Recently I had a chance to conduct an email interview with Jason Rohrer. Jason is the creator of the much talked-about indie title Passage, as well as the new puzzle game Primrose, which we wrote about before.
Jason has made a name for himself as a primary figure in the growing movement of art-games. Passage garnered a great deal of attention from all corners of the Internet when it was released, and his fifth game, Between, was hosted by Esquire magazine in conjunction with a biographical article about him.
Jason’s latest game is Primrose, a compelling puzzle game that departs from the games-as-art debate.
How would you describe Primrose, for anyone that hasn’t heard of it?
Primrose is a tile-clearing puzzle game. It’s in the same family as Tetris, but it has completely new mechanics that have never been seen before.
How long did Primrose take to complete?
About two months.
Primrose’s visual style is very simple and appealing, yet effective. What was the inspiration behind this style?
When I began testing Primrose’s mechanics, I saw some pretty complex behavior emerge. It felt like the output of some kind of alien computer, and I wanted the game to feel and sound like you were poking at such a device. I looked back to how computers were depicted long ago, with grids of glowing, pulsating lights and bleeping sounds. There were also linear elements in the display like the grid, the text, and so on. I wanted these to all look like something that was actually being drawn on an old vector display. Everything fades in and out very smoothly, and overlapping colors blend together at the edges.
Especially on the iPhone, I thought it would be nice to hold a computer like this in the palm of your hand. I wanted people to look over your shoulder while you played and ask, “What’s that?”
Primrose is a bit of a departure from your other games, in that it isn’t obviously “about” anything. What made you decide to make a straightforward puzzle game like this?
I saw it as a challenge. I wanted to push myself outside the area that I was comfortable working in.
People often talk about Tetris as being a perfect game or one of the best video games of all time. They also describe it as a mysterious stroke of genius, never to be equaled or surpassed. I wanted to try my hand at making a game like this—not a copy of Tetris, but a game with captivating, deep mechanics that could have a very long play life.
I also wanted to make something that was more appropriate for extended play on an iPhone. My art games can each be played a handful of times at most, and though they might inspire interesting thought, the majority of people do not feel that they’re worth paying for. The market really values games based on total playtime.
Do you plan on making more games like Primrose?
To make Primrose, I started out with an in-depth study of existing puzzle games to figure out what makes them work. I came up with a pretty simple list of key design principles that they all seem to follow. Primrose was the first game that I made using these principles, but there’s a huge space of other possible games out there. I have at least one more in mind that I would like to make at some point.
Are you currently working on any new projects that you would like to let people know about?
I’m currently still perfecting Primrose, with input from the public as they hammer away at the leaderboard servers. I have no idea what I will work on after that.
Your games often have a simple graphical style that is pixelated but also soft; the far left and right sides of the screen in Passage illustrate this style well. Where does this aesthetic come from, and why did you choose it?
For as long as I’ve been developing games, I’ve been interested in visual anesthetics that look computer-generated in some way. My early games used procedurally generated graphics, which gave them a very unique look. With Passage, I tried my hand at pixel art, and I really liked the results. Here was something that clearly looked computer-generated, but was still representational. The characters and other sprites in Passage had just enough detail so that you could tell what they were (a man, a woman, etc.), but they were abstract enough to leave lots of room for imagination and personal connection. The guy in Passage didn’t look like anyone in particular—in fact, he could be you. This is like a kind of digital cartooning. Scott McCloud talks a lot about the emotional power of abstract cartoons in his famous book Understanding Comics, so I don’t need to go into more details about it.
As far as the softness goes, that is like my modern, high-tech take on pixel graphics. Historically, on systems with very limited color palettes, pixel sprites had a static look. Modern systems have huge
color palettes, and that makes smooth color blending and other effects possible. The pixels are still sharp, but the colors on the pixels can vary smoothly. It’s a bit like zooming into a 32-bit photograph: sharp, blocky pixels, but with lots of smooth color variation from pixel to pixel.
You often include an interesting musical aspect in your games. Between and Gravitation in particular use music in an interesting way, by giving cues and adding layers as the player progresses. How important of a role does music play in your game-design?
Almost all of my games have had dynamic music of some kind. Passage was the only game that had a static musical score.
I’ve been playing and composing music for my entire adult life, so I have the ability to create my own music for my games instead of outsourcing that task. However, static music does not fully exercise the capabilities of our dynamic medium. We expect the graphics to tie into the gameplay, so why not the music?
My first game, Transcend, had you composing a novel piece of music as you played the game. From there, it was natural to try to figure out how music could be dynamic in my subsequent games. Passage was made on a tight schedule for a specific event, so I simply didn’t have the time to do something more elaborate with the music.
I found that Passage and Gravitation both presented me with at least one particularly powerful moment, but I imagine that other people who have played your games have had very different experiences than me. For example, while playing Gravitation, a friend of mine did something with the blocks that I never considered, and I’m still not sure whether they were meant to be used in that way. How much do you intentionally plan the player’s experience, and how much is left up to the player to determine as a sort of unintended, happy accident?
In games like Passage and Gravitation, I tried very hard to limit the possibility of too many happy accidents. The problem with accidents is that, though they may be interesting, they might mesh with the interpretation of the game in a strange way.
With Gravitation in particular, I designed the entire map with a specific kind of progression in mind. It’s like a series of small lessons that helps you learn about various consequences of the game mechanics as you go along. For example, you first encounter a single block by itself, and this gives you a chance to see what happens with one block without needing to tackle the more compensated interactions of multiple blocks just yet. Later on, as you jump higher and higher, you encounter more blocks in different configurations. What happens when you drop a stack of four? What about a stack of six? There are a bunch of interesting consequences, and all of them hopefully have meaning in the context of the game.
Your games often include very basic game conventions, such as scores and time limits, but they aren’t the main focus like they would be in a game like Pac Man. What’s the reasoning behind including mechanics like these?
I want to make it clear to everyone that I am indeed making games and not some form of less specific interactive art. To be a proper game, you have to be able to win or have some other metric of success. Score is a simple way to do this, and it is also a way of directing players toward a certain style of play. It’s like me saying, “I was hoping that you would consider playing in this particular way.”
A time limit was very natural in Passage, but was less so in Gravitation. Still, I found a timeline to be a powerful design tool, since the balance could change subtly as time in the game progressed, highlighting different features of the mechanics and new shades of meaning.
Many of your games are very challenging, but not in the way games are traditionally challenging. They aren’t difficult in the way a game like Contra is, for example, but rather ask a lot of the players conceptually and force them to figure out things on their own. For example, Between demands a great deal of consideration on the part of the players in order for them to make any progress at all. Do you worry that this might scare players away, so that some might not ever even get an impression of the game?
Passage was meant to be accessible to almost anyone. Between was designed with a completely different audience in mind: for the people who really liked and understood my previous games and wanted to see me really push the boundary hard. I hope that these people will give me the benefit of the doubt. First of all, they will need to spend about an hour with Between before they get much out of it. That alone is a huge barrier for most people. After that, they might need to think pretty hard before they can piece together the parts into a meaningful whole. A handful of reviewers have done this successfully, so I know that it’s possible, and that’s all that matters to me.
As for everyone else, well, Between probably just isn’t for them. For example, I still have not shown the game to my spouse. She is generally not interested in games, and I can imagine the experience just being frustrating for her. Also, I never agree to play Between with someone who is looking to try it. Playing with me would spoil the experience. So if someone like my spouse really wanted to play, she would need to find our own play partner—yet another huge barrier to entry.
Many of your games, such as Passage and Gravitation, are very quick, only taking up a few minutes of the player’s time. Is this a conscious decision, or just a result of material limitations? Do you plan on ever making a longer game?
Between is my take on a substantially longer game. Note that it does not last longer because I chalked it full of “content,” but simply because the gameplay takes longer. Most video games waste substantial amounts of the player’s time, repeating the same thing over and over again, and padding the experience with cut scenes.
With Passage, I could express everything that I needed to express in only five minutes. I originally planned on making Gravitation five minutes long also, but as the mechanics developed, I realized that five minutes was just not long enough for players to encounter everything that I wanted them to encounter. I tweaked this a lot, and found that eight minutes was just enough time to try all of the interesting block configurations yet never see anything boring or repetitive.
Braid is an example of what I see as the upper limit of how long the game should be without any filler. Four hours, five hours, that’s pretty long.
You’ve given explanations for the inspiration behind games like Police Brutality, Perfectionism, Passage, Immortality, and so on, and those games seem to draw directly from your experiences. Your latest game, Between, is a bit more mysterious. Can you give an explanation of its inspiration, or would you rather it remain mysterious?
With Between, I really wanted to tackle something more difficult and subtle. All of my previous games were pretty simple both in terms of their interpretation and in terms of what they were about. If I wanted to, I could describe what they were about on paper pretty easily. Immortality is the only one on the list that tries to reach a bit higher.
After playing Braid and thinking about it a lot, I came to understand that Jonathan was reaching for something huge with it, something that he couldn’t quite get his arms all the way around.
That’s an interesting thing to do with art, and almost a necessary thing, because if you can easily put it into words, what’s the use of making the art? We really need art to help us express these things that
we cannot express in any other way. That seems to be purpose of art. So I set out to make a game about something like that, about something that I couldn’t quite corner and collar.
I came up with what I wanted to express pretty quickly—it was something that I’ve been thinking about for most of my life. It touched many different areas of human experience, like a many-tendriled manifold of ideas and emotions. The hard part was turning this manifold into a game design, and I really struggled with it for a long time without any lightning bolts. Finally, I forced myself to go out in the woods, and I sat on a rock with my notebook, determined to come up with a design. Fortunately, I was able to channel lightning that day, and I came home with a design for Between in my notebook.
I read that Between was influenced by the philosopher W.V Quine. Is philosophy an interest of yours, and do you find that it influences your games?
Yes, I have been interested in philosophy for a long time. Between was the first game of mine that really addressed some more difficult philosophical issues directly. Of course, it’s not hard to see that the rest of my games have a kind of existential bent, but that is more like pop-philosophy than anything else.
What sort of videogames did you play growing up? Have any of them stuck with you, so to speak? Is there any you would consider your favourites?
Like most 31-year-old males in America, I played a lot of videogames when I was growing up. From the Atari 7800 through the PlayStation 2, I had love affairs with almost every system that was released.
After all that, a game that still sticks in my mind is the first Legend of Zelda—something about the mood was very special.
What games, if any, do you play now?
With my game design work and my responsibilities as a parent, I have very little time to play games these days. I try to keep up with what is going on in the art game scene as well as I can. Other than that, I usually wait for mainstream games to become classics before I spend time on them. I recently played Shadow of the Colossus, for example.
I still play German board games whenever I get the chance, which is unfortunately not very often. I also dream of beating my cousin at Age of Empires 2 someday.
How did you get into making videogames?
I’ve been programming actively for the past 12 years. A video game is actually one of the more difficult things to program, so it took me a long time to get to the point as a programmer where I felt that I could really pull it off. After programming a relatively elaborate and successful peer-to-peer system (MUTE), I felt like I was ready to make a game, so I made Transcend. I submitted it to a few festivals, and it got rejected. A few years later, I work on Cultivation, which was more ambitious. It got rejected by one festival and accepted by another.
A year after that, I made Passage, and I got swept up by the tide. The last year and a half of my life has been spent doing nothing but game design.
What made you decide to start making videogames as art?
I was interested in making art from the beginning, because it felt like there were very few videogames that were that ambitious, but I really didn’t know where to start. Transcend looked very “artistic,” but it really wasn’t a vehicle for any kind of expression. After that, I read Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun, where he discusses how games can be art. That book was hugely influential for me, and with my next game Cultivation, I pretty much applied his formula directly: permit more than one right way of play and encourage players to reflect about the choices that they make. Along the way, I discovered that meaning could be carried directly in the emergent behavior of game mechanics, but I didn’t recognize the potential of this capability at the time.
After I played Rod Humble’s game The Marriage, I began thinking more about using expressive mechanics directly. That lead to the creation of Passage, and I continued pushing in that direction all the way through Between, my twelfth game.
On your Arthouse Games site you have people like Rod Humble and Danny Ledonne giving their definitions of art. Could you give us a one-sentence definition of art?
A work is art if expression is its primary reason for existence.
With that in mind, what would you say it takes for a videogame to be art? What makes one game art, and another not?
Taking my definition and applying it to games differentiates them pretty well, I think. Which games are primarily about expression? Which games are primarily about entertainment? But even among those that are primarily about expression, there are different places for the expression to lurk. If the expression is primarily present in the cut scenes, then the expression is not very game-like. I’m much more interested in works that express things in game-specific ways. Other mediums found their artistic legs by honing their own expressive strengths. We should too.
Are there any other videogame designers that you would consider artists, or games that you would consider good examples of art?
My short list these days is Jonathan Blow, Rod Humble, and Daniel Benmergui.
The definition of art in general, let alone the definition of videogame art, seems difficult to pin down. Even on the Arthouse Games site the few definitions range from the wildly inclusive, such as Nick Montfort’s citing of Scott McCloud’s definition, to the very particular, such as Raph Koster’s definition. Is our difficulty with agreeing on what exactly counts as art in videogames impeding progress? Or does it even matter?
Lots of people like to dismiss arguments about the definition of art as ridiculous, but I think that these discussions do matter. I think they matter a lot. Some people say, “Humanity has been arguing about a definition of art for centuries. What makes us think that we will come to any consensus now?” So they want to give up. But if humanity has been arguing about art’s definition for centuries, that must mean that definition is really important and that the discussion is really worth continuing. It’s like arguing about love, or death, or God—the most difficult topics are always the stickiest, but I don’t see how ending the discussion is going to help.
So, let’s keep hammering on that definition of art. Let’s try to make progress where others have failed.
And yes, I think that games have been hurt by not having a very clear direction to point when they want to be art. A lot of designers say, “Art? What is that, anyway?” and then just go back to making
meaningless, shallow games.
One interesting difference between videogames and other art forms is public presentation. You can go to a gallery to look at paintings, go to a show to watch a band, or go to a theatre to watch a movie. Even novels and poetry, which are usually solitary experiences, have libraries and public readings. At the moment it doesn’t seem obvious that videogames have a counterpart for this; there isn’t a lot of opportunity for public, social displays of videogames. Do you think videogames need public presentations like this to develop as an art form?
I actually think that video games don’t perform very well, compared to other mediums, in public settings. Every “exhibition” of games that I’ve seen has been awkward at best. Games are interactive, so you really can’t do a screening. You have to set up terminals where people can walk up and play. What do other people in the room do while one person is playing? Watch over the player’s shoulder? That’s not an ideal experience of the game either. We can watch a movie together and look at a painting together, but we can’t really play a single player game together.
There are other options for massively-interactive exhibitions, but they are pretty heavy in terms of technology requirements. For example, you could convene an audience in a theater setting, but require that each person in the audience bring their own laptop. Then you could pass around a portable hard drive with the game on it so that everyone in the room could install the game and play it in parallel. Jonathan Blow tried something like this a few times with his Nuances of Design session at GDC. But even this solution isn’t perfect, especially when you’re dealing with a longer game. Are people really going to sit there for four or five hours to play a game like Braid? Imagine going to a film festival and only seeing part of a movie.
Thus, I think games are best experienced on our own time, and not in a public setting.
And that concludes the interview. Many thanks to Jason for answering so many questions!
All of Jason’s games are available for free on PC, Mac, and Linux, and Jason’s newest game, Primrose is also available on iPhone for $2.99.