If the makers of “Call of Duty” are the Michael Bay of video games, Jason Rohrer says he’s the Lars von Trier.
Rohrer’s games are artsy; his popular 2007 game “Passage” is featured in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But he swears his projects are commercial. He makes his games to be purchased and played.
“I’m operating outside of the realm of fine art,” he swears.
Despite that claim, Rohrer’s works are the subject of the new exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. The Davis says that “The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer” — which opened Wednesday — is the “first museum retrospective dedicated to the work of a single video game maker.” Rohrer was in town for the Davis’s opening-night celebration.
Games on display include Rohrer’s puzzle-based “Primrose”; the strategy game “Diamond Trust of London”; “Inside a Star-Filled Sky,” which Rohrer has related to Hindu cosmology; and “Cordial Minuet,” a game that requires real money. Rohrer said that if you play, you stand to lose $20.
Rohrer said his games should appeal to grown-ups. After a certain age, he felt like he had run out of video games that interested him, so he designed games that would be fun for a user like himself — a 30-something with children. One of those games was “Passage,” which was his third release. The game has you traveling through a five-minute course that symbolizes life’s obstacles. At the end of the game, you die.
“The world in ‘Passage’ is infinite. As you head east, you’ll find an endless expanse of constantly changing landscape, and you are rewarded for your exploration,” Rohrer has written about the game. “However, even if you spent your entire lifetime exploring, you’d never have a chance to see everything that there is to see. If you spend your time plumbing the depths of the maze, however, you will only see a tiny fraction of the scenery.”
Rohrer said “Passage” took off just as critic Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games could not be art. (Ebert subsequently changed his mind about offering his opinion on the matter.)
“ ‘Passage’ came out right in the eye of the storm,” Rohrer said, of the debate, adding that like classic art, his game affected people’s emotions.
“I guess it made a lot of people cry,” he said.
You can play the game — and have a good cry — at passage.toolness.org.
“The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer,” curated by Mike Maizels, is up through June 26. Special events include a game night with a DJ and cash bar on April 21.