Braid and Values/Design
So I wanted to take this video plus blog entry experiment to examine both a game that has been on a lot of people’s minds for the past two months (a game that I respect and enjoy greatly) and a review of that game that has turned into a meme over the past weekend. Braid, a downloadable game by indie developer Jon Blow and only a few collaborators made over the course of two painful years at great personal expense, justifies for many critics the first marketable art video game (at least for consoles). Opinions seem split between critics hailing it as the most remarkable achievement by a single game designer (note that they did the same thing last year with Everyday Shooter), the “mature” gamers who agree with these critics, and “immature” gamers who find the game boring, inane, or at least generally overhyped. The mechanic at the center of this disagreement is Braid’s time reversal: is it innovative, is it a knock-off, is it worth talking about? Enter Soulja Boy Tell’em stage left – way out of left field. In the course of two minutes Soulja Boy explains that the game is for “people who are fucked up on drugs or alcohol,” that it is “Mario in the future with a business suit and orange hair,” and that it is “stupid as hell” because “the go-back-in-time potion” never runs out. Meanwhile, he and his friends marvel and hoot at the visual effect and consequences of the time reversal. Critics have responded in predictable fashion, either by blowing the review off as simple YouTube comedy material or by becoming incredibly offended by Soulja Boy’s audacity in trivializing their job in general, their expert opinion of Braid in particular, and the game itself. What I want to assert is that Soulja Boy’s review shows us some important things about key qualities of Blow’s design in Braid and the narrative functions and mechanics of games as a whole.
The Values@Play Grow-a-Game kit emphasizes cooperative game development through discussion around games that present nebulous values such as “cooperation,” “justice,” and “style.” Braid’s main values in this context can be seen as “humility” and “forgiveness.” Blow’s concept for the time-reversal mechanic is that players shouldn’t be punished for making mistakes. In order to back this benevolence up, Blow has allowed players to reverse time -for up to 30 minutes-. This is an incredible achievement in data storage for such a modest downloadable title. With this decision Blow has completely bypassed considerations of resource management and economy described by Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words & I Must Design” (GDR 10). That covers forgiveness: this is the most infinitely forgiving game ever made (except for the particular levels designed to highlight this concept by denying forgiveness, the “Irreversible” stage in particular). In class I described humility as a game mechanic by describing situations in which the player must realize that they cannot win the game by their skill alone. Examples include bosses that cannot be beaten without the “deus ex machina” intervention of helper NPC’s or games that manipulate pacing by introducing new mechanics that force players to completely rethink their methods (a stealth level in the middle of a run-and-gun shooter game). The platforming in Braid has been designed to be virtually impossible without recourse to the time-reversing skill. This is what, against what many users who claim that Braid’s time-reversal is not new because we’ve seen similar effects in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, makes Blow’s primary mechanic truly unique – it is backed up by a solid understanding and explication of the values of humility and forgiveness.
Henry Jenkins in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” (GDR 34) explains that games can be seen as designed spaces of “narrative architecture” that allow players to create stories through their decisions, ideas, and actions. Here is where I find Braid lacking. Soulja Boy exposes a possible weakness in Braid’s narrative space, because he shows that the game’s story (except for the final stage, which he does not cover) can only be “truly” understood if the player chooses to stop and read the books that begin each stage. These books tell a story of a man (Tim) who has lost his great love, the Princess, and who after maturing has decided to find her again and win back her love. Lengthy passages describe a rich mix of feelings: from self-reliance, longing, regret, and mental/physical isolation. The game’s title comes from a past moment that the narrator remembers well: when he’d said something hurtful to the Princess, and as she spun away from him he felt the lash of her braid against his cheek. The narrative of this game so totally complements the time-reversal game mechanic that it will bring any contemplative gamer to shivers and shudders. Tim wishes that it were possible to reverse time, after learning from one’s mistakes or missteps in a relationship, and to go on with this new knowledge in order to be a better lover. Mateas and Stern, in “Interaction and Narrative” (GDR 29), discuss the relationship between agency and immersion. Braid allows for a feeling of agency because one really gets the feeling of unlocking a mystery and exploring Tim’s psyche through one’s play. The time-reversal mechanic also makes the world feel largely malleable to the player’s wishes. Immersion deals with being able to accept the logic of a game’s world even if this logic differs from that of the real world. Braid takes this one step further by contemplating the consequences of what one might be able to achieve in life if the time-reversal logic of the game world could be carried into real life. The problem with all this design perfection is that a casual or hurried gamer will not encounter any of this narrative explication if they don’t stop to read the optional books that begin each level. If one asserts that interpretive richness, rather than narrative space, matters most when analyzing video games, then the logical conclusion to this is that one must accept Soulja Boy’s judgment of the game as equal to any expert critic’s.
In film studies one learns that movies should not tell past information about characters or events through text (intertitles, opening scrolling text a la Star Wars), because the cinema’s unique artistic propensity is in showing action in real time. The same can be said of video games: it should be considered an aesthetic crime, unless limited by technology, to confine a game’s narrative to text. Richard Bartle’s essay, “Why Players Suit MUDs” (GDR 61), elucidates the fact that games should be designed to be playable for multiple users. For MUDs we can break this concept down into the types: achiever, killer, explorer, and socializer. I’ll return to how Braid satisfies this open play identity construction later, but first I was to address the fact that Braid essentially fails to open itself up to enough different types of gamers. Only the “mature” or studied gamer will take the time to read and think about the narrative. One can debate whether or not it is important for an art game to appeal to an audience of any given size other than those who eat it up intellectually or emotionally. Do we want to make games that are only experienced “fully” by one type of gamer, while everyone else only has recourse to the fun of dropping down into a hole and then reversing time to escape death? One possible argument to this is that Braid can be enjoyed solely as a platformer, but Blow himself has commented numerous times that the platforming skills required to play his game are minimal and hollow when considered without the story he is trying to craft. To his credit, Blow does incorporate enough vagueness into the exact meaning of the story to allow multiple interpretations (see Braid/Manhattan Project explications on any gamer blog). This is to say that his narrative architecture certainly has legs, and he does create multiple “worlds” in which different time/space mechanics operate to explore the varying thought patterns of his protagonist Tim. Also, within the sub-class of gamers I’m calling “mature,” the game does allow for explorers, achievers, and hardcore platformers. In order to unlock the full story one must search out puzzle pieces (explorers), the Xbox Arcade format supports an achievement structure that shows one’s accomplishments to the Xbox community (achievers), and hardcore platformers can post their speed runs of the game on public leaderboards and YouTube (also supported in the achievement structure).
Message to professional game critics: make your writing more enjoyable to read and you won’t be shown up by a teenaged rapper; consider objections to your blanket acceptance of a game’s design choices so you won’t be caught off guard when a large body of gamers aren’t connecting with a game on the same cognitive/emotional level as you. Art doesn’t have to be enjoyed by everone; what I’ve tried to show are reasons why some people (Soulja Boy included) might not have enjoyed Braid (other than that they are “ludicrous” or “stupid”).