell, Far Cry).

"Working completely alone, I'm not working with an auteur model at all ... it's just the author model, like I guess the way a book is authored, where it's just one person finishing the entire work. A videogame obviously involves multi-dimensional skills, because I'm making music, I'm making graphics, I'm programming, doing the promotion and being the PR person all together. It gives me total freedom to have a very singular vision ... I don't need to explain [my reasons] to anybody, or fold anybody else's stuff into my work just to keep team members happy, which is I think a lot of the negotiation that goes on in bigger game studios."

Games as Art

roger-ebert-2 Many in the game criticism business point to Rohrer's games as examples of games that are art, which runs contrary to Roger Ebert's recent assertions that games will never be art. Much has been written in disagreement with Ebert's piece - some measured and thoughtful, some passionate and vitriolic - but Jason Rohrer of all people actually concurs with Ebert on quite a few points.

"I used to talk about Ebert when I would give lectures," Rohrer said. "He was sort of like, not really a straw man, but the sort of hypothetical challenger to the idea of games as art that I would bring up. And I would always bring up his list of things that a work of art might do to you - making you more empathetic, making you more thoughtful, making you wiser, making you more witty, et cetera, as a human being. And then at the end of the talk I would say, 'if we had to show Ebert a game, what would we show him?'"

And after retracing his steps, going back over all of the games he cited in his talk and all of the games commonly cited in responses to Ebert's criticism, Rohrer consistently came back to the same conclusion. "I don't think we're ready. I don't think we're there yet, you know, he's right! And we need to work a lot harder, and we need to think a lot deeper, and we need to really push ourselves and really come up with things that are even crazier and more extreme in a creative direction that we've ever done before ... We've got a long way to go."

Rohrer notes that while he has created "artistic experiences" with Sleep is Death, the game itself doesn't really address Ebert's complaints. "It's not really a game," he said. "I guess that's the easiest way to dismiss it.

"I would be embarrassed, still, to show Roger Ebert any of the games that people always talk about in connection with my name. I don't think Passage is a good example to show Ebert, I don't think it's there yet - it's sort of this little baby step."

Agreement with parts of Ebert's argument doesn't mean that he comes to the same conclusions as the bespectacled movie reviewer. Rohrer very much thinks that games can be art, but it's up to game designers to push the medium to greater heights.

"I do take what he says as sort of a challenge. Not a challenge that needs to be argued against as much as a challenge that needs to be answered with game design, because I don't think we're doing that very much."

What's next?

Rohrer is still putting the finishing touches on Sleep is Death and finishing up Diamond Trust of London, but he's still got a few other projects releasing soon, including a DSiWare anthology of three of his "art games" (Passage, Gravitation, Between) and a DSiWare re-release of his single-player puzzle game Primrose. While these ports have their creator's blessing, Rohrer himself hasn't actually done much work on the games.

Otherwise, Rohrer's schedule is clearing and he's trying to find his next project. "I haven't come up with anything yet, but I'm going to be working on a brand new game."

The sooner the better.

A big thanks to Jason Rohrer for talking to us and being such a good sport. The full audio of this interview will be made available on our After the Jump podcast’s RSS feed later this week. Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is currently available on its Web site, www.sleepisdeath.net.