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.