By Alec Meer on February 1st, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
In the first part of an extensive, illuminating and arguably controversial interview with Passage, Sleep is Death and Chain World creator Jason Rohrer, we discussed his new game, the fascinating but sinister home defence MMO The Castle Doctrine, making virtual possessions and people matter and why he chose to include only male protagonists. In this second and final part, we pick up mid-chat about issues of authorship in games, leading to his thoughts on the divisive Far Cry 3. Then we cover his outspoken feelings about gun control, before moving on to how house and trap construction works in The Castle Doctrine, how he thinks he’s made player-generated content meaningful, and, inevitably, whatever happened to his mystery Minecraft mod Chain World.
RPS: Did you catch any of the stuff from the writer of Far Cry 3, which went into issues of visible authorship?
Jason Rohrer: [laughs] Yes, and all that stuff made me run out… Cos I know Clint [Hocking, Far Cry 2 lead] and I played Far Cry 2 and was interested in all the stuff going around about that back in the day. I’m also friends with Anthony Birch, and he was a huge Far Cry 2 proponent. So I played Far Cry 2 and got really into it, got really good at it and really enjoyed it, so I was kind of turning my nose up at Far Cry 3. [Adopts faux-outraged tone] ‘Another sequel! Not by the same people anymore!’ and all that. But once I heard all the controversy about it, I was like ‘oh man, this sounds far more interesting than I expected it to be.’
RPS: It seems to be a conscious inverse of everything that Far Cry 2 did, including potentially the narrative, although there seemed to be a lot of contradictions in what he said.
Jason Rohrer: Right, I guess you’re up against ‘once you’re explaining you’re already losing.’ [Laughs] Sort of back-pedalling, all ‘no no no, we did this all on purpose.’ I guess I’ve been playing for quite a while, and I’ve only seen one or two Alice in Wonderland references, but he says “they’re everywhere in there, man!” [laughs] Although, right in the trailer, right after reading all that controversial stuff in the press I went and watched that, and right off the bat they’re showing you ink blots. There are ink blots all over the game, so I kind of saw that and thought ‘wow, that’s at least interesting. An ink blot in a game trailer?’
Anyway, we’re right off track. Let’s put the train back on here.
RPS: Yeah, back to your game. Another thing I was going to say about the wife element is that it’s surprising you came up with it so late on, because it seems to be a direct link between this and Passage – the fears of loss and loneliness.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, it was a weird thing. I don’t know why it came late, and why it wasn’t there in the beginning. I guess part of it was trying to figure it out. You just kind of stick them in there as props then see what they’re going to do. So maybe the idea of family members surfaced, but I kind of dismissed it because it was extra complexity and, I dunno, it didn’t seem like there was going to be a way to make them be more than like couches and lamps. Then, once I had this dream, I was really motivated to figure out how to make that work. This game had to have that, it adds this moral dimension to it that’s deeper and more interesting, and not as much this ridiculous caricature of some post-apocalyptic man’s world, where we’ll all just robbing each other. We’re all these lonely bachelors, just robbing each other.
Although I should say that it’s pre-apocalyptic. The game takes place in ’93, it’s not in the future. Things were pretty bad in the United States in 1993, things have gotten a lot better since then and nobody can really explain why.
RPS: Is the game politicised at all? You talked about how you almost bought a gun yourself, and that’s rather a big issue in the States right now.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, it is. I started this game about a year ago, I came up with the idea more than a year ago but I was busy working on Diamond Trust and other stuff. In the middle of all this game development and coming up with this idea, and making this game about this issue, Treyvon Martin happened, then the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and the Aurora theatre shooting… All this kind of stuff has happened in the middle of this, so this has been a very busy year for media coverage of these issues.
RPS: Yeah, it carried over here too.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, cos you guys were all saying ‘see? Haha, aren’t we glad we don’t have guns in England’, right?
RPS: We’re not laughing, but pretty much.
Jason Rohrer: Not laughing, but being a little bit snooty about it I’m assuming.
RPS: Maybe there’s a ‘told you so’ element, but the NRA doesn’t seem to want to hear that.
Jason Rohrer: Right. And me personally, and this is pretty unusual in the games industry, I’m someone who’s a strong believer in gun rights. Not that I own guns, but it frightens me the idea that – and this is a very American idea as well – the only people with automatic weapons walking around are police and military people. That frightens me. Because I’ve had run-ins with police, and I can imagine run-ins with the military in the future or something, and the idea that someone in power might have these things but the people who are being governed just are not allowed to have them. I’m assuming that British police are allowed access to guns, right?
RPS: [Cautiously] In some circumstances, but not in general.
Jason Rohrer: I don’t mean they carry them on their hip, but in the case of like a big drug raid or something they would have them, right? When they need them they have them. So those kinds of things… I don’t own a gun right now, but I want to be able to own one if I decide to, and I don’t want that right taken away from me. I’m also in the classic thing, ‘if you outlaw guns then only outlaws will have guns.’ For the most part I’m a law-abiding citizen and I wouldn’t want to have to go into the underworld to acquire a gun.
(An interjection from the interviewer. At this point, I was increasingly torn about how much to press the gun control issue. My own feelings are staunchly anti-gun and in truth I was a little taken aback by some of Jason Rohrer’s statements, but inserting my opinions into the interview – and thus likely turning the whole thing into a gun control debate – seemed unwise. So I chose to embrace my own death of the author in this instance, allow Jason Rohrer to say his piece and leave the audience to judge.)
Jason Rohrer: So, anyway, the funny thing about the game industry is that you’ve got these people who are making these things where you kill 800 people by the end of the game. Even relatively mainstream games like Uncharted 2 or 3 has that kind of body count. Basically, the main character, for all his charm and wit and Indiana Jones-like characteristics is a psychopath, right? [laughs]
RPS: Yeah, and that’s the Far Cry 3 question again.
Jason Rohrer: Right, but in a game like Uncharted we don’t even notice it, right? I don’t remember thinking ‘this is a very violent game’ but when someone told me there were like 800 people that you have to kill by the end I was ‘really? I don’t remember killing that many people.’ It’s just oxygen to us. And in this kind of climate, the fact that so many game developers are so stridently anti-gun in real life, it’s just so strange me. I’ve been wanting to organise a GDC shooting range trip where we go and fire off some 357s or something. ‘You guys have been making all these games that have these guns in them and some of you have never even fired them!’
That’s strange to me. I suppose it’s just because game designers tend to be liberal generally, and there are these things which just go along with being liberally-minded: you will be believe in this, and you will believe against this. There’s a sort of set doctrine of beliefs. And I’m somebody who doesn’t really line up with any sort of pre-defined political belief system. I’ve kept this weird mix and match [laughs]. Like I believe in gun rights and I believe in gay marriage, I believing in legalising all drugs and I believe in going back to the gold standard… This weird mix of all these different political beliefs that make me rub everyone the wrong way.
RPS: So you’re the Republicans’ worst nightmare: someone who believes in many of the same things, but they couldn’t possibly recruit you.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right. So yeah, The Castle Doctrine is a statement on that kind of stuff. When you’re faced with it, when the rubber hits the road and you have to defend your family… I’ve had conversations with other game developers which are like ‘if a guy came into your house, and he had a gun, and you were standing in the kitchen would you pick up a knife and try and defend your family?’ And they said ‘no, I’d try to talk to him first.’ [Laughs in disbelief.] So someone’s coming into your house and threatening to kill your family, and you’re going to try to talk to him. For me, as soon as you stick your foot across my windowsill I just feel like that’s it. You’ve violated the contract, right. I’m not sticking my foot across your windowsill.
RPS: And yet in the game you’ve made to discuss this, everyone is a criminal. Everyone is violating that contract.
Jason Rohrer: That is sort of a side-effect. I wanted to make a game that makes you feel violated and makes you want to protect stuff that’s yours, and puts you in the process of securing what’s yours. Then there’s the question of where does the violation come from? I thought this all the more poignant and meaningful when the violation is actually carried by a person in the real world. It’s not just like ‘oh, there’s these virtual burglars who are coming in’, the equivalent of a Left 4 Dead type game where you’re defending a little room against zombies coming in through the window. This violation is happening and it’s all the more poignant because there’s somebody who is actually profiting from this in the real world.
So then the question is, where do these perpetrators come from? [Chuckles] The beautiful balancing and symmetry of having everybody in the game be both a perpetrator and a defender. It was too elegant a game design for me to resist.
RPS: So the idea is they are perpetrators precisely because they know the horror of violation?
Jason Rohrer: That is not necessarily part of the artistic statement. It’s this perfect game design that weds all these things together into something that functions like this well-oiled machine. It has some weird side-effects, like this is really a game about defending your family, but then you’re also going out and doing this stuff to everybody else. It’s not really a statement about how we’re all guilty, or we’re all inherently evil. Although everybody who plays the game does go out and rob everybody else, you know? There’s nobody forcing them to do that. There is this temptation to discount the suffering of others and elevate your own suffering. It’s interesting to explore and see it how it plays out, and how people react to it.
RPS: It sounds like, as well as the political aspect, it’s more consciously gamey than a lot of your other stuff. Obviously if you mention Passage, there’ll probably be a large contingent of people claiming ‘there’s no game in there’, whereas this sounds like it has compulsion loops and feedback loops and…
Jason Rohrer: Oh, c’mon, you know that all those people who say that about Passage didn’t realise that they can also push the down arrow, right? ‘I held down the right arrow key for five minutes and watched a movie, that’s not a game.’ [Laughs] ‘Wait, there’s a maze? There were treasure chests? There were decisions to make?’
So, y’know, is this one more game-y? Uh… Not intentionally so. If you look at the game, in terms of what you can place in your house, there are three types of wall and they all have completely different functions. There’s wiring and switches, a couple of different types of switch that all function in completely different ways, there’s three different kind of animals that all function in different ways. That’s about it, there’s maybe about 20 different things that you can place in your house, and when you go to look at the tools you can carry in your backpack there’s about 10 of them. And they all function in totally different ways.
So it’s a very clean, no frills, no fluff, no filler kind of design. Everything is there because it fits together and has a reason for being there. The classic strategy of [mock announcer voice] ‘load the game up with all this cool stuff that you can collect, and that has only slight variations, like 15 different kinds of swords that function slightly differently,’ there’s none of that in there. Some people have complained about that already, like ‘I’d really like to put couches in my house, or lamps.’ And I’m like ‘this is not FarmVille.’ I’m avoiding all this fluff, all that stuff which just appeals to people who play a lot of games or for whatever reason are drawn to that kind of stuff.
The other thing about this game is that there’s this idea of player-generated content that’s been floated around for about the last four or five years, and how interesting this is. Like Spore and Minecraft and Little Big Planet, these kinds of games that let you modify the world. But when I play those games player-generated content kind of sits in this place where it’s cool to see the stuff made by other players, but it really doesn’t matter to the game so much. Like the way your creature looks in Spore doesn’t really have much of a gameplay function.
RPS: Yeah. They said it would, but the reality was that different legs meant a different animation.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, two legs versus eight legs, or whether they have a short neck or a long neck. There’s a couple of things, like whether they have claws on the front or something, but we were all making these things which look cool but basically they just look cool. And in Minecraft, which was another inspiration for Castle Doctrine. Part of the inspiration is protecting your house in a multiplayer Minecraft server, where you bury your house under a hillside and hope nobody finds it. Then you come back a few days later, you make sure it’s still there and no-one found it and cut through the hillside and got into it. In there, there’s all this player-generated content but once you get past building the most basic cave that protects you from monsters, everything else is just icing.
So I wanted to make player-generated content that was really central to the game, but that mattered to gameplay, where every wall that you place has some mechanical meaning. You’re building this house not just because it looks cool, you’re building it because you’re actually engineering this thing which is for a purpose, which is to keep everybody else out. And if you do a bad job crafting and inventing your thing, then it’s going to do a bad job of keeping people out.
RPS: And presumably if a player sees certain structures he’ll know what they mean, it’s not just ‘hey, he’s built a nice barn, I think I’ll burn it.’ It implies a certain challenge.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right. This player-generated content is encountered by the other players and has mechanical meaning for them as well. It serves as the meat of the game. The meat of the game is going and poking around in somebody else’s house and trying to figure out how to get through this without dying. Even in the first couple of days of testing, I’ve already had that experience a number of times. I’ve watched replays of people looking at my security and sniffing around, then finally taking a risk and going for it, applying what they’ve discovered.
RPS: Watching the replays sounds really tense – you know you’ve put something here or here, are they going to go that way, are they going to find your family?
Jason Rohrer: Or ‘they cut the wrong wire, yes!’ Exactly. So I really wanted to have that be at the core of it, so if you say this is more gamey… If you look at other games that explore any of these territories at all, they all do the more kitchen sink, filler approach. I really avoided all that kind of stuff, so in that way it doesn’t feel very gamey, you’re looking at this more honed, refined set of objects and trying to figure out how best to place them in your house to achieve a very clear effect.
In terms of feedback loops and things like that, there’s no levelling up, there are no player powers. A single hit from a pitbull or a single step on the electric floor or into a pit, you’re dead.
RPS: But there’s cash, yeah? Is there not an element of it being about making that number go up all the time?
Jason Rohrer: There is, yeah. You start off with some cash in the game and that’s what you use to build your initial security, then all the additional cash that you acquire comes from successfully robbing other players. So it’s not easy cash and it’s not something where you just click a button or come back later and harvest. It takes a lot of work and planning. And the game landscape is going to change over time, because after people try certain types of security and everyone figures out how to get past that…
One of the types is to create three doors that you can’t see down the hallways of, put a sticky switch behind the door that closes the door after you walk in. One of the doors has the vault in it and the other two have nothing in it, or maybe has a pitbull in it. So you have to pick one of these doors, then the door closes behind you. That is something that a bunch of people have been experimenting with, how best to set these up so that someone is really tricked into walking through the wrong door. Or how to set it up so they can’t just use the saw to cut through the wall next to the door, all this kind of stuff. This was just in first few days, people were discovering stuff that I hadn’t even thought of. And once people have figured out how to out-smart that, they move on to more sophisticated security, and so on.
The landscape is going to be constantly changing, it’s not like ‘so long as they keep swinging the sword at this one monster, eventually they’ll get their reward.’ The rewards are only given out in cases of you demonstrating skill and intelligence. And the skill and intelligence required in this multiplayer setting as the game goes on is just going to increase. It’s not like it’s going to get easier because you become more powerful – there’s no power fantasy. You’re always just as vulnerable as you ever were. There’s no body armour. One wrong move and you’re dead, your whole empire is gone.
RPS: Are you sort of prepared, if it comes out and very quickly people come up with unbreakable strategies, to go in there and add new things in response? Or does that not sit with the idea that there’s no flab and everything’s fixed?
Jason Rohrer: This was one of the big worries back when I was designing the game in the beginning. Somebody’s going to design some sort of unbreakable security, then their house is going to just sit there and nobody’s going to be able to get through it and that’ll kind of be the end of the game. And once everybody sees how that person did it, they all copy them. So how do you prevent that? How do I make the server detect that somebody’s house is unbreakable? There’s no way good way to do that, there’s always some way to outsmart any algorithm that I come up with.
So the way that I handle it is almost this Judo move elegant solution, which is that after building your house and designing it and you’re ready to submit it to the server, you have to get through your own house and get to your own vault using no tools. There has to be a clear, safe path. You can’t put, like, 50 pitbulls standing right around the vault, because when you go up to the vault the pitbulls are going to get you, right. You can’t even be carrying a gun in your own house to shoot your own pitbulls. Basically you’re doing a dry run, a safety drill for your own family, and they all run out of the house and you get to see how they run out, then you have to get through your own security without dying. If you make a mistake while testing your own house, mixing your own dynamite effectively, and you blow yourself up, that’s it.
So there’s peril around every corner, but that makes the game totally fair. It’s impossible to make a house that is unbreakable, because you yourself have to be able to break it.
RPS: I like the idea that you’re terrified of your own house. You want to try something new out, but it might kill you, so you might be moderate than you necessarily should be.
Jason Rohrer: Right, and whenever you’re testing all the stuff that you’ve put in your house, you’re sort of the dummy going through a test track, but a vulnerable dummy who can die. I wanted to people to be, for the lack of a better expression, eating their own dog food. You’re dealing with dangerous stuff, and the vast number of people who are bitten and killed by pitbulls are the pitbulls’ owners.
There’s also the stuff about how you’re much more likely to be shot by your own gun than to shoot somebody else and all that, which is a classic anti-gun argument. But the idea is that you’re dealing with this dangerous stuff, and you’re going to inflict it on somebody else, it’s actually being inflicted a little bit on you as well, it’s poisoning your own environment. That makes it fair and really prevents any of the stuff where somebody comes up with unbreakable security.
We also have the benefit of potentially hundreds or thousands of people trying to get past that person’s security, maybe collectively if need be. So if someone’s setup something really tricky that requires a really smart solution, you could have a bunch of people try to collaborate.
RPS: Just one more question then I’d better head off, but… Do you know whatever happened to Chain World?
Jason Rohrer: [vaguely exasperated laughter] Oh, the eternal question!
RPS: I know, I know, but I’ve gotta ask it, right?
Jason Rohrer: Yeah. As far as I know, Chain World is still of the hands of that person who bought in Jia Ji‘s auction for $3300. We still don’t know who that person is, although apparently it’s a woman, and apparently a woman who had $3300 to blow.
RPS: It’s your wife, isn’t it?
Jason Rohrer: [laughs] no, it’s not her. I don’t who the person is. For a while she was using an anonymous Twitter account to harvest expressions of interest for who she was going to pass it on to, but that Twitter account’s been quiet for a really long time. I don’t know whether she’s passed it on, or stopped looking, or is holding on to it. I really don’t know.
RPS: I suppose that was always the point in a way, that it passed into mystery, but it’s so hard to not want to know what happened.
Jason Rohrer: Right. And I’m up again at GDC this year, this is the last one of the Game Design Challenge ever. Eric Zimmerman is recruiting all the winners from past years to go up in one grand head-to-head showdown, where we have to design sort of the ultimate game. I’m the only one who has to do it three times [in a row], unfortunately for me, because I had to defend my title last year and now I have to do this. So I’m up on the chopping block again, trying to design an amazing thing that’s going to blow people’s minds.
RPS: Well, good luck with it, and thanks for your time.
We’ll have more on The Castle Doctrine soon.