There’s a real dichotomy in a prolific and successful game programmer living in a small house in a meadow with no car or fridge. The way Jason Rohrer and his family chooses to live ties into a wider, almost utilitarian philosophy, but it also impacts and shapes the way his games are made: low-resolution, an almost non-existent budget, and focused on meaning something rather than only aesthetics.
“I use old computers to keep myself honest as a programmer and to ensure that my games run fine on almost every computer around the world instead of requiring people to buy new, expensive computers.” Rohrer has been well-known around his home town of Potsdam since 2005, when the village filed a lawsuit ordering him to mow his lawn. Rohrer won, his argument being that mowing a lawn was an act of vandalism and it would stop him from being free to express himself. Everything he does is influenced by his logic that everything must serve a useful and productive purpose. An essay he wrote called ‘Free Distribution’ argues against charging money for software already made because it lowers productivity in the programmer. His argument was simple. “How can you charge someone money for something that they can get for free and then call the sale an ethical business practice?”
Passage, probably one of Rohrer’s most popular games, is the perfect example of this philosophy. The game is set up as a rectangle of pixelated colours on the screen, with one blob of pixels somewhat resembling a person. As you move the character around, the rectangle stretches out for more area to explore, sort of like a timeline. You collect points, and you can even find a partner, get “married”, and then they follow you around. Then you slowly realise your pixelated self is aging into a grey blob, your partner dies, and then you die too – all very arbitrarily and probably within less than ten minutes. Passage has since garnered a huge amount of attention, being described as a “video game which will make you cry”. In an interview with Esquire, Rohrer declared that “games don’t have to be bloated and huge and violent … they can be small and quiet and deep”.
Rohrer’s work has been praised alongside the recent uprising of indie video games. Developers from blockbuster game companies have begun moving away to form their own smaller companies or just work solo, which Rohrer says is because you don’t get any interesting projects in big game companies, and there is less job security. Now that anyone with a computer can make a game, there is an overwhelming rise in low-res, low budget games, but ones that tend to be very philosophical and meaningful. Mainichi is a game that follows a trans character and their interactions with people on a daily basis, which aims to promote understanding through personal experience but is less than one megabyte in size. On the higher end of the scale, there’s Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, which actually don’t offer wide areas to explore, but compensate with a quality script and narration. The prevalence of “game jams”, competitions where developers try to create games in a short time frame, has inundated the web with free, somewhat simplistic, but fun games. Passage was actually made in a similar event: Kokoromi’s Gamma 256.
Jason Rohrer has the upmost respect for these kinds of games, believing them to have more expressive power due to being more abstract and less specific. For example, the pixelated character in Passage allows anyone to impress upon it an image of themselves. “In big-budget games, much of our attention as players is spent studying the optical illusion itself and the flaws in that illusion are distracting. In a low-res game, there is no illusion to be broken.” The argument that these smaller indie games justify the conception of video games as art more than the larger, triple-A studio games is frequently made. However, as Rohrer points out, the classification of art in games is often misunderstood. It is not enough to discuss it in terms of visual aesthetics, because that alienates script and narrative. Neither is it enough to discuss in terms of triggering emotions, because of the example that a “tear-jerker of a movie, that uses well established and cheap tactics to make the audience sad, isn’t necessarily art”. For Rohrer, it is more about trying to elicit an emotional response in an unusual way.
For example, his latest game The Castle Doctrine is supposed to confront and trap you later on because of your greed earlier in the game. “I’ve been thinking about my games as manifolds of interwoven aesthetic experiences, aesthetic cocktails with finely-tuned recipes,” he said.The revolution Jason Rohrer and his peers are leading is fundamentally changing the face of video gaming. The effects of this revolution are already evident – big industry players like Sony and Microsoft are falling over themselves to claim indie game “exclusives” for their immensely popular PS4 and Xbox One consoles. But only time will tell us what kind of lasting impact the indie revolution can have on the blockbuster video games that still dominate the market.