By Jason Fagone
"Jason Rohrer is known as much for his eccentric lifestyle as for the brilliant, unusual games he designs. He lives mostly off the grid in the desert town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. He doesn’t own a car or believe in vaccination. The 33-year-old works out of a home office, typing code in a duct-taped chair. He takes his son Mez to gymnastics and acting class on his lime-green recumbent bicycle, and on weekends he paints with his son Ayza. (He got Mez’s name from a license plate, and Ayza’s by mixing up Scrabble tiles.)
On the morning of February 24, Rohrer took a break from coding and pedaled to the local Best Buy. He paid $19.99 for a 4-gigabyte USB memory stick sheathed in black plastic. The next day he sanded off the memory stick’s logos, giving it a brushed-metal texture that reminded him of something out of Mad Max. Then, using his kids’ acrylics, he painted a unique pattern on both sides, a chain of dots that resembled a piece of Aboriginal art he had seen.
The stick would soon hold a videogame unlike any other ever created. It would exist on the memory stick and nowhere else. According to a set of rules defined by Rohrer, only one person on earth could play the game at a time. The player would modify the game’s environment as they moved through it. Then, after the player died in the game, they would pass the memory stick to the next person, who would play in the digital terrain altered by their predecessor—and on and on for years, decades, generations, epochs. In Rohrer’s mind, his game would share many qualities with religion—a holy ark, a set of commandments, a sense of secrecy and mortality and mystical anticipation. This was the idea, anyway, before things started to get weird. Before Chain World, like religion itself, mutated out of control.
Rohrer unveiled Chain World at the 2011 Game Design Challenge, held on March 4 at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The design challenge is essentially a contest: Three game designers compete to make a videogame that does some crazily ambitious thing that a videogame is not supposed to be able to do, like tell a love story or win the Nobel Peace Prize. The designers get about six weeks to come up with a concept or prototype based on a theme chosen by the organizers, and then they get 15 minutes to pitch it to a live audience. Whoever receives the most applause is declared the winner. The challenge is a way for the best minds in the field to flaunt their chops, as well as a marker of how rapidly games have evolved. When game designer Eric Zimmerman launched the first challenge seven years ago, a videogame was typically made by a team of artists and coders at a large company like Electronic Arts; it had guns and 3-D breasts, and you played it on a PC or a console. Today there are numerous indie game festivals where people like Rohrer—auteurs who work solo or in small groups and whose games might be conceptually innovative, personal, or simply bizarre—discuss how videogames can become the great art form of the 21st century.
The challenge is the one place where people from the two sides of the industry meet every year to battle as equals. The winner of the inaugural challenge, in 2004, was Will Wright of SimCity/Sims fame; his love-story game twisted an ordinary World War II shooter into a “first-person kisser.” Last year’s champion hailed from the indie world: Jenova Chen, the designer behind the trippy, zenlike games flOw and Flower, took the prize for a concept he called HeavenVille, a sort of stock market that measures the social currency of dead people...."