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AVC at GDC '10: An interview with art-game creator Jason Rohrer

Independent game developer Jason Rohrer (Passage, Between) is best known as a leading maker of art games: games that use metaphor and mechanics to express ideas about the passage of time, the creative process, and relationships between players. At GDC, Rohrer demonstrated his upcoming Nintendo DS title, Diamond Trust Of London, a kind of trading game about the diamond trade in Angola, where players have to guess each other’s moves and practice espionage to make the best decisions. Rohrer is also launching in April a storytelling game named Sleep Is Death.

Sleep Is Death is a storytelling exercise for two people, where one person sets up characters, settings and objects, and creates a story for another person to interact with. The players take turns, with one player enjoying the story by moving, typing in dialogue, and manipulating objects, and the other player — the storyteller — reacting to those actions. It’s a bit like playing with puppets or paper dolls, and it’s easiest to understand if you see his demo.


We spoke with him about interactive storytelling, his upcoming games, make-believe, and the politics of the diamond trade.

The A.V. Club: Now, this is a multi-player only game. And you’ve said you want people to play it with people they know.


Jason Rohrer: This is a game that’s very intimate. It’s about conversation, most of it. To have a really good experience people have to think about what they say as the character that they’re playing, and so on. When I’ve played this game with people I know, it’s been great. When I’ve played it with someone in the same room, it’s even better, because you can see their expression, and they’re laughing.

There’s also just something about this storytelling thing, to put someone on the spot — it’s a mentally intimate experience. It’s about their imagination more than anything else. The person who’s telling the story, there’s a lot of pressure on them to perform. But it’s this creative pressure really. You’re coming up with a response in a short amount of time to what somebody just did that you weren’t expecting. And it can be really great, if it’s with somebody that you care about.


With a stranger, I don’t even know what that would be. I’ve never done it. I’ve never played it with a stranger! I don’t want to. I’ve enjoyed playing it with my wife, I’ve enjoyed playing it with my friends, and with those people it can be a really, really amazing experience.

I made my game Between, and it was a multi-player only game. One option was to join with a stranger on the server. Every single person I’ve talked to who tried playing with a stranger had a bad experience. It’s a game already where you’re not really sure where the other person is, and you’re trying to read these tangential clues about where they might be, and you don’t see them directly, you just see the results of their behavior. And so if the person quits partway through, it takes a little while before you notice that they quit, because you couldn’t really see them anyway. But if someone plays with a friend, they’re both coming at the game like scientists trying to understand it, and asking each other, “Where are you, what are you doing?” Even if they’re just using a chat room or a third channel of communication. A lot of those people have really good experiences.


This is even more sensitive to that. Because you can’t just lay blocks, you can actually lay penises.

AVC: What led you to make a storytelling game like this?

JR: Well, I’ve been following people like Chris Crawford for a long time. He’s one of my game design heroes. Last year I was on this French/German TV show with him called Into The Night With, and they pick two people from some industry, and they picked me and Chris Crawford. It was a night on the town, where you go out to dinner, you go to an arcade, go shopping, whatever you do, and then they condense it down into a 55 minute long documentary.


I’ve read The Art Of Game Design, I’ve read Chris Crawford On Game Design, which is the more modern version. I’ve been following [his interactive storytelling tool] Storytron and its development over the years, seen his talks. And being able to spend seven hours with the guy — we had really good conversations with the whole night.

At that point, Chris had been working 17 years on Storytron and he had just released it, and a few months later he had to admit that this wasn’t going to be a success. So I was viewing him as a somewhat tragic figure. We had some heartfelt conversations about whether his project was a failure, and how he was just having to admit to himself that he failed. He’s this really smart guy, really well-spoken, knows a ton of stuff about everything — and he chose to pick this particular project to work on for so long.


And I was really interested in the Façade project [an interactive drama] when that came out. But those guys spent five years on it. Façade is a great — a massive achievement, and it works amazingly well. It shocked people how well it worked. But at the same time it doesn’t work the way you’d want it to work. Most of the time the story is you trying to say something even simple to the characters, and them not understanding it. Even something in context, even something they just talked about. And so Façade’s a laugh. You play it and laugh because you’re trying to do something funny to make Grace and Trip do weird things.

A lot of people are saying that in order for video games to ascend into the pantheon of other meaningful entertainment forms, that we’re going to need more simulation. We have to simulate human behavior. And I’ve been thinking about David Jaffe saying all these artistic games, they’re really just borrowing artistic tropes from other mediums. The wind blowing chimes, the washed out graphics, these kinds of things. They’re not providing him with the kind of experience he gets from a film like American Beauty, for example. And he says he himself has dreamed about these things, but when he actually sits down to design a game, he realizes that the player is going to get in there and essentially fuck around. And unless the game can fold around the player as they’re fucking around, and react and understand that they’re fucking around, the AI’s strong enough to do that, then it’s just going to break. Or it’s going to put barriers in your way and just feel frustrating.


So this is a huge problem. And therefore we’re not going to be able to make games about the human condition, essentially. And there are little experiments like Passage which are very abstract metaphors for the human condition, but that’s as far as we’re going to get.

So I’ve been frustrated with that for a while, and I just turned the problem on its head. Why are we trying to do this as a single-player thing? That’s always the premise. It’s basically the premise for the entire conference, is that you’re essentially dealing with single-player games mostly, and if there’s multiplayer, it’s bolted on.


The easiest film is to stick some people around a table and aim a camera at them and let them talk. The hardest film is space ships and big explosions, right? And then people say it’s the reverse for games. It’s really easy to make a game with spaceships flying around shooting things, it’s really hard to make a game where people sit around and talk.

But if you’re sitting around making a game with your friends around the kitchen table, talking is the easy part. It’s much harder to have objects interact.


AVC: But it’s more than a chat, because you’re creating this storytelling space together.

JR: I think there’s something here with the way that the illusion is painted, and even at the coarse level of detail there is — there’s very little simulation here. You’re essentially picking where you character is standing on the stage. You can just say, “I’m going to stand here now.” It’s more like thinking about this as theater, I guess.


AVC: When you say paper dolls, it feels natural to kids. But I’ve seen how hard it is for adults to do make-believe. This isn’t something they normally do.

JR: Well, when an adult plays a video game, they’re playing make-believe.

AVC: We always are, but people often don’t really think about it. In fantasy games, most of the players aren’t really explicitly thinking, “I’m really pretending I’m an elf.” Usually they just find it a pleasurable setting. Whereas here, the players are definitely doing make-believe together. There’s no other thing to achieve, like scoring points or unlocking achievements.


JR: I have used this personally for things that are mature and important to me. For example, I created all the inside parts of my house in New Mexico — our bedrooms and everything else. There was a story about, a long time ago, before we moved to New Mexico, where my wife was around cats and had a really bad asthma attack. To the point where she almost stopped breathing. She had to go to the emergency room. We got a friend next door to drive her, so we could save on the ambulance bills. And so I was left at home, I think to wake my four-year-old up and bring him to the hospital on foot. We were walking through the cold night air, going to the hospital, and we didn’t even know if she was alive or dead.

So I told a story in the present tense. [My wife] leaves to go to the hospital, and then the main character [in the game] is me, trying to get the kids and tell the kids and get them out of the house, while the phone is ringing from the hospital.


I had her play it from my perspective. And it was very, very tense. There’s this phone call from the hospital, and they’re asking, “Is this Lauren’s husband? What’s your name?” “It is. Jason Rohrer.” “Okay, you’re Lauren’s husband. Can you confirm Lauren’s mother’s maiden name?” Asking these kind of leading questions. And the music is getting more and more tense, more and more severe. And then, at the end, the operator says, “Okay, hold on a second, I’ll get your wife for you.”

I asked my wife what she thought of that scene. She said, “I thought I was going to die. I thought I was dead.” And that was interesting — “I thought I was dead.” She’s make-believing what it’s like to be me in that situation, something that I can’t really put into words what it feels like, but to have been in that situation, not knowing about whether she was alive or dead. And to be able to share that with her — as someone who’s made video games for a number of years, this was the biggest artistic experience of my video game career. That one experience with my wife, using that tool in that way — it all worked.


So yeah, it can be very powerful, and it can be used for things that are more than just goofing around and trying to make your friend laugh. Although you can do that too. I had a great experience with a friend where I tried to tell a serious story, and he subverted it. I was trying to tell him about my wife’s asthma attack. She can’t breathe, and he goes, “Get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, bitch.”

AVC: But overall, the scenarios here are “people-powered” — that you’re doing this by putting people together, rather than trying to make an AI to deliver the same experience.


JR: In some ways, this is kind of a political statement. Those machine-powered solutions, enchanting as they are, are also very lonely. There’s a sort of isolation that comes from playing a lot of computer games, where you’re spending a lot of time by yourself. They’re compelling in a way, and they draw you to keep playing, but after you’re done you feel this empty kind of feeling. Where I don’t feel an empty kind of feeling when I sit down with friends around Settlers of Catan on a Friday night. After I’m done it feels like we had a really good social experience, and it felt fulfilling to me as a human being.

A few of these art games at least make you reflect on yourself, and make you think of yourself as a person, or whatever they do, small or large. But the idea of wanting a mechanical turk — because you don’t want to play chess against a real person or something — is a strange thing.


It’s a solitary interest in a lot of ways. It’s automatically this lonely, alienating experience. And so trying to come up with ways that I can share an interactive computerized experience, but share it with somebody that I know in a way that feels valuable to them, and hoping that other people can share that with each other, as opposed to creating yet another thing that someone’s going to sit and spend hours alone with.

I guess you could say that about books and things too.

AVC: Books are a very escapist medium.

JR: I don’t read a lot of books, because I don’t have time, and because I’m too busy. I’m planting a garden, I’m not reading a book about someone planting a garden.


AVC: The other day we saw your demo of Diamond Trust Of London, and heard about the mechanics you’re exploring with espionage and “knowledge chains” as you try to place bribes and make smart trades to beat your opponent. But I wondered if you could also speak about the theme of the game. When you say that it’s a game about the diamond trade, it’s easy to guess there’s a political message or a commentary about “blood diamonds.”

JR: No, not really. I would put it in the same category as a game like DEFCON, which isn’t really a statement against nuclear war. It’s about the psychology of nuclear war in a way, because they’re putting you in the shoes of someone who’s operating in the world of Dr. Strangelove. And in that way as you play, you get kind of a creepy feeling. But if you read the work itself, the text of the work is that this is almost in celebration of nuclear war. And in that way it almost becomes more creepy than if it was wagging its finger at you or it was a game about disarmament.


This game in a way is a celebration of that underbelly, which is the diamond trade. It embraces that world where you can’t trust anybody, and where you don’t even know the names of these agents that are working for you. The pictures on their Rolodex cards have black bars over their eyes. And you’re commanding them remotely via satellite phone. So that kind of world, the world of corporate memos that have been photocopied 25 times before they reach you, that kind of stuff — it’s a celebration of that, in a noir kind of sense.

But at the same time, after you’re done playing, you can’t help but get into it. Because you’re bribing and counterbribing and spying on your opponent, and trying to get as many diamonds as possible. The winner is the person who has figured out how to extract more from Angola than the other person. So it tricks you into getting into that. And I guess it causes you to reflect on that. But not necessarily about blood diamonds themselves [as much as] the whole underground culture.


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