Corvus horns in
August 18, 2008
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.