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August 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»braid

Coming to Blows

Jonathan Blow, designer of Braid, is a smart guy. I think he makes a lot of good points, and I dig his game. But his reaction to the game's reception is drastically wrong, as evidenced in his interview with the AV Club:

And so even prior to the release of Braid, I go back and I read - I've read a lot of these blogs, hoping to read good game criticism. And it was way too much of the English major, and not enough of the Computer Science major. ... And in fact, often it'll be somebody has an agenda - like, there was a very feminist-oriented critique of Braid [on] and it was an author following her feminist agenda and interpreting the game. Which was fine, but it didn't have much to do with what I put in the game.
To begin, it's amusing that Blow thinks there have been too many "English major" critiques, since I've read several people agreeing that the only reason I could finish the game and enjoy it is my amateur CS background and left-brain tendencies. I think that's utterly wrong, of course, but even if it weren't--what's a CS perspective on Braid supposed to look like, anyway? "Hey, that's a nice switch-case statement you've got there. My, what a well-crafted particle system." Asking for a logical system of art appreciation is one slippery step away from the abomination of Randian philosophy.

Nevertheless, Blow puts too much weight on his own intentions, and rejects the player's interpretation too handily. He may disagree with the interpretation from Feministe, but it's not wrong. Likewise, he may be upset that people did not take away the same message that he claims to have put in (which seems to be some variant on materialism vs. faith), but those people are not "wrong" or "incomplete" in their thinking simply because they've reached different conclusions. Author's intention is a wonderful thing, but it's not the only thing, or even the primary thing.

That very ambiguity is one of the reasons Braid works artistically. What's it about? Who's Tim? Who's the Princess? How do each of the worlds correspond with the game's overarching theme? Blow claims that he's tied every aspect of the game to a specific, personal meaning, and I think you can tell that's the case. But he doesn't get to define, for each player, what that meaning is. He can say what he intended it to be, which is not the same, and does not preclude other, valid interpretations.

(Notably, Blow is a college dropout who double-majored in English and CS. I would argue that his kind of viewpoint is common to smart, self-educated people, who frequently look down on the literary criticism for its vague and 'unscientific' outlook. This is a mistake: learning to deal with shifting or undefined situations is a primary lesson--perhaps the lesson--of a higher education in the liberal arts.)

There is, in fact, probably a tension between Blow's outlook on art and his game design. He writes:

I'm trying to understand true things about [the universe], or to uncover things about it, in ways again that are less bullshitty than just writing words on a paper. Because somehow, and I could be totally fooling myself about this, but I believe that somehow, there is something more meaningful about creating a system. Because the universe is a system, of some kind. And writing is not a system.
Well, yes, actually. It is. The study of rhetoric and communication, not to mention (at a lower level) linguistics, exists to try to understand that system. Blow, in what's almost a stereotype of computer science, is uncomfortable with rhetorical criticism, because it's not always predictive in the same ways that physics or chemistry can be. So he's designed a game based around puzzles that many people have found too strict, while ironically surrounding them with extremely fuzzy symbols and rhetoric. Perhaps since I tend to straddle those worldviews myself, that's why I enjoy it. Likewise, perhaps Blow himself has lost sight of that part of Braid in his desire to lock its message down to a less distressing ambiguity. Take his observation of the game blog community:
...what's interesting to me is that some people get [the intention], and some people don't. But that's completely decorrelated from people's claimed positions in the sphere of commentary. By which I mean, there are lots of random blog posters on places like Gamespot or NeoGAF or whatever who show a clearer understanding of the game than people who are all, "I'm all about games, and narrative and meaning, and I write a blog just to tell you about how I analyze all these things." Those people have the same hit rate as your general forum poster.
Yeah, well: welcome to the Internet, where everyone can claim to be an expert. I'm not even necessarily saying I disagree with him, but it cuts both ways. The author of an artwork is just as disconnected from any intrinsic authority as any gaming blogger, or forum poster. This is both the advantage and disadvantage of Internet commentary: good analysis can come from anywhere and be judged on its merits, while the analysis from those crowned as authorities can be revealed as flawed in comparison (that's why newspaper editorialists should all be fired). Being the artist, you're entirely welcome to make enlightening statements about why you put something together the way you did. And I'll take that viewpoint under exactly the same consideration as I do everyone else's, because the art itself stands alone.

But like I said, I think Blow's a smart guy. He's thought about this a lot. I'm optimistic that he'll figure it out eventually. And I look forward to what he's capable of making once he does.

August 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»braid

Now We Are All Sons of Bitches

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: "I didn't mean what I just said," and she would say: "It's okay, I understand," and she would not turn away and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience. Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.

There are going to be a lot of claims as to what Braid is really about, how its snippets of text and bizarre time-shifting translate into a story. It's about recovering from self-delusion, as far as I can tell, which is pretty impressive from a game that initially looks and acts like a Super Mario World clone.

Braid is, as its first level intro text explains, a game about a man named Tim who is looking for a princess (probably not a real princess, but whatever she is, Tim pursues her using that metaphor). He lost the princess because he made a great number of mistakes. Eventually she couldn't forgive any more and she left, "her braid lashing him with contempt." But Tim muses, in the text above, if time were so malleable that he could take things back entirely then she wouldn't have to forgive him.

If this seems a bit petulant, that's because it is. Tim begins Braid (begins being a relative term, since the narrative is clearly nonlinear) as someone who is unable to face his mistakes, and would prefer to daydream about a world in which they're instantly forgivable. In turn, the first level (World 2) introduces the rewind mechanic, where all the player's mistakes can be undone simply by rewinding time.

Each of the levels is loosely-linked to its introduction in a similar way. Tim considers a ring as a "warning" that changes his interactions with other people, and forces him to negotiate them with caution. Even so, the game says, "it doesn't get him what he needs. Tim begins to hide the ring in his pocket." What does the ring symbolize--commitment, marriage, empathy? Whatever it is, in the corresponding world the ring serves as a temporal anchor, slowing down time in its immediate surroundings. In physics, heavy objects distort gravity, causing time dilation. Perhaps the ring is also somehow heavy--with what, we have to decide for ourselves.

Or take World 4, "Time and Place." During its intro, Tim returns to several landmarks of his past: his parent's house, his university, his home. Walking to each, he thinks about how these locations are also points in his own personal timeline--the spatial and the temporal are emotionally linked. And so, in the levels of World 4, Tim's movements determine the flow of time. Moving to the left rewinds events, moving to the right advances them. By staying still, nothing changes.

These are, again, very loose metaphors, but they are leading somewhere. Gradually, if not literally, Tim is coming to grasp with his past--how did he get here? Why did the princess leave? Why is she always in another castle? Each level is a kind of fever-dream interpretation of his struggle to piece together his fractured personal narrative in a way that's free of self-deception. Tim's learning not to lie to himself, culminating in the big reveal at the end of World 1--I won't spoil it, but it's a profoundly unsettling transition. The epilogue, as described in this insightful Feministe post (spoilers!), then takes that reveal and carries it forward to a hopeful, if not happy, ending.

I enjoyed the puzzles in Braid--they're smart, layered, and playful. I liked its references, both in the narrative and in the level design, to other games--there are links to Ico, Donkey Kong, Elevator Action, Super Mario World, Prince of Persia, and others. It also incorporates images from science (the quote in the title of this post is taken from the first test of the atomic bomb) and art (each level includes as macguffin a watercolored jigsaw puzzle that must be assembled, forming an ambiguous--and often ominous--image linked to the level's narrative).

But ultimately, what made this game worth the $15 for me was the way that all of this is tied together. We've seen some truly impressive storytelling lately in gaming, with Portal's tragic portrait of GLaDOS and Bioshock's rich characterization and redefinition of game logic. Braid stands up to both of those, which is no small achievement. It takes Tim's internal character development and moves it outside into the players reach through both narrative and gameplay, without resorting to blatant exposition. If you're looking for art in gaming, I'd say that certainly qualifies.

Future - Present - Past