Developer Interview: Jason Roberts

Jason Roberts needs little introduction. A famed luminary in the indie space, Jason Roberts released one of the finest puzzle games to date in 2017. Gorogoa, Roberts’s critically acclaimed masterpiece, is a visionary puzzler elevated by sublime hand-drawn illustrations. Before and after its release, Gorogoa collected a number of award nominations and wins for its intelligent, distinctive gameplay and its intimate, haunting aesthetic. No matter the platform it’s on, no matter the player at hand, Gorogoa shines as a lone star of inspiration in a crowded sky of flickering lights. We spoke with Jason Roberts about his work on Gorogoa, his past, and what lies ahead for the creator of a game so rightly beloved and revered.Buried Signal

|| Can you give us an overview of your personal story? We know you’re the mastermind behind Gorogoa, but the deep-cut lore is what we’re after. Where are you from, where have you been, and what are you currently most proud of about your journey?

My father was a wildlife biologist who worked as a forest ranger for much of my childhood, and my mother was a world traveler, working in international health education. But I was a comparatively boring child, living mostly inside my own head. Much less outwardly adventurous than my parents.

Then for a long time, nothing happened. I thought computers seemed interesting. They were a novelty back then. So I went to school to study that. I worked in the tech industry for over a decade, even if my heart wasn’t in it. During that time I never seriously considered doing anything creative for a living. In fact, I considered myself incapable of finishing a creative project. I filled up notebooks with half-formed ideas. Since I never expected those ideas to go anywhere, I never had to do the hard work of shaping them into something real.

Then around 2008 the modern wave of indie games began, and a game coded and illustrated by one person suddenly seemed feasible. And in fact it occurred to me that maybe I was uniquely suited to do just that. It still took four years of hand-wringing and filling up more notebooks before I got up the nerve to quit my job and work full time on the game. But I won’t say I’m proud of that decision because it was at least partly foolish. What I’m most proud of is simply finishing the game, no matter what came after (and even if it took a lot of help from others to get me over the finish line).

|| What prompted you to choose video games over your other passions when deciding to develop Gorogoa? You’re clearly a remarkable artist, and we hear you considered other avenues of storytelling and visual media before landing on this form. Why a video game, and, if given the chance to do it all again, would you travel this path over the others once more?

It was never a matter of choosing video games over other passions, because video games, or at least the kind I’m interested in making, are the intersection of all my passions. They involve visual art, coding, puzzle design, architecture, world-building, storytelling etc. It’s true that I once wanted to be a writer, and so far my designs don’t have any words in them, but they could if I wanted them to! And maybe someday they will. Many amazing games consist of nothing but words. So yes, I’d do it over again every time!

|| You’ve previously emphasized the necessity for “awkwardness” in great games. What first inspired you to explore this style of game development? Was there a game embodying your philosophy that spurred your initial work on Gorogoa, or is this a philosophy born of your own development process?

Hmm. What did I mean by that? I hope I didn’t say that any one quality is a “necessity” for great games. If so, I renounce that statement.

I think I was saying that it’s productive for some games to explore “awkward” design terrain, i.e. terrain that is lumpy and seemingly inhospitable, where the going isn’t smooth. Obviously if you’re poking into some design or thematic idea it’s because you see some potential there, but it may feel like each incremental step in developing that idea only comes after an arduous stumbling slog, and it never really gets easier. That’s not always a sign that you’re poking in the wrong direction, was my point (I think). The strangest and most exciting visions may be lurking out in the most rugged wilderness.

But I think I only realized this in retrospect, after I finished the game. I wasn’t trying to emulate the design process of another game. But I’m sure there are many other examples. I can only imagine that a game like Return of the Obra Dinn, for example, given its novel structure and complex mystery, might have felt like that kind of jagged design terrain. I’m just guessing though.

|| Is Gorogoa’s storytelling and symbology intentionally abstract, or is there a clear underlying narrative which players can and should parse over one or more playthroughs? Is Gorogoa’s story meant to be a unique journey for every player to individually interpret, or is the same message waiting for everyone? If the latter, what is that message—what is that story?

I’ve said before that the feeling I was trying to capture with Gorogoa was most inspired by a puzzle book (“Maze” by Christopher Manson) that I never solved as a child, and then stopped trying to solve as an adult, because I was worried that solving the mystery would partly ruin the magic. However, it would also ruin the magic if I learned that the book’s central puzzle had no solution, and that its pages were filled with clues designed to hint at meaning without actually containing any.

So the story and imagery in the game needed to have meaning, not so that the player can easily find that meaning, but so that their faith in it is justified. I had a story and chronology in mind, but left it intentionally jumbled the way that memories are jumbled. Piecing it together is like mulling over a box of personal effects found in a field, or a handful of frescoes on the remaining walls of a ruined chapel. The fragments are connected in some narrative sense, but because they float loose, the mind can recombine them and splice them into new patterns of meaning. That’s one of the thematic ideas underlying the game: that the vivid moments from our life story that stand out strangely in our memory might also belong to a different axis of meaning, like a letter in an acrostic that belongs simultaneously to two different words.

|| What moment stands out the most from the years you spent developing Gorogoa, and what moment from the years after? Why were they significant to you?

The most impactful moment during development was when I arrived at IndieCade in 2012, after being nominated for one of the awards there. Before submitting the game I’d worked on it almost entirely alone, only showing it to two people in advance.

What was most astonishing and encouraging about IndieCade that year was not just the attention that the game received. Just as important was the discovery of the large and welcoming creative community surrounding game development. That community made me feel like I was part of something, like I was an artist. I’d never had anything like that before.

|| Do you have plans for future indie titles? If so, will they likely be in the same vein as Gorogoa, or will you explore other avenues of gameplay? If you aren’t planning on making more games, why?

I am working on something now. It clearly shares some DNA with Gorogoa, because Gorogoa was for me just one corner of a larger design space, and an incomplete realization of the designs I’ve been thinking about for decades. I’m interested in making a game that is one giant visual composition, a sprawling interactive collage that’s both a precise cosmic diagram and a beautiful ornament.

|| You’ve won a trip to study and practice art in any country you desire for a month. What country do you travel to, what kind of art do you choose, and what game are you taking with you to keep you otherwise occupied?

This is very specific, but if it turns out there’s a very secluded old monastery in the Orkney islands that was converted to a submarine observation post during the second world war, but was so secret that only one set of records about it was kept, and those records were lost in The Blitz, and maps of the surrounding islands were printed with deliberate errors to further obscure the monastery’s location, and those errors kept getting copied from map to map over the years, and now no one remembers the little island was ever there, and the monastery includes a still-intact library tower filled with illuminated manuscripts that have never been studied, and a lone sonar operator spent years on the island carefully decoding and writing down the meaning of what he thought were encrypted German communications, but were in fact whale songs. That would be a lovely place to go for a while. As for what game I would bring: maybe Holedown?