Reviews

'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' Is an Insightful Look at the Work of a Key Voice in Gaming

This book contextualizes the merit of Rohrer's work as artful explorations beyond the designer's own point of view.


The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer

Publisher: MIT Press
Length: 96 pages
Authors: Michael Maizels, Patrick Jagoda
Price: $34.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-01
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While the videogame medium lies short of a half-century in its commercial history, the art game movement remains a still younger concept. Journey by thatgamecompany and others are slowly moving this nouveau, initially shapeless cloud to something more in the composition of an accepted (though still contrarian) standard, where distilled mechanics and holistic design philosophies seek to build connection rather than innovate graphically.

Among those taking the experimental as a dedicated path is Jason Rohrer, whose work has been celebrated for upending conventional approaches to game design through a focus on emergent gameplay and existential applications. The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, published by MIT Press, is the print companion piece to an exhibition currently on display at the Davis Museum (until 26 June) that showcases the designer's creations, which are many and varied.

In chronicling his wares, the book sets about establishing what makes Rohrer a revolutionary figure in the independent game development space, and why his games deserve further study. Nearly a decade of work is covered: each game has its own title spread featuring enlarged imagery and detailed descriptions, along with (barring one exception) secondary pages of screenshots showing different gameplay phases. For example, in representing Passage -- one of Rohrer's most well-known creations and also featured in the Museum of Modern Art -- the game's true-to-life progressive stages are relayed with completeness in the eight depictions selected. The three-paragraph blurb that precedes this pictorial montage explains Passage both on a gameplay front and from the standpoint of its interpretive layering. And it's all cleanly presented.

This direction is largely universal, although there are times when the book's writers -- exhibition curator Michael Maizels and game studies professor Patrick Jagoda -- show a small margin of restraint to allow for player discovery. Rohrer's games often encourage players to formulate their own interpretations, so if treating The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer as more than a cursory overview, that aspect of unprompted learning may be tampered with, to a certain extent.

Predominantly emphasized is how Rohrer's works function beyond traditional escapism and mediations of fantasy and realism, with re-creations of social scenarios (as with the transparently named Police Brutality) and involving games of ethical conflict (channeled by the bribery-focused Diamond Trust of London). And it's not all virtual: A Game for Someone is an outlier for its physical format, envisioned as a pseudo-time capsule to be discovered in the distant future, either by accident or via a collective effort of testing hundreds of generated coordinates (a set of these are printed on the book's final page).

Some may be unconvinced when considering the likes of Primrose, a simplistic puzzle game with deceptively strategic implications. In these cases, the adjoining commentary has a compulsory role in pinpointing, on a grander scale, the planes that Rohrer strives for in his personal design philosophy, such as how the hurried affair of Gravitation is really a multi-layered statement on ambition, sacrifice, and burnout. The language feels overly highbrow in places, but to be fair, it's somewhat a reflection of the serious tone guiding the associated works and does more to create a clear consistency than it harms the book's reach.

The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer is bookended by essays and interviews on how the designer's work pushes for intellectual stimulation and emotional engagement, and it's thanks to the included pieces where Rohrer is either postulating on his dissatisfaction with the medium (in the reprint, “Beyond Our Grasp”) or reflecting on his playtesting experiences (as in the concluding interview), that the reader is provided with an insightful picture to complement the thinking evidenced in his games.

Next to the fascinating takeaways shared in that same interview, one of the book’s best moments is when it shifts perspectives to someone who has actually consumed Rohrer's work. By challenging the technical boundaries and depth of (primarily) The Castle Doctrine, one player (Joshua Collins) did for Rohrer what some developers dream of achieving -- dialogue between player and creator. More than featuring Rohrer's creations and their understated inspirations, this is where the book's rationale is best seen, contextualizing the merit of Rohrer's work as artful explorations beyond the designer's own point of view.

For mapping the game designer's accomplishments in a manner that shows equal respect to process and execution, The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer succeeds as a standalone compendium, conveying theory and artistic expression grounded in purpose, and doing so without fluff. More than a functional archive, the book presents ideas that encourage a mindset along the same level of Rohrer's creations, which is in itself a professional treatment of the material. It's an insightful look at the work of a key voice in gaming.

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This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.

For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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