Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Inspiration, Infinity and Spirituality – A Talk with Jason Rohrer

chainworld1We’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we’re big fans of indie game designer Jason Rohrer. We like his curiosity, his unique aesthetic, and his candidness. We were even so taken with his last effort, Sleep is Death, that we called him up and had a big long chat about everything from Roger Ebert to Nintendo.

Since then, Rohrer’s been busy. This February, he released his fifteenth game, an “infinite, recursive, tactical shooter” called Inside A Star-Filled Sky. At the Game Developer’s Conference in March, he participated in and won the Game Design Challenge on religion with Chain World. Though it started as a mere Minecraft mod on a USB stick, Chain World quickly became a topic of hot debate when auctions were started and angry blog rants posted.

I contacted Rohrer about Chain World, and he generously shared his thoughts on the challenge, the controversy, and the merits of winning of a competition with a Minecraft mod. We also touched on the infinite possibilities of Inside A Star-Filled Sky, spirituality on a Minecraft server, and whether or not “gameification” is getting us anywhere.

The Challenge

The goal of the Game Design Challenge is to force some of gaming’s brightest minds to design a game around a topic most developers would balk at. Previous topics include sex and autobiography, real-life perma-death, and inter-species play. Not only does panel-runner Eric Zimmerman choose tough material for his contestants, he also shrouds the event in mystery.

gdc panel“The thing about that panel is that Eric asks you whether or not you want to do it or not before he tells you what the topic is,” said Rohrer. “I was just kind of saying yes kind of blindly, and after I said yes, he was like, “Oh great. Okay, well here’s the topic: Religion. And John Romero’s going to be in it with you.” Which is sort of like, you know, double-gulp.”

Rohrer, at only his third GDC, was also competing against defending champion Jenova Chen of That Game Company, who won the 2010 competition with HeavenVille, a social networking game about the deceased. Despite the intimidation factor of facing a returning champ and one of the men behind Doom, it was the topic that Rohrer struggled with.

“Personally, I’m born and raised atheist. And so I’ve never practiced any kind of religion at all in my life. I’ve dabbled in some. I’ve studied some and so on, but I’ve never actively practiced any or called myself a practitioner of any religion. So it’s a strange topic for me.”

Complicating matters were the stipulations of the contest. “We weren’t making a game about religion. We were supposed to be designing a religion. Somehow in playing the game, players will actually be participating in spiritual practice of some kind. That was sort of this really tall order.”

Rohrer also felt a responsibility to confront the topic head on. “A lot of the game designers don’t really design a real in-depth design with lots of mechanics and so on. They come up with some clever way to almost dodge the whole issue.” It’s likely that Chen’s HeavenVille won because of its entertaining presentation and cheeky take on FarmVille rather than the appeal of a death clock/stock market game. “So I didn’t want to do that,” Rohrer said.

Building a Religion

So how does a self-proclaimed atheist go about designing a religion? “I would call atheism a belief – it’s not a fact, right? It involves faith and so on,” he said. “But I still have what I would call spiritual feelings and spiritual relationships to some of the things that I find in my life. What I would say other people identify as spiritual feelings connected to their religion, I still have those feelings, right? Those are human feelings.”

The organizing principle of Chain World was a simple phrase, “We become like gods to those who come after us.” Rohrer penned it himself.

“I hadn’t really heard these kinds of ideas expressed anywhere else which is why I was excited about presenting them,” he said. “It’s a very materialistic, non-esoteric kind of spirituality. It’s very much grounded in the reality of human existence. There are things you can point to out in the world, like I give this example of my grandfather’s dog-leg in I-77. It is there. I can point to it on a Google map.”

This “predecessor-successor relationship” became the basis for Rohrer’s religion. “People play it one after another, and only one person is playing at a time. And then the people who follow are dealing somehow with things that you left behind in your play.” So Rohrer set out to build a game perfectly tailored for this meta-chain structure.

we become like gods“I’d think about some kind of game design where you’re building something or you’re trying to accomplish some goal, and you end up building things just as a side effect of your goal and so on,” said Rohrer. “But as I said in my talk, my mind just kept circling back to Minecraft. I kept having to steer myself away intentionally and eventually I just kind of succumbed.”

Chain World exists on a single USB stick. One player in the world plays at a time. They run the program, play Minecraft until they die, and pass the stick along (watch Rohrer’s full presentation here).

Rohrer’s a little embarrassed about resorting to Minecraft. The indie hit from Mojang dominated the Game Developer’s Conference, taking home several awards. Rohrer worried his mod would suffer backlash from Minecraft oversaturation. “Notch [Minecraft’s creator] was up on stage so many times it started getting silly.”

He also feared a Minecraft mod would be viewed as too much of a dodge. “I didn’t actually design much of anything,” he said. “I cobbled together a couple scripts for Mac, PC and Linux to launch the game and save the stuff back to the USB stick and I wrote up nine rules that are each one sentence long.”

Elaborate design or not, Rohrer’s entry won the competition. Minecraft was a safe choice after all.

Why Minecraft?

Minecraft is an indie sensation, perhaps the best-selling independent game of all time. Still only in Beta, it’s sold over two million copies. Procedural generation, user-created content, retro aesthetics: Minecraft has everything people have come to expect from the indie scene. People love it, and Rohrer is no exception. He recounts his adventures with the enthusiasm of an explorer returned from the New World.

tree city“Every little place in Minecraft is beautiful in its own way,” said Rohrer. “Every once in a while you peek over the next hill or end up somewhere else or explore a little further and go ‘Wow, there’s still a lot of stuff over here. Is there an ocean? Is there a boundary? Am I going to run off the edge of the world?’”

The world always rises up to meet you in Minecraft. Rohrer is awed by the never-ending embrace of Notch’s algorithms. “It’s as infinite as far as you want to wander and generates things to fill in those gaps as you wander further. So that alone is really beautiful.” He then joked, “Who would make a game like that, right? What’s the point of it? Why would you want something that’s eight times the surface area of the Earth? No one’s ever going to see it all. But the idea that it’s there is this tantalizing, awe-inspiring thing.”

“All these other games have these artificial limits in them, and this game is this kind of limitless place,” Rohrer said. Most games confine you, funnel you down corridors or surround you with thirst-inducing desert. This is generally due to design constraints that Minecraft, with its low-res graphics and algorithmic landscape, eschews.  Minecraft does have hard limits on its depth and height, but the effort required to reach either lends them a special weight.

“You end up digging a staircase, everyone does, and lining it with torches to get down to deeper levels,” Rohrer explained. “And then you’ll look up your torch lit staircase and you can see the vanishing point at the top. Those kinds of moments – ‘Oh my Gosh, this is really deep!’ – are very spiritual for me.”

Looking Up At The Sky

Infinity is the central theme of Inside a Star-Filled Sky. Unlike Minecraft, its world has clearly delineated levels, but they are recursively structured. Players shoot their way through the first level only to rise out of it and discover they were playing inside their new self. They can then continue upward or dive into enemies or power-ups. Rohrer’s embraced the dizzying nature of this infinite expanse.

“You can keep entering things forever, going all the way down and it never stops, and you can keep rising out of things forever, rising out of yourself forever and ever all the way up,” he said. “So it’s sort of turtles all the way down, turtles all the way up.”

inside a star filled

There’s a strong connection between gameplay and Rohrer’s theme of personal growth. “You go inside yourself to upgrade yourself, but of course you know there are difficult things waiting to be overcome inside yourself.”

But he isn’t just exploring the ways by which we evolve. “There’s this looming question, as you rise out higher and higher, going up the trunk of this recursive tree structure. There’s no limit but it gets harder and harder,” said Rohrer. “There’s this lingering existential question about the point of the whole endeavor.”

This isn’t the first time Rohrer’s tackled the existential questions raised by infinity. In 2008, he designed Immorality for his Escapist Game Design Sketchbook. In Immortality, players build a tower that continues up and up with no seeming end or potential for failure. In the article accompanying the game, Rohrer posed the question, “Does death have some fundamental value that we usually ignore?”

Death in Inside a Star-Filled Sky doesn’t end the play session. It sends you back inside yourself, where you can improve and modify yourself to face the challenges ahead. It’s all part of an infinite cycle of exploration. Rohrer felt like he’d faked infinity in Immortality and wanted another shot.

“I’d dealt with this idea of standing on this Earth looking up at this infinite space around you, which is something that we do - stare at the stars. But [Immortality] didn’t really – it was kind of a fake,” he said. “I wanted to make a game that didn’t fake it. That literally put you in this infinite space and let you run and let you go in it. Let you explore it.”

And there’s a lot to explore. According to the game’s website, the magnification of level fourteen is equal to the size of the known universe. “You are really this little mote running around inside yourself,” Rohrer said. “You zoom out. You realize how small you were.”

Procedural Generations and User Creations

Just like Notch didn’t sculpt every hillside in Minecraft block by block, Rohrer didn’t design every single level in Inside a Star-Filled Sky. Taking cues from games like Spelunky and Shoot First, he used procedural generation to create the environments and tactical situations that you encounter.

“With procedural generation stuff, it’s all about tuning the system so that you ensure that interesting situations are very likely to arise,” he said. “There’s always way too much room in these systems for doldrums and uninteresting little corners in the world.”

spelunkyEnvironment design is also integral to exciting procedural gameplay. “If you took Rogue, took all the enemies out, and just let yourself wander around this procedurally generated maze, the maze means nothing.” Spelunky changes this, he adds, by using platforming and gravity to concern you with the environment, just like how the tunnels in Shoot First force you aim differently.

Minecraft’s world is procedurally generated, but it thrives on user-created content. Chain World tosses the procedural aspect out the window (the world was only created once, after all) and embraces the one-way street of user-created content. Inside a Star-Filled Sky is pure procedural generation, except for one tiny thing.

Chain World did kind of come back and haunt me and inspire a late-in-the-game change that I made to Inside a Star-Filled Sky,” said Rohrer. Earlier versions of the game gave each player their own recursive trunk to explore. “That’s the way it was for the first fifteen versions of the game.”

Rohrer changed the game so that everyone plays in the same world. He’s excited about the idea of everyone exploring this procedurally generated infinity together. “It’s really an interesting idea, right? This infinite space that I haven’t even seen yet and no one in the world has seen yet, but it’s there it’s there waiting to be unraveled and unfolded.”

He even added a dash of user-created content. “People can design this little 3x3 flag of colors, and it also comes along with a musical anthem,” he said. Like a house in Minecraft or his grandfather’s rerouted highway, players can now leave something for others to find.

“You’re placing this little thing, kind of like a little message in a bottle,” Rohrer said, “launching this thing out there for other people to find that you really have no idea where it’s going to go or who’s going to see it or what’s going to happen to it.”

Message in a USB Stick

jia jiAt the end of his GDC presentation, Rohrer brandished the USB stick containing Chain World and invited someone from the crowd to become Player Two. He had written his own letter, an interactive treatise on legacy, and was tossing it into the ocean.

Chain World was handed to Jia Ji, a technology entrepreneur. After the presentation, Ji approached Rohrer about auctioning off the next spot on the chain for charity. Rohrer shrugged and consented. A week or so passed before he heard anything else about it.

“All of a sudden, I get an email from him,” Rohrer said. “He set up this whole website. He had this eBay auction set up.  But it’s not just an auction to the next person, he had it rigged supposedly so that he’s interweaving celebrities with these people who win an auction.”

Controversy erupted soon after. Rohrer followed it with some disbelief. “The stick ended up selling after the seven-day auction for $3,300, which is quite a lot of money. I guess it’s not an ungodly amount of money, but I thought, ‘It’s probably going to sell for $500 or something.’” The winner of the auction has yet to be identified, though it appears to have been a group of people who pooled their money together (see this Twitter account).

Rohrer’s fielded all sorts of questions about what happened to Chain World. “A lot of people have asked me, "Are you upset about this? Were you involved in this?" As if this is like Mr. Brainwash from Exit Through the Gift Shop, like maybe I set this all up. Or maybe he’s a character of my own creation, or maybe this is some giant ARG or something. But no, it’s not.” He insists that he’s no more responsible for the future of Chain World than the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t enjoyed watching people’s reactions.

“In a lot of ways, what’s happened is kind of too good to be true,” Rohrer said. “Though it’s not how I would have envisioned it – it’s not what I want to have happened to it – at the same time, it’s sort of the perfect thing to happen to it.”

Evading Gameification

For the Game Design Challenge, Eric Zimmerman broached the topic of religion by referencing “gameification,” the idea that viewing the world through a lens of gaming might improve life. It has its advocates (chief among them Jane McGonigal), and its detractors. Asked about it, Rohrer said, “I guess I don’t think about it too much at all.”

He certainly doesn’t buy it as a new form of commercial marketing strategy. “I remember playing Monopoly at McDonald’s when I was a kid. Does that count? People have been using games and contests to promote and encourage and influence consumer behavior for a very very very long time.”

“If you’re talking about what Jane McGonigal is talking about,” he continued, “I don’t know. I think she’s mostly talking about raising money. I haven’t really seen these examples that she’s dreaming of where people are going to get together and be motivated to clean up the Lake Erie coastline or whatever through gameification.”

Though Rohrer remains unimpressed by gameification, he has no plans to rally against it. “I’m not too worried about it. I don’t sit up late at nights and worry it’s going to ruin game design. I got an email recently from somebody who’s all worried about this. I’m like, “"Nah nah, it’s just the latest fad don’t worry about it."”

Slowing Down and Looking Ahead

Inside a Star-Filled Sky is Rohrer’s fifteenth game in seven years, and Rohrer admits his prolific pace is unsustainable. “After Sleep is Death I tried to forced myself to work on a new game, and after working on it for a couple of months I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be working on and I abandoned it. Then I gave myself a couple of months of creative breathing room before I came up with Inside a Star-Filled Sky.”

diamond trustIn between Sleep is Death and Inside A Star-Filled Sky, Rohrer continued, stopped, and resumed work on his sixteenth game, Diamond Trust of London for the Nintendo DS. “I ended up breaking off my deal with Majesco because we had a disagreement about how the game was going to be released,” he said. “And when the game was seventy-five percent done I just said, Okay, I’m not going to finish it.”

Fortunately, Diamond Trust of London has been picked up by publisher Zoo Games and will arrive on the DS in cartridge form. Rohrer has the dev kit on his desk to prove it.

In the meantime, he’s also working on bringing Inside a Star-Filled Sky to Steam as soon as possible. “There's no release date set, but it should be pretty soon,” he told me later via email. “It's just a matter of getting [Inside a Star-Filled Sky] packaged for Steam and getting the Store page set up.”

“These are not really creative endeavors,” said Rohrer. “They’re implementation endeavors, or pretty-much-finished-game endeavors. Just ironing out details, which is good way to let yourself have creative breathing room.”

Rohrer can have all the room he needs, as far as I’m concerned.

Thanks to Jason for taking the time and talking with us again. The full audio of this interview will be made available on our After the Jump podcast’s RSS feed later this week. Inside a Star-Filled Sky is currently available at insideastarfilledsky.net. You can find information on Jason’s other work on his website.