Between: An Interview with Jason Rohrer
In recent years, critics have started to take videogames seriously as an art form. The market continues to be saturated by first-person shooters and action games, but alongside such conventional releases, independent designers are experimenting with the affordances and possibilities of this new medium. Jason Rohrer has been at the forefront of this movement. From groundbreaking productions such as Passage (which uses game rules to explore the parameters of life and death) to Inside a Star-filled Sky (which contemplates infinity and recursion through computational processes), Rohrer has treated videogames as a medium of thought.
In an industry characterized by large-scale collaborative productions, Rohrer is the closest we have to a videogame auteur. He has received widespread recognition and critical acclaim for his work. His game Between (a thought-provoking interrogation of the limits of human communication) won the 2009 Independent Games Festival’s Innovation Award. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference, he was awarded the annual Game Design Challenge with a creative Minecraft mod in which individual players passed a single game to others, creating a continuous chain of play. In the present exchange, Rohrer discusses the conceptual, artistic, and media-specific aspects of his games.
Patrick Jagoda: A number of popular critics, including Roger Ebert and Jack Kroll, have argued that videogames can never be art. There are plenty of games that one could cite that would support this position. Of course, Theodore Sturgeon suggested in the 1950s that 90% of anything — whether it is science fiction, film, comics, literature, or consumer goods — is crud. The same goes for videogames. Then again, the recent work of designers like Jonathan Blow, Rod Humble, Jenova Chen, Will Wright, Jane McGonigal, and others has suggested that videogames are capable of loftier ambitions. Whether games are “art” might depend on the meaning of that contentious term, but regardless, the medium has changed immensely over the last decade. Given your own investment in creating thought-provoking and artful games, how do you feel about this ongoing debate?
Jason Rohrer: Jack Kroll’s argument was based on the technological state of mainstream games eleven years ago. Ebert, in part, made the same point about more recent games: from an outsider’s perspective, even our best mainstream efforts at “movielike games” look stiff, laughable, and creepy. Though we may be trudging deeper into the uncanny valley despite our redoubled efforts to cross it, we believe that we will cross it someday. Even if we can’t, we can always backpedal, dropping our goal of realistic 3D people and reverting to cartoonish icons of people instead. The recent independent artgame movement has adopted this approach to good effect. And the problem of cruddy content or lack of artistic talent can also be overcome eventually — make better stuff and recruit more talented people.
Ebert’s core argument is not concerned with any of the above issues, but is instead about authorial control. What can we say with any certainty about the artistic quality of a given game when such a large part of the art experience rests in the hands of the player? A game might be great in the hands of one player and terrible in the hands of another. This is different from a matter of taste, where a work might be loved by one audience member and hated by another.
There’s a certain brand of improvisational theater where an audience member is invited on stage to fill one of the principle roles. Clearly, the artistic success or failure of each performance depends a great deal on the contribution of the selected audience member. As we fill the principle role in almost every game that we play, the same issue arises.
When Dr. J performs his incredible Baseline Move, you witness art. When you watch me play basketball, you witness no such thing. Thus, we might hesitate to call James Naismith an artist. Even if Ebert is ultimately wrong, the issue of authorial control demands our serious consideration. What does “make better stuff” mean in this context?
PJ: Your point about authorial control and the inherent interactivity of games raises the issue of media-specific attributes. Oftentimes, videogames are evaluated by the standards of other media, such as print literature and film. Even though games may include narrative or cinematic components (some, like Heavy Rain, even rely entirely on them), they also foreground algorithmic processes, game mechanics, digital graphics, player interfaces, networked capabilities, and so on. Is further experimentation with these components critical to the way that videogames develop as an expressive and artful medium?
JR: Videogames have branching roots. On one side, they draw from the long history of non-digital games. On the other side, they pull from the relatively short history of computation. To further complicate the picture, the idea that a game could be about something is relatively new. The long history of non-digital games is populated exclusively with very abstract games — games that are about their mechanics. Games started being about things before the advent of videogames — think Monopoly — but something about having games on screens made us really start wanting our games to be about things. Our very earliest videogames, like Tennis for Two, Spacewar, and Pong, were each about something other than themselves. And, most importantly, we didn’t really consider the expressive possibilities of games until we started making games about things. Monopoly’s 1904 predecessor, The Landlord’s Game, was meant to express something about the inequities of property rental.
So, when we think about the “development of the medium,” we mostly think about how games are about things, and how we can make good games about more artistically interesting things, and when we think that way, we start to ignore game mechanics. All those things that you mention can be beautiful in their own right. An abstract design can be beautiful, of course. But I don’t think we’ve collectively evolved to that point yet in terms of our artistic goals. Certainly not in the mainstream, where people are essentially making one type of game (virtual reality games) about various topics. On the fringe, a few thinkers have been pushing a different agenda where something like Go is seen as a masterpiece because of its mechanical elegance and deep emergent properties. But if we look to a 2000-year-old game as a pinnacle, we obviously don’t have much “developing” left to do.
PJ: It’s true that contemporary games are usually about things. They represent characters, situations, and scenarios. Something else that both abstract and concrete videogames accomplish is to induce a wide range of affects and feelings. Many of the same critics who deny videogames the status of art contend that they are incapable of emotional complexity. Numerous mainstream games do indeed reproduce the fairly disposable feelings common to mass-market mystery novels or formulaic horror films. In my experience, your games explore a much wider emotional range. They grapple with melancholy, regret, curiosity, bursts of creative energy — and they also produce such feelings in players. What draws you to videogames as a way of exploring human emotions?
JR: I was born right into the first golden era of video games, so I’ve been playing them my entire life. As I got older, games evolved to deal with more realistic situations and to include more characters. I was over-the-moon excited by the prospect of realistic situations, but thinking back, the characters only gripped me on rare occasions. Games continued to become more character- and story-focused during my early adulthood. Somewhere in my mid twenties, those games started to lose me. The quality gap between the best story-focused games and the best movies didn’t seem to be getting narrower.
When I decided to make games, part of my motivation was to fill this void — to make games for people like me. I was sick to death of cutscenes, so my games had none of these and instead focused on pure interactivity. I appreciated the emotional depth and complexity of the best modern films and novels and music, so my games attempted to explore similar complexity interactively (though I readily admit that I’m still just taking baby steps in that direction). My time for playing long games packed with “filler” was dwindling, so my games got right to the point and were very short as a result.
So I was mostly drawn toward exploring human emotions because I saw so little of that being done well interactively. Making games is difficult and time consuming, and I couldn’t imagine doing it casually. I couldn't imagine going through that lengthy process to make “just another [blank]”. Much more reasonable to make “the world’s first [blank]” instead, I suppose. Call it a blue ocean strategy.
PJ: At five minutes, Passage is one of your shorter pieces and perhaps the world’s first computer game to serve as a memento mori. The game depicts a literal passage through a maze, but it is also about the passage of and through a lifetime. It encourages thought about constraints that both limit and enable movement through the world. You’ve written that Passage was a way of working through both a feeling of “existential terror” and an appreciation of life’s “terrible beauty.” Was there something about game mechanics that struck you as an ideal way to reflect on these philosophical matters?
JR: When it came to memento mori, an art theme that seemed to have run out of steam 300 years ago, I felt that games could bring something new to the table, because memento mori is really about choice: now that you’ve been reminded of your own mortality, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? A game could allow the player to explore various answers to this question right within the context of the work itself.
The big choices in life could be distilled down into relatively simple mechanical metaphors. The risks of exploring the unknown versus the rewards or lack of rewards for doing so (a maze with limited visibility). The process of learning which goals are worth pursing in the first place (the gem patterns on the fronts of the treasure chests). The trade-offs inherent in joining a life partner (a maze with gaps big enough for a party of one but not for a party of two). The fact that every life is finite (a strict time limit). And finally, the supposed meaning of life itself (a score that ties all these other mechanics together).
The idea of “mechanical metaphors” was pretty new at the time. I credit the idea to my friend and colleague Rod Humble.
PJ: The space of Passage is enormous, but given the time limit, a player only sees a small portion of the environment during any given game session. Your more recent game Inside a Star-filled Sky reflects further on levels of the world that are beyond human experience. It tackles concepts such as infinity and recursion. You’ve observed that it would take approximately 2043 years of continuous play to reach the limits of your code and the universe that it generates. One of the distinctive facets of digital media, in general, is that they record and generate phenomena beyond the usual threshold of human perception. Computers make available otherwise inaccessible scales. Was Inside a Star-filled Sky, in part, a meditation on computer code or the affordances of new media?
JR: I first encountered the concept of recursion when studying computers and learning to program. I’ve always found that aspect of computers fascinating, that they could be set up in such a way that they would run on forever. And not just repeating forever, like a record player looping forever on Sgt. Pepper’s runout groove, but actually generating endless complexity forever, seemingly out of nothing.
A favorite thought experiment of mine involves a simple computer program that generates all possible binary sequences of length 42,336,000. The total number of possible sequences, and the resulting running time if one sequence is output every minute, is too large to contemplate (2 to the 42,336,000th power), but it’s still finite. Too large to contemplate, but finite! What a lovely notion. If you interpret each sequence as monophonic, CD-quality audio, you’ll find that each sequence represents exactly 60 seconds of sound. In fact, this simple computer program will eventually output every possible conceivable minute of sound. For example, you certainly don’t speak Chimariko (an extinct language for 90 years), but one of those sound clips will feature your unmistakable voice reciting a Chimariko translation of the Gettysburg Address. I’m not joking.
Circling back to your point, if we actually wrote this simple program and set it running, after 8000 years it would still be outputting nothing but imperceptibly-brief clicks followed by 60-second batches of silence. Unimaginably deep potential, but from our human perspective, potential that it is impossible to experience. But still real. “Would eventually.” There’s something enchanting about that phrase. I’m pretty sure that “would eventually,” among human creations, is unique to computers. It’s also a property that is shared, perhaps, by our universe.
PJ: Perhaps art, more broadly, invokes such “unimaginably deep potential” that resists knowledge. Critics often treat the aesthetic as a realm of sensory experiences or pleasures. But that’s not always the case. Romantic paintings, for instance, so often reach toward a boundless sublime that is beyond measurement. Postmodern encyclopedic novels represent vast technological networks or natural systems that surpass the capacities of individual thought. Or take On Kawara’s performance piece One Million Years, which collects dates stretching one million years into the past and future — a scale of time that is really unimaginable. Inside a Star-filled Sky approaches the extra-phenomenal and also enacts it. What led you to use the videogame genre of the 2D shooter as a way of exploring orders that exceed any human encounter?
JR: A game where you can enter anything, and recursively enter anything again inside that thing, is a nice high concept, but I needed to figure out why you’d need to enter things for gameplay reasons. You could be modifying them from the inside, but to what end? You could change their behavior or gameplay function, but what behavior could be deeply editable? How about an additive bullet combo system? It seemed like a reasonable fit, and I was also taken with top-down shooter mechanics as a player. Shooting also made the procedurally generated level configurations matter in a nice way: a straight corridor has a very different gameplay function from a crooked corridor when a bullet is flying toward you down the corridor. Every jut, every nook, and every obstruction has a profound effect on the tactical situation. This tactical space was deep enough to permit a practically infinite number of interesting configurations — exactly what I needed for my game without end. The mechanics could also scale limitlessly in terms of difficulty, since dodging 200 bullets is harder than 100 and dodging 500 is harder than 400.
PJ: Your 2008 game Between doesn’t build as clearly on an existing genre. The gameplay experience is intriguing, engaging, frustrating, strange, lonely, beautiful, all at once. The game takes place in dreams. It relies on an internal and relational logic that is not immediately apparent. It’s the only two-player game that I can think of that is neither “competitive” nor “cooperative.” Do we need some other word to describe the relation between players that takes place here?
JR: Ian Bogost, one of the few people on earth who actually liked the game Between, felt the need to coin the phrase “disjunctive play” to describe the experience. The game was about the gap that separates each of us from the “others” in our lives. If we believe the conclusions that Quine drew from his radical translation thought experiment, we must embrace the fact that we are eternally alone, exchanging nothing more than garbled messages in bottles with others, even with loved ones. We have no proof that my word “bottle” means the same thing to me as your word “bottle” means to you, after all — it’s really a matter of faith. Like the Pioneer golden plaques that were sent into space in the 1970s. We assume that whoever will find them will have eyes and a brain equipped to interpret line-art representations of 3D objects.
As a game about these things, Between erects an almost impenetrable barrier between the two players and then still demands that they somehow communicate through that barrier, at least minimally, in order to progress in the game.
PJ: Maybe the type of communication that takes place in the game isn’t so different from the exchange we’re having — an interview conducted through the ether. Though at least we have access to language, which isn’t available to players in Between. In the midst of this game, it’s easy to feel alienated from the other player. When I first played it, I came to crave any signs that we were mutually affecting each other’s worlds. One aesthetic break to the feeling of isolation comes through layers of music that emerge through continued interaction. Was the audio central to your design vision?
JR: This might sound depressing, but I’m not sure that a dialog through language is all that much different from what happens in a game of Between. You know what I mean? Now there’s a great little drop of social lubricant for you: “You know what I mean?” We only say that when the other person cannot possibly.
The music in the game is something that you “build” incrementally along with your tower of blocks. A template is provided to guide you, and what you end up building is symmetrical and arguably aesthetically pleasing — and so is the music, hopefully. But only you can see the tower the way that you see it, and only you can hear the resulting music. Your tower, as it appears distorted in your partner’s world, is asymmetrical and arguably ugly. Your partner’s tower, which looks well-composed to him, is likewise distorted as it appears in your world.
So the music that goes along with these towers is in fact another piece of your isolation. Only you can hear it, and your tower doesn’t make the same sense to anyone else but you. And if you were to say, “Wow, that music at the base of my tower! Can you hear that?” Your partner would answer, “No.”
Your red is my cyan. Your music is my silence.
PJ: Along with being a game designer, you’ve also undertaken some musical endeavors. Music plays an important part in Between, but also Transcend (which you’ve called both a “game” and a “multimedia sculpture”). When you design these types of pieces, do you think in transmedia terms, synthesizing graphics, gameplay, and audio?
JR: I’m working in an interactive medium, so I want all aspects of my games to be interactive. Most games have interactive graphics and underlying systems, but they have static or minimally dynamic music. I’ve tried to make games where the music was an important interactive component. You actively build the music in Transcend, Between, and Sleep Is Death. The music is directly tied to the protagonist’s mood in Gravitation. And in Cultivation and Inside a Star-filled Sky, the music is procedurally generated in real-time by the gamestate.
I don’t think as carefully about the design of my musical systems as I do about the design of my game mechanics, and music is always the very last thing that I add to a game, but making some kind of interactive music that fits into my game is automatic for me. Looking at the almost-finished game, I ask, “How can music be interactive here?”
PJ: You’ve long had an interest in digital storytelling, including hypertext fiction. One of your major multiplayer productions was Sleep is Death, which is perhaps less a game than a world-making and storytelling platform. How do you think about the formal relationship between narratives and games?
JR: I think of the idea of “narrative” as being directly opposed to the idea of “interactive,” so I feel that narratives have no place in games.
When I set out to make an interactive work, I look for inspiration in the more interactive aspects of my life. For example, I would never make a game about “the death of a loved one,” because that’s (hopefully) not a very interactive experience, so Passage is about the various choices that one makes in one’s life, including the choice about whether to acquire a loved one in the first place.
Narratives may not be interactive, but conversations are. In fact, the most interactive “things” in our lives are actually people, and our most interactive experiences are the conversations that we have with those people. So it’s natural to want to make interactive work about conversations, but we really can’t because of technological limitations, which has been frustrating. Our best attempts at interactive conversation simulation have been awful.
With Sleep Is Death, I was trying to tackle the conversation problem, but not head-on. I turned this decades-old puzzle upside down, and suddenly it became easily solvable. In Sleep Is Death, the easiest game to play is one that involves lots of conversation, because it’s a two-player interface that people can actually converse through. I could finally make interactive work about people, about the words that people say to each other, and about the conversational back-and-forth that is so interactive and so interesting.
But these “stories” in Sleep Is Death are not really narratives — not even “interactive narratives” as we usually think of them. All of those terms imply something that is at least partially pre-authored, where the author makes a narrative object and then drops it out in the world for others to experience by themselves. A Sleep Is Death story is not pre-authored at all. Not a single shred of dialog or action is written until the two players sit down and start playing. And where the resulting “story” goes is often surprising to both of them.
On the other hand, Sleep Is Death is clearly not a game either.
PJ: Like many of your productions, Sleep is Death uses pixel art. There are many mainstream videogames that strive for realism, in one way or another. Big budget games such as Heavy Rain use motion capture technology for that end, often with the uncanny effects you mentioned earlier. Other games, such Red Dead Redemption or Call of Duty: Black Ops privilege different types of realism. You use mtPaint for most of your graphics, and have said that you’re interested in making videogames that look like videogames. How does this approach affect the gameplay experience?
JR: I read Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun back when I was getting started as a game designer, and his discussion of “delight” had a strong effect on me. Delight is what we experience when we gaze at a sunset or other beautiful vista. Koster’s point is that the sunset itself — as fleeting as it is — often outlasts the experience of delight. Delight is extremely fleeting.
And delight is what we experience when we look at a game with impressive graphics. It’s a very powerful emotion that we will go to great lengths (and great expense!) to experience, but the experience doesn’t last long. An hour or two into the most visually beautiful game, we stop thinking about the graphics, and at that point, only the gameplay can sustain our continued interest. The industry knows this: a game with beautiful graphics and terrible gameplay will crash and burn every time, and the history of our medium is littered with examples. On the other hand, a game with unimpressive graphics and amazing gameplay can be extremely successful.
So, given that graphics don’t matter — beyond driving initial consumer interest — I try to focus my effort and energy on game design. I also don’t want graphics to distract people from what I feel are the more important parts of the game. A game with simple graphics leaves you with nothing else to contemplate but the gameplay.
I’ve also found that iconic, generic graphics can connect emotionally with people in a more powerful way than detailed, specific graphics. The little guy in Passage is just a little guy. He could be anyone. He could even be you. The four playable characters in Heavy Rain are so specific that they are definitely not you. Of course, characters in live action movies are always very specific, but I think that the way players step into video game roles makes generic characters more crucial.
PJ: Are you interested in the ways that videogames are capable of grappling with social, political, and ethical issues? These are areas that are sometimes dismissed when the medium is assumed to be exclusively a leisure activity or a form of child’s play.
JR: When people hear that I make video games, they usually assume that I am making games for their kids to play, or perhaps games that they’d want to keep their kids away from — games their kids would be interested in, regardless. But I don’t make games for kids.
I make games for people like me, and people like me are interested in social, political, and ethical issues. And when I compare games to other mediums — thinking about how music or movies struggle to deal with weighty topics — games seem to have an advantage. These issues all involve difficult and interesting decisions. They are, in many ways, giant real-world games, and game theory offers a great deal of insight into each of them.
What better way to explore sticky trade-offs than to build a game that has sticky trade-offs in it? How can a linear medium, which can at best only depict decisions being made, really compete?
Patrick Jagoda is Mellon postdoctoral fellow of new media and soon to be assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in Social Text, Neo-Victorian Studies, and American Literature. His ongoing research examines how the formal features of contemporary American novels, films, television shows, digital games, and virtual worlds construct a sense experience of global networks.