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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 Feministe.us] 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.

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