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The strange, sad anxiety of Jason Rohrer's  The Castle Doctrine

The strange, sad anxiety of Jason Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine Exclusive

August 6, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

August 6, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

The Castle Doctrine, on its surface, is a game about home defense. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander digs deeper into the game's context in this interview with the designer, Jason Rohrer.

"There's a part of me that's fantasized about being a protector, ever since I was a little kid," Jason Rohrer tells me in a tight, conflicted voice. "But I'm not a well-suited man for that purpose. I'm very thin. I'm weak. I'm gentle, and I'm not aggressive."

To my mind Rohrer's always been a quick speaker, urgent with ideas, endlessly effervescent, continually smiling, possessed of a sagelike quality that piqued Esquire magazine to write a profile on him some five years ago.

The magazine took special note of his unusual family life among tall wildflowers in upstate New York and his $14,500 per year total income, cobbled together from donations, patronage and small consulting fees springing from Passage, an iconic little game he made in 2008. He was one of the first creators of expressive, individual games to make the mainstream media take notice, even if his suggestion that one could cry at a video game was treated as odd at the time.

Despite the "freakishly tall" man's towheaded-boy cheer, though, all of Rohrer's games have been born from incredible anxiety and fear. Passage is a game about the inevitability of death, reportedly made after he watched an elderly neighbor waste away of cancer despite the fact she endured chemotherapy. Game-making has long been the primary outlet for the 35 year-old creator's existential dread and anxiety about death.

"It still hasn't gone away," he says. "As early as I can remember, I'd be lying in my bed -- five years old, awake thinking about myself dying, my mother dying."

He sounds different to me on the phone today, ebullience conceding to something that sounds like tension, or anxiety. He still laughs a lot, but it seems taut, bowstrung.

"When my family was attacked, everyone around me was looking to me to do something," he says. "I feel like this traditional role is thrust on me from time to time, I feel this... pressure."

The attack -- two years ago, his wife Lauren was set upon by a vicious dog -- seems to have brought Rohrer's omnipresent anxiety about death and his sense of powerlessness against some dark, yawning inevitable to the surface. He began to see the wider world around him, the new neighborhood in which his family was living across the country from their former meadowed New York homestead, as potentially dangerous.

As he often does, Rohrer channeled the anxiety-provoking event into a game, The Castle Doctrine, a game about home defense and burglary. It features his distinctive, abstract pixel art style, but an uncharacteristically-muddy palette. It's also the first game the designer has ever made that has blood in it.


I've talked to Rohrer about angst before -- I was one of the first people to play his Sleep is Death with him, a collaborative storytelling experiment that hinged on the creator being present as the player experienced what he or she created, reacting to the player's behavior in real time. He'd wanted to kill off all the characters he made for me, but adapted one at the last minute at the insistence of my behavior.

I covered his Inside a Star-Filled Sky after he talked at length to me one GDC about his fascination with infinity. When his game design challenge-winning Chain World, a concept about creating spirituality through legacy, stumbled into controversy after his first player tried to auction it for charity and self-promotion, Rohrer was relaxed, fascinated, even, watching the outcome as he would any emergent behavior.

The Castle Doctrine is Rohrer's darkest work yet. Named after the American legal principle by which a person is considered justified in using deadly force against a perceived threat to their home, it has players purchase and assemble modular defense systems and traps and customize their architecture to defend a safe against other players' intrusions. The player, always an iconic male figure, also has a wife and two children, whose safety is also an objective, especially as the wife always flees the home with half its financial assets.

The paranoid aura, the home-security fetishism, is drawn from Rohrer's own recollection of being a child in the 1980s. He describes his father as a "nervous protector" figure, who very much aimed to fulfill the "man of the house" prescription. In his memories, advertisements about new high-tech alarm systems featuring vague masked men alarmed the already anxious, sleepless boy.

Emergency drills were taught in public schools, and Saturday morning cartoons featured public service announcements about playing the correct role in your family's fire escape plan. In 1990, the film Home Alone -- where one little boy heroically defends his house from a pair of bungling crooks through clever traps -- became an enduring Christmas tradition.

But the game's provoked a lot of controversy and discomfort. An interview with UK-based PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun included the notation "[shocked pause, nervous laugh]" on the part of the interviewer (As he loosely identifies as a Libertarian, Rohrer feels the UK-based site felt compelled to sketch him as an "American gun nut.") Academic blogger Cameron Kunzelman attracted social media buzz with a piece where he declared he would not play The Castle Doctrine in protest of its portrayal of family as resources and what he saw as its "apologism" for violence in games.

"A lot of people have said, 'oh, another game where you get to play as Jason Rohrer,' but this is not my family," he says. "It's a game about this relatively-backward tradition, where, as egalitarian as we are, modern men are ... still supposed to turn into some kind of protectors. We like to pretend it doesn't exist, but then something happens that makes it bubble to the surface."

He asks me about who gets the baseball bat if I hear a bump in the night. My boyfriend, I concede.

Rohrer is clearly preoccupied by that perceived social pressure, coupled with his anxiety about whether or not he'd be able to save his family if any threat to them ever appeared again.

"Ever since I was a kid, I had a fantasy of being a warrior, I mean... video games are traditionally these male power fantasies. I've been fed that stuff my whole life," he reflects. "There is a part of me that dreams I would know what to do if we were ever attacked again. In making this game, I was kind of living out that fantasy, a little bit."

"At the same time, I acknowledge it's a fantasy. Even if someone was coming into my house and I was determined to protect my family, I don't think I would be very capable of doing that." Rohrer laughs tautly again. It's a profoundly anxious sound. "I think I'd end up getting us all killed," he adds, still laughing.


Rohrer and his wife Lauren have made a concerted effort to raise their three boys in an environment without gender prescriptions. At the birth of his first child, he asked the midwife not to announce the gender, and as an experiment the couple went weeks before answering family members' urgent questions about it.

The insistent "what is it" inquiries, even from his own mother ("it's a child, Mom, not a puppy") only reinforced to the couple how important it was to avoid social prejudice and prescriptions about gender and to allow his children to come to their identity on their own -- free of the very sort of pressures that made Rohrer feel that when his family was in danger, everyone looked expectantly toward him, fully expecting he define himself by violent retaliation, by a noble defense of the homestead.

One of the game's darker inspirations is the first time Rohrer entered a gun shop and wielded a handgun, in consideration of purchasing one. But neither he nor his wife could get comfortable with the idea: "It was too drastic, too scary, too weird. Like, I'm going to carry this on my hip when I'm picking up my children? I didn't want that... the weird feeling of having a life-and-death machine."

Nor did Rohrer feel it was a good idea for someone as preoccupied with death and with the frailty of the human condition as himself to own a gun. "Far more people commit suicide with their guns every year than, than..." he trails off.

"I'm not particularly depressed or suicidal, but I have a morbid curiosity. With all the weird little thoughts that can pop into your mind, it's like, if I had a loaded gun in my hand, could I trust myself?"


Rohrer decided to put a wife and children into The Castle Doctrine after a nightmare where his family was being attacked and his first concern was their protection.

Why, then, make a game where the family is represented by performative objects, the wife mechanically just an asset, the children meaningless, with nothing to attach the player to them? That the spouse and children are mechanical elements rather than characters has been one of the widest criticisms of the game thus far.

Despite being known as an expressive designer, Rohrer has always left the generation of sentiment, response, to the player's relationship with the mechanics, with symbols, like the traditionally-nuclear family paperdolls from the security commercials of his memories. His games rarely contain any dialogue whatsoever, nor cinema-influenced framing or music geared at provoking emotion.

In his view, if he'd built in narrative elements, poignantly enhanced the vulnerability to the family, made them real, how sustaining would that relationship be after playing the game across hundreds of the short, mechanically-tense test chamber-like sessions it serves? How could players who just want to win, who don't think about meaning, be enjoined to defend their families?

"My belief is that if you build mechanics that make someone carry out a behavior pattern for long enough -- if you make them pretend to care, they'll end up caring," he says. "As a designer, I'm interested in how we can create feelings of attachment without resorting to monologuing and things like that."

"And I think it's working: If someone's wife is killed, people spend extra game resources to create a shrine to her. I like people leveraging these things in an emergent way, using brutal, ugly pits and windows and little walls to make a shrine."

"In the end, I don't think the way that I did it is all that objectionable, gender-wise. You're a no-good bum who goes around burglarizing people, and your wife is the one bringing home most of the money from the job she has. She doesn't talk, but nobody talks. I don't think I can make a game from a female perspective, and if I tried I think everyone would get angry at me. I think I can only make a game from my perspective."

What does Lauren think? "She hasn't played it," says Rohrer. "She thinks the violence is too disturbing, on top of our recent experiences."


When Rohrer's family lived in upstate New York, he had to go to court because he refused to cut the grass around his house to a prescribed height of ten inches. He fought the town ordinance and won. "I like nature," he says. "I wanted to have a wildflower meadow around my home, with native plants, and that wasn't hurting anybody else."

Rohrer also protested painful at-birth tests required before his children could have birth certificates. "The only way out was to say I had a religious objective, and it wasn't 'religious,' and I didn't want to lie, but at the same time, I'm not going to let them cut my baby's heel open."

What happened? "Finally, they gave us a birth certificate," he laughs. "What it really boils down to for most of the political thinking that I do... is that as someone who is very self-directed, and as someone who likes making my own decisions, it really bothers me when I'm forced by someone outside my world to make a decision that I don't want to make."

The issues The Castle Doctrine explores are complex enough that conversations about whether to see the game as either staunchly advocating a political stance or as strictly criticizing one frustrates him.

"I don't think it's black-and-white for anyone who's ever been in a situation where they're faced with protecting small children or a pregnant spouse... I don't even understand, necessarily, what this is about, I just needed to make this," he says. "It's not really logical. It sticks you in this mess, and lets you grapple with it. Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing? Isn't that what meaningful expression does?"


It feels somewhat strange to Rohrer to have made people angry, but not entirely unexpected. Up until now, he says, most of the anger his work attracted came from the mainstream industry perspective that his little, often provocative experimental games were "pretentious."

"It made me feel like I wasn't grappling with weighty enough stuff. The other artists I respect are making work that irritates me. My spouse warned me not to go all Super Columbine Massacre or JFK Reloaded, 'because then you'll be known as this guy who did this one controversial thing, and that'll be it.' She was saying, 'Oh, this game will get you cast out or something.' At the same time I wanted to step up to the plate, and tackle an uncomfortable thing."

"It felt right to make a game where I feel weird about someone looking over my shoulder as I play it. It's creepy, which to me means it works on an aesthetic level. And it's about a controversial issue, but it's an important issue. The question of self-defense isn't going to go away anytime soon, and it's a strange one in the world of video games, where we've each killed, like, 10,000 or more virtual people in our day."

It's a little painful for him to feel unwanted, and judged by people who haven't played the game, who don't know him or his family -- especially, he says many of his family's lifestyle choices, like their wild meadow or their long-haired sons, have made it hard for them to feel they fit in to begin with. Rohrer supposes people feel like he's somehow violated the set subject matter about which indies are allowed to make games, by veering too far into certain politics.

"It's like 'we don't want to see any more games from a white male perspective.' So, 'okay, you heard too much from me, I guess I'll go get a job at Best Buy.'"

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