Alt-Play: Jason Rohrer Anthology Review
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Real art style
Jason Rohrer has made a name for himself in the art game sphere with numerous small and thought-provoking PC games. To kick off their Alt-Play compilation series, Sabarasa has pulled together a collection of three of his most notable releases so far in the Jason Rohrer Anthology: Passage, Gravitation and Between. While DSiWare patrons have come across the man’s work before by way of puzzler Primrose, the three titles bundled here are significantly less “game-y” in premise.
Passage is the most straightforward of the bunch, where you take control of an avatar and navigate an elongated maze for your five-minute life until you suddenly and without warning drop dead. It doesn’t sound like much, but the narrow playing field (seemingly no more than a dozen pixels high), shifting perspective and other limitations all come together for a memorable experience.
Gravitation is a bit more subtle and at the same time contains more of what you might call gameplay, but as expected the gameplay itself isn’t the primary draw. Your avatar, in this case Rohrer himself, begins at the bottom of a large vertical platforming structure, with a playful child on the one side and a furnace on the other. Your field of view reflects a mood of sorts and varies in size, and as it grows and shrinks your jumps are more powerful or limp, respectively, and the surrounding world turns either warm or cold. When your mood is at its peak, your head will burst into flames. Playing with the child (named Mez, who is Rohrer’s son) will increase your mood and thus your jump and view space, which helps you jump out of the bottom room and into the platforming area. Littered among the platforms are stars, which must first be reached in order to send them below to the bottom level and then pushed into the furnace to achieve any sort of score. It becomes an exercise in prioritization and, seemingly, its effects on balancing creativity and work with family.
Between is a multiplayer-only game for two where you construct colored towers. It’s not a direct cooperative game, though, in the sense that it’s not crystal clear from the outset that you and the other player are even working together, or that there even is a second player. But slowly you see the effects and changes they have on your end, and it’s a pretty unique feeling to realize that someone is out there.
While the impact for each game plays out largely the same on a DS, Between unfortunately suffers a bit in the transition from computer to ad hoc multiplayer. Part of the magic comes from not communicating with each other, or even knowing whether or not someone else is on the other end, but when forced to play in the same room the illusion breaks a bit. Of course, you could argue that knowing that someone else is out there in the first place may cause a loss of luster, but playing with a stranger online with no communication is different than rounding up a buddy with a DS in the same room.
These aren’t games you play competitively, to rack up high scores or even necessarily more than twice. What they are, though, are unique, sometimes fascinating experiments that push the medium to places it typically doesn’t go. And the above, mechanical descriptions don’t really do the games justice for what they strive to do because what that is needs to be experienced for yourself in order to get the most out of them.
This anthology does a nice job of tying the works together in a pleasing way and providing supplemental information for each game, including notes from Rohrer to provide a little more insight into what they strive to do. These notes weren’t written specifically for this anthology, though, and are the same as can be found on his Web site along with the games in question, all free of charge and available for Windows, Macs and Linux machines. A bit more behind-the-scenes stuff would have been nice for this little compilation, but it delivers enough little extras for its price.
Nothing here really benefits terribly from being playable on the go, and when the games themselves are available for free for hardware you most likely already have, paying an admittedly modest 200 Nintendo Points for this anthology seems like a curious proposal. However, the experiences are undoubtedly unique and worth paying a small amount for, if only to support the continued creation of medium-exploring software, as there is nothing else like it on the handheld.