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

Before reading the comments I was totally going to defend Blow, but now that I've read what he apparently said about the "meaning" in Braid, I am actually very disappointed. I participated in a very interesting and even deep disussion over at Giant Bomb for a few days after the game's release and I loved the "up in the air" feeling as Mister Magnus called it. That is exactly the feeling I've had in the one really good literature class I've had so far (and I study literature, so it's really sad that only one seminar was like that).

Now, I actually just came to the conclusion that I don't care what Blow thinks is right. I made up my mind long ago and it makes perfect sense for me and is a beautiful metaphor for me and made the game even more enjoyable for me.

For me that last screen of the epilogue is all about exactly that. Here is this experience you just had (I think the text is directed at the player not Tim at this point), these "stones" you have collected and now: "What do you make of that?" Build your castle using these stones, another player might have a completely different castle, but that doesn't matter because this is your castle and the way you used your stones. That's where the idea of a fragmented narrative that just isn't necessarily supposed to mean one thing that Mr. Greenbrier mentioned with Mulholland Drive comes in to play.

Too bad that Blow blew it. But I'm not listening nananananana.... *fingers sticking in ears........and eyes*

In a lot of ways the more interesting narrative is the one that is told through the mechanics of the game.

To me, the story told through all the books and pictures and backgrounds was interesting but told in such a disassociated way the gameplay and the story became their own independent narratives. I'm sure that many of use who have experienced the adventure games of old know the rush of satisfaction that comes with solving whatever series of minimally related logic problems the designers came up with. Braid had a few of these moments for me but the satisfaction was usually in finding some element of the game mechanics I hadn't figured out yet. It's more like it was the narrative of my experience with the game then the one that was being told to me that took precedence in my mind as the superior one.

That said, the epilogue certainly wasn't my favourite part of the game. I do think, though, that in a lot of ways the story of Tim and the Princess is an optional part of the game so I don't feel bad that it wasn't satisfying.

ryndam wrote:

In a lot of ways the more interesting narrative is the one that is told through the mechanics of the game.

I couldn't agree more. I'm not at all interested in going into literary criticism and author's intent and all that other English Major mubmo-jumbo, but I feel kind of sad that Braid's absolutely beautiful and brilliant gameplay gets overshadowed by the convoluted story and people's reaction to it. I completely disagree that the story felt like the point of the game - while I understood there was some kind of deeper metaphor there, I was perfectly happy to just let it lie and appreciate the game as a beautiful puzzle game. I think it's too bad that a lot of other people couldn't do the same.

rabbit wrote:

But ultimately it's largely about the epilogue. That to me is where the voice of "narrator" became the voice of "author." Perhaps this is a distinction to subtle to make, but it's what drove me to this. The narrator voice stopped being about "Tim" and became directly about me, the player, and Blow, the designer. Perhaps this makes this a brilliant genre busting piece of awesomitude. But for me, it really put the nail in the coffin of the game's narrative.

This seems to be where your experience with the game diverges from my own. I wasn't bothered by Jonathan Blow, the designer, until he began to say that there was one true interpretation of the game, while you seem to have felt that the epilogue was the point where he stepped into the picture. I felt that the game had been sufficiently indistinct and vague in its storytelling technique as to allow for the pretentious wankery of the epilogue; like I said, it was over-reaching but not intrusive. By introducing significant items as though they had always been there (the Ring, in World 6); by calling into question the nature and even existence of the Princess (through the dinosaurs, in multiple world endings); by playing with the nature of time itself; and by simply creating an abstract, runny, and indistinct atmosphere in all of the levels, I felt that the game had earned its epilogue, bad as it was.

Incidentally, my appreciation for House of Leaves took a serious dive when I realized that Danielewski had spelled out his own name in one of the footnotes. That struck me as so childish that I couldn't help but feel the presence of Danielewski the Author throughout the rest of the novel. Was there a similar moment for you in Braid? Or is this like our discussion about the Variety article about Jason Rohrer, and you either feel he earned it or didn't?

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

EDIT: This came up while I was typing my initial response, but it gets to the heart of my question:

adam.greenbrier wrote:

What dampened my appreciation for the game was Jonathan Blow's insistence that there was a single, correct interpretation of his work.

See, this is what I don't get. How can there be multiple, contradictory interpretations of one thing that are equally valid? 2+2 is either 27 or it isn't. Chalk either contains calcium or it doesn't. Braid either is about the manhattan project, or it isn't.

Am I just impossibly obtuse? What am I missing?

Have you ever looked at a wall, the kind with the orange peel texture, and seen in the way that a particular shadow falls the shape of a face or a mouse? Have you ever then tried to show that mouse or face to another person but no matter how they turned their head or squinted you couldn't? What if where you saw a mouse or a face they saw a hand or an octopus? Is their hand more valid than your mouse, or your face more valid than their octopus?

Some works of art attempt to create that bit of wall and shadows by design. A good artist doing this sort of thing will know that some people will see a mouse based on the placement of this ridge here, while others will use that ridge to make a finger, and will use that to suggest all kinds of things about mice and hands.

(I'll admit that I'm having a hard time explaining this, because the answer to me is intuitively obvious. It's just something I get. Then again, I've always been a little disappointed by mathematics because there's only ever one answer to a question.)

wordsmythe wrote:

I love how great you are at softening the edge of your questions. :)

Yeah. Sorry about that.

wordsmythe wrote:

Here's the thing: If you and I were to have a conversation about hesitance, consideration, and action, and if I quote Hamlet once, mention the plot as an example, and then later bring up some psychoanalysis of Hamlet from couple professor-types, that doesn't mean that entire conversation was "about" Hamlet. The conversation is still about the larger idea of decision-making, and it happens to just sort of weave through some bits on Hamlet as part of that larger dialogue.

Another example: If we were to step into a political conversation about America's changing role on the global stage of politics and power, someone would likely mention the rise and fall of Rome, the British Empire, or a couple other common examples. The conversation would still be about America, but the examples given (and the comparison and contrast that would hopefully follow) would provide added richness and perspective to our conversation and understanding about what's happening to America today.

That makes sense, but that only seems to reinforce the point that Braid is about the manhattan project. Ultimately, everything having to do with the girl, and the Tim's dogged pursuit thereof, when taken with the historical references make the manhattan project the equivalent of America's changing role and the bits with the girl the common examples of fallen empires.

If I take you're meaning, the manhattan project references mean the game is actually about a smothering lover and the manhattan project is the allegory for that aspect of his life. Not having played the game-- or even being in possession of an xbox to play it on-- I'll never know if that interpretation makes sense. I'll assume it does because you're smarter than I am about this sort of thing.

juv3nal wrote:

I don't know if my take on it is what Blow intended, of course, but it fits the available facts,

I think this is part of what Rabbit was getting at here:

Rabbit wrote:

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."

and then adam.greenbrier got to it, here:

adam.greenbrier wrote:

artists who are in the business of creating works that express moods and feelings, like David Lynch or Gao Xingjian, don't go around chastising people for not getting what they were after.

The best part of the Braid discussion for me was when the reality of what it might be was firmly up in the air without someone saying that there was one "right" answer. I think Valve handled this sort of situation correctly by not releasing a backstory for P0rtal (yet) and letting gamer discussion dominate the webz (as far as I know, feel free to catch me up to speed if I've missed something).

"This is not for you." - Pearl Jam

Fixed attribution.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
doubtingthomas396 wrote:

EDIT: This came up while I was typing my initial response, but it gets to the heart of my question:

adam.greenbrier wrote:

What dampened my appreciation for the game was Jonathan Blow's insistence that there was a single, correct interpretation of his work.

See, this is what I don't get. How can there be multiple, contradictory interpretations of one thing that are equally valid? 2+2 is either 27 or it isn't. Chalk either contains calcium or it doesn't. Braid either is about the manhattan project, or it isn't.

Am I just impossibly obtuse? What am I missing?

Have you ever looked at a wall, the kind with the orange peel texture, and seen in the way that a particular shadow falls the shape of a face or a mouse? Have you ever then tried to show that mouse or face to another person but no matter how they turned their head or squinted you couldn't? What if where you saw a mouse or a face they saw a hand or an octopus? Is their hand more valid than your mouse, or your face more valid than their octopus?

Some works of art attempt to create that bit of wall and shadows by design. A good artist doing this sort of thing will know that some people will see a mouse based on the placement of this ridge here, while others will use that ridge to make a finger, and will use that to suggest all kinds of things about mice and hands.

(I'll admit that I'm having a hard time explaining this, because the answer to me is intuitively obvious. It's just something I get. Then again, I've always been a little disappointed by mathematics because there's only ever one answer to a question.)

That's something I have always had a big problem with. If I make a painting, and say "this is a picture of whatever you see when you look at this picture" then I can't help but wonder how I've created anything different from a Rorschach ink-blot test or one of those toaster malfunctions that makes toast look like it has the Virgin Mary on it.

And if I create something that looks like a mouse to some people and a hand to other people, and use that to say something about mice and hands, isn't that a single correct intrepretation of the work? If someone else looks and sees the octopus, but I never meant to say anything about octupi, isnt't that person seeing the wrong thing? And isn't that my failure as the artist to not convey what I wanted the observer to see?

I don't think I'll ever understand it, because it's not something that can be understood as I use the word. As you say, you just intuitively "get it." I never will "get it" because it cannot be explained, because it's not measurable.

At least I have math. Numbers always mean what they say.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

And if I create something that looks like a mouse to some people and a hand to other people, and use that to say something about mice and hands, isn't that a single correct intrepretation of the work? If someone else looks and sees the octopus, but I never meant to say anything about octupi, isnt't that person seeing the wrong thing? And isn't that my failure as the artist to not convey what I wanted the observer to see?

Not if you're an artist who stands by his principles. That's essentially my problem with Jonathan Blow: he created something that could be seen as a hand or a mouse and then scolded people when they saw an octopus. An octopus might be something unexpected, but just because you didn't intend it doesn't mean it isn't there.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

I don't think I'll ever understand it, because it's not something that can be understood as I use the word. As you say, you just intuitively "get it." I never will "get it" because it cannot be explained, because it's not measurable.

At least I have math. Numbers always mean what they say. :)

Boooring.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Then again, I've always been a little disappointed by mathematics because there's only ever one answer to a question.)

Not the way I do math ... then you somehow get a different answer every time!

That struck me as so childish that I couldn't help but feel the presence of Danielewski the Author throughout the rest of the novel. Was there a similar moment for you in Braid? Or is this like our discussion about the Variety article about Jason Rohrer, and you either feel he earned it or didn't?

I guess the "coded" stuff I have no issue with, and I admit that that's entirely how it affects one person vs. another. I see ALL of that really layered, crazily obtuse stuff in House of Leaves as ancillary. As I said, I think House of Leaves stands without resorting to any of it. I see that as an easter egg, not a critical component of the story.

The issue of "earning" the right to break convention is interesting in this context. I think you're talking about the esquire piece by Fagone. In that case, we were discussing the work (the article, it could have been about fruit, it really wouldn't have mattered). I argued that his huge break with the voice conventions of journalism and abandonment of objectivity was "earned" because of how he'd written the piece, and what the piece was about. I do think that Blow accomplished something really impressive here, and frankly, it's his game, we're consumers. Do I feel like I received more than value as a consumer? Absolutely. But this isn't a review. I hope that's clear! As a "work," Blow broke convention from the opening screen, and did so with my complete buy in. My problem with voice really has nothing to do with that.

As for the "correct" interpretation issue:

Oh boy. Now you're really diving into the deep end of the critical theory well. I find the "Where's Waldo" schools of criticism entirely uninteresting. Never the less, there are many, many people who believe otherwise.

I got a 360 over the holidays and playing Braid was the top priority for me: I was fascinated by its sheer concentration of artistry. After finishing it I had two thoughts: it's short, and it's not as hard as I'd heard it made out to be. The thing is I still encounter numerous accounts of how difficult this game is (see above article/posts). I guess my question is whether this is a *braces* age related thing? I feel bad and a little ignorant asking this, but I'm in my early twenties, I was born when the NES came to North America - I was raised taking Mario Bros. and the platforming "syntax" it generated for granted - does this effect how easy/difficult it was for me to "read" Braid's puzzles. Note: I am not refering to the narrative, simply to it's (sorry) gameplay. Someone set me straight!

Now, I actually just came to the conclusion that I don't care what Blow thinks is right. I made up my mind long ago and it makes perfect sense for me and is a beautiful metaphor for me and made the game even more enjoyable for me.

And your own metaphor probably has much greater resonance for you personally than the meaning that Blow supposedly buried in obscurity, and didn't think most players were bright enough to discover.

I like art that has the capacity to deliver beyond the artist's original intentions, by allowing viewers to discover shades of meaning that may not have been apparent to the creator. Artists that create evocative, metaphor-rich material, then announce only one correct interpretation, strike me as arrogant and shortsighted. They're missing out on much of what makes their art valuable and worth viewing.

edit:

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

EDIT: This came up while I was typing my initial response, but it gets to the heart of my question:

adam.greenbrier wrote:

What dampened my appreciation for the game was Jonathan Blow's insistence that there was a single, correct interpretation of his work.

See, this is what I don't get. How can there be multiple, contradictory interpretations of one thing that are equally valid? 2+2 is either 27 or it isn't. Chalk either contains calcium or it doesn't. Braid either is about the manhattan project, or it isn't.

Am I just impossibly obtuse? What am I missing?

Although artists can create work designed around a specific message or meaning, that doesn't mean they have to. Art doesn't always involve exact quantities. It's not math. It is often highly abstract, or shrouded in symbolism. Artwork that is highly evocative and/or symbolic is more likely to convey multiple meanings, regardless of the author's intentions.

I've had paintings and photographs in my office and home take on new meanings after I've viewed them for years. I feel like I have a personal relationship with these images, and it makes me love them all the more. What the artist originally intended them to mean is, for me, no longer relevant.

It's a scientifically established fact that I suck at games. The difficulty in braid is at least solvable difficulty. It's not truly impossible (as some things are for me, because I lack the twitch), its simply brainfart difficulty. There ended up being a few levels I simply didn't get, even after really giving it my best, most caffeinated sober brain cells. Once I had the "aha" moment, I had no realy problems. I never needed to look at a video or anything to catch timing. Pure "I'm not smart enough" brain failure.

It's entirely possible that with a deeper background in some other games, I might have had no problems.

rabbit wrote:

I find the "Where's Waldo" schools of criticism entirely uninteresting.

As someone not familiar with literary criticism, I'm curious what the "Where's Waldo" schools are. Do its proponents wear striped turtlenecks?

Puzzles are different for players regardless of age or experience. Sometimes folks just lock on too hard to what they expect the answer to be and don't look at the bigger picture, especially people who are perhaps too familiar with source material (i.e. gamers often look for solutions in ways that have been predefined for them by previous games). It's why walking away from a game (or anything) can help to give you a fresh perspective and new found insight.

Are you implying that by being in your "early twenties" you're elderly?

I'm skimming, and for that I apologize. I whole-heartedly agree with the big sexy article and wish I could have so effectively expressed this very same view. It's nice, though, to now be able to point to this if I should ever get into a Braid/Blow discussion. I still love the game, I just couldn't be more apathetic towards its "story" or its designer.

Mister Magnus wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

Then again, I've always been a little disappointed by mathematics because there's only ever one answer to a question.)

Not the way I do math ... then you somehow get a different answer every time!

The way I do math you get the same answer for every problem. "f*ck off."

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

That makes sense, but that only seems to reinforce the point that Braid is about the manhattan project. Ultimately, everything having to do with the girl, and the Tim's dogged pursuit thereof, when taken with the historical references make the manhattan project the equivalent of America's changing role and the bits with the girl the common examples of fallen empires.

If I take you're meaning, the manhattan project references mean the game is actually about a smothering lover and the manhattan project is the allegory for that aspect of his life. Not having played the game-- or even being in possession of an xbox to play it on-- I'll never know if that interpretation makes sense. I'll assume it does because you're smarter than I am about this sort of thing. :)

What if the game is really about the idea of obsession in general, and the way obsessive pursuit of something often doesn't yield the results you hope for? Then both the princess story and the Manhattan Project references become examples -- different angles of viewing a similar theme.

Another example or two: A lot of fairy tales and fables have overt morals associated with them, and they are largely taken at face-value. At the same time, a number of traditional stories have been more recently re-evaluated by academics with certain specializations (e.g., gender studies, socialist thought, race relations). Such perspectives show many of those stories as containing new lessons beyond the traditional moral. Take Snow White and her dwarves, for example:

  • An expert on race relations might say that "Snow White" showed an obvious endorsement of a certain skin tone.
  • A gender studies expert might see a complication and eventual re-establishment of traditional gender roles in the parts of S.W., the witch-queen, and the prince.
  • An economic theorist may focus on the roles played by the the seven dwarves, and how they represent the working class.

None of these people would be wrong about the story. They'd all be right in their own ways. The story is still about being careful about taking food from strangers, and it's still about "the power of love" conquering adversity, (it's not about just one of those, either). If Walt Disney were to post on this thread that his version of Snow White was actually about not trusting old women, and that the other theories were all "wrong," I'd probably tell Zombie Walt that telling us how to interpret the film serves to cripple his own work.

The Fly wrote:

As someone not familiar with literary criticism, I'm curious what the "Where's Waldo" schools are. Do its proponents wear striped turtlenecks?

The whole New Critical, Author is Dead, Fallacy of Intent thing started by all the smoking french intellectuals was largely in contrast to a bunch of guys (who presumedly smoked the wrong cigarettes in the wrong cafe) that were always trying to "find the author in the text." It was (and remains) especially true of poetry, which is traditionally denser, and thus almost requires analysis simply to be experienced, even if unintentional analysis. During a particularly heated exchange in college, two kids were yelling at each other about something and one of them accused the other of playing Where's Waldo? with every poem the class discussed.

The Fly wrote:

As someone not familiar with literary criticism, I'm curious what the "Where's Waldo" schools are. Do its proponents wear striped turtlenecks?

Don't they all?

Playing Braid, I had no desire to delve into what story there was supposed to have been, or what deeper meaning it was supposed to have had. I just didn't care.

I liked the game, though; I enjoyed it as a series of intriguing puzzles, like those little iron puzzles made from horseshoes and chains and bolts that you find in country stores and Cracker Barrel restaurants. In the end, I tinkered with the mechanics enough to solve each one and get every jigsaw puzzle piece without any outside help. Just don't ask me what it all means.

While it's true that Blow has said only a few people have figured out what Braid was about, as much as I've read about Jonathan Blow and listened to interviews since the game was released I've not felt it condescending and it seems to me that this is what people interpret it as.

The guy had a vision, he gave his game a meaning. He was alone working on it with the painter for artist. Of course to him it all means something in particular, he didn't throw it in there. People ask him all the time what`s the ''meaning of Braid''. What is he supposed to say, a Lynchian ''I don't know'' ? Of course he does, why else would he put it there.

Plus, he seems ok with the theory that the work of an author is independant of the author's will and that therefore the audience can make of it what they feel like. I took part in a conversation on his Blog about this and it's not like he defended his intended meaning like it was the voice of God or the holy scriptures.

I'm actually very curious to know what he meant but I prefer not to be 100% sure. Good news is, he won't say. Otherwise this discussion would have never taken place.

Hi, guys. I don't want to speedbump this conversation at all, but since there seem to be a lot of reasonable / intelligent people here, I want to comment on one thing before it snowballs:

What dampened my appreciation for the game was Jonathan Blow's insistence that there was a single, correct interpretation of his work.

I have never said this -- at least, not in the way I take this quote to mean. I have said a couple of things in interviews, for which I see how they could be construed to mean this, but in fact I meant something a bit different.

For example, I think I was explicitly asked at one point whether everything in the game had an intentional purpose, or whether the game was made with a bunch of random semantic elements so the player could view them any way he wants and any interpretation is equally valid. If we are going to boil the situation down into just 2 choices like this, and only one can be true, then the former is the case and the latter is not the case. But reality is more complicated than that. (In fact the former and latter choices are not even necessarily contradictory, as we all should know).

Every time I say something about what Braid is about, I ultimately see someone using a distortion of that statement as an excuse to hate me for some reason that I don't think makes sense. This is why I don't like to say anything about the game. I am pretty sure I will soon be regretting this very posting.

In general I am not interested in judging the correctness or incorrectness of peoples' interpretations of the game. That's not what Braid is for. If it were, then there would be a multiple-choice quiz at the end of the game asking what the text in world 2 meant, or something. Adam, since you were at that lecture, you heard my spiel about the unsuitability of "the message model of meaning"... then, does it make sense to you that I would want to stand guard rigorously defending some message?

There are two cases (that I'm aware of) when I have said things that seemed to take a different stance:

* The wikipedia article, as noted above. What was posted in that article was basically: "At the end of the game it is revealed that Tim was a stalker and the player has been evil all along!" I said flat out on my blog that this was wrong. But this was a brusque, oversimplified statement designed only to get Wikipedia to pull the article as quickly as possible. (If an author's site directly contradicts information in the article, then that information is at least POV and therefore by wikipedia policy is unsuitable for publication). Regarding this, I would like to re-use a phrase I used above, "reality is more complicated than that". Someone could quite plausibly include this in their interpretation and I don't think it would be wrong... but if they stopped there, and didn't look any further, and thought the game was just about a shock surprise "you are a stalker!" ending, I didn't feel so bad about just calling it wrong, because there is clearly more than that in the source material, and if one is analyzing, then it is a pretty clear failure of analysis to stop there.

So by saying "A is wrong" I was not intending to say "there is one thing B that is right and all things that are not exactly B are wrong".

The reason I wanted to speak so bluntly so that the Wikipedia article would be taken down was mainly a sort of mild panic. This was a very short while after the game was released (a couple of days?) and I didn't want people playing the game, wondering what it was about, going to Wikipedia to find the answer, and believing the somewhat-plausible answer posted there, and never thinking about it again. As has been mentioned in this thread, we don't have a history of this kind of discussion about games, and I was worried that maybe Braid would die on the vine. In retrospect this seems to have been an irrational fear, but it's what I was thinking, and I didn't know how long that part of the Wikipedia article would stay up. Maybe forever? (Certainly I still see quotes in a great many reviews about what Braid is about that seem to be copied directly from the original Wikipedia stub that was up pre-release.)

And the second time I spoke out bluntly against what people were saying was:

* A few months ago in the cross-blog conversation on the Brainy Gamer blog and associated sites. But in this case I did not wish to comment directly on anyone's interpretation. Rather, I was attempting to criticize the critical technique being employed, because I thought that it ignored most of the game and just focused on a few story bits. In some sense I was doing this as a critic more than as an author -- I am a relatively active critic of games, as anyone who has seen my lectures will know. Yes, in this case it is completely impossible to separate away my status as the author of the game being discussed, but I like to believe that I would have had the same thoughts even if it weren't my game. What I mean by this is similar to what I was saying about the Wikipedia article above: if one is purporting to analyze something, and one pays attention to only 20% of the thing and forms an interpretation of the entire work based on that, that is sort of a failure of analysis because hey, what about the rest of the thing? I felt that it was a little weird for people to form interpretations that willfully ignore most of the evidence on display and then blame me for their interpretations not making sense. But I didn't want to be in the business of judging their actual interpretations of the work.

Yes, if I had had a thicker skin I would have just ignored it, and I probably should have. I fully regret posting there.

As I will undoubtedly regret this posting, next month when someone on the Boing Boing discussion boards excerpts some sentence and uses it as incontrovertible proof that I philosophically support the campaign of Pol Pot. Or something.

So here I will enter a plea: please use the actual game Braid as the primary source for anything you think about Braid. Know that I am almost always unsatisfied with anything I say about the game in interviews, or in postings, but I still do them because people ask these questions and I feel like I should at least make an effort. If something from an interview seems to contradict something about the game, then let the game win. The game is the actual thing. The interview is just a bunch of talking; it was probably said clumsily, transcribed (if written) in a way that changed its meaning a second time, and then possibly suffered a third time due to writer/reader mismatch. Please don't trust that stuff, especially don't let it make you mad.

I don't particularly trust written, rational explanations as conveyors of truth or accurate meaning. That's why I make video games.

Thanks,

-Jonathan.

Your comments are well taken, Jonathan, and I really do hope you don't come to regret posting them here.

It sounds like Blow broke the cardinal rule: "Show, don't tell." To me, that ending text reads like this, "Listen, I just told you a story. An ambiguous story. You need to be confused." In short, it is as if Blow is shouting at the player, "This is an important work!"

In my opinion, ideal works of art attempt to hide the "puppet strings." If they work, the viewer/reader/player will not notice that he or she is experiencing an artificial (meaning man-made) world. Braid's ending sounds too heavy-handed to pull this off.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

bunch of stuff

Fanboy squee! The internets rule. Thanks for dropping by.

The Fly wrote:

Your comments are well taken, Jonathan, and I really do hope you don't come to regret posting them here.

But he's telling us how to interpret his quotes!

I kid. Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan.

Jonathan,

Thanks for posting your thoughts here. This is truly one of the wonders of the internet: a bunch of people talking about a game can get a response from the game's creator. I'm glad that you joined in on the discussion, and I sincerely hope that you don't come to regret it later. It sounds like you've gotten burned by that in the past, but I hope that doesn't happen this time around.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

Adam, since you were at that lecture, you heard my spiel about the unsuitability of "the message model of meaning"... then, does it make sense to you that I would want to stand guard rigorously defending some message?

Your lecture changed the way that I think about games in a way that few other things have, and I was confused and disappointed that you seemed to backed down on your convictions. It certainly wouldn't be the first instance of an artist contradicting his own artistic philosophy, but I'm glad to discover that this is not the case.

Well, all this talk has me headed home intending to dip back into the game and make another run through. It's been on my mind anyway since the new Theme dropped on the marketplace recently.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

Thanks,

-Jonathan.

No, thank you for taking the time to drop some words down and add to the discussion. This thread has done a great job of running different ideas about art and audience perception through my head all day.

All in all, not a bad for only being the second Tuesday of '09.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

I don't particularly trust written, rational explanations as conveyors of truth or accurate meaning. That's why I make video games.

Thanks a lot for posting those comments, Jonathan, and I really like this last one because it ties in with something else that you said on a podcast (I can't remember where exactly, but Rod Humble was on it too, and it was a really great listen). Around that time I was trying to piece together the "story" of Braid, as if there was some simple literal narrative in there to be found if I only looked hard enough. What I took away from your comments on that podcast, though, was that if you wanted to tell a literal story, whether it was about a failed relationship or the Manhattan Project or anything in between, you could've done it without spending four years and a bundle of cash on it.

After that, I stopped searching for some literal meaning, and just remembered how the game made me feel each time I solved one of those puzzles, each time my brain made the leap beyond what twenty years of platforming told it to expect and managed to truly grasp how the worlds you created work.