Indie dev Jason Rohrer, creator of Passage, Sleep Is Death, Inside A Star-Filled Sky, The Diamond Trust of London and the near-mythical Chain World is a divisive game designer, because reasons. I personally reckon his stuff is reliably fascinating, bold and often important (including on those occasions that I've rather bounced off it), so I've been very keen to find out more about his upcoming game The Castle Doctrine. An MMO based around the concept of home invasion and home defence, the nature of the Rohrer's tenth game has remained cryptic since a guarded reveal last October.
In this first of a two-part interview, Rohrer explains just what this dark multiplayer game of strategy, construction, burglary and cold-blooded murder is, how it works, its amorality and politics, the unenviable living situation and fear of vicious dogs which inspired it, and why the late-in-the-day addition of a wife and kids changed the nature of the whole affair.
RPS: Can you tell us more about the Castle Doctrine? All I really know is that initial mysterious reveal in October.
Jason Rohrer: In that reveal, I talked about how it's a massively multiplayer game, which I guess is something people are wondering about. I'm doing it by keeping it simple, and keeping it asynchronous. You don't ever see other characters running about in the game. Because it's a game about home defence, and robbery, and burglarising other people's houses, obviously that only happens when you're not at home. So it works really well thematically to have these houses that you're working on and editing while you're home, then when you leave your home, when you go to sleep at night, log out of the game, or you go out of your house to go and rob somebody else's house, then your house is open to being robbed by somebody else while you're not there. Then you return to your house to see the results of that robbery.
RPS: That's kind of the true terror of burglary, isn't it? It's less about what's actually lost, but that moment where you come home and the door's kicked down and everything's wrecked... I've been through that myself and it's terrifying.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right, and that was the inspiration. When we were living in a somewhat rougher neighbourhood about a year and a half ago, if we'd go away on a trip every time we came back to the house it was always, like, being careful coming around the corner to see if any windows were broken, then going to the backdoor, looking around inside the house to make sure everything's still there... Yep, it's all still here! We never got robbed, fortunately. But yeah, this is a game about coming back to this home that you've worked so hard on, and your family's in there as well, being protected by your defences, and coming back to find what somebody else has done to you, essentially. It's a game about violation, but at the same time you're also serving as the violator for everybody else. Because to get more resources for your house and your defences, and to protect your family better, you've gotta go and get through other people's security and steal their stuff.
RPS: So it's BurglarTown? Everyone in the game's community is a dirty rotten crook?
Jason Rohrer: Right, right. You technically don't have to be, but the game tempts you into being one, and as angry as you get about somebody breaking into your house and killing your pets and potentially family...
RPS: Pets too? Oh no.
Jason Rohrer: Well, pets, I mean pitbulls and other things that you put in your house for security reasons. So as angry as you get about that, you sort of realise that you've been doing exactly the same thing to everyone else.
Everyone's anonymous in the game, it's not like I'll be playing along and I'll say 'I'm gonna go get Alec Meer's house, hahaha', because I don't know who you are in the game. I just might know that you are playing. I'm breaking into somebody's house and I don't know if it's a teenage kid, or an elderly woman or a little girl who owns the house in real life. So we kind of end up doing things to people that are actually... Someone's put work into this house, y'know? Someone's amassed this collection of stuff that they've spent a lot of time on, and when we violate it we're actually doing harm to a person in a real way. We're not doing physical harm, but yeah. The moral ambiguity of the whole thing is at the core of what the game is about.
RPS: How do you make people care about their virtual possessions, to the point that they'll actually feel violated when it's gone?
Jason Rohrer: You start the game with a relatively small amount of money, in terms of the scale of the economy of the game, so you use that money and think about the best possible security you can potentially build for that amount of money. Then you have a family that's in the house as well, a wife and two children. You get to position them in the house, and think about how you're going to protect them with security as well. So when you've run out of money and you've built the best security that you can, you go out into the world and you try to get through other people's security. You can buy tools and so on to do that. Then you come back to your house, and if you're lucky your security's worked and kept people out while you were away. If it has, you can build up a little more security with the money that you've gotten, right. It takes some time, it takes some planning, it takes some thought to build up a house that actually has really good security that's going to trick people and keep people out.
As people come to rob your house, and they fail because your security is good, then all the stuff they were carrying, all their tools and their guns and their saws, all the stuff that they didn't use by the time they died in your house, gets put into a vault with all your other possessions. So over time stuff kind of accumulates in your house. You can see a list of houses in the game and see how many times... Like, 25 people have tried robbing this house and ten of them have died trying. So, over time you can see the wealth kind of accumulating in this house because so many people failed. So you've got all this stuff, stolen from other people's houses, and you've got money and you've got all this valuable stuff from people failing at your security. Losing all that is a real dagger in the heart, right?
The other thing is that, right towards the end of the development, I was asleep at night and having some sort of dream. I can't remember the details, but it was about somebody coming into our house and threatening me and my family. I have a wife and I do have three children, and this game was inspired in part by my feelings living in this rougher neighbourhood. I actually go to a gunstore once and almost buy a gun, I looked at them. And I did carry around a police baton to hit vicious dogs that came up to us on our bikes and did carry pepper spray. I had to think about defending my family, right?
RPS: You should never hold a press event at your house. I don't think many people would want to come.
Jason Rohrer: [Laughing] You guys are in England, you don't understand what it's like here in America.
RPS: There are parts of it I'd be pretty scared in, but yeah, there don't tend to be guns.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, so I didn't buy a gun. My wife actually ended up not letting me, but we did buy one of these extendable police batons for the dogs.
RPS: [Shocked pause, nervous laugh]
Jason Rohrer: [Also laughs] But that was after my wife was attacked by a vicious dog. So I had to say 'what am I gonna do next time?' You can't beat away a dog with your hands, right?
RPS: Not if you want to keep your hands, I guess. I don't think it's legal here though. So, er, have you ever hit a dog with a baton? I kind of need to know even though I don't want to.
Jason Rohrer: No, fortunately, we never needed to do that [laughs]. But we did carry it with us after that. I have sprayed dogs with pepper spray, and it doesn't' really do anything for them. They're not as sensitive to it as us. And it always blows back in my face, like the wind is blowing when I go to spray it, so I'm trying to spray this dog then all of a sudden I'm laying on the ground, screaming and blind.
RPS: [Laughs] That sounds like a Naked Gun sketch.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah. Anyway, back to the point - I'd been working on this list for about a year, inspired by all this stuff, but it was always just a game where you were alone in your house, and you were building your security, trying to protect your physical possessions, and you're going out and trying to steal the physical possessions of other people, breaking through their physical security... Then I had this dream in the middle of the night, and I realised that the core of this game is really about protecting a family, but there was nothing about it in this game. That was about a month and a half ago, actually, right towards the end of development of the game. I realised what was missing was a wife and kids mechanic.
RPS: Something that you really want to protect, rather than just collect.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah. They're not player characters, they're not controlled by anybody else. You get to place them in your house, it's a wife and a girl and a boy, and they're unique. There are different appearances that they can have that are assigned to you. You might get a wife with red hair and a green dress, or a little girl with blond braids, that sort of thing. And they have names, unique names. So you have this unique little family, and you want to protect them because they're unique. If they get killed, they're gone forever and you'll miss them, right? But then I still felt like they weren't hooked into the mechanics of the game enough.
You were asking before about how you make somebody care about these virtual possessions or virtual people, so I gave the wife a gameplay function. When someone breaks into your house she tries to leave the house through the front door, from wherever you've stuck her in the house. If she gets out of the house, she carries half of the money with her. So if somebody gets into your vault and steals all your stuff, when you get back to your house and you find it's been robbed but your wife is standing by the front door, she's still got half of the money left. But if somebody manages to find her as she's making her way through the house trying to get to the front door, and then kill her, they can take that half of the money she's carrying. Then they can also potentially get to your vault and take the other half too, and leave you with nothing.
So if you let somebody's wife escape, which is sort of the altruistic thing to do, you're not only doing this thing which is symbolic - I'm not going to kill your wife - you're also leaving them with some sort of bootstrap to get back into the game after they come back and find their life destroyed. So the wife has both this thematic meaning and a very important gameplay meaning. The moral choice that you're making when you decide to kill somebody's wife, obviously has a lot of thematic weight behind it and you'll probably feel kind of strange when you do it, also has this moral implication in the game. You're basically scorching this person's earth when you do this, taking everything that they've worked on, this house that they've built up, and leaving them with nothing to repair it.
RPS: And breaking their hearts to boot.
Jason Rohrer: Right, right, and doing this very immoral thing to them. I really wanted those two things to be so intimately linked that it's not just a virtual moral question, about whether you want to kill this imaginary wife. It's actually a real-world moral question. Which is strange, to try and build that into a game and... I guess I'm still grappling with this, with the moral implications of this game, what it means. It's kind of an experiment. Some of my early testers - it just got launched into testing on Friday - and somebody just came into my house and killed my two children for no reason and left. They posted on my testers' mailing list, "whoever's kids I just killed, haha!"
RPS: God almighty.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, and I was like "that's not the reaction I was expecting."
RPS: But people are going to do that. This is the internet.
Jason Rohrer: Of course. And the game does also provide you with security tapes, so you can watch someone who has robbed your house, see how they did it, and see every dastardly deed that they did when they were there. Then you can see their in-game name, their anonymous name, and you can go potentially after them for revenge, or to get your possessions back or whatever. So they might also want to scorch your earth in order to prevent you doing that, so you don't have the resources to come back at them. But you can always come back at them in a second life, after you die or commit suicide you can start over from scratch.
There's a potential for people to become kingpins in the game and rise to the top, have a little empire where thousands of people have tried to get into their house and all failed, but eventually everybody's going to fall.
RPS: Going back to the wife and the fact she's there to protect money, it almost seems as though you've taken the question of love out of it, and replaced it with money. The wife's purpose becomes about money rather than your personal attachment to her. It almost seems like a statement.
Jason Rohrer: I'm not trying to make a particular statement with that, as much as I'm trying to get somebody to feel love, some sort of attachment, or feel like they want to protect this person. This is what the game is about, it's about protecting these things which are vulnerable and important to you, trying to elicit that emotion even if it's a false, indirect version of that emotion. It's worth trying to do. I'm not trying to make a statement about [cackles] your spouse is only valuable to you because she has money. It's just about trying to make you feel this profound sense of loss. And these family members are unique, they're these sort of unique, collectable pets [laughs].
The game has permadeath, even in your own house - if you stumble into one of your own traps, you die permanently and lose everything. And if you make a mistake in somebody else's house and die, you die permanently and lose everything. So, along with losing everything and starting over from scratch with an empty house and a new family, you can potentially have a few of your family members killed and they'll be gone forever until you die. So you can go from having a wife and two kids to a wife and one kid, or one last orphan kid without a mother. That, I guess, has some emotional weight to it, because you grew attached to their names and how they looked, you've been protecting them for a while, so it's a sort of pet owner-level attachment. They're just little pixellated characters, they're not like characters from Sleep Is Death that actually have conversations with you.
People are also, I'm sure, going to complain 'how come it's the man that's going out robbing and the woman has to stay home.' That's the classic thing that people said about Passage - 'why can't you play as the girl?'
RPS: Could you not just add an option to nip that stuff in the bud?
Jason Rohrer: Well yeah, but then it wouldn't be my personal art. It would just be this pandering product. This is a game that's from my perspective, just like in Passage the main character is me. So you don't get to play as the girl, because I'm not a girl. Just like if you go to see the movie Memento, no-one walks out of that saying 'why isn't there a version of this where there's a girl with memory problems?' It's the personal statement of the director who is making this and telling the story, and you don't even question it, but for some reason in games we question it, because we're so much stuck into the role of this character.
RPS: Well yeah, because we're involved, we're active participants and not just watching a story.
Jason Rohrer: Yeah, but on the other hand, and maybe you don't experience this in England, here in America when there's a bump in the night and somebody has to get up to go and investigate it, who's the one who's handed the baseball bat and told to go and look down the hall to see if there's a burglar. I was the one who, when my family was in danger in the last place that we lived, it was up to me to defend to them. That's just expected, it's just the way that it worked. It's not like my wife ever said to me 'oh, it's up to you, you're the man, you're supposed to do this', it was just unspoken. I'm taller, I'm stronger, I can aim a gun better, I know that from experience. [Laughs] And I imagine I can fight.
RPS: The autobiographical element becomes more complicated when it's an MMO though - there are loads of players doing their own thing, not just one person playing as you. It's very different to Passage.
Jason Rohrer: Right, yeah. I guess this is something that we, in the form of games, need to grapple with. It's again the question of the balance between authorial control and abdication of authorship that Doug Church talks about. Obviously if you abdicate all authorship and hand someone a blank slate, like Infinite Blank or something, that kind of doesn't really play the tug of war that's as interesting as something like Far Cry 2, which has a very strong sense of authorship and also a very strong sense of abdication of authorship.
In part two: Far Cry 3, naturally. Also: gun control, whether Passage is a "game", and Chainworld.