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Navigating the Sell Out: Jason Rohrer's "Idealism"

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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Jason Rohrer's at it again, with a fascinating little game that has a lot more to say than its primitive layout would imply.

What can we learn from Idealism?  For one, there’s more to Jason Rohrer than Passage, and there’s more to The Escapist than Zero Punctuation.


Of course, a lot of folks already know this; The Escapist has quickly become a hotspot for intelligent commentary on the gaming medium, and this is actually Rohrer’s second project for the magazine after the mindbuster that was Perfectionism.  Rohrer has taken up residence at The Escapist, it seems, and both Perfectionism and Idealism can be found there.


Idealism is a fascinating little game, especially when put next to Perfectionism.  For one, both were created in Game Maker, a framework and scripting language for game creation (to seriously oversimplify its capabilities), which may partially account for the similarities in presentation.  Both games are presented on a solid black background, using simple shapes and sprites evoking the graphics of the Atari 2600, and both games start out as incredibly simple exercises in button-pushing and turn into head-scratching mindbenders as they progress.  They are both decidedly brief experiences, but both can be returned to and approached in a variety of ways.


What Rohrer likes to do, however, is infuse his games with some sort of symbolic value, and this is where the contrast between Perfectionism and Idealism starts to take shape.  Where Perfectionism was largely motivated by introspection—namely, Rohrer’s need to go over and over and over his work until it’s exactly the way he wants it—Idealism seems motivated by an observation on the industry.  As Rohrer himself puts it in his own explanation of the game, “What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?”  It’s the classic design conundrum, and it happens in games, in music, in art, and in literature, popularly known as the sell out.  How far can an idealistic worldview take you in your outlet of choice, and what would it take for you to compromise those ideals?


The way that Rohrer goes about exploring these ideals is fascinating.  The primitive means used to force the player into making these decisions is perfect, as the presentation never distracts from the issues at hand.  Without wanting to give too much away, Rohrer has encapsulated his moral quandary in a shooter that can move as quickly or as slowly as the user wants.  The decision to “sell out” can be a quick, split-second decision, or it can be a calculated, strategic move. 


What I wonder, however, is what point Rohrer is trying to make when he ramps up the difficulty so far at one point as to make the game nearly unplayable.  Perhaps he’s making the point of how meaningless the choice ultimately is; perhaps he just likes the number 23.  If anyone out there in game land can get through the point I’m talking about here (and you will know it when you see it), I hope you leave a comment and tell me what happens.


So?  What are you waiting for?  It’s free!  And it’ll probably run on your old 486 (don’t quote me on that).  Go and give it a look.

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