Arthouse Games
Interview: Rod Humble
by jcr13Wednesday, March 28, 2007 [8:19 am] Rod Humble is the creator of the recently-released artgame The Marriage, which was featured at EGW this year. Rod has been employed in the game industry since 1990. He has worked on over 200 different games, including The Humans, Brutal, and EverQuest. He currently works for Electronic Arts as Head of Sims Studio. Rod paints in his spare time (see below for a sample).

The following interview was conducted by email on March 25, 2007.

Jason Rohrer: Over the past week, hundreds of reactions to The Marriage have been posted across the blogosphere. How do you feel about the reactions? Do the reactions change your perception of the success or failure of your game?

Rod Humble: Yes, it's been surprising just how much interest there has been. I think there is a hunger out there for something like this, whether you liked my game or not I think that's good news for the medium. The reactions were much more positive than I thought, the gaming community in particular was far kinder and encouraging than I expected.

The amount of people who immediately understood and liked the game was larger than I had imagined, their main criticism was that they felt my explanations were unduly detailed. I stand by the decision to include the explanation however as I think it helped some folks understand my intent and I didn't think it was fair just to leave them without explanation. I was surprised to see how easily non gamers just accepted it, that shook a lot of my notions of non gamers and should give hope to other creators I think. When you make a game and see it getting picked up on marriage guidance sites and relationship bulletin boards then your eyes are opened up to just how far games can grow as a business and as an art form.

I also appreciated how many opposing critics noted that they didn't like it but they respected it, a creative person can't ask to be treated better than that.

So the reactions have definitely changed my opinion of the games success or failure for the better and encouraged me to do more. I am grateful to so many people taking the time to give it such a fair shot whether they liked it or not.

JR: In your game, the female grows when she contacts the male, but the male shrinks in response to this "together time." The male only grows in reaction to outside stimulation, and in fact, he will shrink down to nothing without it. On the other hand, the female can survive without any outside stimulation at all. These mechanics seem carry an analysis about the different needs of men and women in a relationship (to couch it bluntly in a traditional cultural context, "the woman needs nothing but her man, but the man needs to spend time away from her with his career or golf or sports car or computers or fishing or whatever else to be happy"). Is this reading of the mechanics accurate? Did you have any reservations about expressing a potentially controversial message?

RH: You have the mechanics right but your interpretation is one of the two common negative ones. Another common negative interpretation I have had (from husbands mainly) is that the blue square appears to be a servant whose only real function is to feed the pink squares ego, to be blunt he is "under the thumb". My intent when creating the central mechanic was to create such multiple interpretations but the central point was the Marriage, that if both needs were not satisfied the Marriage dies. In other words, love is satisfying different needs. For myself I do need "alone time" as well as "together time" but not one exclusively and the games rules were a way of exploring that.

What I have learned from this as a game designer is that the first mechanics you show define everything that follows, the power of that initial impact between the two squares and your reaction to it defines how you look at the rest of the game. It didn't realize this before and its instructive going forward.

JR: In A Theory of Fun, Koster suggests that art games can carry their deeper expressions in their gameplay. He envisions game mechanics that are open to multiple play styles, where a player's choice of a particular play style would be analogous to a viewer's choice of interpretation when watching an art film. With The Marriage, you have demonstrated that we can also make art by using game mechanics as metaphor directly. This pulls us away from Koster's idea about play styles and back towards the notion (and necessity) of player/viewer interpretation. Why did you chose the "mechanics as metaphor" approach? Have you considered other approaches to making art with games?

RH: I think it reveals just how rich the field can be because I agree with Raph's suggestion too. There are many other avenues I would like to explore after game rules and structure. In particular I think that text based games have been under valued. I also have been experimenting with non computer games (such as dice games) to see just how few rules I need to make something meaningful. Games are such a deep art form because they can have the author's intent and the audience's actions as part of the same experience. Some have viewed this as a limitation; I think it's a strength. The only way it could be considered a limitation is if you were to attempt to simulate another art form's primary method of expression using games, that's why I am attempting to strip away as far as possible the foundations of what games' methods of expression can be. If the games rules and structure can be one strong element of the art form's meaning then all the rest can be built in harmony with it.

I am not suggesting that all games have to use rules and structure messaging to be a meaningful art form but I hope it adds another tool to use as well as being a stand alone art form.

JR: And the question that everyone wants to ask: What does your wife think of the game?

RH: Ah! She was amused this question came up and is happy for me to talk about it. She didn't like the central mechanic when she first saw it at all, although she has always loved the end game and meta game which she thought was very romantic. Ever since the game has been released though and she has seen the emails from husbands who have said they thought it was so romantic they went home and bought their wife some flowers or wives who felt they understood and loved their husbands just a little more her opinion has changed to one of total joy (and to my dismay surprise that a game was capable of such things). Given that my wife really doesn't like computer games at all (to the point of not particularly approving of my career) the fact that she is actually proud of this one has probably made our marriage better in a little way in the years to come.

JR: Games are are clearly a sub-field of interactive media. Why focus on "art games" instead of the more general realm of "interactive art" (as suggested by the Realtime Art Manifesto)?

RH: To me the distinction is obsolete. We desperately need a great critic or philosopher to emerge and make sense of the muddle, that person will probably be more important than any single artist.

I picked game rules because I believe they are powerful artistic tools which have not yet been fully used.

The Real Time Art Manifesto is not for me I am afraid. It mistakes technology for invention, places combination art above pure art and insists that games rules cannot be art. You can imagine that as someone who makes art using game rules as the fundamental message, who believes that art is ever more inclusive not exclusive and who thinks instrumental music is as good as opera, I don't much care for it, and I doubt they will care for my work either. However manifestos are judged by the work they inspire in their authors and others, not whether they are factually correct, so it may yet lead to a work of interest. I look forward to seeing what they can come up with.

JR: How do you distinguish a game from a non-game?

RH: Wittgenstein couldn't figure that one out so I think it's worth treading carefully here. I think that games have rules, but who makes them, when they are made, what their limits are and how they change is a longer discussion to which I don't have a complete answer. I would be interested in what Juul and Bogost would have to say in answer to that question as they are evolving thinking on the matter.

JR: Do you have plans for your next personal game project that you can share with us?

RH: Sure, I now have two. The first is a game about power politics and identity, I am struggling with it. The second I started last week as I was reading some of the responses to The Marriage and the discussion of what is and isn't art. It's a game which takes as its starting point the fact that the oldest games we know are far older than the oldest music we know. So I am taking an ancient piece of music and translating its message into game rules, or at least trying to. I have no idea if either of them are going to be completed or if it's even possible but I am enjoying the process and that's what counts.

JR: Some observers peg the peak of video games, as an art form, in the 1980s---during the so-called "Golden Era" of arcade games. Back then, lone creators, or perhaps very small teams, crafted some very novel games (Dona Bailey's Centipede and Toru Iwatani's Pac-Man come to mind). Do you feel that artistically-valuable games can be made by the huge development teams present in the industry today? Do they somehow hold an advantage, perhaps in terms of the sheer volume of high-quality content that they can generate? How can lone creators, such as yourself, compete artistically?

RH: I think computer games have had an embarrassment of riches with each new year bringing new technology wonders. With my work at home I have purposely started back at the beginning so I can retrace the steps seeing if we missed anything on the way. I am an optimist when it comes to these things. I think we are both in a golden age of independent development and the beginning of a long boom of big budget games, I think both can succeed as art and/or as a business.

JR: Can you give us a one-sentence definition of art? In other words, how do you differentiate works of entertainment from works of art?

RH: Entertainment is giving enjoyment to the maximum number of people you can. Art is that which can make at least one person a better human being. Long may they both prosper.

JR: What electronic game do you consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement?

RH: I rather liked your Cultivation actually. I also liked Jon Blow's Raspberry and Raph's Andean Bird. Rather than subject you to lists of dozens of great games that have cycled through my mind while mulling the question I will just pick one I think might have slipped most people by. Floor 13 by Psi published by Virgin.

JR: Rod was kind enough to send us one of his paintings, entitled Humanity and Nature:


[Submit Comment]
by CorvusWednesday, March 28, 2007 [9:30 am]

Thanks for a great interview!


by Michael SamynWednesday, March 28, 2007 [2:29 pm]

Look forward no more, Mr Humble: The Endless Forest is free to download! It illustrates many things in our manifesto and inspired others. It's also very romantic. :-)


by PatrickWednesday, March 28, 2007 [5:34 pm]

This is great material Jason, keep up the good work!


by MichalFriday, March 30, 2007 [11:11 am]

I enjoyed reading this interview, and I think it's a great thing for all of us to keep the discussion alive.

I've written an additional post addressing some of the recent developments on this topic. Feedback is always appreciated :D.


by Christopher J. RockFriday, April 27, 2007 [12:58 am]

Good interview, good questions. Good thinking. Good.

I . . . feel I should do something.


by ChrisFriday, June 8, 2007 [3:28 pm]

My comments here.

It was refreshing running into your site this morning. Keep the posts coming.


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