March 11, 2011 12:00 PM | Eric Caoili
The mind of Jason Rohrer is forever voyaging. The distinctive designer of thought-provoking titles like Passage and Between, and of games like Sleep is Death that emphasize a constrained dialogue between the designer and the player, decided to do something new with "recursive, tactical shooter" Inside A Star-Filled Sky and go infinite.
Rohrer began thinking about the concept for his latest title when playing Disgaea, which implements an "item world" that allows players to go inside of objects to change their properties by eventually fighting a god inside. He also liked how Psychonauts allowed players to enter people's heads.
Could that idea go further? What if inside Disgaea's item world, there was something else you could go inside of and change? That's the basic concept of Inside A Star-Filled Sky -- endless nesting layers the player can fall through or climb out of.
"I just think that's such a fascinating idea," he tells us. "And when I think about the potential of that being something in operation in the universe... not that I actually believe that each of our atoms is a solar system or anything like that, but it makes my head swim. It's philosophically inspiring and rich."
"It also seemed very compatible with some of the other game design principles that I've become really enamored with over the past couple of years, procedural generation, and at the time I was conceiving that the idea of permadeath creates systems that generate interesting tactical situations for [the player]," he mulls enthusiastically.
"Minecraft has elements of that as well," he adds. "Spelunky is probably the best example, where just a few blocks moved totally changes how you have to approach a situation."
Rohrer's been spending a year and a half playing Derek Yu's Spelunky, and still encounters new situations therein. The infinity of possibility was compelling to him as a designer.
Returning To Single-Player Games
"After making a couple of two-player games, I really wanted to get back to making a single-player game, for logistical reasons," he adds. Assuring connectivity and compatibility is an extra layer for a two-player designer to deal with, and he also noted that games that require another person to enjoy them adds a new "barrier to entry."
"It's hard enough to find time to play a game by yourself, so it squares the difficulty when you have to find another person, and playing with a stranger is not something I was really interested in," he says.
He explored the idea of shared experience in Sleep is Death, where one person designs the narrative and the other person experiences it in a series of steps, and neither can predict the actions of the other and must continually adjust their expectations as the game evolves. Many people purchased that game -- "but my sales figures are not indicative of how successful the game was in terms of reaching people and touching people," Rohrer admits.
It required a strange intimacy with which many people might have hesitated to engage, he suggests. "It's just hard for people," he says, "because of its improvisational nature, it causes weird things to come out of people."
Goal-Setting In An Infinite World
So he wanted to return to the single-player experience, but in a different way than before -- unlike with Passage, "I didn't want to make little consumable bon-bons of where I play for five minutes and then I get it."
Nor was the "string of pearls" linear narrative appealing; nor were games that required repetition to get the full design. "So I struggle with that with [Inside A Star-Filled Sky], he says. "Initially, I had some mechanics where I was really trying to eliminate tedium. If the player failed at something, it'd take them right back to the right place."
"But that allowed this grinding to happen, where players would kind of push ahead in one level, die in that spot, go down and finish the sub-challenge and then come back out and keep pushing a little bit further. I found out after a lot of playtesting that players would gravitate toward this robotic grinding, and then eventually inch their way through."
"In a masocore game, you just respawn very quickly back to the previous checkpoint," Rohrer says. "So I was trying to make something that is kind of... along that end of the spectrum, not in terms of sheer brutal difficulty [requiring] Super Meat Boy reflexes or VVVVVV reflexes, but I really wanted to make a tactical game, where there are these challenges put in front of you but it's more about looking at the situation and trying to figure out how to think your way through it in a way that gives you an advantage."
He suggests the response has been mixed; many players have complained there is "no goal" in the game, and he's had to explain his intention for infinity on the site: "Pac Man is infinite," he references -- "your goal is to get as high a score as you can get. In my game, it's hard to move up, but you can freely move down; the implied goal is to keep moving up."
It took some time and effort to balance the game so that it becomes not repetitive, but "a small chunk of tactical challenge," that requires players to manage their health to see how far they can progress.
"Developing this game gave me this whole newfound appreciation for what i had always passed off as pointless... player punishment and repetition for the sake of making the player do stuff over and over," he says.
On Art And Meaning
Rohrer is ever-smiling, animated, approaching design as a puzzle to be solved, eliminating some goals in favor of pursuing others that may result in the kind of experience for which he aims. But his games themselves are often heavy, somber themes of death or time or infinity -- with this newest one, exploring the idea of permanent death was very intentional.
We asked him about the apparent conflict between Rohrer, the friendly, approachable design strategist, and his mysterious, sometimes-morbid work. "There is a sort of darker side to my personality in terms of how much i think about my own death and so on," he concedes. "I guess that doesn't often come up in social interaction; we don't talk about old age and disease, because they make people uncomfortable. We don't know how to put our feelings into words."
"We're self-conscious and can observe things about ourselves, and yet we don't know that we're finite," he adds. "It's something I feel is really important to people, even though they don't talk about it. I want to be making work about the things I feel are really important."
"I don't want to get to the end of my life and look at what I've done and feel like it wasn't a good use of my time," he says.
When Rohrer's work came into the public eye with mysterious Passage, an unprecedentedly brief and ultimately linear statement on the frailty of life and what's most important therein, it played a major role in spurring the development of the "art games" scene. Suddenly many independent designers wanted to say things with their games, to make the player think and feel through design.
"It's obviously very gratifying to have people come up to me and say they are trying to make their own kinds of very expressive things," he says of the design community's appreciation for him. "On the other hand, there's something about Passage's approach that was very limited. I felt, for myself, that I couldn't keep making games like that forever, even though it is a very clear, self-contained formula."
"I don't necessarily want people forever to keep churning out games in that style or to use Passage as their first inspiration," he reflects. "That peak in the 'art game thing' has maybe run its course and we're all trying to figure out what to do next."