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'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

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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