Of cannibals and time travelers: a conversation with Zach Gage

March 25, 2016 by Kris Ligman

New York-based artist and independent developer Zach Gage has dabbled in everything from punishing survival games (Tharsis) to funny mobile titles (Ridiculous Fishing). We just couldn't resist asking him about a few secrets (other than the fact he's from the future).

As I sit down with Zach Gage on the last day of the Game Developers Conference, he's absorbed in a game on his iPad. He apologizes for starting the interview off like this but he just needs to finish this match, you understand. 

Gage is a game designer and artist, and where the boundary lies between those two disciplines gets increasingly fuzzy the longer you speak with him. He'll produce commercially successful mobile games like Spelltower and Ridiculous Fishing and then in the same breath go off and design a grant-funded, limited-run board game like Guts of Glory. His latest commercial work is Choice Provisions's Tharsis, a game about crisis management and cannibalism in deep space.

The tablet game he's focused on is not one of his, but a free-to-play strategy game called Clash Royale, made by the same folks behind Clash of Clans. When your work touches as many different genres as Gage does, your media diet tends toward omnivorous. "If I'm not learning, I get bored very, very quickly," Gage says in the course of our chat. "I need to be tackling things I have no idea how to do."

What follows is a record of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and space. If you find yourself in New York City between now and May, you can also check out Gage's first solo art exhibition, "Glaciers," at the Postmasters Gallery.

ZAM: Let's start with the Game Design Challenge you participated in at this year's GDC, the theme for which this year was to create a game that could be played over the span of 30 years. Could you tell us a little about your entry for that?

Zach Gage: Eric Zimmerman, who runs the session, said that you needed only to bring a presentation for the game. You don't have to actually make it, just so long as you have a strong concept. But I feel like if, as game players, we're going to really stick to our guns and say 'you can't really critique a game until you've played it,' then I think that as game designers, we have to say 'a game doesn't really exist unless you can play it.' For the majority of games, just presenting a concept isn't really enough. Ideas are cheap; it's all about the execution.

"For the majority of games, just presenting a concept isn't really enough. Ideas are cheap; it's all about the execution."

And also, most of what actually comes out of a game comes out of the experience of playing it. So for me, when it came to this challenge, I knew I had to build whatever I designed. So this became a total nightmare of a prompt, as I soon realized there's a lot of boring stuff that you would have to look at: if you make a videogame, what kind of technology will be around in 30 years? How will you build something people will even be able to play, let alone want to play? That's kind of the boring stuff I had to worry about at the outset. More interesting to me, as a game designer, is I want my concept to matter. I want the rules that I put into my game to be really meaningful for people when they play. But looking at it as a player -- someone who plays a game for 30 years, no matter what I do and no matter what that game is, the thing that's going to be most meaningful to them is that they played it for 30 years. That decision, to actually commit to doing something for that span of time, you can't compete with that. That's the real life of a person. When you look back over 30 years, the best you can hope is that something you did is a sidenote in someone's otherwise fascinating, deep and involved life.

So when I was working on the challenge, I had these two issues. The first one was, how do I struggle against this idea that the decisions I make are ultimately going to be the least important part of this experience? And then the second issue was, how do you actually get someone to play something for 30 years? What do you do that would convince someone to not give up on it? And then on top of that, how do you make sure if the game is good? Whatever the player has to do should be fairly minimal, because that increases the chance that they'll actually do it -- and it decreases the amount of stuff that I actually have to playtest.

I ended up making three games. Actually, five games, but I cut two of them. The first of the three that I ended up showing was Duel, where you go to a website -- actually here, I'll just show you...

[It works better if you can see the game in action for yourself. Fortunately, our EiC Laura Michet has a write-up on all three of Gage's prototypes from the Game Design Challenge.]

The problem with this one was that the 30 year period was sort of arbitrary. So for my next game I tried to get away from that completely and make something that could just be played over a long period of time, to ask how that affects context. This is The Password Game.

...So I was pretty happy with this one. But I wanted to push things farther with one more game, because there aren't a lot of people who can play this one. Although maybe there are some, or will be some. I don't think the world's going to survive much longer after we get to time travel.

For the last game I sat down and went: 'All right, if nothing I do is going to matter more for people than the time period, then I just want to make something that celebrates that time period.'

So I was talking with Mike Roush from Choice Provisions and I asked him, 'What's special about 30 years?'

And he answered, 'Oh, that's easy. The thing about 30 years is that you only get three of them, at best.'

You only get three 30 year chunks in your life, if you're lucky. There's no one who's ever had four -- maybe, I don't know, maybe someone's lived to 120 -- but for the most part you get three, and most people get way less than that. And if you really think about 30 years, it's a staggering amount of time. So I realized I should embrace that, and make something that said: 'The best game you can make for 30 years is just a bet that you'll still be here 30 years later.' That is the most meaningful experience that you can have.

So for my last game I made a lamp. It's called Generation Lamp. You can go to generationlamp.com, type in something you want to remember, and create a new lamp. Because it's constantly running and you're not always looking at it, you do get a sense, over a couple weeks, or months, or years, of how much is changing, how the hues on your device are shifting. As it approaches 32 years, it starts to get darker and darker until, at the end of that period, it's just black -- at which point you've either outlived the lamp or the lamp has outlived you.

"The best game you can make for 30 years is just a bet that you'll still be here 30 years later... But it's not just about betting, it's about accounting for the passage of that time."

So this game, it runs off your website's server?

Yes, it's off my server. There are two versions, there's a Javascript one and then a pure HTML 1.0-compatible one, in case Javascript somehow breaks in the future and I can't fix it.

But what if your server is lost or your domain expires? What if you died?

If my domain expired... that would be a problem. [laughs] But hopefully people in my family will keep my domain running. And I could always opensource everything. It's not very complicated. And I mean, my wife has all my passwords. [laughs again] But it's not just about betting that you'll still be here in 30 more years, it's about accounting for the passage of that time. I honestly don't know if I'll be here in 30 years, but this lamp is still comforting.

On the subject of mortality, I'd like to talk about your most recent commercial game, Tharsis. This is a pretty harsh game where the player is probably going to die, a lot. What was the kernel of that idea, how did it come about?

So Tharsis was a game that Mike Roush and I had been talking about basically for years. I met him at IndieCade back when I was just getting involved in indie games. And he had mentioned a game idea he had inspired by the whaleship Essex, upon which Moby-Dick was based. The Essex had a whaling accident, most of the crew died, and the few who survived managed it by turning to cannibalism. So when they finally pulled into port, the survivors were traumatized. Mike was fascinated by this story and wondered, 'What if this kind of event happened on humanity's first mission to Mars?' He wanted to make a game about the social implications of that. It's hard sci-fi, it's not about what's on Mars, it's just about what it'd be like to be in a spaceship and have to confront this disaster and all these jarring, emotional, human issues.

I was like, 'Oh, that's a great idea! What if we did it with dice?'

And he said, 'That... that doesn't make any sense.'

Matt Damon can't potato farm his way out of this one. Matt Damon can't potato farm his way out of this one.

We went back and forth on this for a couple years. Eventually I convinced him that dice were an interesting idea. The game he wanted to make was very Rogue-ish -- it's not a Roguelike by any means, but it concerned these random scenarios and the player really having to think outside the box to come up with clever ways to account for the disaster. One of the things I find frustrating about Roguelikes is they're not very accessible, because a lot of that randomness is under the surface. What I wanted to do with Tharsis was put all those hidden systems right on the top.

The other side of that, which is something I've mentioned before, is how humans interpret odds depending on how they're presented. If you tell someone there's a 90% chance to make something and they fail, they'll get frustrated because humans don't understand what 90% really means. But if you tell someone that if they roll [a ten-sided die] and get a one that they'll fail, everybody knows what that's like. The dice have this tactility that changes rarity from being this thing that is unexpected and unfair to this thing that is unexpected and exciting.

So that was really the core of it. Mike's vision, my vision for accessibility and mechanics, and trying to put that all together.

Prior to Tharsis you've dabbled a bit in card games and board games, and you've talked a bit about how having something physical can be so valuable when playing. Was this a way of sort of bringing that physicality into a digital game?

Yeah, especially lately, I've been looking at a lot of things like billiards games, card games, dice. I think, when a lot of people make games, they look back at what they grew up with and they try to make games that are like that. They played a lot of Metroidvania games, so they wanna make a Metroidvania. They played a lot of JRPGs [Japanese roleplaying games], so they wanna make a JRPG.

But for me, I'm more concerned with the raw accessibility of a game. And I want to make brand new games for the widest possible audience. When I look at that, especially because I make games for mobile, a lot of that audience isn't familiar with JRPGs or platform games. What they're familiar with is the stuff that we have culturally: soccer balls, billiards, playing cards, dice. When you start with those elements you can do something really unique, but you can do it in a way that people feel comfortable -- much in the same way that Undertale does something unique but people who play JRPGs are comfortable with it because they have that underpinning. For a lot of non-gamers and new gamers, mostly mobile gamers, their cultural familiarity comes from these physical things.

If we're talking about games we grew up with, though, you did mention in your Wired profile that your favorite videogame growing up was Secret of Mana. So would you ever consider making something in that JRPG style?

I mean, I think everybody who makes games wants to make a JRPG. That's why everyone got into games. And pretty much everybody tries, and then they realize it's so hard to make a JRPG. Those games are so big.

"I think everybody who makes games wants to make a JRPG. That's why everyone got into games."

And certainly when I was younger it was something that I tried to do, but none of them ever came out. Looking at the genre now -- and I can't tell if this is something that's happened to me because I've gotten older or if it's something that's happened in the cultural understanding of videogames, or if it's both, but -- what has generally happened is that games have gotten a lot faster. There's way less downtime in games. And it's not just in action games, it's affected RPGs as well. A lot of RPGs have incorporated action, and even those that haven't, there's just not [that sense of] real slowness to JRPGs [anymore] where you sit and you read and the combat is slow and the movement is slow and there's all this taking in of the world. For some reason, that has disappeared from games. I think that's one of the things that you'd really have to tackle if you're going to make a modern RPG. And it's, obviously, what everyone kind of is tackling with modern RPGs. I think one of the things that was really magical about Undertale is that they managed to keep that slowness and still make a great, beautiful game that a lot of people played. And we're starting to see [a slower pace] come back with games like Pillars of Eternity and stuff like that, but for the most part, everything is fast -- especially on mobile.

I'm not really against making an RPG. A Dark Room was really inspiring to me -- I would be interested in making something of that nature, that kind of adventure. I'm not the writer to make an RPG so if I made one I'd have to work with someone who knew what they were doing. But yeah, I mean, it's possible. It's ripe for reinvention as much as everything else is.

You've worked in a lot of genres, including some you've had a professed dislike for (like word games, which is why you made Spelltower). What has been your favorite to date?

The thing for me is, if I'm not learning, I get bored very, very quickly. One of the reasons I tend to work in a lot of different genres is that once you've done something, you have a lot of preconceived notions. You risk falling into a trap of doing the same things over and over again and leaning on the rules that you've learned. When I reach that point, I have a very hard time motivating myself to do the work.

So, actually, I feel like every project I've done and released has a similar level of interest for me. Because my metric for myself is that I need to be learning, I need to be tackling things I have no idea how to do before I sit down and do them.

lose/lose (2009) The warning screen for lose/lose (2009)

Before we part here, I want to talk about lose/lose, which is the first game you did that got widespread attention. You've talked about this game as a metaphor for addiction and compulsion. Looking back on it, do you think it communicated the themes you set out to tackle?

I think there are a couple things that artists are responsible for in culture. One of those is saying things that other people don't say, either because they're things that can't be said with words, or because they're things people don't have the freedom to say... Another thing I think artists are responsible for is cataloging history in a different way than historians catalogue it. Artists catalogue history in the moment. They make works that are important, hopefully, but also works that both embed their current feelings and moments of their life and react to the world around them.

From those two perspectives, I wouldn't change anything about lose/lose. I think lose/lose was about what it was about, at the time that it was about. It isn't something that I expected to hit the way that it did, but I think how it behaved was as good as I could've ever hoped for anything that I ever make. Especially in the conceptual art area.

To the rest of your question: I think my understanding of addiction has definitely deepened since I made lose/lose. Certainly if I were to make a work now that was about addiction, I think I would have a lot more to draw from and think about, and I seriously doubt it would be what lose/lose was.

"I think there are a couple things that artists are responsible for in culture. One of those is saying things that other people don't say, either because they're things that can't be said with words, or because they're things people don't have the freedom to say."

Even now, if someone goes to your website, their browser will spit back a warning that the site contains a virus. Because with how lose/lose works, it can permanently damage someone's computer. I'm curious, though, did you ever... talk to these people, about getting that classification removed? Assuring them that no, really, it's an art project?

I did email Symantec, and I don't believe they got back to me about it. They definitely miscategorized it, but actually at the time -- and even still -- I feel that it was sort of a badge of honor, and that it drove home a lot of the points in the piece, that we are not treating software like adults. I don't think we have the tools to talk about things that can be dangerous but not malicious, and I think being able to differentiate danger and malice is really important. Obviously, those two are often strongly linked -- guns are dangerous but not malicious, but we don't have the language to have a thoughtful conversation about that in this country. And we don't have the language to talk about it digitally, which does not bode well for the future of the digital space.

And actually I feel that problem has come home to roost now. When I released lose/lose, there were no warnings in browsers about dangerous sites. And now there are, and I'm really thankful that that warning is restricted to the 2009 subcategory of my website, and not my entire domain as a whole, because as someone trying to make a career in videogames, if every time someone tried to visit my website they got a warning saying there was a virus, there would be a lot fewer people visiting my website. I think it's actually kind of stunning that we've reached a point where, as an artist, I made a thing that said something that was not malicious but was perhaps important, and years later I'm potentially suffering in terms of people being unable to access my work. Even moreso now, that's a conversation that we need to have, that we can't have.

(Top image source: Bryan Derballa, Wired.)

Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. They do not live in New York, so if you visit Zach Gage's gallery exhibition, please tell Kris about it on Twitter @KrisLigman.