On a warm evening earlier this month outside a cafe in Buenos Aires, Colin Northway took a sip of his drink and told me about the rarest video game in the world.
He was making the game, he told me, and he was excited about it. He didn’t call it the rarest game on the planet. That’s just how I would come to think of it in the days that followed, as Colin’s unusual game concept took root in my brain and become something of an obsession. He was trying to do one of the most unusual things I’d ever heard a game developer attempt.
Colin’s game, he explained to me that night, was a side project he thought up in Panama. He was developing it on a laptop he bought in Argentina. It was a diversion from the regular games that he and his wife, Sarah, create and sell online from whatever corner of the globe they’re living in at the moment.
This new game, this experiment, was an interruption of inspiration from making the likes of Incredipede or Fantastic Contraption. Those games were played by thousands and thousands of people. This new game, in contrast, was being made to be played by just about no one. Maybe a few dozen people. Maybe a few hundred. Maybe you, but probably not.
When he finished making the game, he vowed, he would glue the laptop’s hard-drive in place. He would destroy the laptop’s ports. He would disable its Internet connections. The game would live and die on the laptop.
The idea Colin dreamt up in Panama was of a video game that could never be copied, a game that would forever be locked to the machine on which it was made, a game that, as a result, wouldn’t have the life that games normally have.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to paint a painting once and have only that,” he would write about the game on his blog. “I’m so accustomed to being able to copy infinitely, I want to know what it feels like to have one of something. To sweat and work to create something and only have that. I want to know what a painter feels like when they finish a painting.”
Less beautifully, he described his project to me as “this odd urge I have to lock a game in a prison.”
When he finished making the game, Colin vowed, he would glue the laptop’s hard-drive in place. He would destroy the laptop’s ports. He would disable its Internet connections. The game would live its life solely on the laptop. The only people to ever play it would be people who touched that laptop. The only people who would touch that laptop would be the people with the good fortune to cross paths with the ever-itinerant Northways. Most video games have a shot at living forever on discs and cartridges or as files backed up on the Internet. This game will not. Locked to a laptop, it will eventually die.
On the night that I met Colin in Buenos Aires, the game was technically still in development. He was still making it, he told me as we sat a table with Sarah and my wife. He had just started letting people play the game the day before at a New Year’s party full of local indie game developers. I don’t know if he had the game on him when we met.
Colin and I had encountered each other serendipitously. I was on vacation. The Northways just happened to be nearing the end of a three-week stay in Argentina before hopping over to Brazil. He’d heard through the grapevine that I’d be in town and suggested we meet. He and Sarah were staying near our hotel, so we decided to go listen to some jazz nearby, then get a drink. We weren’t going to talk shop, but talk of this game was too interesting not to bubble up.
The game he told me about and that I’ve become perhaps unhealthily fixated on is called Shader. In creating it, Colin Northway has spurned the thing we take for granted about video games, chiefly the idea that they can be easily copied and distributed to players throughout the world.
Shader has made me think a lot about things games have rarely made me think about before: the potential of a game whose every player has touched the same controls... the strangeness of a game whose creator will be within shouting distance every single time the game is ever played... the idea of a game that can die and never be experienced again... more abstractly, the opportunities in life we seize or miss.
I got close to Shader, but I didn’t play it. I’m still kicking myself about that.
Shader is a game about making images. It’s a series of virtual buttons that the player can manipulate to create a colorful visual and then mix it into another one. It can be used as a virtual canvas to make audience-enchanting effects or it can be played as a game. Each “level” of Shader challenges players to figure out how to produce specific visual effects.
“Have you ever played with a synth?” Colin asked me as he tried to describe the game. “I like messing around with Sunrizer Synth for iPad. It is basically a collection of nobs and switches that let you define a sound. Shader is kind of the same thing for visuals.”
Shader is not a racing game, not a shooter, not anything that would fit into a traditional video game genre. There are a few reasons why. “Some of that is controlled by the machine,” Colin told me over e-mail after he’d left Argentina for Brazil. There’s only so much he could do with a cheap laptop, he explained. “It’s slow, and I wanted to do something that would definitely run on the machine. It can handle running a single shader (even if it’s pretty complicated) on a single image without much trouble.”
Shader also is what it is because of, well, what it actually is. Since the original point of Shader was simply to be a game that is forever linked to one machine, and since that machine will forever be carried around by Colin, the game can’t be played alone. Whoever plays it will at least have Colin with them and probably other people, too. Since a game like this would always have an audience, Colin figured it made sense to make a game that would please onlookers and that could feel like a performance. A traditional single-player game just wouldn’t make sense. Such are the epiphanies from a strange project like this.
“Ok, this is going to be a little weird,” Colin wrote to me when he began to explain how he got the idea for a game that would be locked to a single machine.
“We lived on the water in the jungle in Panama for three months (with ok Internet), and I was reading a lot about quantum physics at the time. You’ve probably heard the idea that ‘time is an illusion’? While reading, there was this moment where I *got* that idea really deeply, that there is no now or then, and everything that ever was or will be is now. [I got it] not in a religious or metaphysical way, but [saw] that time is a physical dimension that differs from others only in that it has some concept of direction.
Colin Northway: “Staring at the jungle and the ocean, I decided I wanted to climb to the top of a mountain and write a game that would give people this epiphany.”
“Then, staring at the jungle and the ocean, I decided I wanted to climb to the top of a mountain and write a game that would give people this epiphany and lock it onto one laptop so that, not only would it exist in one point in time, but also one point in space. So you could visualize its life stretching through the four-dimensional cube of time as a three-dimensional worm.
“Unfortunately I haven’t really figured out the time game, and I haven’t picked a mountain,” he continued. “You could see Shader as a trial run. It moves through time as a worm and explores all these other ideas of audience and self-control and expectations. It’s also easier to get Sarah behind this one.”
Colin is Canadian and, thankfully, his dollar goes far in Buenos Aires, where dire inflation has brought the peso from parity with the American dollar to now exchanging at 10 to 1 in the black—or so-called “blue”—market. In a city where a cab ride costs more than 100 pesos, the weak laptop Colin bought ran him 3,500 pesos. It’s a little netbook.
Here’s a shot of him buying it.
“It was also incredibly hard to find,” Colin told me. “Tablets have destroyed the netbook market.”
Colin bought the laptop for Shader on December 21 and got to game-making. Colin and Sarah had worked together on Fantastic Contraption and Incredipede, but, ultimately, husband and wife are both designer-programmers and find that it makes more sense to work on their own stuff. While Colin was hatching Shader, Sarah was crafting a sequel to Rebuild, a well-received strategy game that plays something like a cross between SimCity and Civilization and that has players carefully rebuilding a city that’s been attacked—and continues to be plagued—by zombies.
The couple worked on their games through Christmas and through the worst heat wave Buenos Aires had experienced in four decades. Just days before the “polar vortex” would lash the United States with unusually frigid winter weather, Buenos Aires was melting in a day after day of summer temperatures topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The city struggled. The electrical grid blinked on and off. Poorer residents went without power for days. Some protested by blocking streets with burning trash bags.
Colin and Sarah tried to keep cool and make games. During that time they also got to know many of Buenos Aires’ brightest independent game developers. Colin invited two of them, Augustín Cordes (Asylum) and Daniel Benmergui (Storyteller), to playtest the game. Then, Colin took it to the New Year’s party at the home of an indie dev known as Tembac. He took the laptop out around 3AM. Shader’s life had begun.
Colin Northway: The joke is often made that you should ship a copy of yourself with every game. With Shader, I’m actually doing it.”
When Colin brought Shader out at the New Year’s party it wasn’t quite finished. People could play it, but Colin hadn’t damaged the computer’s ports yet. He hadn’t broken his own rules and copied Shader anywhere, but he also hadn’t physically caged the game and cut off all escape routes just yet. But even without having done that, he felt something different when people started playing.
“It felt amazing,” he told me. “It felt like the beginning of something, like I was watching something come to life. There’s something special about the physical [laptop] keys being pressed by people. It’s totally irrational, but the feeling that those keys are going to hold the history of everyone who plays it feels deep. Somehow, the game feels more real than Incredipede to me. Games are usually bits that fly around and get copied to and fro. This is one actual thing, and it began to be that thing on New Years 2014.”
Over on his blog, Colin wrote about how, with Shader, he would never have to “nervously click on a review link or get an email about how much someone doesn’t like it.” That’s liberating for a game creator but also bizarre. He also wrote that he would have “no need to attain standards but my own. Since Shader can’t find an audience, there is no reason to consider what anyone else will love or hate about it.”
Energized by Shader’s first night out, Colin wrote about the three-way conversation he felt he was a part of. He didn’t have to worry about things his player wouldn’t understand. He didn’t have to lard his game up with tutorials. He’d always be there to explain things, to talk to the player, to see how the game affected them and how they used it. “The joke is often made that you should ship a copy of yourself with every game,” he wrote. “With Shader, I’m actually doing it.”
I met Colin on January 2, the day after that party, and was fascinated by his experiment.
As a games reporter for the last decade, I’ve had my own experiences with rare games. I’ve played the likes of Killer Queen, a 12-player multiplayer game that only works on a specially-designed arcade cabinet. I’ve tried Deep Sea, a sensory deprivation game meant to be played under a special hood. Several years ago, the powers that be at Rockstar Games let me play the never-released Adults Only version of their Wii game Manhunt 2.
With great fascination back in 2009, I’d written about a game called Lose/Lose, a sort of Space Invaders in which every enemy in the game represents a random file on your computer that you’re deleting when you shoot it.
I’d met developers who had shown me games they’d yet to release. I’d heard of experimental games that were meant to be played a finite number of times before deleting themselves.
Colin Northway: “Is it immoral to not copy something that could be copied? I kind of think it is. ... If people get mad about this, then I agree with them, Shader carries some of the beauty of sculpture by denying a lot of the beauty of games.”
I suggested to Colin that his game was like those self-deleting games. Not really, he corrected me. “The closest analogy to Shader is games with custom hardware. Usually, only one of them is made. I feel differently about Shader because it can be copied so easily. It would run perfectly well on any computer. I could try to sell it if I wanted to. I’m kind of hoping that will make people think about the nature of copying instead of the nature of interfaces.”
He was right. The idea that Shader could be copied but simply wasn’t going to be—the idea that Colin is actively holding the game back and keeping it in the “prison” of his laptop—is different and potentially profound. It’s also, Colin thinks, not necessarily a purely noble act. There’s a selfishness to it, in a manner of speaking. There’s a rebuke of the presumed relationship between game creators and game players. There is a pushback against the fundamental ideas that the game creator makes things for large numbers of people to play and that the gamer can assume with every passing year that they will have more immediate access to play more games, anywhere, any time.
“Like, is it immoral to not copy something that could be copied?” Colin pondered to me.
“I kind of think it is,” he wrote, answering his own question. “Isn’t Shader something I’m denying the world? Do the small benefits to the people who do play it outweigh the detriment of so many people not having the opportunity? I like that Shader is in this one place. That’s very valuable to me, but I don’t want to totally defang the anti-democratic argument. If people get mad about this, then I agree with them, Shader carries some of the beauty of sculpture by denying a lot of the beauty of games.”
Colin hasn’t sabotaged the laptop Shader is on yet. He will do that once he feels he is done making the game. He’s a little nervous about the sabotaging process. “If I somehow fuck up and brick the netbook then I will have killed Shader,” he said.
He won’t be taking a hammer to the machine. He needs to be careful.
“My current plan is mostly glue-based. I’m going to fill all the ports with super glue (except video out) and glue the hard-drive in place. Then I’m going to delete the drivers that run the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This seems like the safest [method], if not most dramatic. I really don’t want to risk bricking the netbook. I’m actually open to suggestions, though, if any readers have done this sort of thing before.”
I suggested that he’d be tempted to back the game up to Dropbox or something before messing with the computer. He said he won’t: “It will be tempting to save a copy, but I’m pretty sure I can resist. A copy wouldn’t really be Shader anyway. I’m very used to thinking of the netbook as the game.”
Colin Northway: “My current plan is mostly glue-based. I’m going to fill all the ports with super glue (except video out) and glue the hard-drive in place.”
Given how much Colin and Sarah travel, and given how they often stay in remote places, I think I’m more worried about Shader’s lifespan than Colin seems to be. I can just imagine the laptop getting roughed up in airport security. I can just see someone spilling a soda on the keyboard or dropping the computer. One disaster like that and Shader would be gone forever.
Colin doesn’t seem to be as nervous.
“I expect it to truck on for a good while,” he said. “We travel with our laptops, and they get pretty beat up but survive, so I’m hopeful. I know the screen will eventually die, which sucks, and I’m tempted to super-glue a mouse in place to relieve the pressure on the trackpad and keyboard (when the mouse dies I can just cut the cord).”
The game has survived its first border-crossing. Colin is in Brazil now, with a swing through San Francisco planned for the Game Developers Conference and then some travel in Canada. Maybe South Africa after that.
Colin is keeping a list of everyone who plays Shader. Including his and Sarah’s, he’s got 12 names on there now, mostly from that New Year’s night in Buenos Aires. “One person wrote ‘Sin Nombre’ as his name and said he didn’t want the government to get his name,” Colin told me. Given Argentina’s scars from its recent dictatorship, such concern seems reasonable.
My name is not on Colin’s list. I haven’t played Shader, and I can’t overstate how much this has bothered me in the week since I met Colin or, more specifically, in the week since I realized I’d missed my chance.
As much as Colin’s talk about Shader intrigued me on the day that I met him, I didn’t ask him to play the game. We’d just met, had gone to hear some jazz with our wives and had agreed to meet up again a couple of days later at the Argentinian indie developer Tembac’s house. Fascinated as I was by Colin and Sarah, their travels and Colin’s game, my mind was mostly in vacation mode.
When I arrived at Tembac’s house on the night of the 4th, I knew I’d be meeting a slew of Argentinian developers, many of whom wanted to show me their creations. I played a bunch of their games that evening. I saw a lot of smart, fresh ideas and was impressed with their sector of the Argentinian game development scene. I assumed I could follow up with them and play more of their games later.
Colin and Sarah eventually showed up. I watched Sarah play her new game and made a mental note to ask her more about it when she was further along and I was back in the States. Colin was chatting with other folks at the party. We didn’t talk much, and, somehow, given the hour or the alcohol, I forgot about Shader. The next morning, I remembered it. I realized then that I was too late. I learned that they played the game much later the night before, after I’d left. Colin had had it with him, but I’d missed my chance.
The next day, on the morning of the 5th, I packed a suitcase and headed to the airport to go to northern Argentina to see some of the biggest waterfalls in the world. Colin and Sarah were staying in Buenos Aires for another day before flying up to go to Brazil. That’s when Shader’s specialness really hit me and the gnawing began. I started thinking about the hours of my flights. My wife and I would be returning to Buenos Aires for a day. Could we catch the Northways before they split? Maybe we could fly back sooner. Maybe the Northways would, for some random reason, stay an extra day. I hoped, irrationally.
Suddenly I just had to play the game. Suddenly, I realized there was a good chance that I never would. I simply might not cross paths with Colin before his laptop gives out.
I had taken Shader for granted. I had viewed it, subconsciously, as any other game I didn’t have to rush to play. Having missed it, though, I sensed myself becoming unreasonable. You’re about to see some of the world’s most amazing waterfalls, I told myself. Sure, but plenty of people can see them. They’ll always be around. Oh, I was being absurd and entitled. At least for a time, however, those waterfalls washed my feelings about Shader away.
We live in a world of easy duplication. We live in a world where everything is copied and pasted, retweeted and torrented. We live in a time of DVRs and cloud saves and the phone-assisted ability to photograph or film anything we see.
In an age of constant recording and copying, impermanence is novelty. Ephemera is exciting. Shader is a part of that. It’s not some game we haven’t gotten around to yet. It’s not some shooter bought cheap in a Steam sale or a role-playing game borrowed on disc from a friend that’s just piling up in a backlog of games we don’t have time to play.
It’s a game that exists right now, yet is out of the reach of nearly every person on the planet because of a choice. It’s a game you or I can only play if our lives take us certain places and enable us to meet a certain person.
It’s a game we can only play until the tides of time erode it from existence. It’s a game that will disappear. It’s a game that cannot be saved.
I recently told Colin that I was frustrated about not having played Shader. My intent was to compliment him for conceiving such a fascinating idea. I also was trying to sound out my own anxiety. How pure were my motivations to play the game? Did I want to play it because the game itself intrigued me? Or because I wanted the status of being on Colin’s rarified list? Probably a bit of both, to be honest. Playing Shader would have been cool. It would have felt like an adventure, a good sidequest in a life of trying to have an interesting time playing interesting video games.
In an age of constant recording and copying, impermanence is novelty. Ephemera is exciting. Shader is a part of that.
I told Colin I’d happily plug whatever he’s working on at the moment that would actually pay his bills. He told me he’s “working on something with Rich Edwards, a British indie. It’s physicsy and probably set on Venus and involves jelly-fish and giant air whales. It will definitely come out in 2014.” Pretty cool, I thought.
I also told him that, a few weeks ago, I wasn’t planning on flying out to San Francisco in early 2014. I said I was now considering changing my plan to go out to the Game Developers Conference in that city, just because he said he’d be there.
“That’s crazy about the trip to GDC!” he replied. “I know what you mean, though. I don’t think there is any one reason it’s so beguiling. The status thing could be part, but also, I think, being denied access is infuriating and makes you want something more. Plus the weird specialness of the physical object and feeling connected to its history (both past and future). Those are all things games don’t usually do.”
He tossed me some hope with an asterisk attached.
“If you do make it to GDC you can definitely play it!” he told me. “Assuming I don’t kill it in the sabotaging process.”