A conversation about Braid
August 15, 2008
[Note: I have posted a reply to this essay which I hope you will also read.]
With the help of Iroquois Pliskin of the Versus CluClu Land blog, I'm trying something a bit different with the next few posts. We've agreed to conduct a cross-blog conversation about Braid, sharing our thoughts on the game and responding to each other in a back-and-forth format that also invites comments from everyone. I'm excited to exchange our views of the game in this way, and I'm grateful to Iroquois for inviting me to do it.
Croal Vs. Totilo we ain't, but I'm a lover, not a fighter. ;-)
We borrowed Harvey Dent's coin (slightly bent from the fall) and it came up heads, so Iroquois gets the opening salvo. I'll return with a response this weekend. Hope you enjoy.
I've been looking forward to Braid for a long time now, because I've been listening to Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, talk and critique modern game design for about a year now. Blow really interests me, since he strikes me as one of those quintessential modernist avant-gardistes who is avid to declare that everything being done with the art form is wrong, and that his own magnum opus is going to point the way the future. He's wrong about the tradition, of course, but his mere existence and the viability of his game is a sign that the creative ecosystem for games is healthy and flourishing, as it ought to be.
So I proposed that we conduct this correspondence about the game, and you-- being both gracious and unaware of what you were getting yourself into-- agreed. In the interim, the Internet has been rife with intelligent commentary on the game, so let's move things forward.
When I was racking my brains for something interesting to say about Braid, one of the first things that came to mind was your “narrative manifesto” post last week, which included some comments by Blow. All of the designers you mention seem to recognize a common problem with realizing narrative in games: The player is a creature of whimsy, an “agent of chaos,” and the choices they tend to make with their freedom in the game's world are not usually conducive to narrative coherence. In order to convey a narrative with specificities of character and plot, the designer needs to devise scenarios that take control over the narrative out of the player's hands-- through cutscenes, slow-to-open doors, elevators, and other devices. And by doing this they remove the feature-- interactivity-- which gives games their unique potential as works of art.
Most of your subjects said that their solution is to abdicate the role of author: they put the scriptwriting tools in the player's hands in the form of the game's rules and then give them responsibility for crafting their own interpretation of the world and characters devised by the designer. This approach goes hand-in-hand with a particular gameplay aesthetic, the open-world game genre exemplified by GTA and Oblivion.
Since I've played Braid, I've come to think that Jonathan Blow is the odd-man-out of your examples, Mike. Braid is not about the player's creation of a narrative from the game's rules. It's about finding the one way to get each puzzle piece-- choice doesn't enter into it. And at the level of game design, I think the game is a masterpiece. The time-manipulation mechanic is both innovate and easy-to-use (this is no mean feat), and I liked how each level introduced new wrinkles into the manipulation of time.
The creation of these puzzles is an art in itself, and I thought Blow's design choices on this front were just superb; each challenge struck me as both unobvious and logical. (When I was playing I remembered your recent game-club discussions of Grim Fandango, which illustrated how important it is to strike this balance.) For me, it hit that sweet spot where I found myself mentally navigating some sticky puzzle before I went to bed, and I had to restrain myself from crawling out of bed and firing up the console when the pieces dropped into place just before I went to sleep. (The last game to do this to me is Portal, and this is good company indeed.) When I finally figured out how to get that one piece, I felt like I was being rewarded for doing something genuinely praiseworthy, and for me this sensation is the one experience I wish all games aspired to create.
Blow could have rested his laurels on the quality of the fundamental design. But Blow isn't a man to settle. The little story-vignettes between levels aren't there to tell a story, really, but are there to color the player's experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles. These vignettes are modest devices as bearers of the game's whole plot, but they are appropriately suggestive-- I really thought they transformed the basic gameplay and invested the mechanics with a sort of allusive depth and significance. I think that Blow's attempt to wed form to content by transforming our experience of the game's mechanics into something with a definite narrative texture was brilliant. It's gotten me thinking about how games themselves (all our other games) alter our experience of time and give free rein to our fantasies about perfection and repeatability. (Maybe you're like me and you just find it satisfying to run across games that have something to say about what games mean to the players, what their ethical significance is. Perhaps it's because they facilitate coming up with blog posts.)
So I love Braid. But I'm wondering what you thought of the artistic package as a whole. I had some reservations about the aesthetics, especially the writing of the narrative vignettes, which carry so much weight. Am I being curmudgeonly for feeling that text is a really retrograde way for a video game to convey its framing themes? Gameplay of this caliber covereth a multitude of sins, but do I give the man a pass on appearing (in some places) to have torn some pages from a high-school journal and pasted them into the game?