An adventure in Oakland, California living with game designer and prolific internet voice Tim Rogers. Photos by Luis Hernandez (1) and Dan Tabar (2)
(1) Starbaby, Tim and I jumping the battery on Tim’s car
It’s late and dark and Oakland, California. Tim Rogers’ apartment glows with pastel light from the wall-size TV which shows his game VIDEOBALL in large font. Outside the air is dry and breezy and lazy with the smell of freesias.
“Let’s get In ‘n’ Out at the airport,” Starbaby hums, Jack Nicholson-like, his black mop looming in the pools cast from the blue lights that decorate Tim’s apartment. Starbaby has a lot of teeth in his mouth; a personality like a Jack-in-the-box where the Jack is just knives. Jazzpunk’s Luis Hernandez stands nearby, his long dark hair and camera in his hand, agreeing because we’re hungry and they’ve been playing Videoball all day with the sort of people everyone at the Game Developers’ Conference last week would recognise. Tim’s apartment is now quiet and a mess of pizza boxes, beer and energy drinks. I’ve been asleep all day, am drowsy. Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail’s bellowing laughter echoes through chambers of my skull.
I look at Tim. He is wearing a purple and luminous green Michael Jordan sweater with long Michael Jordan shorts and socks to match. His hair is thick and dirty blonde, his self-confessed best feature. His fingers are long and calloused with the nails cut deadly short so that they can bond with his cobalt blue Gibson, and his glasses are something out of a 1950s drama. Tim Rogers is a non-fiction anime character. He is a writer, co-creator of Insert Credit, the CEO of Action Button Entertainment, and he has worked in games, AAA and otherwise, all his adult life. He is thirty-four years old and is the internet’s biggest rumour.
Tim says heck yeah and we’re gonna have a good time and we crowd into Starbaby’s repurposed cop car with no seatbelts and turn the music up as far as it will go. The music is this:
Tim knows all the notes.
(1) Tim and Starbaby
Tim Rogers loved music so much that after graduating in 2000 he moved to be near it in Tokyo. For the ten years he was there, complete strangers who read what he wrote about games and his life on the internet made pilgrimages to visit him. During that time Tim Rogers worked at Sony before winding up his time in Japan working as a designer for Grasshopper Manufacture under Goichi Suda. He left before he was credited on a game, and for a mystery reason, Tim’s visa was not accepted on reentry to the country in the end. But in that period Tim wrote reams and reams of words for a huge amount of outlets, for Edge magazine, GamesTM, Kotaku, and many others. Not many people know very much about his work in big budget game studios, because his writing about his life outside games and around the idiosyncrasies of games has always overshadowed practically everything else he has done. That’s unfortunate to an extent, but it’s real. People can tell when they’re affected by Tim’s writing, but they have no idea when they’ve played a game he’s had a hand in.
One night Tim and I go for a midnight drive, nominally to a 24 hour Wal-Mart, but really it’s just an excuse to get out. I ask Tim if now he’d play a Grasshopper Manufacture game that he’d worked on. He says he wouldn’t, because it wasn’t all his, and he thinks the development process was inherently flawed. Beside us the orange and white lights of Oakland pock the landscape by the highway, the red lights of the cars bleeding into reality, making it feel like we are underwater as we drive.
“I don’t want to say I’m better at it than anyone else, or more experienced at it than anyone else, and I’m sure somebody’d hear me say this and call me some bad names in my email inbox,” Tim says, in a low tone of regret. “I think I have a lot of experience thinking hypercritically about discomfort. …I feel like if I’m already sitting down to play a videogame it’s an uncomfortable process, it’s not 100% fluidly human to hold a controller and press a button to make something move on the TV screen… A whole lot of weird, molecular-level strangeness, and I feel like you really can’t trust a committee of people to work on that. Because what I think is uncool clashes with what somebody else thinks is not uncool, you end up making a whole lot of compromises. You do stuff by committee.
“It’s not even committee,” he corrects himself. “They would break out bullet points and say: ‘We’re gonna talk about this. We’re gonna write a full scale, full project design document: so, there’s a part about guns, because our game’s got guns in it, and there’s a part about the story, so let’s see, why don’t you write about the story, and you write about the guns, and uh you write about the jump button…’
(2) Zak McCune, Large Prime Numbers’ drummer, and Tim
“…And it’s like ‘here’s the guns, sir,’ you know, like two days later,” Tim says, “twenty four guns, there’s a pistol, heavy pistol, automatic pistol, machine gun, heavy machine gun, automatic machine gun, and then, y’know, flamethrower, silenced flamethrower - I’m actually listing actual guns that guy wrote down. He actually had ‘silenced flamethrower’ on it. …And I’d already written a game design document: there’s four guns in this game and you can already use all of them and they all do these things that fit together.
“‘It would just be like, ‘Let’s break up here, and you write about the heavy machine gun, and you write about the regular machine gun.’”
Tim raises his voice. “Why would you get different guys to write one page game feature proposal requests about two different types of machine gun? Wouldn’t you want one guy designing all the machine guns? Just get a guy who likes and knows a whole lot about machine guns - there must be somebody around there.
“It’s just kind of filthy with indecision, all the games I’ve worked on previously,” Tim concludes. “My name’s not on any of ‘em. I got an email last week from a guy: ‘I just beat No More Heroes 2, and your name wasn’t in the credits’ - it’s like, yeah I know. Yeah so I don’t like those games. I think they’re kind of tacky and sloppy. …Lacking in a unity of vision.”
Suda once requested that Tim write a ‘gigolo system’ for a game because EA had requested ‘original features’, which Tim did write up. This system is the one that was eventually implemented in Killer Is Dead and is still documented in a vintage Gdoc Tim showed me. Tim wasn’t credited for that either, in the tradition of AAA studios only crediting those employees who were there when the game was shipped. But it’s not something I’d want my name on either, I guess.
STRANGERS IN TOKYO
(1) Me, Tim, Tim’s long time friend Lily Wang
After a week I’m about ninety per cent sure not even Tim really knows why his writing has had this attracting effect on people over the years. I am still floundering around in the ten per cent. I suspect it’s scimitar-sharp honesty, slow-poison sentences, acute intelligence, an intense enjoyment of language, and a large dose of humour and generosity, but no one can really be sure. I once commented in the car park at the Berkeley Bowl where Tim buys salsa that I think that we both make money from being honest on the internet. He said, “I’m honest about the things that the internet doesn’t like.”
People made pilgrimages to see him is what I wrote down, a few paragraphs up.
This idea seems unreal to me, because all in all, Tim is just a person, a person probably not that many people know about outside of videogames. A person I know and like. An acquaintance I’d hang out with if I were in town and I had a few hours to kill. But that strangers came to see him in Tokyo like they did, and to a certain extent, still do in his new place in Oakland California, just because of their infatuation with his writing: that’s unreal, even though I was one of the people who made the ‘pilgrimage’ when I moved to Japan in 2008, even though I sought him out in Tokyo, even though at one point I thought he was fictional and had to shake his hand to see if he was real, even though every half-joke he makes is sort of a painful truth, even though young dumb Cara sat over cold soba and enthused about Doctor Who with him and wondered why she cared because everyone did that. Everyone back then did that.
LET’S KICK SHELL
(1) Everyone playing Videoball.
None of the essays Tim has ever written specifically about games have been his best prose works, but people only know of him because of those things. They know him from Kotaku, from his troll-wrangling, from his outrageous games commercials, from his dissections of missed games. But what’s refreshing about Tim as a game designer is that there’s a healthy vein that runs through all the games and prototypes he makes that pulsates directly from the heart of his games analysis. You don’t have to interview him in a thirty minute press junket to understand what Tim likes about games. You can read just from his own intensely detailed hand the individual moments of others’ work he found fascinating, satisfying, or rewarding. There’s a pattern in the sort of things Tim likes to lyricise about. Take his Godhand review (which he also played the backing track for).
Godhand is the catharsis of using a jackhammer to cut your birthday cake.
Almost all of the analogies he uses to describe Godhand are to do with objects of weight and momentum, things designed to elicit sensation, feedback, collision. Tim also once wrote an essay about ‘sticky friction’ (‘Sticktion’) that I have used as an all-purpose tool of my games criticism trade ever since: the idea that games have a unique ability to feed back certain types of ‘friction’ that are rewarding to the player. “It was all about the inertia, the acceleration, the to-a-halt-screeching when you change direction,” Tim said of Super Mario Brothers. “You can feel the weight of the character. People never put these feelings into words when talking about games, though they really, really are everything.”
Much of our time was spent making late night trips to Target and finding the most absurd items to Instagram, which is more fun than you first think.
“I sort of feel bad about writing that,” Tim says to me on our midnight trip to the Wal-Mart that would prove to be closed. “I could have just been working on games and could have kept that all to myself. Even at GDC this year I got a bunch of people coming up to me and these people are making these really fantastic-looking games and they’re like, ‘Yeah man we read your Sticky Friction thing man, we talk about it all the time,’ it’s like man. What the heck, y’know?
“That was kind of a light analysis of some aspects of design: it’s the comfort thing. Textiles, past a certain point. Cos you’re just talking about the feel of it. …I was trying to have fun writing that. ‘I’ll put this on Kotaku.’ And then I get all these really serious cool people coming up to me and being like ‘Oh yeah I read that and it changed the way I think about this thing’.”
Tim frowns. “Man, did I just give a bunch of incredibly talented people really good advice that they can use to be more successful in the field that I am attempting to become successful in?”
(1) Us in the cop car. We were pulled over by the actual cops at Oakland Airport for driving aimlessly in a cop car with no license plates
Tim goes on to tell me that students attending Indiecade this year told him his writing on Super Mario Brothers 3 is being taught in classes at NYU. And there’s no doubt in my mind that his analysis of that game is sharp - he’s written three essays on it. Zero in on where the friction is in a game, and how it’s rewarding, and you’ve got a good piece of games criticism. Equally, find the games that have the most ‘Sticktion’ and chances are they will be the most rewarding in terms of base ‘enjoyment’, if that’s what you look for in your games. Both Ziggurat and Videoball make heavy use of ‘Sticktion’ and this isn’t a coincidence. Sticktion’s sort of what Tim lives on, down to the choice of keyboard he types on at his computer, the socks he buys, the games he wants to make.
I’ve played Tim’s upcoming game Videoball, something he’s making with the talented Double Fine programmer Ben Burbank. Minimalist interface, one button and analogue stick input, one screen competitive play: a cross between Hokra and Asteroids. There’s huge tactical depth in this game to the extent that on release it could become an instant and incredibly popular e-sport. It’s got evolving metagame, and it has local and online modes. It’s easy to pick up, very easy to understand, but takes a long time to master the layers of the game. Playing Videoball feels closer to the actual feel of soccer than soccer simulations like Fifa. There’s a slide and grind to the game that speaks to the Sticky Friction Tim wrote about. You press and hold A to charge a shot: it has three power levels, the highest being an across-the-screen punt that’s got a satisfying weight to it. The game manufactures loud screams and smack-talk and the sort of rage that Mario Party induces. It makes Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail yell at the top of his voice. It fills Tim’s apartment with people. It makes people who think they don’t understand games feel like they understand games. It’s good. It’s really good.
MAKE A VIDEOGAME, WRITE A BOOK
(2) McCune and Tim
Do you think your writing about games influences the way you think about making games? I ask Tim. I’m thinking of Jim Rossignol, Tom Francis. All the people successfully making small budget games who used to be critics for a living.
“I always wanted to make a videogame and I always wanted to write a book,” Tim says. “I decided to just start taking notes when I was playing videogames. I don’t know why it started for the purpose of ‘taking notes’: I had no concept of putting a review up on the internet. I was just taking note of stuff I noticed and somehow I was wording them as sentences. Just having fun pairing words together. I’ve always had fun pairing words. I enjoy writing sentences, not necessarily paragraphs.
“Early on it was on paper. There was a website I liked, the Gaming Intelligence Agency, the ‘GIA’. They were all talking about ‘videogame journalism sucks’ in 1996/97. …I read those websites for my videogame news and I thought it’s cool how those people think about videogames. There was a letters column on that website site and I loved writing the letters column. …The letters column was cool because it was run by the staff of the website, just college students like me, but they had a website, and the website had a cool beige background which was cool because websites back then had all white backgrounds… You know, they dressed your letter up and made it look nice.”
Tim’s style wasn’t so much influenced by the GIA, but he said the GIA indicated that this kind of writing on the internet was possible. And it helped him form his taste.
“I wanted to get on the forum and I wanted to say some stuff and have these conversations with people,” he says. “…Mostly it was kind of a subconscious process of figuring out what I don’t like. Any creative process you’ll have decisions you’re going back and forth on, and you have to decide what don’t I like, am I trying to extract what I don’t like, or am I trying to focus on what I do like? I end up going back and forth on that a lot, and I sort of figure out what sort of game I want… It sounds really jerky, but I couldn’t find a game that directly perfectly appealed to what I wanted. Not saying that what I wanted was the universal best game, like some Da Vinci Code, some universal code of games…”
I say Toni Morrison stated she wrote the book she wanted to read, and that this perhaps is the approach that many people might have to their games: making the game that’s missing from the shelf. Tim says he likes Toni Morrison. Then he tells me apparently Mel Gibson only watches his own films, and then enquires as to whether Toni Morrison only reads her own books. I don’t actually know, I say. I’ve never heard a sentence contain the words ‘Toni Morrison’ and ‘Mel Gibson’ before.
Tim owns a lot of Carebears. Carebears: the stuffed toys. He just likes them. He likes the look of them. It’s not an affectation, or if it is, he insists it isn’t. What I do know is that his parents are consistently scared that he is gay, and so is the internet. His offbeat tastes are somehow destabilizing to internet masculinity, and the homophobia directed towards Tim, though as far as I know he has never dated men, is sort of incredible. Death threats and insults to his inbox after articles are common (he tells me after writing about Final Fantasy XIII for Kotaku someone got his address and emailed him to tell him he was coming to slit his throat). There’s a real pulsating hatred out there directed towards Tim, and he navigates it sort of cheerfully, telling me that the blog that his best prose has always appeared on, Large Prime Numbers, is consistently hacked every single time he puts up a new article there, and so he doesn’t put anything there any more. This also apparently has elicited even more angry emails demanding to know why Tim isn’t writing there any more.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
(1) In ‘n’ Out, Oakland
It’s just after 1am. We pull into In ‘n’ Out by Oakland airport, Starbaby’s at the wheel, his Japanese James Dean jaw casting a shadow in the bleaching fluorescence of the fast food joint. “Whaddaya want?” he says, in a voice approximating Jack Nicholson’s. Tim is miming guitar riffs in the back of Starbaby’s cop car to BIG APPLE, 3AM. In the front passenger seat Luis is grinning.
Starbaby is a nickname given to him by Tim. Starbaby is someone who visited Tim in Tokyo after reading Tim’s work. This is often the answer to the question of how Tim knows anyone. Starbaby tells me later that he’s been reading Tim Rogers’ work since he was sixteen years old. Starbaby is a year younger than me, at twenty seven, but has known Tim for most of his life, first by internet and then in Tokyo, and then in Oakland. Tim and Starbaby have a kind of symbiotic relationship now, to the extent that Tim says he ‘insinuated’ Starbaby into working a job at his favourite doughnut place, Pepples, in Oakland, just so that he could get free doughnuts.
(1) Starbaby and Tim
We park and open the doors of the car so the music vibrates out onto the tarmac, and we eat fries and burgers and drink shakes by the lit black sky, starched and drawn by the airport nearby. The music is so loud we shout at each other.
“THIS IS THE AMERICAN DREAM,” Luis Hernandez yells at me, a mouth full of animal fries and ears full of Turtles In Time. Luis is Canadian. He is being ironic. But both he and I know it has a weird resonance.
For those about to galavant, by Large Prime Numbers
Later Luis tells us he likes Oakland better than San Francisco. “San Francisco is fake, like GTA. The pedestrians seem like they have predestined pathways,” he says. “Oakland’s more real.”
(1) In ‘n’ Out
“Like Wayne’s World,” I say, as a joke, because we’re all in a car, and then realise that I sort of mean it. The fictional Aurora, Illinois seems like a place that’s more real than San Francisco, a land of startups and mirror shades.
Starbaby’s cop suspension cushions the twist up and up and up the mountain, and the burger in my stomach mashes itself against my insides.
Tim and I are thrown around in the back with no seatbelts on like bottletops in the bowels of a corkscrewing ship, Tim holding on to the umbilical cord of the wire that sends music from his iPhone to the car’s sound system. He flaps it around. “This is how I like to think about games,” he says, indicating the new track he is feeding the speakers, waggling the line, the dash responding to his touch.
Starbaby smacks the wheel. “YOU SHOULD WRITE THAT DOWN!” he yells at me and I laugh.
(1) Luis, Tim and I changing tracks
All of a sudden Oakland is a constellation below us.
We slide to a stop on a patch of dirt by the road. There are other cars around us with people in them in the murk but we ignore them, wary of the intrusion. There’s a huge tree trunk lodged in the side of the mountain carved into a seat, and Starbaby gets on top of it to look at the lights, and says, “I once came up here on Valentine’s Day and I saw a guy stand on top here, crush a can in his hands and throw it away, and say, ‘I’m so happy I’m not in jail any more’”.
Tim accuses him of making it up.
“It’s the truth,” Starbaby says.
Part of me is certain that they have taken me here because they think when I tell this story it will sound like I made it up. Or perhaps they knew that it was always going to be written down, and wanted to make it look like they live in some kind of Diablo Cody script. But I’ve been here a week, and this doesn’t seem unusual for them at all.
(1) Starbaby and I and some jump cables
It seems stupid to regard Tim as magnetic or influential or important but the worst thing about all these thoughts is that after six years of knowing of him, about him, and finally living with him, it scares me to think that he might be all of these things to a generation of digital adherents on the internet, and he’s just a human fucking being. Someone who will be dead one day. Someone who just writes on the internet and makes games for a living. It’s extraordinary that these are all thoughts I think about Tim when he’s just some jerk who is right now as I speak is ordering trashy pizza from Little Caesar’s and said his ideal woman is ‘Dora the Explorer eleven years later’ and keeps referring to me facetiously as ‘world famous games journalist Cara Ellison’ because of my Twitter followers and has a fridge full of almond butter and thinks it’s okay to make fun of how shit I am at playing the game that he is currently developing that hasn’t been released yet. He’d want me to resent him, I think. I think I do.
Probably some people who visited Tim in Tokyo thought, like George Clooney’s bedpartners, that they were the only one, but the reality is that whole forums of people visited Tim during that ten year period, some of them now prominent digital wordstitchers, artists, loaded Silicon Valley denizens, more and more of them reveal themselves to me as time goes on, though very few people would be able to say from their stay that they got to know him. This is because Tim’s entire persona is constructed of streams and streams of words, puns, jokes that are directed at you, launched into you, things that he lays on you. Words are a thick paste that Tim paints over everyone he comes across, and it’s equal parts thrilling and exhausting and occasionally feels like an outlandish contraceptive so that you can’t really get much of him at all.
Tim is a psychedelic knitted dinosaur sweater where the wool is words. He is constructed of words. This probably doesn’t surprise you if you’ve ever read his work, which drives Kotaku commenters mad with rage at the sheer wordcount. Tim gets up and writes every day into his hard drive, and publishes less and less of it these days. It’s as if he stops producing words he’s afraid that he might not exist any more. (This is a fear that many writers have, in their hearts, I think.) But for Tim, it probably comes from being mute between the ages of eleven to seventeen, all the way through puberty. He’s making up for lost time, maybe. He’s talking because he found his voice and he has it on a leash now. He’s tied it up in a basement. Tim’s voice is his now and it’s so sharp and omnipresent and alive and, in the dark moments, upset, it could slice steel into fine slivers. If you don’t believe me you can be twisted into shapes by this and never recover.
It’s dark in the apartment. The hum of the bathroom fan undulates through the wall. I say to Tim that I miss the green tea Kit Kats that Family Marts in Japan used to stock.
He tells me a story in a low quiet voice.
Not long ago he went back to Japan, years after he was denied entry into the country, the country he lived in for ten years. He stayed in a hotel in Tokyo near his old commute to the Sony office, and he bought a Snickers and a Kit Kat and a Crunky, and he ate them in bed, just like he used to in Japan before he was denied a visa. He lay in the hotel bed and thought about the Sony office being just down the street. Just down the street from the hotel. And yet, he would never go back in that building.
(1) Oakland, near Rudy’s Can’t Fail diner
I try to find something to say, but there is nothing in my mouth and I can feel a horrible pain in my chest, a membrane breaking in my throat. I think I left something of myself in Japan too, but it’s not as much of me as it is for Tim. I feel like Tim left a limb there. I feel like Tim left a liver. Or a kidney. A heart. Parts of him are chained up raw under Tokyo’s streets and people walk over them every day.
There are very few things in Tim’s Oakland apartment that are from Japan, though he lived there for ten years. The only things are his very small collection of Japanese videogames, and a picture of him and the Green-Haired Girl.
When there’s nothing left to say I have a sudden terrifying thought: what on earth am I going to write about him that Tim couldn’t write down himself? The terror of having another person, also a writer, a good writer, read my writing about him, is suffocating. But apparently I’ve said it out loud.
“You’ll think of something,” Tim says, senpai-like.
There are many ways in which Tim Rogers is interesting. I haven’t been able to write all of them down. I think Tim will write them down for me.
(1) Pepples Donut Farm - Tim, Hali, Starbaby and I at breakfast
Things Tim says often:
"Never party on someone else’s terms."
"The best thing about parking at the STOP sign is, when you get in your car, you can just go." (He said this multiple times. Every time we got in the car, actually.)