Jason Rohrer seems to be smiling at all moments, as if he were just on the verge of breaking out in laughter. His eyes are focused and watchful, exposing a fast-moving mind and a taste for provocation. Rohrer's games have begun to popularise the idea of games about people, free of the weights of genre, story conventions, or even expectations of fun. From Passage to Between, his works are contained and earnest but enlivened with moments of discovery and emotion. The Cornell-graduate lives in New Mexico with his wife and two children, living a famously modest life on a small salary from a patron as well as consulting jobs for agencies including Tool. Rohrer revealed his newest game, Sleep Is Death, at The Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta. We sat down with him to talk about it, his thoughts on the industry, and how he came to commit his life to game design.
Where did the idea for Sleep Is Death come from?
This is my response to Façade, Storytron and Far Cry 2; the problem with structured narrative versus interactivity. You want some sort of narrative structure that seems meaningful to people, but it also has to be interactive. Those two things always fight against each other. [Ex-Maxis programmer] Chris Hecker says the problem won’t be solved until we have stronger AI, essentially running the drama manager for us. Until it’s smart enough to recognize that you did something intelligent that we weren’t expecting, and it even fits into the story, and here the story reacts to you. But what if there was a human on the other side pulling all the levers for you? One person is the drama manager running everything for you, the man behind the curtain making everything happen. Whatever the other player does you react.
I knew right away this wouldn’t work in 3D, there are too many variables, too many degrees of freedom. It also has to be turn-based or it’s never going to work. I built this really comprehensive interface for the controller to control every aspect of the world very quickly, searching through stacks of resources. Each person has 30 seconds to move so it's got to be able to react to what that person did. If they punch somebody it's got to be able to edit the sprite quickly and add blood and a bubble that says “Ow”.
Is this a kind of stop-gap approach until AI technology eventually becomes good enough, or do you feel like AI will never really be as good as we want it to be?
The big thing is asking why we want big computers to do these things for us. We have this fantasy about sitting alone with our computers, for some reason. I don’t know why we do, but we have this obsession in game culture.
The insight here is that running a drama manager is just as interesting as playing the resulting drama. You have to be on your toes, you’re thinking about what’s going to happen next, you’re planning everything out, you’ve got this idea in your head about where the story’s going to go, and then the player does something you weren’t expecting and you’ve got to figure out a way to wrap it around them. It’s like this really tense, almost athletic performance.
It’s also a content creation tool. So far I’ve just put some seed content in there for one little story world, which is inside my house in New Mexico with my wife and two kids. There are four characters; all the objects are from our house. The story I’ve been telling with it is about my wife. It’s a true story that happened when we lived in Potsdam, of her having a really bad asthma attack. She got to the point where she realised she was going to stop breathing, her inhalers weren’t working and she was going to need to go to the hospital. This was before our second kid was born. She got a ride from our neighbour to the emergency room. I had to wake our kid up and put him in the sling and then walk him down to the hospital. Of course on the walk to the hospital we had no way to get in touch with my wife. We’re walking in the dark on a cold night and it’s like, she could be dead when we get there.
Have you ever played that story through the game with her?
Yeah, when I played it with her, I told her the story. She was playing from my perspective, seeing what it was like to be me when she left for the hospital with this asthma attack. There were these moments where the phone rings and it’s the hospital asking all these weird questions. “Are you Jason Rohrer?” “Are you the husband of Lauren Serafin?” There’s a music editor too, so all this time the music is getting more and more tense. Then all of sudden the operator goes, “Hold on, I’ll get your wife for you.” Then the music goes back to being calm.
Afterwards Lauren said, “I thought I was going to be dead, I thought it was the hospital calling to say I had died.” To have that experience with your wife and have it work – the thing itself I created isn’t art, but the things you end up doing with it are. What more could you want in an art experience? It’s the sort of thing that would have been unimaginable to do with a loved one for me even three months ago.
Do you think an emotional experience like that contradicts the spirit of art history, which has fixated on creating a taxonomy based on mechanics and form?
Well, I’ve been an advocate for a long time that before we jump into modernism and post-modernism in games, we sort of need to establish conventions. We would need to have a classical period before we can have a modern period. We need to learn how to do something even basic about the human condition. I guess it’s ironic we’re on this lockstep march towards realism, with Wolfenstein 3D being similar to the advent of perspective drawing in the Renaissance or something. We’re still going towards that ideal of being able to replicate the physical world with all these locks of hair and the little tuft of moss in the forest, all the things that the triple-A companies are trying to do this console generation. It seems like it goes along with the idea that we’re heading into this classical period. Once we’ve established that sort of language of games, then we can start tearing it apart.
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