Now in its 10th and final year, the Game Design Challenge here at GDC is a competition that pits gaming's most innovative minds against each other to come up with a game based upon a particular theme or concept — and this year developer Jason Rohrer won for creating a game that he hopes people won't play for over 2,000 years. Put together by designer Eric Zimmerman, the theme of this year's contest was "Humanity's Final Game," a concept that could be interpreted in any way the participants saw fit — and the results were compelling and hilarious.
Luminaries like Steve Meretzky and Will Wright were among the six contestants, but it was Rohrer who won for A Game For Someone. "I wanted to make a game that is not for right now," he said. "A game that is for the future." As for when, he chose 2,000 years in the future, which immediately took things like modern computer games off the table. Without knowing if the game's eventual player would be alien, human, or something else — nor what technology they would have access to — creating a physical game became essential.
Nobody alive could play it — including the designer
After establishing a ground rule that nobody living today could play the game — including himself — Rohrer explained that he had created a black box AI to help test and refine the game's design. In creating the physical game itself, he said, materials became essential, as he needed something that would be able to survive far after man was extinct. He eventually settled upon titanium to create the game board and individual playing pieces. Keeping the set together also became a problem; without the pieces, the game would be unplayable. That solution was to slot the pieces into the board itself, with a solid titanium plate bolted on top to keep everything in place. All told, he said, the contraption weighed around 35 pounds.
Not know who would be playing the game presented similar challenges with instructions. Rohrer created simple pictograph diagrams to explain the game's rules and printed them on acid-free free paper. Those went into a glass tube to protect them from potential future dangers, and that tube went inside another canister of titanium. (At this point laughter started rippling through the audience, as those present realized they were witnessing a bit of mad genius.)
Buried in one of 1,017,000 locations
Where he would store the game was Rohrer's final piece of masterwork. He selected various parts of the Nevada desert that were sufficiently removed from roads and other structures, and created a list of 1,017,000 discrete GPS coordinates. He chose one at random and buried the game in the desert. But how to ensure the game will be found one day? Every seat in the audience had an envelope waiting for it. Inside was a piece of paper, with a list of GPS locations printed on both sides. Every single piece of paper was different, Rohrer said, but if everyone got together and checked out one of the locations each and every day, the game would eventually be found — in a little over 2,700 years.
A World War III reality show called 'No Survivor'
While Rohrer won the audience vote by a landslide, the other presentations were equally as entertaining and thought-provoking. Steve Meretzky, known for his sardonic wit since his work on such Infocom games as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, riffed on how humanity is overwhelming the planet. The solution? A proposed reality show called No Survivor, in which hackers would compete to break into a country's national security defenses and start World War III. (The winner would have a plaque shot into space naming them as the person that "Saved the Galaxy From the Scourge of Humanity.")
Will Wright took inspiration from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, proposing a game called 10 Memories in which players would take various points from their own memories and compare how they felt about them — both against those they were close to and to the rest of the world as a whole. Dishonored's Harvey Smith described Fleeting, a meta-reflection on life and existence that played as a gaming-world reflection on the human condition itself.
But as the audience filtered out of the room, it was clear only one game was on everyone's mind. And it is somewhere beneath the dirt in the vast stretches of Nevada. Waiting.