Jason Rohrer

An Infinite, Star-Filled Sky

Games Features Jason Rohrer
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It’s the last day of the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and three of the industry’s best are about to face off in a crowded ballroom at the Moscone Center’s West Hall. The event: the conference’s annual Game Design Challenge. The theme: “Bigger Than Jesus.” In this contest, each designer must come up with theoretical game that could also be a religion—not, as host Eric Zimmerman is careful to point out, a game about religion, but a game that plays like a religion itself. Then, after each presents his vision, the winner is determined by the crowd’s cheers.

Veteran game designer John Romero (Doom, Quake) dreams up a goofy-but-clever concept based in Twitter: Create a “Messiah” profile. The first 12 followers are the apostles, who then go out and recruit followers in the real world.

Returning champion Jenova Chen (Flower, Journey) rolls out a long-winded speech about gamifying the TED (Technology, Engineering & Design) website. His analysis of modern religion is interesting, but fails to resonate with the audience.

But before Romero’s and Chen’s presentations, independent game designer Jason Rohrer (Sleep is Death, Inside a Star-Filled Sky) lays out his own brilliant idea. Tall, young and energetic, Rohrer is as animated as they come. “Just doing my Obama thing,” he jokes as he works the room like a politician, leading the audience through a reflection on the mysterious nature of our ever-changing world. He says he wants to create a game that explores the nature of the Predecessor (God) and the Successor (Man), and allows players to take a turn at both roles. With this framework in mind, he uses the game Minecraft as his foundation.

Minecraft is Markus “Notch” Persson’s wildly popular sandbox game, an open-ended world-building experience that randomly generates each of its levels and leaves players free to reshape the world as they see fit. Rohrer’s game is a similarly styled experiment (or “metagame”) he dubs Chain-World. To begin the titular “chain,” Rohrer would play a Minecraft game until he died, then place the save file on a USB key. The key is then passed off to a new person, who would play a single game, save it immediately after dying and once again pass the USB key to the next person. So Chain-World would grow and change as it’s passed through the hands of more and more users, each person taking a turn at being both successor and predecessor in an infinite loop of creation.

At the conclusion of his talk, Rohrer hands the USB key to an audience member, and Chain-World begins in earnest. Later, when it comes time to decide a winner, the crowd’s cheers are decisive: Rohrer by a landslide.

Minecraft was a perfect fit for the kind of spiritual connection I wanted to make between people,” he says a few days after the event. “I feel like there’s already a bit of spirituality lurking in Minecraft, particularly on the multiplayer servers. When you’re in those servers, you see all this stuff that people have created before you, and you sort of wonder about it, like, ‘What was this here for?’ So there’s already a little of that mystery surrounding the game.”

But on a Minecraft multiplayer server, there are still other players around. “There aren’t so many abandoned ruins in Minecraft,” Rohrer points out, “but in Chain-World, that’s all there are. You then have the opportunity to destroy them, or continue the work that the person before you left, or just go off and do your own thing.

“I’ve played a lot of the game,” he continues. “I think that the gameplay is in its own way very compelling and addicting, but in between the periods of compulsion, there are these incredible moments, like the first time you dig down to the bedrock and then look back up… and you see the vanishing point. You realize how deep you are, and how far down you’ve come, and how huge this world is. How small it makes you feel.”

Roher’s most recent game, Inside a Star-Filled Sky, can impart a similar feeling. It’s a top-down shooter with a mind-bending twist—it’s both recursive and randomly generated. Players advance by making it all the way to a level’s exit point, whereupon they warp up one level, revealing that the last level they played was inside a giant, similar-looking being, which they now inhabit and control. Dying takes players down one level within themselves, and the only way to progress is to fight their way back up. Further complicating matters is the fact that players can voluntarily warp down into enemies in order to remove the enemy’s power-ups, or warp into power-ups themselves in order to change their properties. The levels are randomly generated, so there are an almost infinite number of possibilities. By Rohrer’s accounting, the highest level anyone has obtained was his friend and fellow game designer Jonathan Blow (Braid), who got into the 50s.

Rohrer demonstrated the game at the GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Session, and each time he dropped a level or entered a power-up, the audience burst into applause. Though he claims not to have really liked either, both Douglas Hofstadter’s influential book about art and recursion, Gödel, Escher, Bach and Christopher Nolan’s dream-jacking caper film, Inception, helped inspire the new game. “The concern for the people making Inception,” he says, “was that they were going to lose half the audience, right? So [Nolan] doesn’t let you get lost down in the sub-world because he keeps cutting back and forth to what’s going on on the outside and what’s going on on the inside, like with the van falling slowly off the bridge.” (perhaps a little more explanation for those of us who haven’t seen the movie? I’m left scratching my head after this quote)

Inside a Star-Filled Sky offers no such perspective, even though gamers asked for it. “People would say, ‘Can’t there be a stack display, I’m lost down inside, I don’t remember where I am!’” Rohrer chuckles,. “But that’s the point, that’s how you actually feel when you’re in one of these things. Whether it’s a false awakening within a dream, or a sub-task in everyday life, often you forget why you’re doing the task in the first place.”

“If you’re 10 layers deep, there’s no way to know where you are. I don’t expect people to take notes, although some players claim they’re drawing a map of how they’re inside an enemy inside a power-up inside an enemy, and so on.” But regardless of players’ fixation on cartography, “that aesthetic experience of being lost down inside, and then remembering what you were doing as you rise back out, is really important to me.” And it was there that Rohrer believes Inception failed. “It held your hand so tightly, it never let you have that experience.”

Now that it’s been a few weeks since the conference, does Rohrer have anything to report on the whereabouts and progress of Chain-World USB key?
“I don’t know,” he confesses. “I handed it to that guy, and he talked to me a little bit afterwards. He was asking permission to sell it on eBay to raise money for the Child’s Play charity. And that’s interesting; the fact that it’ll resurface in public is exciting to me. There will be at least some paper trail.”

The only way to verify that a USB key is the one he made are physical signifiers, not digital ones. “[The key] kinda has this hand-braided linen string on it, and it has these little paint dots that I put on it.” He also sanded all of the logos off, which gave it “a kind of Mad Max look.”

“I didn’t want it to feel like some USB key off the shelf,” he says, “I wanted to uniquify it.”

Since Rohrer never intended for the key to be tracked, he chose not to include any scripts that logged in and kept tabs on its whereabouts. “I wanted it to be a mystery—to myself, even. The predecessor/successor spirituality thing works in both directions, because while you’re playing, not only are you exploring things that someone left behind for you, you’re also imagining how people are going to encounter what you leave behind.

“Once you’re done, once you pass it on, there’s a spiritual mystery that carries on throughout the rest of your life as you imagine where this thing must be, and what must be happening to it. Imagining, wondering.”

Kirk Hamilton is Paste’s Games Editor. He is a musician and writer in San Francisco and can be found at Kirkhamilton.com; and on Twitter @kirkhamilton;. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.