Braid: In Search of Meaning

"This is not for you." - House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski

It took me months to get back to Braid.

When the indie platformer arrived on Xbox LIVE Arcade in August of 2008, I knew little about it. But based on people I trust, and the artwork of David Hellman, I bought it the day it came out.

It was clear within moments that the game was trying to do something special. I realized instantly that this was an inspired work: an intentional effort to marry a carefully written, illustrated and scored storyline with some truly innovative platforming and time manipulation mechanics. Even better, the game’s designer, Jonathan Blow, was attempting to use the actual mechanics to inform the story.

It was clever. It was cerebral. It was pompous. I bathed in it. And then I got angry.

(Note: the following contains spoilers for Jonathan Blow’s Braid. Caveat Emptor.)

My experience with the game changed dramatically once I started needing help, or indeed even discussing the game with other gamers. Because the Sturm und Drang about the game was much more about Blow than about Braid.

"Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry." – T.S. Eliot

In "The Death of the Author," French semiotician Roland Barthes argued that texts can and should stand on their own. Barthes, and his fellow pompous intellectuals that made up the hugely influential New Criticism movement of the mid 20th century, argued that the source of a work — the Author and his or her intent and process — is irrelevant, and that the fallacy of most criticism was its attempt to find the author living inside a given work. (See also: Derrida, The Intentional Fallacy).

The solution, suggests the New Critical theory, is to read in a vacuum. The reader is essentially a sequestered jury, consuming the evidence of the crime with no regard for the identity of the criminal.

This close-reading school of literary criticism has always held tremendous appeal to me, and my appreciation of a game is deepest when it passes this test.

My initial reaction to Braid was extraordinarily positive precisely because it responded so well to my fallacy-of-intent predilection. Being a pompous intellectual myself, I embraced the fact that the story in the game was vague, but still discernable. I didn’t feel like I was trying to figure out what Blow "meant" by the storyline. The written exposition ahead of each world, while overwrought and ponderous, acted as a tone-poem, setting a contemplative stage for the mechanics.

But I was forced to turn my attention from the game itself because of its difficulty.

"I never give in to the temptation to be difficult just for the sake of being difficult. That would be too ridiculous." - Jacques Derrida

When I hit the inevitable wall in Braid, I discovered that, despite being allowed to run roughshod through the game in order to experience and appreciate the narrative, such gameplay would keep me from reaching the story’s end. I was furious. Unlike most video games, Braid requires literal perfection. Every last jump must be made. Every single obstacle overcome.

Lifting my head from the game, I discovered that Blow, as author, practically demands that his voice be heard. The game’s homepage is emblematic of his public persona: In a few sentences, he assures you that Braid is “painterly," that it is “unique," that it contains “no filler," and that it is “mind-expanding."

In interviews surrounding the game’s launch, he said, in various ways, "I know what it all means, and maybe some people will figure it out, but I’m not telling."

And of course, he famously posted a walkthrough where he informs players that they are essentially idiots if they can’t finish the game: “Solve them for yourself and do not use a walkthrough! … All the puzzles in Braid are reasonable."

This was my first encounter with the unwelcome voice of the author. Blow inserted himself into my experience of his work. I had been pre-chastised by the author: I was a moron if I couldn’t do it on my own.

I took Blow at his terms. Not finishing the game became an act of rebellion. He, not his game, had pissed me off, and so I petulantly took my marbles and went home.

Months passed. I lost the anger of the jilted lover. Using 6 testicle-shriveling hints, I finished the game. The "ending" of the game was ingenious, well constructed, and it made me smile.

"Any life is made up of a single moment, the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is." – Jorge Luis Borges

But the game doesn’t end at the end. Once again, Blow inserted himself into my experience of the game. After the satisfaction of completion, there is an epilogue. The epilogue is vague, poorly written vomit disgorged on freshly polished shoes. It’s a randomly connected series of obscure self-reference and tortured metaphor. A sampling:

His arm weighed upon her shoulders, felt constrictive around her neck. "You're burdening me with your ridiculous need," she said. Or, she said: "You're going the wrong way and you're pulling me with you." In another time, another place, she said: "Stop yanking on my arm; you're hurting me!"

It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World...Someone near him said: 'It worked. Someone else said: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

He cannot say he has understood all of this. Possibly he's more confused now than ever. But all these moments he's contemplated - something has occurred. The moments feel substantial in his mind, like stones.

Somehow, Blow’s story of Tim and his girl troubles (Stalker? Not Stalker? Mom? Not Mom? Virgin? Whore?) goes into a rabbithole of "What the f*ck?" Not only does Braid leave the player guessing, but it leaves the reader guessing without possibility of parole. In the final words of the game, the narrator taunts the reader, effectively saying, "Yes, this game was important, even though you didn’t understand it."

In most cases, this would simply be a case of over-reaching and failed possibility. It would be enough to say, "Oh well, he went too far, and he came so close. Maybe next time." And to be sure, I still feel that way.

"Thus with cautious steps, among deceived enemies, I circulated, plated with poetry, armored with rhymes, stout with another man's song, stiff with cardboard, bullet-proof at long last." – Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

But I can’t let it go. My frustration with Braid is multiplied because it would seem to have been designed with me specifically in mind. I am a student of the obscure. I am pathologically drawn to books, movies, games, and passages of scripture that are dense, difficult, and which hide (and thus reveal) meaning behind layers of art and artifice.

Games lend themselves to this layering more than any other medium. The casual player of Oblivion, System Shock 2, Fallout 3 or Bioshock can have an extraordinarily story-light experience if they simply “play" the games. One layer deeper, a close reading of the environments informs deeper levels of story. Deeper still, evidence in the form of written texts and audio tracks provides footnotes, side-plots and appendices to a central story.

It’s a large part of why I love games, and why I think that they matter. But these layered storytelling approaches are complex by intention, and thus require tremendous detail to voice. The communication from a complex, layered game has to be carefully crafted to evoke, not merely describe. The system of symbols used to tell the story — art, music, text, game play — need to be organic, and consistent.

To put it in context, consider how difficult this is to pull off on the printed page. Consider Mark Danielewski’s 2000 book, "House of Leaves."

Mark Danielewski set out to destroy the concept of narrative in books with "House of Leaves," much in the way Braid succeeds in destroying many of the conventions of "Platformer." The underlying plot of "House of Leaves," while compelling, is essentially haunted-house, horror-movie fare, but the events are seen through an assortment of perspectives: a film documentary, an academic dissertation of said documentary, the exegesis of the dissertation by an uneducated tattoo-parlor employee, and countless footnotes, quotes, "discovered" texts, and appendices.

Like Braid, it’s hard. By breaking so startlingly with convention, it requires the reader to rethink how the "book" works. A typical "hard" part:

"Forgive me please for including this. An old man's mind is just as likely to wander as a young man's, but where a young man will forgive the stray, and old man will cut it out. Youth always tries to fill the void, and old man learns to live with it. It took me twenty years to unlearn the fortunes found in a swerve. Perhaps this is no news to you but then I have killed many men and I have both legs and I don't think I ever quite equaled the bald gnome Error who comes from his cave with featherless ankles to feast on the mighty dead."

This section is itself a footnote which has been redacted by a different author, but is repeated elsewhere in the book without the edit, and then with a further footnote from yet a third editor. All these perspectives are designed to give peeks of insight into the minds of a writer and editor who are both clearly going slowly insane. The book is equally complex in its use of external information. He informs his already difficult text with allusion and reference so obscure it's inconceivable that even the most pathetic obsessive-compulsive has found all the bits: The frontispiece to the hardcover contains the hex-code for an AIFF file of a song from POE, Danielewski’s sister, who’s album “Haunted" contains numerous references and story material supporting the book. Anomalies in the typography lead down paths as likely to reveal some terrifying message as they are to reveal the author's last name. It's a monumental work of twisted, pompous, overly-clever genius. (See also: Pale Fire, The Waste Land, Pierre Menard.)

My love (and fear) of "House of Leaves" is what makes me so uncomfortable talking about Braid. Viewed from the outside, the complexity and obscurity of the storytelling should put them in the same ivory tower where I store all the other vestments of self-satisfied intellectualism. In fact, right until the very end, "House of Leaves" was never far from my mind when playing the game.

But the difference between "House of Leaves" and Braid is that the story of "House of Leaves" is told by the characters who live convincingly within the boundaries of the book. While listening to POE's "Haunted" or chasing down marginalia is satisfying, it’s not required to know what the hell is going on. The work speaks for itself. Danielewski’s voice is absent, and the issue of authorial intent seems irrelevant.

Braid, by contrast, is dominated by Blow’s voice. His presence as the narrator of Tim’s story is inescapable, and so, ultimately, the cloud of doubt and complexity he heaps on the player is a personal assault, from Blow to the player. Braid is not a story that requires or benefits from vague technique, no matter how ambiguous Tim’s motivations and actions may be. And yet, by the end of my Braid experience, I felt like Blow had specifically constructed something that would generate emails and forum posts begging him to please tell us "what it all means."

This is the heartbreak. It takes what could have been a convincing "games-as-art" showpiece and instead turns it into a pompous, self-absorbed and too-clever-by-half attempt to create conversation about the artist and his process, rather than the work itself. Jonathan Blow sits demon-like on my shoulder, shouting, “This means something!" and I can’t help but keep asking, "Who cares?" instead of “What?"

I want games to reach. I want the best of them to do more than merely titillate and entertain. Braid does both, and for that, I guess I must consider it both an important and relevant entry into the canon. But I can’t help but be disheartened.

Comments

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Wow.

I've not studied critical theory, so this was a pretty enlightening read. It's always interesting to see how others approach analyzing a game. One question, though: how do you deal with instances that are clearly cross-referential? It's hard to think of Braid in a vacuum when the end-stage Dinosaur is quoting verbatim from Super Mario Brothers. For me at least. Is it just ignored, or....?

Query aside, it's nice to see that we've come to similar conclusions: The author overshadows (and indeed, inserts himself into) the work. It's like you're moving through a brilliant, brilliant game and all of a sudden it jumps off the rails at the very goddamned end to remind you that, hey, you're playing a work of utter brilliance here, plebian gamer! In a flash, it goes from contemplative metaphor to incomprehensible slop. Blow should have tried to tell a good story, and not been so eager to give us a clever story.

I think it's a little humorous that what Braid fails at is so terrible that it pretty much ruins the experience. It's a house of cards.

For me, Braid's story was largely inconsequential beyond it starting out with you thinking Tim lost his woman, and is trying to get her back. Then you play a bunch of game, and find out, he's actually a creepy stalker dude. Whatever else Blow was trying to communicate with his non-narrative at the end was entirely lost on me.

Oh, and wouldn't a semiotician be the opposite of a new critic? Since, as you said, new critics consider the work in a vacuum and only what the reader brings to it, while a semiotician would consider the signs and the baggage of each sign, that is, it's entire historical significance.

I enjoyed Braid a lot as a game, and I think I got the general gist of the story/meaning/message/whatever: It's about our desire for truth and perfection. It's about our (some of us) frustration with human relationships because they're so hard to analyze and understand. It's also about the creative individual's conflict with normal society, which advocates routine and tradition.

And if Blow refuses to acknowledge that I've "gotten" his game, well, f*ck it. I won't lose any sleep over this. The only reason he refuses to reveal the "meaning" is to keep people talking about it. Just like you're doing with this article. Just like I'm doing with this comment. Genius, really.

This is a great article and I, for one, definitely appreciate your position as a damned intellectual.

My question is this, then - is it the pretension, the loud voice of the artist, or the fact that you weren't impressed by the message or the execution the main problem?

I ask this because I was turned off to Braid largely because of the poor, self-important feel of the prose in the game. It was largely a question of poorness of the artist's voice when it came to the in-game fiction, those passages meant to lend so much heft to the proceedings. If this prose had been excellent, then perhaps I for one might have wanted to soldier on to perfection. So is it acceptable to hear with clarity the author in the work if he speaks well, or do you think the author should stay out of it all together?

The Metal Gear Solid games come to mind as another example of a creator who's intentions and personality are almost inextricable from the gameplay (though I'm sure they play out just fine if one were unaware of Kojima).

NSMike wrote:
Oh, and wouldn't a semiotician be the opposite of a new critic? Since, as you said, new critics consider the work in a vacuum and only what the reader brings to it, while a semiotician would consider the signs and the baggage of each sign, that is, it's entire historical significance.

The "vacuum" means without the context of it's creation, not without context as presented in the work itself. T.S. Eliot is actually agreat example of this: his work (Wasteland in particular) is just overloaded with allusion and reference. He would (have) suggested (as the quote suggests) that whatever he MEANT you do get out of that is far less interesting than what you actually DO get out of it.

To give you a very very recent example: When Kat was reviewing this for me in edit, she commented that "Blow was strivign for 'a staggering work of heartbreaking genius' but ended up with 'a failed work of art.'"

Now, the former is a near-pullitzer winning book by Eggers, so when she said that, I immediately made all of these connections to Eggers book, thinking about braid in the context of the story there (dysfunctional family, issues of guilt and abandonment, etc.) However Kat actually had not intentionally made the connection at all. The phrase had instead just popped into her head.

That in and of itself is interesting.

So denying the author does not mean abandoning symbolism, allusion, or any amount of complexity in the work. It does mean focusing on what is in the work. That said, I am not a zealot about this. It's just a framework I find myself drawn to, despite the obvious flaws of the approach -- every critical approach has flaws. That's why there are so many of them.

I like Braid's story, and while I understand where you're coming from, I don't think

Not only does Braid leave the player guessing, but it leaves the reader guessing without possibility of parole. In the final words of the game, the narrator taunts the reader, effectively saying, "Yes, this game was important, even though you didn’t understand it."

is a fair assessment. You obviously disagree, but I feel the meaning of Braid is just not as complicated as you imagine it to be. Braid, to me, is precisely about the search for meaning, and what that costs. We see personal sacrifice (Tim's relationship with the girl), ethical sacrifices (the experimentation on rats and monkeys), the sacrifice of one's idyllic illusions about the world ("it would be like burning down the place we've always called home, where we played so innocently as children."), and, perhaps worst of all, the suggestion that the thing one was obsessively searching for may be no boon at all (i.e. the a-bomb/manhattan project allusions). This is mirrored in the fractured narrative. By trying to pin down the story, subjecting it to analytic scrutiny, all you're left with is moments "like stones" which Tim finds "slightly cold." Yes, you could build something (an explanation) out of them, but would it be worth it ? Would it take you where you want to go? (doesn't an explanation rob a thing of its mystery/any sense of wonder one might find in it?)

Incidentally, one apocryphal(?) story about House of Leaves is that, at signings, Danielewski crosses out "This is not for you" and writes in "This is for you."

juv3nal wrote:
Incidentally, one apocryphal(?) story about House of Leaves is that, at signings, Danielewski crosses out "This is not for you" and writes in "This is for you."

Alas, I'm so much a fanboy I'd likely kiss him on the mouth. Then the Border's security guard would have to throw me out, and in the ensuing scuffle, I'd end up mortally wounded. So better I don't know.

juv3nal wrote:
I like Braid's story, and while I understand where you're coming from, I don't think

Not only does Braid leave the player guessing, but it leaves the reader guessing without possibility of parole. In the final words of the game, the narrator taunts the reader, effectively saying, "Yes, this game was important, even though you didn’t understand it."

is a fair assessment. You obviously disagree, but I feel the meaning of Braid is just not as complicated as you imagine it to be. Braid, to me, is precisely about the search for meaning, and what that costs. We see personal sacrifice (Tim's relationship with the girl), ethical sacrifices (the experimentation on rats and monkeys), the sacrifice of one's idyllic illusions about the world ("it would be like burning down the place we've always called home, where we played so innocently as children."), and, perhaps worst of all, the suggestion that the thing one was obsessively searching for may be no boon at all (i.e. the a-bomb/manhattan project allusions). This is mirrored in the fractured narrative. By trying to pin down the story, subjecting it to analytic scrutiny, all you're left with is moments "like stones" which Tim finds "slightly cold." Yes, you could build something (an explanation) out of them, but would it be worth it ? Would it take you where you want to go? (doesn't an explanation rob a thing of its mystery/any sense of wonder one might find in it?)

Incidentally, one apocryphal(?) story about House of Leaves is that, at signings, Danielewski crosses out "This is not for you" and writes in "This is for you."

Well said.

As the player, you solve all these complex puzzles in search of the princess. But none of them lead you to her. But then you finally figure it all out, so that means you've figured life out and so you deserve the princess, right? Well, it turns out that after all, your actions merely drove her away, having the opposite effect of what you intended. The final scene takes that very literally, making you experience that frustration first-hand.

Ultimately for me, Braid was about the conflict between personal pursuit and inter-personal relationships. Much like Passage and Gravitation.

Sounds like douchebaggery. Of the highest order n, limit as n approaches infinity positively.

I see where you're coming from, but for me the experience with Braid was not so profound/disappointing. I guess I wasn't looking for meaning, however I can see how you'd come to that expectation.

Awhile ago, I went to see "Burn After Reading" from the Coen brothers. They are hands-down my most favorite living filmmakers and my expectations were beyond high. I enjoyed the movie to a point, but left disenchanted because I was analyzing every nook and cranny of the movie without letting it filter in naturally. On the ride home, I expressed my disappointment and was quickly met with a "dude, stop trying to make it into something it isn't." Perhaps that has something to do with your distaste for Braid.

To me, Braid is a neat puzzle game with interesting and rewarding puzzles. I never once read a single line of the dialog nor gave more than a few extra moments of thought on its supposed meaning. If you're looking for meaning in an indie game, I suggest Jason Rohrer's "Gravitation". That all said, I won't dispute that if Braid's M.O. was deep meditative meaning then I didn't find it either.

aeiowu wrote:
To me, Braid is a neat puzzle game with interesting and rewarding puzzles. I never once read a single line of the dialog nor gave more than a few extra moments of thought on its supposed meaning.

See, that's the thing. I was happy until the epilogue. The ending was truly satisfying. While it's easy to say "well, it's just the epilogue" to me that's like saying "well, you can just skip the ending of Brazil, the American one, where they gave it a happy ending." You can't really, any more than you can just watch the middle of a movie. Like I said, it does some brilliant things, and deserves the praise it gets, but it still leaves me sad and disappointed.

Ahahaha, that "official walkthrough" you linked is awful.

Continue on to the next puzzle pieces, and...

... once you get into the actual puzzles, solve them for yourself and do not use a walkthrough! (etc)

Oh, f*ck you. I got stuck in one of the very first puzzles and I haven't gone back to the game. It's pretty and sounds neat but meh, it's not for me, I got better things to do. It's why I don't get all the praise for the game, but that's fine, just not my thing.

All the puzzles can be solved. Some of them might take an hour or two, but you will get it. If you try. And you will feel cool and smart.

oh you have no idea how cool and smart I feel after solving some puzzle on a downloadable game thanks do you give dating advice

This was a fascinating read -- thanks Rabbit! I can't help but agree with you regarding the pretentiousness of the narrative texts in the game, and particularly the epilogue, and the inescapable feeling that Blow is being obtuse for the hell of it, but I still love the game anyway.

The main reason I love the game is because the gameplay is just about perfect. Every single puzzle was an interesting challenge to solve, and I think the difficulty level was spot on. I don't recall any of the puzzles taking a huge degree of manual dexterity to solve (LittleBigPlanet was certainly harder in places); some of them did appear to at first, but after setting the game down for a while and coming back with fresh eyes, it was always apparent that I was doing it wrong. What the puzzles did require was a grasp of how the world worked in each of the levels -- always superficially, and perhaps deceptively, like a decades-old platformer, but fundamentally skewed.

One thing the epilogue does do is link the game to the realm of physics, and that was a big step in my understanding of the game. Braid is like quantum physics, where at first things seem similar to the physical world you've known since birth, but further digging reveals mechanics that are fundamentally different to what you know, and understanding only comes when you've set aside what years of experience tells you to expect. If you think about the puzzles in the right way, solving them becomes intuitive, and every time that happens, you get this little ping of understanding in your brain, like a mini-epiphany.

I'll never be a real quantum physicist, but Braid gives me the Guitar Hero version, and that's good enough for me.

My biggest problem with Braid wasn't the difficulty, it was how painfully obvious it was that Jonathan Blow was trying to be meaningful. It's over-the-top, hammer-over-the-head, look-at-me-I'm-an-indie-games-developer level of WATCH ME TRY HARD. The game was fun, definitely, but man, the narrative? No thanks.

To play on Mr. Murdoch's level: Blow is more a Radclyff Hall than he is a Hemingway, or even a Carver.

And please, rabbit, please, please, please don't tell me "but for a videogame...".

I don't care! Videogame, videoshame. Makes no difference to me, nor should it to you. Pyschonauts has more meaning in a single level than Braid shoots for in its entirety. And that's just me being nice.

DomoArigato wrote:
And please, rabbit, please, please, please don't tell me "but for a videogame...".

I hope I didn't say that ... did I? I might have, I'm tired. I certainly don't expect less from games than I do from other media. I expect more pr.obably

whatever he MEANT you do get out of that is far less interesting than what you actually DO get out of it.

Ultimately this is what I feel about all "hard" art. At school, I was awful at working out the kinds of reference and allusions that are rife in this kind of literature, I think because of the imprecision of it all. None of these links are ever provable in even a weak scientific sense. I can think of several examples where authors have specifically contradicted critics' assertions about what certain scenes in their books or films or plays mean or do not mean. Sometimes a pole is just a pole to the author. Naturally, critics being what they are (especially the sort that have competitions on Newsnight Review about how many levels they discerned in a piece of art) they retort that they're cleverer than the author because the author made the reference without realising it. But ultimately, if the reader or client of the art finds something in a piece of art that means something interesting or important to them, that's valid from their point of view.

For myself, I quickly worked out that I wasn't going to be understanding what the text all meant, and really enjoyed the gameplay, the puzzles, the graphics and the music, which were still superlative for me.

I'm not personally convinced that he should have allowed you to move on to World One without completing all the puzzles. The game allowed you to get through all the world pretty easily, and World One is a big payoff narratively.

EDIT: I don't know why I missed this out I did intend to say it:

The only way he could have done it would have been to have a parallel "easter egg" type layer of meaning or narrative in the pictures that would shed extra light on the main story, so you would still want to do it. They did seem like they could have plenty of interpretation directed at them (I can't do that either).

Sorry to have to point this out, but you have misread Beardsley's intentional fallacy argument. Beardsley never said that the author's intention is never present in the work, just that the meaning of a piece of art can never be completely reduced to the author's intention. This is because, as he says, I could say (or write) "it is a bright sunny day" and actually intend to mean something entirely different than what the words say. For instance, I could have wanted to mean that your coat is ugly. But obviously when I say "it is a bright sunny day" I am talking about the amount of light rays coming from the sun, the lack of cloud cover etc. not about your coat--no matter my protestations to the contrary. In any event, that example is in the article (or something like it). So, when you say "Barthes, and his fellow pompous intellectuals [...] argued that the source of a work — the Author and his or her intent and process — is irrelevant, and that the fallacy of most criticism was its attempt to find the author living inside a given work..." you must not be talking about Beardsley (though you linked to his article). Beardsley says explicitly that you cannot completely divorce a work of art from the author.

Regardless, if this is what Barthes thinks, then he is surely wrong. We wouldn't want to divorce a piece of work from the artist entirely. I mean, if a white supremacist painted a picture of a white guy locking up black males and giving a thumbs up, and the exact same drawing was drawn by one of those unfortunate inmates, the painting would mean different things. In the one case, that it is awesome that black males are being locked up in droves, and in the other it would be a satirical or ironic piece about the inhumanity of prison guards or some such thing. In cases of vagueness we should clearly refer back to the author for the meaning of the piece.

Anyway, I don't know if this makes any difference to your article. To be honest, philosophizing about video games seems a bit strange to me. And, as you pointed out, pompous. I, for one, am not too fond of pomposity, so I didn't check back to see if this changes any of what you are saying.

DudleySmith wrote:
The only way he could have done it would have been to have a parallel "easter egg" type layer of meaning or narrative in the pictures that would shed extra light on the main story, so you would still want to do it. They did seem like they could have plenty of interpretation directed at them (I can't do that either).

Ultimately, the pictures have their own critical issues.

Is it Tim? Is it not Tim? Does this person have black hair or is it just coloring issues? It's utterly fruitless.

Speaking of Easter Eggs...

Yeah, a hidden game mechanic that changes the outcome of the ending. Awesome job Mr. Blow.

Um, I liked the puzzles and powers. And the last level was neat. I felt it was worth my fifteen bucks.

Y'all think a lot.

Julian "rabbit" Murdoch wrote:
stuff

It seems to me that while you were playing, you focused too much on Jonathan Blow either because you knew all he had said prior/during/after the game was made or you're possibly too involved in the games industry. Perhaps because of what the press had already said, you were actually looking for a meaning throughout the game. Perhaps you are so involved that you could not have any suspension of disbelief while playing Braid and literaly heard Jonathan Blow speaking rather than an omniscient narrator.

Here's my point of view

- Games have a limited space/gameplay ratio for storytelling. Games like Metal Gear Solid are crossing the line when they let you watch 10 minutes+ of animation. Within reasonable boundaries, Braid did what it could very well.

- The text is not anymore pompous than this review was. See, you justified your opinion with half a dozen quotes and references to give your critique value. What does an author have but metaphors, symbolism and vocabulary? The game intentionally wants you to believe that the game is about a dude obsessed with a lost love, but hints at more, just like every bloody movie or book with symbolism. It may not have done it with the finesse one could have hoped for but it still was a good effort. Blow is a programmer.

- (Possibly) For the first time in the history of games, the underlying meaning of a game was discussed. Isn't that something? Have you heard someone talk of symbolism in Mario, Devil May Cry or Shadow of the Colossus? When I finished Braid, I had no idea who Jonathan Blow was. I had no idea what I had just witnessed, but it made me curious. I wanted to understand. Soon after, I started discussing the game and as I did, I quickly realized that all signs pointed to a similar meaning. It felt great. In my literature classes, we would discuss an author's work but everyone and their mother already had their preconceptions of what the book was really about and, usually, the dude with the most diplomas was probably the "rightest", so we'd quote him in our essays. The discussion wasn't really there, it was already done. Discussing Braid felt fresh.

- The "walk-through" is in no way insulting. Braid's gameplay mechanic revolves ONLY around finding all the puzzle pieces. Say someone would use a walkthrough all the way through to complete the game, he would miss the point. I guess it could still be mildly entertaining but it's the mental process of figuring out the puzzles that is challenging, not the execution. Stripping Braid of this is like an invincible mode in a schmup: it ruins the game.

Braid opened up my eyes to what games had the potential to be and that in itself makes it truly one of a kind. I'm amazed that so many people are snobbing it because of their dislike of the creator and whatnots. It is a huge step forward and anybody who hasn't played it is doing his inner gamer a disservice. I'm glad that despite your beef with the story, you seemed to enjoy the game Rabbit, but your dislike of Jonathan Blow transpires more in your text than his presence was ever felt to me while I played the game. All I saw was a narrator, no more no less.

You sir, have summed up exactly how I reacted to Braid, thank you for making me feel a little normal.

I tend to agree with interstate. I thought it was a great game with a story that tries but doesn't quite work, but at least encourages discussion, which is much more than most games can say. I just don't see the point in getting angry about it, or with him. Why are we holding Braid to this crazy high standard? Because one man made a great game with a bit of a pretentious story? Come on!

Fallout 3's ending sucked, which was an end to a pretty mediocre main story. I think a lot of people agree on this, but still say, "Despite the ending, Fallout 3 is a great game".

Braid's epilogue is also not all that great, undecipherable and pretentious, but instead of giving it the Fallout treatment, we say "Look! Jonothan Blow made a pretentious, undecipherable game! This sucks!"

I don't get it.

Heh, I had a professor who was a strict New Critic. At my dissertation defense, he told me that my work was "imminently publishable, despite being a load of crap," because all postcolonial theory--in fact all post-New-Criticism theory--was crap. I liked that guy, even if he did put his fingers in his ears anytime I pointed the flaws in his approach.

Great article Rabbit. I never bought Braid, though I liked the demo. I may have to get it now just to see what you're talking about.

egads wrote:
Awesome stuff!

The authorial intent argument is always something that spins people up, and I am by no means a zealot. Nor did I drop the links to that essay, or Derrida, because they all agree with each other. In previous versions I had a whole 'nother section going into way more detail (and putting people to sleep much faster) talking about just this. I think Barthes does anchor one end of the spectrem:

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic.

Where Wimsatt/Beardsley take a more nuanced approach (like, honestly I do. I love hearing designers talk about their games), they ultimately come down in a very similary space. From their conclusion, speculating on an analysis of Eliot's Prufrock:

We shall not here weigh the probabilities‑whether Eliot would answer that he meant nothing at all, had nothing at all in mind ‑a sufficiently good answer to such a question‑or in an unguarded moment might furnish a clear and, within its limit, irrefutable answer. Our point is that such an answer to such an inquiry would have nothing to do with the poem "Prufrock"; it would not be a critical inquiry. Critical inquiries, unlike bets, are not settled in this way. Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.

That's really the point, and for some readers, I probably should have put in the last quote.

I expect most people to think I'm insane for even thinking this much about an XBLA arcade game, so this is really awesome discussion. I also hope it was clear that I thought the game, as a mechanical experience, is brilliant, and that I'm pleased that Blow has us even talking about it. But GTAIV and SCMRPG got people talking critically as well (to use wildly different examples).

rabbit wrote:

So denying the author does not mean abandoning symbolism, allusion, or any amount of complexity in the work. It does mean focusing on what is in the work. That said, I am not a zealot about this. It's just a framework I find myself drawn to, despite the obvious flaws of the approach -- every critical approach has flaws. That's why there are so many of them.

Jah. This is how I always read Barthes; he was responding contextually to a swelling movement in literature studies to draw parallels between a narrative work and the author's historical positioning. I never got that he wanted to divorce the author from the work entirely, simply that he was getting sick and tired of people claiming that Burroughs had toast for breakfast on Tuesdays and clearly that meant that p. 14 of Naked Lunch meant BLAH.

So the question of "What did Jonathan Blow mean by telling these stories?" doesn't matter so much as "What did they mean to me?" And, to me, they weren't really that interesting... the final level where you save (?) the princess and are then forced to reverse yourself back to the beginning was by far a more meaningful conclusion than ponderously reading all those enigmatic text boxes in a cloud-baked epilogue mess.

Great article though. Double-plus on the thinking.

Dysplastic wrote:
I tend to agree with interstate. I thought it was a great game with a story that tries but doesn't quite work, but at least encourages discussion, which is much more than most games can say. I just don't see the point in getting angry about it, or with him. Why are we holding Braid to this crazy high standard? Because one man made a great game with a bit of a pretentious story? Come on!

Fallout 3's ending sucked, which was an end to a pretty mediocre main story. I think a lot of people agree on this, but still say, "Despite the ending, Fallout 3 is a great game".

Braid's epilogue is also not all that great, undecipherable and pretentious, but instead of giving it the Fallout treatment, we say "Look! Jonothan Blow made a pretentious, undecipherable game! This sucks!"

I don't get it.

The difference is the expectation laid down by the creator(s) of the game.

Fallout 3 was never trying to be anything but a well crafted RPG. As Elysium noted on the podcast, it was "for the masses" which is also known as "pedestrian" among art snots. The creators of the game explicitly said they were trying to expand the base of Fallout fans by making the game more accessible and fun. They also didn't implicitly threaten to come over to your house and kick you in the junk if you use a walkthrough to play it.

Braid, which I must disclose I haven't played but I have read some of the coverage of it, was created with a higher standard in mind. Blow wanted the game to be Art With A Capital A, which is a motivation I will never understand but that's another rant [size=3](must everything that involves a creative component be pronounced WorthWhile by ascetic chain smokers in black turtlenecks?)[/size] . If you're going to go around calling your product High Art, then you've got a higher standard to hold to. It's why filmgoers expect more of, say, Ang Lee than they do of Michael Bay. If Bay had directed Hulk and made the exact same movie, I suspect it would have been reviewed differently.

I would also note that the ending of Braid is more important to the overall experience than the "ending" of Fallout 3. From something as simple as a time-spent standpoint, Braid's Epilogue is a considerably larger percentage of the overall time the player spends with Braid than the main-quest ending is of Fallout 3. Heck, I've been playing Fallout 3 for dozens of hours now, and I've only progressed this far into the main quest by accident (I was exploring and talking to people, and one of my conversations inadvertently completed the "following in his footsteps" quest.)

Further, I believe that the main quest isn't really the point of Fallout 3, and giving too much weight to the "ending" misses out on why the game is good. The point of the game is all the other stuff you can do-- the exploring, the side quests, just interacting with the world. With Braid, the whole point seems (again, to someone who hasn't played it) to be finding out what the heck the ending is, and what it means. There's not much else to it, because it is a very linear game. There's nothing wrong with creating a linear game with a lot of weight given to finding the ending, but if you're going to do that you have to make the payoff worth the effort. If the main quest in Fallout 3 disappoints in this regard, there are dozens of other quests that may not. Braid doesn't offer that.

The bottom line, though, is that if you're going to make a game and give interviews saying "this is the shiznet, and anyone who don't agree is whack, yo" then you're going to get pummeled by the critics if the work is not, in fact, the shiznet.

rabbit wrote:
I am by no means a zealot.

Don't believe him, people. When I dared to offer a counteropinion to New Crit, he accused me of blasphemy. I think by definition that makes him a zealot.

Julian, in the voice of a monarch wrote:
Havoc!

Who lets the dogs out?

Ha. I kill me.

Alright, reference-fest over. Rabbit, I think I'm generally in your camp. I'm glad Blow got more people writing and thinking about games on a deeper level. Though he certainly wasn't the first to do so, he probably had a wider influence on the general game-playing public than folks like Gee or Bogost. (I now pause to imagine Mr. Blow's reaction to being effectively labeled as "mainstream" in comparison.)

I won't argue Derrida here, but I will say this: Great works of art in any medium, in the fullness of time, have the ability to communicate much more meaning and wisdom than the artist ever could have fully intended, in part because of the human limitations of cognition, and in part because a work accumulates more context over time that the artist couldn't have predicted (e.g., reading F. Scott Fitzgerald in a McMansion during the late '90s swing resurgence, there's suddenly more to consider).

[quote=KaterinLHC]

rabbit wrote:

I am by no means a zealot. [.quote]

Don't believe him, people. When I dared to offer a counteropinion to New Crit, he accused me of blasphemy. I think by definition that makes him a zealot.

So it seems to me that there is altogether to much self back patting (Blow)in Rabbits opinion and massive amounts of New Crit zealotry (Rabbit) going on here

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
stuff about Braid

Play Braid or at least try to complete the demo. It'll give you a sense of what the game has to offer. Just as a game, it's very good.

But about Fallout 3. Fallout is an RPG with a story pretty much devoid of symbolism and meaning. It does, however, have social and political commentaries by the bucket and I love that. However where Fallout 3 succeeds (and where the previous Fallout did as well) was let you be the own master of your destiny. It may not give as much freedom as the first games did but unlike in most RPG, if you feel like killing a dude no matter how important he seems to the story, the game will adapt to your playstyle.

That's where Fallout shine. It lets you tell your story. ((MINI FALLOUT 3 SPOILER ALERT - really, for people who have not played at all yet))

For example that dude in Megaton that wants you to blow up the town. The minute he asked me, I whooped his ass, didn't even think about it. A friend of mine went and told the sheriff about this, but the scumbag killed the sheriff. Some other people have accepted his offer and blown up the town. The story branches out beautifully. I've not yet finished it but I hardly believe it will be disapointed because I've always relied on my experience more than the narrative when playing that series.

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