Simplicity, using the tools right for you and not conforming to social expectations, creating meaningful videogames, and what matters in life.
Jason is a videogame developer, author of games like Passage and One Hour One Life.
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Sim Salis (host): Jason, if someone reads the interviews that you previously released they says that you used to bake your own bread, right?
Jason Rohrer (guest): Yeah.
Sim: It’s mythical.
J. Rohrer: some… people propagated the myth that we live in a cabin or we grow all of our own food or whatever. And so… I mean, I did… I have written about voluntary simplicity in the past. And… and the there was an article in Esquire many, many years ago, back in 2008, where the… the journalist was particularly impressed with how we were living at the time.
Sim: He really was…
J. Rohrer: Compared to other people at the time. And we were vegan at the time and we were… we still cook all our food and, you know, we don’t, you know, buy a lot of prepackaged foods and stuff. So, you know, at the time he came to our house he saw these like jars full of beans and rice and things. And we weren’t using a refrigerator at the time.
Sim: Oh, he wrote that, I remember in the article he was like, “And sometimes they don’t use a refrigerator.”
J. Rohrer: No, weren’t using… we had many refrigerator for years. Now we do use a refrigerator.
Sim: You just turned it off by the way just to not make any noise recording the interview.
J. Rohrer: I turned it off for the interview but most of the time we use it. You know, the some of these things are sort of… you know, when you’re in a life partnership with somebody else, you have to kind of come to agreements, mutual agreements about how you’re going to do certain things like the refrigerator or whatever. So I was always like, “We don’t need their fridge!” and my wife was sort of on board with that for a while, but eventually she was like, “No,” and she started turning the fridge on. I just gave up. It wasn’t… that wasn’t worth fighting about, right? And so… and now we’re not vegan anymore; we meat and other things. And so, you know, if you’re eating meat, it’s hard not to have a fridge.
Sim: So looking at your family, basically it’s like looking at an evolving… situation….
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: You went from raw food and no fridge to having the fridge and starting to eat more protein. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah. And then, you know, there’s still other weird things about us, right? Like… like I don’t have a cell phone and I never have and I never plan to have one, right? Yeah, and my kids, you know, I have a teenager who’s 14, almost 15 now and he still doesn’t have a phone, you know, and…
Sim: How does he feel about that?
J. Rohrer: He bugs us about it sometimes, but at the same time, you know, cell phones are expensive.
Sim: They are.
J. Rohrer: Right? You know, especially if you wants a smartphone, it’s like, you know, maybe 70 or 80 dollars a month, you know? He doesn’t want to spend. I was like, “You can get one, go ahead. You pay for it though.”
Sim: Good luck!
J. Rohrer: “Yeah, we’re not paying for it. We don’t have… we don’t have smartphones. Like we can’t afford that.” And anyway so, I mean, he also sees among all of his peers and so on how… yeah, you know, I think he sees the destructive behavior that they engender, right? He sees like a lot of his friends just staring down at their phones all the time, not talking to each other, not interacting and so on. And… and so I think he kind of maybe gets the point but I’m trying to make about like, “Yeah it’s not… they’re not so great, right? Like having the Internet in your pocket where you can look anything up at any moment in time, it’s not so great, right? Because you… there’s a reason why some things aren’t worth it, you know, you think of things and you forget about them. It’s good to forget about, you know, nonsense, trivia…
J. Rohrer: … that you… it’s important enough you’ll remember tomorrow and look it up at the library or when you get home, right?
Sim: Right, yes, of course. Otherwise it’s just noise.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah. In my head, I mean, I spend time on the Internet at home on my computer and my head is filled with a lot of useless trivia and things that I looked up over the years and so on. And I… and… and the fact that I have to be at home at the computer to access that, it’s bad enough. (Laugh)
Sim: Right, yes.
J. Rohrer: My head is already filled with all this nonsense, you know? And… and so I think, for me especially, if I had a smartphone my pocket and the few times that I’ve had, you know, borrowed somebody else’s phone or I had a phone around for development or something, but many years ago, I found like… I took it out a trip one time because I was going to show my game that I was working on, on the iPhone to some people on the trip.
J. Rohrer: The whole bus ride I was sitting there watching videos and doing other things on the phone and not looking out the window, right, not just thinking quietly to myself. And as a creative person, I feel like that stuff is really important, right? People have ideas in the shower for a reason, right, because, right? They don’t bring their phones into the shower.
Sim: That’s going to be corrected very soon because now they’re waterproof.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I remember seeing some advertisement, Lil’ Wayne like spilling champagne on his phone or something, right?
Sim: Yeah, right? Apple does that too and Samson. They show these people that go to swim and jump in the water with their phone on. I have… so I have an Apple watch and the latest one is like waterproof of course the latest 2 versions and it has cellular. So Apple’s advertising was, this woman going to surf in the Bay Area and she jumps on that and she’s surfing. And while she is… she is like on top of a tide… her watch rings. And she answers! And I’m like what is the point to go surfing if you can be bothered even when you’re on top of a wave? Like what is… what is that?
J. Rohrer: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure… I’m… I’m a amateur surfer, you know, I don’t surf on a regular basis but every once in a while I go surfing. And… and one of the great things about it is being out on the water, completely away from everything yeah, so quiet and peaceful out there, you know? And you just feel like, you know, one with the ocean and alone and like, you know, separate from everything because you can look out and see the busy likes, you know, city pass the beach, way out, far away from you as you’re out way out on the water. So I have, you know, an Apple Watch on over your wetsuit.
Sim: Yeah, and it rings because there is signal in the ocean.
J. Rohrer: (Laughs). Yeah, so anyway, I mean, essentially, you know, what I’ve been trying to do—just speaking for myself and not necessary for my spouse or my family—is make, you know, conscious decisions about what kinds of things I want in my life and what I don’t. I evaluate each one kind of on its individual merits and… and think about overall quality of life, my own tendencies, you know, like what I’m likely…
Sim: So this… whole approach—going back to the Esquire article, it looked like you were this mythical creature living in the woods for, you know…—sometimes people associate living a much simpler life with going back into the Stone Age, and I don’t think it’s necessarily that. It sounds to me that your point is more like, “I want to be conscious choices of where I focus my attention and how I live my life,” and…
J. Rohrer: Yeah, essentially just because it’s the way it’s done, doesn’t mean it’s the best way for me, right, just because it’s the way everyone’s doing it.
J. Rohrer: I mean, people around me like… my friends I have in the industry still are sort of flabbergasted every time they remember that I still don’t have a cellphone, right? They go, “Wait!”
Sim: (Laughs) Jason doesn’t use…
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah, when I go to the Game Developers Conference or something I’m like, you know, they kind of are just still shocked I’m still… like they think that one of these days I’m just going to suddenly say… wake up and say, “Oh my gosh! I actually need one of these!” But, you know, when I when I when I think about or look at, you know, the way their lives are with the cellphone…
J. Rohrer: … I guess I feel like, you know, it is hampering a lot of their productivity, right, because they’re spending so much time tweeting and following and looking at things and looking things up.
Sim: It’s a lot of pressure.
J. Rohrer: Yeah. And so they’re kind of just constantly in this, you know, I… I need to focus on my work, you know, I need to focus on my family, I need to focus on other aspects of… high quality aspects of life. I don’t see them getting that many great benefits out of the cell phone. In fact, a lot of them sort of almost seems like they regret having one but they can’t…
Sim: That’s my feeling.
J. Rohrer: They sort of hate… there’s a sort of a self-loathing. (Laughs)
Sim: When you … yes, exactly. When you replied to my e- mail, I was like… and I saw a phone number and you were like specified “This is my home phone.”
J. Rohrer: Yeah.
Sim: Inside myself I was like, “Ah,”
J. Rohrer: Okay, I’m going to do something here, we’re going to… you guys, people haven’t heard this in a long time.
Sim: Oh, no!
J. Rohrer: It’s a dial tone.
Sim: Oh no… yes! Oh my god! What is it? (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: It’s a dial tone. Because we’re sitting here in my kitchen table.
J. Rohrer: I’ve got a landline…
Sim: Which is hooked to the wall.
J. Rohrer: Which is hooked to the wall with a curly cord, like a 1970s movie where you’re going to answer the phone in your home kitchen.
Sim: And people run through it and they’re like, “Oh, no!”
J. Rohrer: Tangled up in the cord.
Sim: Tangle, yeah, they used to get tangled.
J. Rohrer: So people don’t hear dial tones anymore.
Sim: Speaking to… before… before I ask you about your games, I am also curious. If you… if you look at Jason’s website, it’s like this jump in the past in a good way because you… you… your website is mostly like plain HTML, I think, or…
J. Rohrer: Yeah, it’s like a white background, black text.
Sim: I love it! It’s like going in the early 2000s Internet. And not just because of how it looks, and it’s certainly fine because you can communicate all you need just through that…
J. Rohrer: Like really the website is about conveying information and so each game basically just has a pile of information almost in sort of a linear form. Like, “Here’s some pictures of the game, here’s the video, here’s the buy link, here’s a little block of text about the game, here’s some news, here’s some…” you know? And so I… especially for One Hour One Life, my most recent game, the website is really just this information portal, right? You know, there’s all these links at the top to all the different aspects of the game like the forums and the logs for the updates and the… the wiki and the food log. You can even go and click and see what people have been eating inside the game today, right?
J. Rohrer: You know, all this data, right, because I think that players of this kind of game appreciate that kind of data, right? They want to sort of immerse themselves in this world of this game and all this… all the technical details of it and so on, and just kind of like laying all that bear in this kind of pretty simple format, right? Like it’s not… it’s not really polished. It doesn’t look like a brochure, it looks like, you know, a data website, right?
Sim: There is… yes, it looks like that and I believe that also relates to your games: the same thing that you can see on your website which is this content, you know? It’s just when you strip the superfluous, the excess, then you have content. And it looks to me that that’s what you do with your games too. Because at some point in 2007, you created you’re one of your early creations, ‘Passage’, and this was a very sweet game that at the time moved industry because it was, correct me if I’m wrong, a single character, a man, and at some point you could decide like, “Do I accumulate things or do I leave life in companionship and have a little less but it’s more enjoyable?” And then eventually your companion dies, in that case, and you remain alone and then you die too; and that’s the end of the game. And… and taking out the graphics, you… you focus on the content and the game industry was like, “Oh, look at that!” (Laughs). “Well, you don’t have much glitter and sparkles.” At the end of the day, we’re telling a story or we’re at least expressing a concept.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I mean, the idea with ‘Passage’ and games that were coming out, like sort of what we were calling ‘art games’, back then this is 2007, right?
J. Rohrer: The idea of the art game was kind of coming into the… into the forefront again. It kind of risen and fallen over… over decades but it was kind of in vogue again. And the idea that we’re trying to figure out how to do something expressed… expressive or emotionally evocative inside videogames but with a specific focus on doing it in a way that was native to the video game medium, right? A lot of games at the time had a lot of cutscenes. Cutscenes are little movies that play in the middle of a video game.
Sim: Just like Metal Gear Solid.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, Metal Gear Solid or you… you’re going along and you’re playing interactively and you’re doing something, you’re trying to accomplish some goal and then you get to some point in the game and all of a sudden the control is rested from you and there’s a little movie that plays with the characters talking and interacting and maybe going through some dramatic kind of scene. And then the scene ends and then all of a sudden you’re in control of the character again and you get to go back to shooting or whatever the main interaction is.
J. Rohrer: Or sneaking around, in the case of Metal Gear Solid.
Sim: Or the murder simulators.
J. Rohrer: Murder simulators! (Laughs). So… so there was this, what we were… what we saw at the time is this disconnect. We… in fact, one of my friends, Clint Hawking, called it a ludonarrative dissonance.
J. Rohrer: Right, which is a disconnect between what is going on ludographically, I guess; I don’t know if
that’s the right…
Sim: Well… yeah, playing.
J. Rohrer: Ludologically… yeah, in the terms of… yeah, in terms of… ‘Ludo’ is a Latin for play, right? So… so in the sense of what you’re doing when you’re playing and interacting versus what the story of the game is supposed to be about, right? And so… and when those two things fight each other you get this kind of weird feeling, right, where like, “I was just,” you know, like, “I was just spending the last half hour killing 800 people or whatever and then there’s this like sad love scene where something dying.”
Sim: Deepening moment.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah, “And then… then I go back to the killing,” right, or whatever. And so that dissonance between those 2 things makes the work kind of feel kind of at odds with itself for fighting itself or just… like it doesn’t really co… congeal very well. And so at the time we were trying to figure out how to do more emotionally evocative things directly with the interactive gameplay parts, right? Like, is there a way that we don’t even need cutscenes, right? Like we have these cutscenes because we’re trying to express more stuff that we can’t express during the part where you’re shooting the gun.
Sim: Right, right.
J. Rohrer: Can we… instead of making games about where you’re shooting a gun, if we wanted to make a game about like the loss of a loved one or something like that, you know, can we… can we kind of build game mechanics and interactive systems that directly sort of communicate about those things? Where there’s no cut scene… there’s no cut scene in the game passage, that’s not how any of us… when you say there’s a story, the story is something that is… is not authored and something the player sort of authors in collaboration with the game designer as they play through these mechanics and interact with them and make choices inside the system, right? And they kind of… every play through the game passage is different and every story has slightly different kind of characteristics, right? Like, you know, which way you walked, how long it took for you to pick up the significant other in the game, what you did once you picked… met up with that person in the game, where you walk together, you know, where you were on the map once one of them died and what you did after they died, you know, and so on. All those things are up to the player, right? And so the player is sort of able to interpret this interactive experience and get this meaning out of it; meaning about life, mortality, limitations, passage of time, significant relationship with significant others, trade-offs that you make in life and so on, but not because we put a bunch of talking characters on the screen and a cutscene, but because well, the actual construction of the game mechanics themselves. So that’s what we were trying to do back in 2007 and that is why, you know, the industry noticed games like ‘Passage’, and there’s another game called ‘The Marriage’. My friends who did something kind of similar, you know, where the game mechanics… his game was even… he even had fewer graphics, right?
Sim: Literally just was a single pixel.
J. Rohrer: Just… (Laughs) . No, not a single pixel. (Laughs) . No, literally just a blue and… just colored squares, geometric shapes moving around the screen, but it was a game about how his marriage felt. And, you know, if you read the title and then played with these colored objects moving around the screen, you could interpret them, right? There were there was no there’s nothing that looked like a person on the screen but it was about a marriage, right?
Sim: Well, yeah, humans tend to… humans, us, we tend to definitely anthropomorphize or try to decode and find metaphors and meaning also in squares and that, otherwise Kandinsky would have not existed. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: I was… I was wondering this is this game design? Is this storytelling? And it’s actually neither because from what I just heard, you give some rules and that’s what you create, and then you… you want to empower, you want to… you… you don’t even want to, automatically the player gets empowered to be the storyteller. That’s… that’s the thing, it’s like you become… you are your own storyteller within those rules, within the world.
J. Rohrer: Right, I mean, some people… some people described it as the abdication of authorship. (Laughs)
Sim: (Laughs) You’re lazy! That’s what it is about… (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Well, yeah. So… yeah, so a lot of people in other mediums, you know, in the world of filmmaking or the world of advertising or whatever, they have this… they have this sort of way that they think about everything being storytelling, right? That’s the lens that they view everything, right? Any ad campaign, anything that goes on, Justin Bieber’s career or whatever it is…
Sim: Sure, “Everything is a story.”
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah, “It’s all about storytelling!”
Sim: “It’s a story.”
J. Rohrer: Yes, it’s all about good stories. And so… and they try to bring that in… and I’ve heard them apply it to my work a lot, right? They’re looking at some game I made or whatever and they say, “Wow! It’s great,” you know, “There’s… it’s clear that you’re a master storyteller,” you know? And I really don’t think of myself that way, right?
Sim: “The hero’s journey. You grow up then you find…”
J. Rohrer: Yeah, yeah. And… and what I’m doing is something, I feel like… I think that, games… games at their best are doing something very different than that and it isn’t really… I mean, maybe they’re stories that come out of them sort of but, I mean, it’s like there are stories that come out of real-life events too, right? That doesn’t mean that the primary thing going on in a real life event is the story… storytelling or something.
Sim: And that’s kind of your leit motiv, it’s kind of your recurring theme, it looks to me. Because if you go through… even just from the titles of your games! (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: One is called ‘Passage’ and it’s about, time and passage on Earth and whatever you make out of it. And then you have “Immortality’, and then you have your latest one, One Hour One Life, which is also… it looks like the… the recurring theme is the game of life inspired by your own experiences.
J. Rohrer: Right, yeah. Yeah, so, you know, One Hour One Life also is sort of a… I mean, you could… you could think of it as a story generating system more, you know, a unique situation generating system. You know, every time you play the game, you’re… you go through this life that’s very different from any life that you’ve lived so far in the game because you’re born to parents in a different situation, parents, being other players, who take… who are tasked with taking care of you when you’re a baby. And then as you grow up inside the game and, you know, you turn into this character in a given situation that you’ve never seen before, and you live out… of course you’ve your life over an hour. And, you know, what ends up happening to you over that hour is going to be its own… I mean, you could see… so you could think of it as its own unique story but it’s not a story that I wrote, right? That’s not really… to say that the players wrote the story is not even true either, right? It’s like the player’s actions combined with the situations that they found themselves in and the actions of other players around them sort of come together to create this story that only they receive, right? Like only the player who’s playing that character gets…
Sim: Can experience.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, it’s like a very unique… and it feels unique and precious because it happened to you, didn’t happen anybody else, you’ll never have it happen to you again. And you aside from the fact that you witnessed, it it’s not really even recorded anywhere, right? (Laughs)
Sim: I… I downloaded the game like a week ago and I was with friends. And it’s… it’s an online game so, as you said, each player is an actual person behind the screen. And you had 60 minutes and each minute is equivalent to like more or less…
J. Rohrer: A year of life.
Sim: … a year of life.
J. Rohrer: Yeah.
Sim: So you’re… their best outcome is that you get old and you die and you did something useful for the community that keeps going on your online community, like you said. And then you find some meaning and you experiences uniquely, as you say. And it was incredibly frustrating also because it’s pretty… there is this brutalism to the instructions; we just started, we were born, this was on a TV and four people watching me trying to play and fail miserably. And you’re born and somebody needs to take care of you because you’re born.
J. Rohrer: You’re a helpless baby,
Sim: Yeah, you’re a helpless baby, you could not text or chat with other people. You just get like one letter. So we learn to press “F”, which in our minds was “Food”.
J. Rohrer: Like when you were hungry.
Sim: Yes, because it’s just like you need to eat, right away, because otherwise you’ll die. And there was this mom… there this mom, this woman there that noticed that we needed food and it was like, “No food, sorry newborn, bye,” and I just died.
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: There was like bones there. And it was his grandpa so it reached like an older age and he… he just… he was about to die and he was like, “About to go, take care y’all, bye!” and he died.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, so there’s interesting stuff that’s been happ… so there’s interesting things that are happening in there. So first of all, obviously, you know, players are sort of getting the hang of survival, right?
J. Rohrer: They’re figuring out how to live more than a few minutes, figuring out, you know, the fact that, yes, you are… you know, a lot… a lot of… a lot of mothers are not going… and that you’re born to in the game are not going to take good care of you and you will die, you know, very… you’ll have… infant mortality is high, right? now, right? But… but part of that is also… that’s… that infant mortality rate has kind of gone up and down over time because there’s a sort of a meta thing that’s happening which is players are realizing what it takes to collectively have a successful civilization. Because, you know, you only live one hour in the game, you make some contribution, let’s say you figure out how to build a kiln and you start making pottery in your village in the game. Well then, the kiln will be there, the pottery that you made will be there for generations to come and they’ll all be able to make use of that, even if they don’t know how to do it themselves, right? If you make 10 clay bowls…
Sim: And leave it there.
J. Rohrer: … and leave it there, they’ll be able to use those bowls to gather water for their farm, even if they don’t remember how to make clay bowls themselves, right? So you can make this contribution and your contribution kind of lives on after you; that’s kind of the point in the game. But that only… your contribution only lives on as long as that village lives on, right?
Sim: So a single player’s goal is a limited unique experience of the game itself and their specific universe that has being created with that. And that’s… that’s… you know, that’s the end of that game; that single game in that user experience.
J. Rohrer: The hour.
Sim: The hour; yes, 60 minutes. But you didn’t create a single unique experience you can… you created a collective… a collective experience to be experienced subjectively for each player. If the end of a subjective experience is the hour, how do you envision the end of the game?
J. Rohrer: Yeah, so, you know, is it a game? That’s a question that’s still lingering, right? Is it a game that goes on forever?
J. Rohrer: Is it a game that… you know, what..? Is it a game that stays interesting forever if…
Sim: Right. Let’s say that we reach our current level of civilization.
J. Rohrer: Right. So the question is, “Does… once you reach the top, once you’re at the leaves of the tech tree…”
J. Rohrer: “Does the game just kind of stagnate and become boring?” I don’t know the answer to that question.
J. Rohrer: You know, “Do we need a periodic full-blown apocalypse?”
J. Rohrer: “Do we have reset everyone back to 0?”
Sim: The Matrix? (Laughs). Version 7.0?
J. Rohrer: Because that’s… that’s the… you know, the interesting thing is the journey, not the destination necessarily, right? So if the game sort of stagnates and becomes boring once people reach the top levels, which they have… it hasn’t really yet because there’s still this basic struggle for survival, even once you have steel tools. So people aren’t… aren’t sort of like stagnated yet. The villages are still collapsing eventually, even with steel tools. And so people are kind of starting over periodically. But, you know, I’ve thought about, you know, maybe the very tip of the tech tree…
J. Rohrer: … could be “The Button”; the button that anybody, if they ever make it, could press and reset the entire server back to wilderness again.
Sim: I believe… that would be pretty realistic…
J. Rohrer: (Laughs)
Sim: … in a few million years.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, so… so then maybe people could, you know, fight over the crafting of this button and, try to prevent people from crafting it, try to destroy the basic ingredients that are needed. Like let’s say there’s some kind of resistors or wires or some kind of electronic components are needed for the button, people could be going around villages trying to purge them of any of those components to prevent the button…
Sim: Oh my god!
J. Rohrer: … button from being created if they wanted to stop it from happening.
Sim: “We want to exist!” (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Like a race… like a race… race to the button, someone’s got the button, trying to stop the person pushing it, you know, all this kind of stuff could happen. That’s sort of interesting but it’s not really necessarily what the game is about, so I’m not sure.
Sim: Of course.
J. Rohrer: Or I could just periodically, as god…
Sim: Reset the planet.
J. Rohrer: Push the reset button myself, which I…
Sim: It sounds like being God is very exhausting for you right now.
J. Rohrer: (Laughs). Yeah, I have dreams… I have dreams of carrot farming. (Laughs)
Sim: (Laughs) I hope one day they get control… “they”… “Your creations, your minions!” with freedom of choice, they gain control of the code. And then they…(Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Well, people have been modding the game and all that. So…
Sim: Well, because every release is also open source.
J. Rohrer: Right. And they have to… you know, and they have to… you know, in order to mod the game, they have to run their own servers. And there’s a bunch of people now running their own servers with their own rules installed. And, you know, some people have turned off hunger or they do… you know, they can disable aging,
Sim: They’re dictators.
J. Rohrer: (Laughs). They do whatever they want.
Sim: (Laughs). Virtual dictators.
J. Rohrer: But the idea with the… it’s sort of about the mystery of human civilization and where it came from, we all kind of quite participate in it. We sort of think that we’re at the end of the story, right? We tell the story of human civilization of, you know, “There were the Egyptians and then there was this there was that.”
J. Rohrer: “And the Chin… the Chinese were separate and there were trade routes and there was this and that. And then finally…”
J. Rohrer: “We got to where we are now. We have the iPhone and that’s kind of, you know, the…
J. Rohrer: You know, what… you know, we have the iPhone and the in the internet and all the stuff and that’s the end of the story,” right? Just like everybody who came before us, we’re just in the middle of the story, right?
J. Rohrer: And what… and we don’t even see ourselves necessarily playing a role in the few… in the further development of civilization, but that’s what we’re doing, right? We’re each… when we don’t really know like where we’re supposed to go, we don’t know where the people of the future need us to go, what they need us to do, like we’re kind of like blindly playing our little role, hoping that what we’re doing is somehow useful to the world and, you know, and… but somehow, people did that over the course of four thousand years yeah kind of collaborating without communicating to get us to the point where we are right now all, right? Like when you go down to the store and you buy a screwdriver or something, there were thousands of people who collaborated around the world in little bits and pieces to make that screwdriver possible And you buy it for a couple of dollars at the hardware store without even thinking about it, but if you had to start from scratch in the woods, it generations to get a screwdriver made, right? (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: So that’s the mystery, right, of human civilization is, “How the heck did all these loosely connected generations do this thing?” But it’s also like… I’m thinking about why these things are in the game like, “Why would somebody want to make the avocado…” Like I may put this now that you mention it. Every time someone says something like this, like their avocado container, the corn skewers, this kind of thing, like that’s going in the game, right? There’s going to at some point be an avocado shaped avocado container that will stop from spoiling.
Sim: You can’t wait.
J. Rohrer: I can’t. So I’ve got this list building in my mind but the question is, why? Like, what… you know why would somebody ever make that? Why would somebody make a red sweater? The game mechanics don’t say that you should make a red sweater, there’s no reason to. So I’ve broken like everything, all human creations down into three categories, right? It’s either you eat it and… and can get sustenance from it somehow or it helps you get sustenance in some way. Like a refrigerator, you can’t eat the refrigerator but it helps you preserve food.
Sim: Oh yes, of course; a tool.
J. Rohrer: You can take shelter from it from the elements in some way because it keeps you warm or it keeps the rain off your head or it guards you from the Sun and exposure and so on. So housing, you know, blankets that you sleep under at night all these things are a shelter. And then the third category I’m just calling entertainment. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Because humans, once they get the food in this you’re under control, they kind of… our brains are too capable and we kind of get bored, right? So, you know, the difference between a blanket and like, you know, some sort of like Indian rug with filing a tapestry or something, right?
Sim: It becomes more elaborate just for…
J. Rohrer: Yeah, just say, yeah. Or, you know, just eating sustenance food versus cuisine.
J. Rohrer: Right? Cuisine is the aesthetic form of cooking, right?
Sim: Of course, yes.
J. Rohrer: And we do it just to do it, right? We do it because we’re bored of eating bland food, we put spices on our food and these kinds of things. And so…
Sim: Because it’s about the journey. Like you said, if everything was just exclusively functional, it would bring you from point A to point B but you don’t enjoy it in between.
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: So you have to have a little bit of…
J. Rohrer: You have to have a red sweater!
Sim: And while, while you do all of this at the same time, I’m wondering, how is… how’s your trip going? Because you… you… so far it looks like you’re doing alright. You have a partner that you have a companionship with so far and you have 3 kids…
J. Rohrer: Right.
Sim: … with you. And your avatar is an incredibly friendly 6’7” dude. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: (Laughs) Yeah.
Sim: Probably. And how is… how is that going?
J. Rohrer: Well, I just… I just turned 40.
Sim: Okay, happy birthday! (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Well, I mean, not just… just yesterday.
Sim: But recently.
J. Rohrer: But recently enough, where I feel like I just turned 40. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Within the last 6 months. And that was a… kind of a strange transition. I mean, it’s just probably strange… strange transition for a lot of people, but it kind of caught me off guard a little bit.
Sim: Okay, you weren’t expecting it, why?
J. Rohrer: So well, I mean, I remember when I was turning 30; that was kind of a milestone for me. In fact, the game ‘Passage’ came out when I was turning right… right around the time I was turning 30.
J. Rohrer: So I was thinking a lot about the passage of life, mortality and so on. I had a child that was almost 5; my first child was almost 5, second child was on the verge of being born, right around the time passage came out. So I was really sort of a close… and a close friend of ours was dying of cancer at the time. You know, just all these things about the passage of life, mortality, were swirling around in my mind as I neared my 30th birthday. And ‘Passage’ came out of that, right? You’re looking in the mirror and definitely seeing that I’m getting older, you know, these kinds of things. And ‘Passage’ is… one of the things that happens in ‘Passage’ is that you’re character ages very subtly over time in… in a moment-to-moment you can’t see the changes, right? By the end of the game, ‘Passage’, you’re hunched over old man that has gray… has gray hair and completely bald and so on. And those changes happened so gradually that you almost don’t notice them. And then some point, halfway through the game most people say, “Wait a minute! Yeah, I used to be blond and now I’ve got brown… wait a minute now, I’m going bald? What’s going on?” This… they had this realization, this Aha moment which is meant to, you know, mimic the Aha moment when you’re looking in the mirror at yourself and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s actually happening to me!”
Sim: I’m getting there. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: So that’s happened to me at age 30. At age 40, which really is this sort of like, you know, marked… marked to sort of at a halfway point in your life, right? You know, that really sort of hit me pretty hard. I mean, my oldest child is 14 now, with the child who was only 4 and a half when ‘Passage’ came out. So I got this teenager, he also, you know, within the last year became a man. You know, his voice changed, he’s almost as tall as I am now, shaving, you know? So… so, you know, to have this you know… what used to be a cute little kid now a man. And so while, this has happened, this is actually happening. It’s… and… and then I’m making this game about… still, with One Hour One Life, is in part about the passage of life and you’re your small role in in it and so on. And so that all kind of came down on my head. And so I really actually right… like in the in a few months leading up to my 40th birthday, I was for the first time in my life, I was having like anxiety and then actually panic attacks, kind of feeling like I was having a heart attack or that I was dying or something, right? And actually I don’t go to the doctor ever, I really don’t want to go… ever go to the doctor, right? You know… no, I mean, seriously… no, it’s… it’s that I… I sort of feel like…
Sim: Why, you don’t want to know?
J. Rohrer: No, well… yeah, I think knowing… so when you’re sick, when you have a disease, I feel like knowing that you have disease just makes it worse, especially if it’s a terminal disease.
Sim: Isn’t that a passage necessary like starting to deal with that, learning to deal with those things?
J. Rohrer: Well, no, I’m saying, If I have an end-of-life disease, I just want to die from it, right? Like I don’t… like… in fact, witnessing my…
Sim: You mihgt fight against?
Sim: Witnessing… witnessing my friend back in 2007 dying of cancer, she had throat sir, you know, and they said essentially, “You’re not… it’s so… so advanced that you’re not going to survive this.” But you can get a few more months of life if you do chemo.” And she told me, “I always said I would never do chemo if I got cancer. I’ve seen too many friends ravaged by it. But when I was actually faced with this myself/”
Sim: She did it.
J. Rohrer: She did it. And I saw her get ravaged by; it was awful! Like the end of her life was awful. And so I… I… in seeing that and thinking about it for myself, I’ve always said like, you know, “I don’t want to, you know, have the stroke, have emergency brain surgery and then live the rest of my life like hobbled”, right? You know, I just wanted to, you know…
J. Rohrer: And if I have cancer, I’ll just, you know, never find out. (Laughs). I’ll just die, I’ll just get kind of weaker and weaker and sicker and sicker and lay in bed one day and die, right?
Sim: That’s your current, actual choice.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I mean, that’s what I’ve always said.
Sim: That’s what you’ve always said then when…
J. Rohrer: So when I started when I… when I started having …I guess now, I understand as panic attacks but I didn’t understand though I’d never had them before, right?
Sim: Of course.
J. Rohrer: Where you start… for the first time I life started interpreting them that, maybe something’s wrong, right? And then those thoughts of something being wrong, spiraled out of control because…
Sim: Yes, welcome to my life. (Laughs). Just a constant worry.
J. Rohrer: As… as, you know, your thoughts spiral out of control, you start having physical symptoms associated with the thoughts.
J. Rohrer: And so, you know, it got to the point where literally the… at its peak, I was like in bed all night from like, you know, the time I went to bed at like 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock until I woke up in the morning, unable to sleep.
Sim: They were spiraling.
J. Rohrer: Really like sweating and sweating and shaking with these waves of terror coming at me.
Sim: And how long ago was this, you said?
J. Rohrer: This was probably back in, I guess I would say, like June, July, August, something like that.
Sim: So it’s very recent.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I mean, I turned… I turned 40 in November. So… (Laughs)
Sim: Okay. Are you… are you shaking that off?
J. Rohrer: Well, so once I went to… so I actually, you know, was freaked out enough that I went to the doctor just to figure out what was going on.
Sim: First time in your life. No.
J. Rohrer: First time in a long time.
Sim: In a long time.
J. Rohrer: Being decades or more. No, I would go to the doctor if I had like some… like if I broke my leg.
Sim: What did he say?
J. Rohrer: Anyway, I didn’t have anything wrong with me, you know? Yeah, and so they did a whole echocardiogram and all this other kind of stuff and like it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with me. Once I understood that, the problem, I can still feel it kind of creeping up sometimes but instead of it spiraling into this crazy thing…
Sim: You’re able to shut it off.
J. Rohrer: I’m just like, “Oh, that’s just that thing again.”
Sim: Fine, okay you’re worrying about that passage, the middle of it. So let’s say that like your other game, right now, I give you the choice. Right now you have 24 hours to decide if you can go immortal.
J. Rohrer: Oh, immortality!
Sim: Yeah, “You have 24 hours, you know, that you’re not going to have to worry about all of this; like obsessive thoughts.” But then you like, extend it indefinitely.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, it’s a tough question. I mean, that… yes so that game obviously the game immortality is, about that question.
Sim: What would you do, Jason?
J. Rohrer: What would I do?
Sim: Yes, don’t escape it. (Laughs). Do you take it?
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I guess I would.
Sim: You would, forever? Never shutting off, never shutting down, no final button like in One Hour One Life?
J. Rohrer: I guess I still feel like I haven’t come to terms of death enough to not take it. (Laughs). The only comfort I can take about the issue of death is that, I’m thinking about it now as a 30 year or 40 year old person, right? I’m thinking about it now with my current mental faculties, with my current physical faculties, I feel a biological terror connected to it, right? As I get older and my mental faculties decay… but by the time I’m actually facing death, I’ll be such a different person. so in such… the fog… the mental fog and physical fog will be so much thicker.
Sim: The fog! Will soften things up…
J. Rohrer: So, I’ve talked some old people like, “Yeah, I’m ready to go… Just waiting to die.” (Laughs)
Sim: Well yeah because, if you get immortality…. The point is like… just like you said, it’s about the journey it’s not about the goal, right? So if you never reach an end, what would the point be?
J. Rohrer: Right. And ‘Passage’ was about that, right, that life doesn’t make sense without you know… it’s not… it’s not a complete story without an end, right?
Sim: Yeah. Just going on forever and ever, and after 2,000 years go by…
J. Rohrer: Well, it’s the curse of the vampire or the undead, right.
J. Rohrer: Oh! Like if it’s malaise, the malaise of the undead.
Sim: “Le Mal de Vivre”. I was wondering also, you know, you express all these concepts, high or not, they’re simple. They come from you and they’re something we all need to face. And I… and I hate the fact that the… One Hour One Life made me face like, “Don’t remind me about death in one hour!.” But which are ideals that inspire you, growing up, and then generally inspire you? What are the ideals that you live by?
J. Rohrer: Right. I guess the… the biggest one for me is… is freedom, in that I really… you know, I obviously as you could see with my life and different aspects of everything that I’ve done I kind of do things my own way or go my own way or whatever. So I really… ever since I was young really bristle that somebody else trying to force me to do something that I didn’t want to do or I had good reasons for not doing or, you know, someone who thinks they know better than me, dictating on top of my head they want me to do. So I really, you know… yeah, I guess in terms of the way I think, I think society should be structured or people should be able to live their lives or so on. I mean, obviously I grew up in America, right? America is, you know, stereotypically seen as this sort of like “The land of the free!” right? That’s like our slogan almost, right? And a lot of people question that or think it’s… you know, has its downsides or whatever but I still sort of believe in that sort of fundamental ideal, right, that each individual, especially since we’re all facing death, our lives here are limited and precious and nobody else can understand them the way we can from our perspective. Like our lives are only as precious as they are to us really, right? Like we can’t… each of us has to face death alone, each of us has to face, you know, the passage of our own lives alone, right? We’re… we’re alone inside of ourselves in… in terms of feeling that and… and perceiving it. And we can try and talk to other people about it but we can’t ever really fully connect with them about it because they’re not us, right? I want, you know, free people to collaborate freely and… and do what they want to do because they’re each… they each got to make their own choices, right? Like we can’t… yeah, because they have this precious thing that only they can perceive and understand, the idea that we could somehow control them or force them to do something they really didn’t want to do seems important to me, right?
Sim: Before you go with this game, the one you’re play now with me in a 6’7” avatar, what’s your unique goal to pursue? What is… what is… that matters to you?
J. Rohrer: Oh yeah, what’s my… what’s my contribution to the world. (Laughs)
Sim: And to yourself, not necessarily to the world, because it’s your journey too; it’s not just a collective one, right?
J. Rohrer: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m still trying to do… trying to do the very best work that I can do, trying to get better and better, right, at what I’m doing. I mean, I feel like I’m still, you know, not the best game designer that I could be. I still… I’ve been learning all through the 14 years I’ve been making games for example, I’ve been learning every step of the way and still learning; I’m still learning things today. So I’m still trying to improve, still trying to get better, I’m still trying to be, you know… you know, get to the point where I can be, you know, maybe it… may be like the… “the best game designer alive” or whatever.
I know I’m not there yet but I… that’s like something that I…
Sim: That’s an honest answer. The first person I interviewed, David Pasquesi, was like, “I learned in my life to ask myself what I want and to answer honestly. Sometimes I want money and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as I say it honestly, and then I do step 1 and step 2.” And with myself, I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail this game that I play, but sometimes I ask myself, “I have one hour left, and inevitably you look backwards, not just what you can do in that hour and.” I was like, “What do I care about? What…” That last hour, I go like, “What would I… what I… what is a good way to go and think that, you know… even a small thing but I pursued it meaningfully?” right? It’s just that. So that’s… it’s kind of the game that I… I play with myself mentally. And I know I’m going to fail it because whenever I play the game, I’m like, “Ah! The most important thing was MAKING CHEESE or like this very deep and profound thing that I had no idea about!”
J. Rohrer: Right, I’m… I also have a family, so that’s the other side of it for me, right? It’s kind of the point, right? Like we’re we us as individuals or not the end, right? But the only way that this whole thing keeps going is through the next generation and the people who are coming after us. And every single one of us is the child of a parent, right? And so it’s… it’s a universal human experience. A lot of those children or parents choose… some of them choose not to breed, but I feel like that choice is sort of breaking this chain of meaning that everybody is part of because they were all children, you know? And so, for me, when I had children, it really helped to kind of bring me full circle and understand my place in the bigger picture because childhood is so important to almost everybody that I’ve ever talked to… those parental figures, right? Are like these… almost like mythical figures in our childhood, right? Even… whether they’re good or bad, when you think about how you perceived your parents when you’re a little kid, they really almost are not like God like, right? Maybe they’re angry gods, throwing lightning bolts and physical abuse at you or maybe they’re benevolent gods or maybe they’re in… somewhere in the middle authoritarian or whatever. But they’re… they’re… your memories of them and seeing them as these giant people who were caring for you is… is like a huge part of what it is to be human. And when you come full circle by having your own children, suddenly you realized you’re just that figure in your child’s life; that’s all you are, right? You’re not the… you’re not this… you’re not the show any more. (Laughs)
Sim: Of course. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: You’re just a character; you’re a character in somebody else’s show.
J. Rohrer: You know, a very important one that is eventually going to maybe be remembered fondly when you pass, right? But there… that show is going to go on, right? And this like proof positive and the fact that, you know, “I’ve got this teenager, he’s got a life, he’s got friends, he’s got ambitions and goals and dreams and hopes and everything. And I’m just this guy in his life; I’m one of his characters, right?
J. Rohrer: Yeah, you’re the support. (Laughs)
J. Rohrer: Yeah. And so… so I think that… that coming full circle like that is really… you know, and all these people came before us, your parents and grandparents and great grandparents, great parents, they all had children. And I think that, you know, skipping out on that, it… so it’s ending with my relationship with my children and how I think about my children and that’s the other kind of big part of like what I’m sort of thinking about with where I’m going with my life or what I’d like to accomplish in my life is…
Sim: What matters with you.
J. Rohrer: Yeah.
Sim: As your focus and attention.
J. Rohrer: Yeah. So it’s sort of like 50/50; I mean, I guess I’d like it to be 50/50. I think my career at certain points like really dominates, right? Because like, you know, “I’ve got a game, it just launched! Our families depending on it for… for income,” you know, “We’re trying to buy… save up to buy a house in California.” (Laughs)
Sim: Of course, yes.
J. Rohrer: Yeah, “Here’s the 16-hour day. Did my… was I a good parent during that day? I wasn’t even… I was sitting up a computer answering tech support emails,” right? (Laughs)
Sim: Well, as long as… yes that’s… that’s a conflict that I believe like most people go through. And you tried to make a point, even with simplicity in other things, of trying to balance and at least consciously confront that. Alright, Jason Rohrer, thank you so much for being with… with Hoomans today. It’s just me, it’s not ‘us’; I was about to say, “With us,” it’s just me, Simone.
J. Rohrer: Well, and it’s the audience.
Sim: It’s the audience, true; whoever is listening. Thank you, Jason, for being here.
J. Rohrer: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.