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August 2008

Goodbye plastic


I've been thinking about my gaming habits since finishing Metal Gear Solid 4 last month. Without realizing or fully appreciating it, I've been living in the promised land. Everyone said this day was coming - we've seen it on the horizon for 20 years - but as is often the case with thresholds and paradigms, we don't notice them until they're in our rear-view mirrors.

It hit me when I noticed a small pile of orange Gamefly envelopes on the table next to my consoles. They've been siting there, untouched, for a month. As my wife will corroborate, that's very unusual because I keep our mail carrier very busy shuttling games to and from our spacious villa overlooking the ocean that exists only in my fevered mind.

The final wake-up call came last night as we were playing PixelJunk Monsters co-op, and she asked me if I planned to keep this one. "Keep it?" I asked. "Or send it back to Gamefly," she replied. "We already own it. I bought it online." "Oh. Nice," she said with a smile. [Note: When your spouse smiles at the news of a game purchase, you have officially unlocked the "Soulmate for Life" achievement.]

In all my time as a gamer, I've never had a playlist that looked like this: Geometry Wars 2; Braid; PixelJunk Eden; Castle Crashers; Quest for Glory 2 (remake); The Last Guy; Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty; Madden '09. All released in the last month (Eden a bit earlier). One game with shrink-wrap, seven without. All are good, solid games. A couple might even be called great games.

The long-awaited day of top-drawer, well-designed, original downloadable games has finally arrived. Sure, it didn't just emerge out of thin air, and we all know XBLA, PopCap, and the indie game scene (among many other outlets) have been delivering all sorts of good stuff for quite some time. But the general marketplace always lags behind the enthusiasts, and very often it's a convergence of events that brings the mainstream up to speed. Lots of us were ripping music, tweaking MP3 bitrates, and downloading files long before the arrival of the iPod and widely available broadband internet.

When a non-gaming media outlet like National Public Radio runs a feature piece on Braid, something's up. When intra-office competitive juices flow madly over Geometry Wars 2 leaderboards, converting Silver members to Gold in droves, a threshold has been crossed. When millions of iPhone users experience the world of downloadable games for the first time and discover they like it, a door has opened. When readers write to tell me they have purchased PS3 systems purely so they can play Everyday Shooter, Super Stardust HD, flOw, and the PixelJunk games, it seems to me we've arrived somewhere we've never been.

Lots more plastic discs in plastic boxes wrapped in plastic are on their way, and I'm sure we'll be happy to see them, especially with titles like Fallout 3 and Little Big Planet emblazoned on them. But I wonder if someday we'll look back and see this as the moment when the big transition began.

Meta4orce - chat with the designer


I've been enjoying an email exchange with the developer of an interactive animated sci-fi detective series called Meta4orce. Written by acclaimed comic book writer Peter Milligan, Meta4orce molds together a four-part episodic animated series with eight integrated online games to tell the story of a team of genetically-altered detectives tasked with solving highly sensitive criminal cases.

The game was commissioned by the BBC as an experiment in online interactive entertainment (the animated sequences were broadcast on BBC2), and it's available to play for free anywhere in the world. If you're familiar with the BBC's license fee system, you know that much of its televised content is restricted to UK residents only, so the worldwide availability of Meta4orce is a pleasant and welcome surprise.

In my conversation with one of the game's designers, Iain Lobb, he's written about the challenges of creating a console-like experience in a browser (Meta4orce is a Flash-based game) as well as the game design/theory implications of the project. He's trying to integrate short games within a linear narrative animation; which, when you think about it, means the game elements function as cutscenes to the narrative, rather than the other way around. The experiment here is to provide a different kind of interactive experience for gamers.

And that's where you come in. :-)

Iain was kind enough to solicit my feedback on the project, and I asked him if he would be willing to let me extend that invitation to my readers. He eagerly agreed, and so here we are. If you're interested, head over to the BBC's site for the game and give it a look. Then return here and post your comments and questions for Iain. He will pop in every so often to respond, and I hope we'll be able to generate a useful discussion.

Meta4orce is intended as a casual narrative game that blends media in an interactive online environment. I encourage you to meet the game where it is and consider the possibilities and/or limitations of such an experiment. As Iain asked me in his original message, "Are projects like this the future, or is it just a one-off experiment that will never lead to anything else? (like Dragon's Lair or those multi-disk CD-Rom movie/games of the 90s)."

I'm grateful to Iain for his willingness to engage with the community in this way, and I invite you to join in what I hope will be a constructive conversation. See you in the year 2034.

[Note: the Meta4orce site works best for users with broadband connections.]

Love's labours won

Qfg2_poster Despite the reappearance of classic games on XBLA, Virtual Console, GameTap and elsewhere, relatively few modern gamers have been clamoring for remakes or graphical overhauls of point-and-click adventure games (at least ones not called "Sam and Max").

Sure, fans of the old LucasArts and Sierra classics get very excited about rumored re-releases of games like Day of the Tentacle or Space Quest, but in the grand scheme of things, nobody seems terribly interested in bringing back point-and-click adventure games as a money-making proposition. Such games are beloved by many (including me), but the genre we once knew - full of so many smart, clever, funny games -  is gone forever.

All of which makes me rejoice at the appearance of Quest for Glory II. This labor of love from AGD Interactive ('AGD' stands for Anonymous Game Designers) could only have happened through the efforts of people who truly care about this terrific game and believe it deserves to be preserved for future generations and spiffed up with a shiny new coat of paint. How else to explain nearly eight years of work and devotion lavished on a game most people have never heard of? How else to understand the careful attention to detail and graphical subtlety in a nearly 20-year-old game released for free this week?

Archivists and restorationists get very little love or attention. They generally work behind the scenes, piecing together fragments of things, making sense of someone else's ideas, trying always to preserve and convey the original spirit of an artifact they feel driven to both protect and share. Such people are lovers in the truest sense. They devote themselves to the objects of their affections with no expectation of personal reward or even acknowledgment. The artifact is everything, and the objective is to ensure it lives on in all its original splendor. Quest for Glory indeed. :-)

The game industry has done a woefully poor job of preserving its history. Just as in the early days of the silent cinema, many early games have been lost, some permanently, essentially because nobody thought they were worth saving. And the old games that do exist are often inaccessible to us for all sorts of reasons (hardware incompatibility, missing documentation, outdated media, etc.)

And so it falls to the fans, the lovers, the enthusiasts to step in and play the roles of historians, archivists, and preservationists - just as they have done for the cinema. You might be surprised to learn how many films from the first 50 years of the cinema exist today only because of the devotion of personal collectors, former studio employees, and others who believed these now-precious gems were worth saving.

We gamers owe AGD a giant thank-you. They began with a set of original QFG2 screens "connected to each other without alleyways, dialogs, or a lot of interaction" and added new animations, a complete graphical overhaul, and the fixing of thousands of bugs. The Sierra adventuring and role-playing elements remain intact, and the plot, characters, and locations are unchanged from the original. It's a wonderful update that clearly emerged from a desire to bring new life to a classic while preserving all the charm and magic of Lori Ann and Corey Cole's original game.

You can download the game here. I just checked again and, yeah, it's still free. Get on your flying carpet and pick it up now before they change their minds.

Vintage Game Club - Deus Ex

Deus_ex_poster_by_egoyette The members have spoken and voted, and the next game up for the Vintage Game Club is Deus Ex!

Warren Spector and Harvey Smith's interactive thriller is one of the greatest PC games of all time, weaving RPG elements into a first-person mystery-action-adventure shooter. The music is pretty cool too.

We all have busy lives, so the club requires nothing but your interest to join. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it - or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're just here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - September 2. 1 week from today. That should give everyone a chance to get their hands on the game. PC users can purchase it from Steam, and it's also available for free at the moment on GameTap. PC users sick of staring at their screens all day may wish to consider the PS2 edition, pros and cons of which are discussed here.
  • How will it work? - We'll try to play together at roughly the same pace and post our thoughts as we go along. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you. I will try to organize the comments so they flow in a way that reflects the unfolding of the game. I hope these comments will look more like a conversation and less like a series of disconnected posts.

If you've never played Deus Ex, now's the time to give it a whirl. If you've already finished/cracked/beaten/completed it, feel free to jump in and lend a bit of your expertise to the discussion. All are welcome.

And, yes, the movie poster is, mercifully, fake. :-)

What do we say when we're done?

Behind_the_beat I was chatting with a dozen or so incoming college freshmen a couple of days ago, and we were discussing games they had recently played. One of them casually mentioned that he had beaten GTA IV. I found that expression interesting, so I asked him, how do you "beat" GTA IV? He replied that he had completed all 114 available missions, so in his view he overcame all the challenges the game presented to him and had, therefore, beaten it.

Aside from being surprised to learn GTA IV has 114 missions (and realizing how little I've actually accomplished in the game), I found myself zeroing in that word "beat." So I asked the others how they tended to characterize the act of completing or otherwise reaching the end of a video game. With only a couple of exceptions, all agreed that "beating" a game is a suitable description for that accomplishment.

Games that don't have clear endings, such as Geometry Wars or World of Warcraft, it was generally agreed, can also be beaten. In Geometry Wars 2 one must rack up all 12 Achievements and 200 gamer points. In WOW, one must level up to 70 and complete all the expansion quests. It was agreed that one never really "finishes" WOW, but it's still basically possible to "beat" the game...until Blizzard releases the Lich King expansion, which will require players to beat it again.

I'm one of those people who think words matter - a lot, actually - so I found this conversation incredibly interesting and revealing. Let me say that I apply no judgment here at all. Gamers are free to engage with games and derive whatever meaning they want from those experiences. I'm not interested in convincing anybody to think one way or another. But I'm struck by the degree to which my own sense of things differs from these students.

I've always tended to say that I "finish" games. Occasionally I say I "complete" them, which is a subtly different characterization. So I finished Metal Gear Solid 4, and I completed Super Mario Galaxy. I've tried hard, but I can't think of a single game I've played and beaten, even though plenty of my friends regularly use that word. I've beaten plenty of bosses; just not games. And I'm not sure why I don't beat games; it's certainly not a moral or ethical thing. Hey, if you want to beat Kirby's Dream Land, I say go deliver a can of whoopass to that nasty King Dedede. Whatever floats your boat.

Obviously, different genres and modes of play determine how we interact with games, but I'm curious about the dynamic relationships players develop with games and the words they use to describe those experiences. Do I finish or complete games because I'm older than these 18-year-olds? Is it simply a generational thing? Or is more complex than that? Maybe in this case words really don't matter very much. I don't know, but I'm very curious to hear other opinions on the subject. Maybe you can let me know...after you beat that game you're playing.

Why would you want to do that?

1803_etrian Without meaning to, I've found myself bumping into the question of difficulty in games recently. I can't explain why, but I've been thinking and writing about it a lot lately, and in the process I've become painfully aware of my own hypocrisy on the subject. On one hand, I want my non-gamer friends to play Braid; but they can't, and that troubles me. On the other hand, I would love for my non-gamer friends to play Etrian Odyssey; but they can't (or won't) and I couldn't care less. Etrian Odyssey is a hard game, folks. Deal with it.

At least I'm aware of my hypocrisy. That should count for something, right?

A small part of me quietly thinks Etrian Odyssey is the ultimate (and portable!) lithmus test to determine authentic, old-school, hardcore gamer cred. If you dig this game - I mean derive real satisfaction from playing it - you, my friend, have attained Gamer Enlightenment and reside in the 9th Sphere of dungeon-crawler Heaven.

I came face to face with the essence of this peculiar form of transendence when my copy of Etrian Odyssey II arrived the other day. My wife was intrigued by the game box and asked me what kind of game it was. I explained it was an RPG that hearkens back to the roots of the genre and games like Wizardry. When that didn't register, I added that it was a turn-based exploration game that required the player to draw his own dungeon maps. "You mean the game doesn't show you where you are?" she asked. "Nope. You're totally on your own. It's like back when games required you to draw maps on graph paper, except with this game you can draw them on the bottom screen of the DS." After looking at me blankly for moment, she asked, "Why would you want to do that?"

Hm. Why indeed. It's a good question, isn't it? Why would a modern gamer choose to play a game that resolutely refuses to incorporate nearly every major advancement made in the genre over the last 25 years? And why would a modern developer (Atlas) devote its resources to building an antique, outmoded RPG?

Etrian Odyssey demands much and offers very little in return. It severely punishes your mistakes and requires a lot of apparently unnecessary work. It is a grind in the purest sense; no auto-saves, no mini-maps, increment-only movement, frequent random battles and brutal bosses. It is unforgiving, unyielding, and it refuses to hold your hand or even acknowledge your measly existence. And those are the very reasons I love it so. I love Etrian Odyssey precisely because it is so unfashionably hard.

No doubt, a certain amount of ego comes into play here. Surviving in Etrian Odyssey is verification that I've still got it as a gamer and classic RPG player. I haven't lost my chops. To be sure, in this genre "chops" translates to dogged persistence and indefatigable enthusiasm - not exactly skills, but admirable traits nonetheless. I may not be as fast as I used to be, but it's good to know I haven't lost a step when it comes to bulldog perseverence. :-)

And there's something to be said for occasionally taking the hard road. Etrian Odyssey offers great fun and deep satisfaction, but you must dig and sweat before the game will yield them to you. Some would say this is no fun at all. But I say a map well-drawn and a dungeon well-explored are their own rewards.

If you're a big fan of RPGs, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the genre's origins. There are lots of ways to do that, including playing games like The Bard's Tale and Wizardry yourself. But Atlas has done all of us a great service (yet again) by capturing the souls of these games into a handsome modern package and by bringing the original Japanese versions of Etrian Odyssey I and II to North America, Europe and Australia. I recommend the sequel for its improved navigation and inventory management, both of which make the game...uh, yeah, easier. On second thought, I recommend the original.

Help us Obi-John; you're our only hope

John_madden_football An ever-so-slightly disturbing holographic image of John Madden greets you upon loading Madden '09...but don't worry. He's here to help. The old coach wants to grab your attention, toss you a few pointers, run you through some drills, and BOOM! - make you a better player.

Aside from a fairly impressive graphical upgrade, this year's Madden is all about making it easier to play this year's Madden. To that end, EA has added several new features to help players learn the basics of running, passing, and defense.

After greeting you Princess Leia-style, Madden sends you to the new virtual Training Center where you can "fine-tune your game in a holographic environment." This hyper-spare, Tron-like atmosphere is apparently intended to focus your attention on the skill you are assigned to practice, rather than the distracting details of the stadium or the uniforms of the other players.

Once you start playing real games, the Adaptive Difficulty Engine steps in to "assesses your proficiency in the core skills areas of football, then tailors the experience to match your playing style." Theoretically, this means if you're a lousy player the AI will go easy on you, but if you're a skilled veteran, you're in for a fight.

Madden '09 also helps you learn from your mistakes. The BackTrack feature "provides customized feedback, giving you a chance to learn from your mistakes." The voice of Chris Collinsworth pops up whenever you throw an interception, for example, and explains what you did wrong and what you could have done better. You then have the option of using "EA SPORTS Rewind" to reverse time (Braid-style!) and run the play over again. Finally, Madden '09 employs in-game button hints that appear beneath players you control, reminding you to make use of their special skills or strengths.

Each of these new features can be turned on or off, and some can be controlled, such as limiting the number of rewinds each player may use per game.

I haven't played enough Madden '09 to evaluate how well any of these new additions work, but I'm intrigued by EA's strategy of building them into its most lucrative franchise. I'm not keen on revisiting my "this game is too hard" series of conversations about Braid, but as several commenters pointed out, the Madden series has grown increasingly complex over the years - far more difficult to pick up and play than Braid, or most other games for that matter.

In case you're not familiar with Madden, here are the controller instructions for only the offense. The defense has its own separate set of controls. You're gonna need that PgDn button.

X Button Snap Ball
Triangle Button Cancel an audible call (before selecting an audible). Hot Route to a different receiver: Triangle then the button corresponding to the receiver, then press: Directional Button UP = for a fly pattern, DOWN = for a curl pattern, LEFT/RIGHT = for an in/out pattern, L2 or R2 = for a left/right slant pattern, or Right Analog Stick DOWN for a Smart Route. You may also press the Left Analog Stick to change the receiver's route.
Circle Button Fake Snap
L1 Button Slide offensive line protection: L1 then Direction Button UP = spread line, DOWN = pinch line, LEFT/RIGHT = shift blocking left/right.
R1 Button R1 then Directional Button = Formation shift
Left analog stick (L3 Button when pressed down) UP/DOWN to highlight eligible player then Left Analog Stick LEFT/RIGHT to send that player in motion.
Right analog stick (R3 Button when pressed down) LEFT/RIGHT = Switch the direction of a running play. LEFT/RIGHT or UP/DOWN = Hot Route primary receiver.
L3 Button Quiet Crowd

X Button Sprint
Triangle Button Cover up/Protect ball
Square Button (Tap) Slide / (Hold) Dive (QB).
Circle Button Spin
L2 Button Stiff Arm Right
L1 Button Juke Left
R2 Button Stiff Arm Left
R1 Button Juke Right
Right analog stick (R3 Button when pressed down) Up = Big Offensive Hit. Down = Back Juke.

Directional Buttons Control Precision Passing Ball Placement
X Button Sprint. Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
Triangle Button Catch. Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
Square Button Dive for pass. Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
Circle Button Control intended receiver while ball is airborne. Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Pull and release quickly to lob pass; Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
L2 Button Throw ball away (tap). QB scramble behind the line = Hold L2 + Square, Circle, L1, R1, or R2.
L1 Button Swat ball. Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
R2 Button Lock on to receiver: Hold R2 + corresponding receiver button. Pump fake (tap when passing icons are up). Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
R1 Button Pass to the receiver with corresponding icon. Tap for lob pass; Hold for a bullet pass.
Left analog stick (L3 Button when pressed down) Control Precision Passing Ball Placement
Right analog stick (R3 Button when pressed down) QB Vision Control
R3 Button Direct the nearest receiver = hold R3 + Right Analog Stick

X Button Sprint. Power Block.
Triangle Button Jump. Change blocking assignment before the snap: Triangle then press the button corresponding to the running back or tight end whose passing/blocking route you want to change. Press L2 to change to a blocking assignment to the left. Press R2 to change it to the right.
Square Button Cut Block
Circle Button Switch to Closest Blocker

Triangle Button No huddle/Hurry-up offense, (Hold) to repeat previous play
Square Button (Hold) Fake spike ball trick play
Circle Button (Hold) Spike ball to stop the clock
L1 Button L1 + R1 = Instant replay before playcalling screen appears
R1 Button L1 + R1 = Instant replay before playcalling screen appears

By the way, these are the instructions for Madden '06. Madden '09 throws in a few more.

This is all terribly complicated, of course, but if you're willing to devote yourself to the game for a few hours, the commands eventually become second-nature, as is the case with many games. And as many Madden aficionados will attest, these complex controls give the player more, ...well, control.

My real interest is in the message EA is sending with its flagship sports game. It has clearly decided to design into the game a responsive system for dealing with players of various skill-levels. While we've had Easy, Hard, and Expert modes (and their variants) for years in video games, EA appears to be taking this to another level.

Adaptive AI is also nothing new - and it remains to be seen whether or not it works - but combined with a system that teaches the player how to improve and enables the player to test those newly-learned skills in the context of actual gameplay (rather than a tutorial), this looks like a promising development to me. Throw in the button-hint system and the virtual training center, and Madden '09 looks very much like a game that wants to be your friend, Mr. Noob! ;-)

Obviously, big caveats and yellow caution flags go up whenever developers make the kinds of claims EA is making about the new user-friendly Madden. I can't personally verify how well these new features work...though I look forward to finding out. But I'm intrigued by the notion of games leveraging their own mechanisms to teach us things. Typically this has served a tutorial function, teaching the player how to play the game itself. But if a game can be smart enough to do the things Madden '09 wants to do,  I can't help but wonder: what else might it teach?

Artist's rendering

Okamibook2_2 I've been looking forward to writing about the Ōkami Art Book since it arrived on my doorstep recently. It's the most remarkable book I've ever seen devoted to video game art.

I've written here before about how much I admire Ōkami, and this lovely book only serves to deepen my respect for the extraordinary care and artistry lavished on this game by its designers. Even if you disliked Ōkami; - heck, even if you hated it - I still believe you would find this an exceptionally interesting book.

The book's actual title is Ōkami: Official Complete Works, and it is a gorgeous 288-page collection of concept sketches, character art, location designs, and bestiary - all inspired by Japanese watercolor paintings that serve as the visual framework for the entire game.

Aside from the sheer beauty of the illustrations, the book also contains illuminating and often humorous commentary by the artists who created the various characters and locations. Included are many early renderings that provide a glimpse into the iterative process of collaborative brainstorming, sketching, revising, and finally producing final full-color designs.

The Ōkami Art Book also functions as a compilation of the image scrolls and ancient manuscripts that tell the Ōkami story from its origins in mythology. As the preface states (and remember, this is a Japanese book, so the preface appears at the place westerners would normally call the back of the book):

The text was first translated into modern Japanese and then into English for this book, but the format and layout of the original documents have been preserved.

The book exudes quality with stunning layouts, well-organized features, and a perfect balance of decorative calligraphic and easily-readable fonts. These may seem like small things, but in an art book like this, the presentation matters almost as much as the art itself. My only complaint: I wish it was available in hardcover.

I'm obviously crazy about this book, and I encourage you to give it a look and add it to your collection if you're a gamer who cares about video game art design...or simply art, period. The Ōkami Art Book serves as  exemplary documentation of the care and devotion that go into the visual design of a major video game. If you decide to pick it up, consider buying it from your local bookseller if you're lucky enough to have one. They may not have it in stock, but they'll be happy to order it for you, and I promise it will be worth the wait.

Many thanks to Matthew Gallant who was the first to tell me about the Ōkami Art Book.

Is this what we want?

Einsteinpuzzled_2 I live with one foot in a gaming world and the other in a non-gaming world. Most of my local friends are academics who teach art, theater, music, rhetoric, philosophy, etc.. Without exception these people are curious about the world and eager for an intellectual challenge or exchange of ideas. They're sensitive to the nuances of human communication; they love the arts; and they're genuinely curious about new ideas and forms of expression.

And none of them can play Braid. Not one. Most of them can't even figure out what they're supposed to do. I know because I've put the gamepad in their hands and watched them. Sure, these folks aren't gamers like me, but they're also not senior citizens or video-game-phobics. They're mostly people in their late 20s to mid 40s who may play games now and then, but could never be described as gamers. And they're all pretty smart.

The tragic thing is they want to play. The music, the visuals, the opening text - all hook them and pique their curiosities. They didn't know games aspire to explore the human psyche. They didn't know games can look like paintings. They didn't know game music can feature a cello. Braid invites them in, and they willingly enter. Then, just as quickly, Braid boots them out and slams the door in their faces. They discover that the game is as inaccessible to them as an unknown foreign language.

The tragedy of Braid, to me, is that it bars the door on what might have been its most receptive audience. I understand that one game can't be all things to all people. I get the fact that Braid is, in many ways, a gamer's game with homages to iconic aspects of gaming history. And I'm sensitive to the fact that Braid relies on our collective sense of games and our experiences playing them as part of its meaning. But when you consider how small that audience really is - and when you subtract from that number "hardcore" types like me who found the game severely unyielding - what you're left with is a relatively small group of devoted gamers who truly love the game and find it meaningful to them. That's great, and I don't mean to diminish that experience in the least.

But is this what we want? Why must we so often isolate ourselves in this way? It's a shame to me that a game with Braid's narrative, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations is inaccessible to so many people hungry for exactly those things. I have an agenda here, and I make no effort to conceal it. I want my friends - the painters, poets, musicians, and philosophers I work with every day - to experience for themselves what video games can do and say and mean. I believe they will meet us halfway if we offer them a reasonable hill to climb and a meaningful experience for their efforts. I wanted Braid to be that game, and I'm disappointed and a little sad that it wasn't.

This is my last post on Braid. It's been a terrific discussion, and I'm terribly grateful to Iroquois, Corvus, the commenters, and the designer himself, Jonathan Blow, who have made this multi-post cross-blog conversation so vigorous and thought provoking. I greatly appreciate your interest. Now I'm gonna go play me some Madden.

Wrapping up the Braid conversation

Conversation2 I'm discussing Braid with fellow blogger Iroquois Pliskin. This will be our final exchange, with me returning tomorrow for one last reply. Then I'm off to the great big wide world of other video games.

Hi Mike,

I noticed that your astute readers picked up on the fact that we lovingly pilfered the "vs. mode" idea from Croal/Totilo's exchanges in no time flat. It bears mentioning that we stand on the shoulders of giants, etc.

It's funny to me that you described parts of your experience as drudgery. I was on a console-less vacation last week and one of the first tasks for me when I got back to my 360 yesterday was finally cracking the last few segments of Braid-- my girlfriend was my sidekick and puzzle-solving assistant as I played through the latter half of the game, and we were joking that it was my "homework." I think part of this feeling comes from the way that blogging colors my experience (maybe you felt this too, where there is this pressure to finish the game in order to become well-informed), but it also speaks to the ethos of the game itself-- puzzling my way though Braid was onerous. Blow himself is quasi-puritanical about making the player work hard to figure out things on her own, and this attitude is reflected in the game's design.

The positive side of this, as I see it, is the sense of earned satisfaction you get from mastering the new rules and teasing out the diverse logics of the game-worlds. And it as it happens, this is exactly the sort of thing I appreciate. With a the exception of few puzzles ("crossing the gap" on world 5, for example), which I couldn't have gotten through without just stumbling onto the right solution, I felt that the demands Braid makes on the player are reasonable-- uncompromising and rigorous, but reasonable. Braid is an imperious mistress, but she is rarely fickle.

The negative side of this, as your experience illustrates, is that Braid just lacks any immediate sense of fun. It does not set out to entertain you, and with the exception of some pretty aesthetic moments it makes you earn the pleasure you take from it. (Portal, which makes for a good point of comparison, wants the player to like it and desires to be understood in a way that Braid does not.) I think part of this is that the feel of the platforming is kind of stiff compared to contemporary platformers-- the fact that it was sometimes difficult to execute the proper solution to a puzzle because you couldn't jump properly is a design flaw, in my opinion, and imposes needless barriers to the core enjoyment of experimenting and problem-solving. (Part of the problem here is just that Nintendo makes everyone else look bad when it comes to making buttery-smooth and tactile platforming controls.) This is too bad, because I liked the fact that the rewind mechanic removed the need for the frustrating-controller-slamming-repetitive-death and platform-pixel-length-estimation that is endemic to platformers (indeed, I think this idea of removing player death from the rule-learning scenario was one of the best ideas in the whole game design); it was unfortunate that some of the unrewindable elements in the later puzzles made the easy "redo" impossible.

You're right that the deep concentration and tricky jumping you have to perform to solve the puzzles pulls you out of the narrative. I'm not sure if I would say it "clashes" with the narrative-- as you say, there are some interesting and complex thematic connections between the the texture of Braid's play and the narrative elements. (I have some theses-- crackpot theses-- on this front, which I will inflict on the internet at some future date.)

So I feel where you're coming from Mike, and I understand your disappointment. I thought there was something really refreshing, even respectful about the way Braid makes a set of stringent demands on the player. It shows a certain confidence in the player's capacities. But while meeting these demands can feel ennobling, it can also be alienating to play a game so rigorously governed by the intentions of its author. Braid offers a very specific type of fun, and if this sort of puzzling doesn't suit your temperament it's a game that's easier to admire than to love.

Iroquois Pliskin

Corvus horns in

Corvus Corvus Elrod contacted me to ask if he could jump into our conversation about Braid. Seeing as how Corvus has been at this "games blog" racket longer than nearly all of us; and considering he's the closest thing to a blogger mentor I'll ever have, I said yes.

I'll return later today with one more round between Iroquois and me, and then I expect I'll leave Braid behind and move on to...oh, I don't know. Madden?

Hey guys, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation about Braid. Hope I'm not stepping on any toes by sticking my nose in and adding a few thoughts of my own. I'm going to try and remain objective, because it's not enough for me to simply say, "I hated it." Instead, I want to get at why we might have found it unsatisfying and why, perhaps, so many others didn't.

Braid promises a lot. Some of those promises appear to have been made by Jonathan Blow himself. His excellent talks over the last two years, his advocacy for independent games and games as narrative have been a shining point in an industry that often seems overly focused on polygons and profit margins. The other promises are less explicit and consist of the game's lovely artwork and music. Thanks to these combined elements, I expected a thoughtful and moving game experience.

What we got instead, however, was a brittle platformer with dreams of being much more. Dreams, I feel, that have gone mostly unrealized. Now, I must confess that I've never been a big fan of the platformer. In fact, I have yet to really enjoy a Mario game. I find them to be a futile exercise in frustration. What Braid does do is remove the futility--you're playing to uncover a story, you're exploring the psyche of the main character. What Braid does not do is remove the frustration. In fact, it seems to increase it dramatically. There are a great many levels in the game that require you to perform in precisely the manner intended by the designer. If you do not somehow intuit his intent, the level breaks. This is what I mean by brittle. If you don't play Braid "correctly" your experience, your potential enjoyment, is shattered. So, rather than presenting a compelling storyscape to experience, the game becomes a "learn how the designer thinks" style of game. Hardly the meditative experience promised by the opening hub level. I didn't like that approach to game design when I played Hitman, I don't like it here.

Michael, I know you and I share a similar expectation of video games as a storytelling medium. This is likely due to our common theatrical background and understanding of the importance of an audience. What brought me to video games as a medium (I'm not adverse to that term, by the way. It's one commonly understood by a great many people and clearly communicates a lot of information) is the power of storytelling experience where the audience has quite a lot of agency. Braid takes this agency and uses it in a punative fashion--explore outside the exact path intended by the narrative and you're "doing it wrong." To my mind, this dramatically reduces the power of a video game's storytelling potential.

When I cannot finish a novel, I do not read the Cliff's Notes, or go to the internet to learn the ending. Usually, if I care about the ending enough, I wade through the impenetrable text. The strongest literary correlation to Braid I can think of at the moment was Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. It was difficult to read, difficult to process, and difficult to discuss. But it's a book that contains passages that still haunt me to this day, some five years after reading it. It's also a book I still struggle to untangle in my mind. That is an extremely flattering comparison, even though I feel Braid fell far, far short of Ishiguro's mark. Why does it fall far short? Primarily because The Unconsoled does not require you to unlock the author's exact intent in order to draw meaning from it, while Braid most certainly does.

The point of mentioning this is that I will not rely on walkthroughs to finish Braid. I will continue to load the game every few days and try my hand at one of the levels I've not finished. I managed to grab several extra pieces this weekend relatively easily after taking a bit of a break. At some point, I will eventually have either finished the game or, unlike The Unconsoled, Braid will have lost what small measure of interest it still holds for me. I'm not sure if I'm honoring Jonathan Blow's wishes by this bit of stubbornness, or throwing his failure to reach me back in his face. Perhaps the true reason contains a bit of both attitudes.

I want to conclude by making another favorable, and perhaps more familiar, comparison. Like Tim Schafer's Psychonauts, Braid seeks to elevate the experience of a traditional video game genre into something more powerful, something with depth and meaning, something worth being passionate over, something worth talking about, worth arguing about, worth being angry about. And that, regardless of how you feel about the game itself, is to be respected and supported.

While I do not care for Braid in the least, I find that I must congratulate its creator. Not just because the game is doing well on Live Arcade, or that it's raising awareness of indie game development, or inspiring such in-depth conversation across the web, but because the game itself has challenged me to question my own assumptions about video games as a storytelling medium.

So well done, Mr. Blow (I see you at the next table, listening in). I must say that I look forward to seeing the next game you put your hand to. Who knows? By the time it's done, I may have even finished your first.

Braid conversation - a reply

Braid2 I'm discussing Braid with fellow blogger Iroquois Pliskin. Yesterday I posted Iroquois' impressions. Here is my reply.

This is a tough one for me, Iroquois. Before I played it, Braid looked like a game targeted directly at me and my tastes: thematically ambitious, artistically rich; an homage to genre-defining games I love. As I've written here previously, I want to play games that explore emotions rarely found in video games, like sadness and longing. I'm eager for games that don't fear ambiguity; games that offer open space for interpretation and rumination.

Braid is all these things. So why don't I like it very much?

I admire the game Braid wants to be, but I see a fundamental disconnect between the game's narrative ambitions and the mechanisms Braid relies on to deliver them. Essentially, it's a platformer/puzzle game with story elements interspersed throughout, separating each of the worlds. In this way, it's a fairly conventional structure, with what appears to be a purposefully thin story attached.

But as others have suggested, the real story of Braid is delivered via gameplay. Its thematic through-lines, such as memory and regret, are said to be manifested in the player's experience of turning back time and other activities. Intellectually, I understand this melding of form and content, and it resonates with me as an exciting approach to game design. But my experience playing Braid was nothing like this at all.

Maybe I'm simply not skilled enough as a gamer, but I found playing Braid a thoroughly frustrating affair. The process for accomplishing things can often be terribly fussy, requiring repeated attempts (for me, sometimes 25-30) to overcome a single obstacle or special reverse-time maneuver. At one point, I found myself perched on the last pixel edge of a moving cloud waiting for just the right moment to jump from my time delay circle to catch the next cloud. After 50 or so unsuccessful attempts, I consulted a video walkthrough (more on this in a moment), and even with that running next to me, I found it incredibly difficult to reproduce what I was seeing. At this point, any allegorical meaning I was meant to derive from this experience was destroyed.

Some players complain about single-path "guess what the designer is thinking" puzzles, and I confess I'm not crazy about them myself. But if they're cleverly designed and fun to execute, they can hit that "sweet spot" you describe. While I admire Braid's various chrono effects and the clever ways they're implemented,  I found myself repeatedly stymied by the puzzles. Worlds 4 and 6 were only possible for me with multiple cheats. Perhaps if I had devoted more hours to each, I might have overcome them. But I made an earnest effort, and at a certain point it began to feel like drudgery. I understand the game plays on a certain narrative parallel between the player's difficulty making sense of things and Tim's uncertainties about the world. But for me, the frustration negated any possibility of this sort of engagement.

Anybody making the ironic connection between the name of my blog and the fact that I simply may not be smart enough to play this game?

You mentioned the writing in the narrative vignettes and wondered if such text might be considered "retrograde" in a game like this. I don't necessarily have a problem with games relying on text per se, and in the case of Braid it seems part of its spare, ambiguous aesthetic. I just wish the writing were better crafted. This is all terribly subjective, of course, but I personally found it awkward and bit mawkish. I wish it were more poetic or evocative than it is.

So it sounds like I really hate this game, doesn't it? I'm troubled by that impression because so many people I respect have written so enthusiastically about Braid. Perhaps this game just isn't for me. Despite all that I want to admire about it, it just feels like Braid doesn't like me very much, and that's pretty hard for me to overcome. I consider myself a skilled gamer, so maybe I'm just a little embarrassed that this game was too much for me. I don't know.

I do know this, however. Braid is the bees knees and the talk of the town at the moment, and I'm feeling very much like the odd man out.