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

Jonathan,

Thanks for wading in, and it's great to hear your thoughts (obviously). I've clearly said what I had to say as well as I can say it, however clumsily that may be, and I appreciate your taking both the time to read it, and to post some thoughts about it.

J

Mister Magnus wrote:

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

I'm sure my boss would disagree.

A masterfully written criticism of a video game? Polite discussion of the points raised? A frank, engaging reply from the developer of the game?

I'd already more or less given up on the rest of the internet, but you guys have ruined it completely.

wordsmythe wrote:
Mister Magnus wrote:

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

I'm sure my boss would disagree. ;)

Actually, I ended up making it a pretty productive day. This forum helped keep me alert and active. Now to see if I can get a 147 or 136 to get me home with the quickness.

Sonicator wrote:

I'd already more or less given up on the rest of the internet, but you guys have ruined it completely. :-)

Noob.

Sonicator wrote:

A masterfully written criticism of a video game? Polite discussion of the points raised? A frank, engaging reply from the developer of the game?

I'd already more or less given up on the rest of the internet, but you guys have ruined it completely. :-)

Welcome to the world of tomorrow.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

... but I like to believe that I would have had the same thoughts even if it weren't my game.

Is this ever true? In my experience the only folks truly capable of that kind of mental detachment are interesting in much less desirable ways.

Great piece, Julian. One of your most interesting, probably one of your best.

This thread has succeeded (for me) in doing two things:
Inspiring me to think (always a good thing) about art, authorial voice and the perception thereof;
and getting me to go play this game.

And I love this place. Thanks for stopping in, Jonathan. I think (and hope) you'll find that this community tends toward the more thoughtful end of the spectrum, and I hope you don't end up regretting your comments here.

I'm certainly glad you did.

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.

Yeah, I'm sure it's not easy to have your work up there in the spotlight being dissected in such ways, but the fact that people are going to lengths like this to discuss it has to have some sort of merit. I can't think if any other Xbox Live Arcade title, let alone a most full releases that spawn these types of discussions.

Braid was a wonderfully fresh game, and despite it not being perfect, it is exactly the type of game the industry needs to promote the fact that gamers have grown up (literally), and have interests beyond killing generic zombies and nazis for the millionth time. For that, thank you - I hope you keep up the creative effort.

Your response is not how I would have imagined it. From the way you have been portrayed in some circles, it's not hard to see someone assuming you were sitting atop a pedestal, swirling a glass of brandy, and looking down with condescending eyes. Your response is pretty much validation enough that you are a decent human being, who made a wonderful game, and has had a lot of criticism to fend off since. My sincere apologies if I had misinterpreted your character, but you know, the internet and all that.

Also, I hope your next game has some sort of surrealistic quality to it. Don't be afraid to break down even more walls and mess with a few minds in the process - keep everyone on their toes!

Jonathan Blow wrote:

Thanks,

-Jonathan.

Speaking of the devil.

Glad you're here for the debate

Damn. Fantastic write-up, and it's nice to see the author wade in to make some points.

I am not feeling smart enough right now to opine too deeply, but I can't help but ask one question: are we certain that we want to use the tools of Derrida and other Deconstructionists to analyse and rationalize the works of what are interactive experiences, or should new tools be created to cover the medium?

Mike wrote:

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!"

As I said earlier though, I think this was necessary to an extent. The gaming community usually does not give much thought to the meaning of games, and I'd argue that to a certain degree if Braid did not have such an ambiguous epilogue that practically screamed "hey try to figure this out!" that it would not be getting this kind of analysis either. Braid had to be a little more in-your-face about it's ambiguity in order to get people to wake up to the fact that it was there.

I can't wait until games get to the point that they don't have to absolutely reek of hidden meaning just to evoke critical analysis. I just don't think the gaming community is there yet.

Great article, rabbit.

Mr. Blow, thanks for stopping by!

wordsmythe wrote:

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.

And I'd bash his f*cking zombie head in with a teeball bat, not share tea time with him.

mateo wrote:

Damn. Fantastic write-up, and it's nice to see the author wade in to make some points.

I am not feeling smart enough right now to opine too deeply, but I can't help but ask one question: are we certain that we want to use the tools of Derrida and other Deconstructionists to analyse and rationalize the works of what are interactive experiences, or should new tools be created to cover the medium?

I think, Barthes at least would argue that all media are, in their own way, interactive experiences. (cf. "writerly text" in S/Z if not elsewhere) Of course, I think S/Z is more struct than post-struct/decon, so make of that what you will.

rabbit wrote:
Sonicator wrote:

I'd already more or less given up on the rest of the internet, but you guys have ruined it completely. :-)

Noob.

Dammit man, I needed that keyboard to write my thesis! Ah well, it's only water.

mateo wrote:

are we certain that we want to use the tools of Derrida and other Deconstructionists to analyse and rationalize the works of what are interactive experiences, or should new tools be created to cover the medium?

There are certainly folks out there who are developing new ways to interpret games, but they generally focus on the gameplay and mechanics and leave the filmic and narrative elements alone, figuring that there is already a solid base of theory in those areas. I suppose that trying to combine those branches of theory will be a big task in the coming decades.

Either way, Derrida wasn't purely a literary guy. A lot of his own stuff owed much to work in fields such as psychology.

Interesting question about whether the tools of static criticism hold up in interactive media. While i admit to engendering the conversation, my pomposity meter is peaking and I may have to have a nice lie down, drink some Malt Likr and watch Wrestling to balance my humours.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

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.

I may be distorting this particular sentence, but I don't think anyone here hates you. Well, maybe some do, but they're nice enough to pretend like they don't. Also, they're probably jerks who are stupid. With dumb!

Personally, I just stopped reading in-depth analysis of the game's meaning and have stopped reading all of your replies to queries and criticisms pertaining to the game as I just got tired of it (apart from your reply in this thread). My apathy towards these things has manifested itself in a rejection of all of Braid's story elements, which may be unfair, and a rejection of the seeming Blow-worship that I have felt in the less savory parts of the Onlines. It has not manifested itself in hatred. You have been placed on my personal radar because I am a fan of Braid. Now I am looking forward to the next project, which I hope I enjoy just as much as I have Braid, whether it be something brand new or simply Braid 2: Braid Harder! As long as it's not one of those stupid tower-defense things. There, I said it. I hate tower-defense.

Oh, and I totally figured out the real meaning of Braid. The Princess represents Taco Bell. It's so obvious.

Thanks for taking the time out to post your thoughts and I certainly hope you don't regret the post. It was a good post. It cleared up some misconceptions I had, actually.

Great Article. This and Soulja Boys review pretty much sum up the game for me lol

MechaSlinky wrote:

Oh, and I totally figured out the real meaning of Braid. The Princess represents Taco Bell. It's so obvious.

You think you want it, but you don't. It all ends with an explosion and sadness.

(Posting before reading the thread, will follow-up after doing so)

The backlash against Braid has been simply astounding. When it was released, it was hailed as a bold new step in legitimizing games as art, but it's been months since anyone's said anything good about it (save for a few, half-hearted, "yeah, it's pretentious, but..." defenses).

I don't think that it - or Blow - are pretentious, either. He takes a lot of flack for that walkthrough he wrote, but, since the game consists entirely of puzzles to solve, looking up the solutions effectively destroys the game. He's not calling you stupid, he's pleading with you to enjoy the journey, because the game doesn't have a destination (the awesome bit at the end isn't really an ending, nor is the epilogue - the only part of the game that, I'll admit, is not up to par).

Look at it like this: if you could play Braid without the scene-setting text or the epilogue or Blow's walkthrough, would you be playing a good game? I say yes, you'd be playing a great game. You might miss all the allegory that manifests itself in the gameplay, but you'd get the music, the mood, David Hellman's gorgeous artwork, and that inimitable "eureka!" moment of satisfaction when you finally get your brain to work within the rules of the game world and solve that puzzle that's had you stumped for days. That's the important part, not the story.

It's not a novel in the guise of a game, it's more like a painting.

OGRedd wrote:

Great Article. This and Soulja Boys review pretty much sum up the game for me lol

Link, in case you've missed it. It's brilliant.

...

Now, having un-skimmed this thread, I'm glad to see that the opinions on the game are far more varied than they've seemed to me, lately. I also want to give a shout out to interstate78, ryndam, and especially juv3nal (in spite of the "3" ;)) for saying a lot of what I'm obviously struggling to say.

Here's my epilogue to my previous post:

-I want to again stress the idea that Braid doesn't have a story, it has an idea (probably several).

-I want to express my disappointment that so many people have been turned off of the game because of the flavor-text alone. The text adds a lot to the game if you like it (or can at least acknowledge the basic idea, even if you find the writing poor) but the text is not the game; that's why it's divorced from the gameplay. The epilogue, in particular, should not color your view of the game overall. I, for one, have always felt that epilogues are meant to be separate entities in general; they add to the works they're attached to, but they're not required reading.

-Although Mr. Blow made it perfectly clear that, though there is his one, personal meaning, it is not the one true meaning, I'd like to point out that it shouldn't have mattered if he had said there was one right answer. If you believe that a work can have a different meaning for everyone who experiences it, then any author who disagrees with you is just expressing their reading of the piece.

-I would never say that those of you who call the game too hard because you had to consult a guide are stupid. I will, however, call you impatient. Be aware that I, myself, used a guide for two of the puzzles, and only solved a third because of knowledge gained from that guide. I know, however, that I could have solved those puzzles if I'd been willing to put off completing the game for a few more days, and that you all could have, too.

stevesan wrote:
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.

Well said, both.

Draco wrote:

I thought it was prett well established by now that Braid is an allegory about:

Spoiler wrote:

[color=white]man's purusit of the atomic bomb? The "girl" is the bomb, and Tim represents all the scientists trying to make "the bomb" work. The opening scene of the game, which looks like a sunset, is the world on fire. The girl blows up at the end when you finally get her, and there are several hints and refrences in the text along the way. Most obviously, the one about 'seeing the creation of the world,' 'tearing it assunder' and the quote "Now we are all sons of bitches."[/color]

Braid's Ending Explained

I'm in the "everyone has a valid interpretation" camp, but I should point out that, in the PC version, they're changing the first screen so that it is more clearly just a sunset, in order to discourage this particular theory. Personally, I just don't want to accept this as the meaning because, frankly, I find it somewhat...bland.

interstate78 wrote:
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.

EXECUTIVE GAMER!

HaciendaSquish wrote:

but I should point out that, in the PC version, they're changing the first screen so that it is more clearly just a sunset, in order to discourage this particular theory.

Ahhhhhhhhh! That's terrible! Han-Shoots-First-ish, even.

Spaz wrote:
HaciendaSquish wrote:

but I should point out that, in the PC version, they're changing the first screen so that it is more clearly just a sunset, in order to discourage this particular theory.

Ahhhhhhhhh! That's terrible! Han-Shoots-First-ish, even.

You mean Greedo?

BAM! Out-nerded, yo!

Well, this isn't what I expected to happen. Like rabbit I never finished Braid, and after reading this excellent article I thought rabbit found the reason why. Everyone's wonderful comments here inspired me to go back and finish it. Now that I have, I'm feeling a little betrayed. By rabbit. I think you might have reacted to the game's website and not the game itself.

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.

I don't see any clear point where Mr Blow interrupts the fiction to impose himself on the player. The way rabbit described it, I half-expected expected Blow to break the fourth wall and introduce himself to the player, a la the Wachowski brothers in Matrix: Path of Neo. "mwHAHAHA, here's what it all means, monkeybrains!" Nothing in Braid is that self-important. The epilogue converses with the player exactly like the rest of the game does.

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."

The plot is a little TOO obvious if you catch the reference to Kenneth Bainbridge's famous quote. The better mystery (and the brilliance of the game) is that Braid liberally borrows the plot structure from Chris Nolan's Memento - its story is told in reverse. What appears to be the hero's bitter sweet pursuit of love is revealed to be a descent into madness, the Princess is his object of obsession. The gameplay mechanics express this. The plot is obtuse, yes, but deliberately so, no. Jonathan left a pretty obvious marker.

Jonathan Blow wrote:

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.

Jonathan, your language suggests someone who is only just learning how to speak with his audience. Your post reminded me of JRR Tolkien's protests to critics comparing Lord of the Rings and Nazi Germany. Tolkien didn't offer explanations, only objected fiercely to one particular interpretation.

Happy to oblige.

wordsmythe wrote:

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.

I get your meaning there, but I still reserve the right to believe that anyone who would say Snow White is a white supremacist work because of the name of the main character is a buffoon.

I had a conversation with my wife about this topic last night, and had a bit of a breakthrough. I was trying to understand art through the lens of a particular kind of artists or art critic.

Most of my exposure to the art world has involved the self-important Art-with-a-Capital-A type that masks a lack of skill with pompous language. "You don't understand my work, therefore it is important and deep."

They're the reason why I got this notion of "one true meaning" into my head. I assumed they knew better than me because they had degrees in things I never studied, used large words, and talked at length about how smart they were. They're the ones that say "Such-and-such is really about this, and you're a fool if you don't see it." (EDIT: Just to be clear, I am not lumping Blow into this category.) They were the authority figures on the subject of Art-with-a-capital-A, and I just figured that whatever they say goes.

My wife informed me that they're not right, they just get the most ink because they know how to self promote. There is a whole world of artists who just make things because they love to make things, and art critics who keep their discussions to things like skill and aesthetics. These are the art-with-a-lower-case-a people, and they're the ones that I can understand.

She also posed an interesting question that I'd like to pass on, because I couldn't answer it: Why is Braid an "art game" but Little Big Planet isn't? The only thing I could think of is that the Art-with-a-capital-A crowd pronounced it art because it was inscrutable, whereas LBP was just beautiful and fun and therefore unworthy of the "art" appelation. I'm probably wrong-- there's probably a real reason why Braid is considered art but LBP isn't, but I don't know what it is. Anyone have any thoughts?

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

She also posed an interesting question that I'd like to pass on, because I couldn't answer it: Why is Braid an "art game" but Little Big Planet isn't? The only thing I could think of is that the Art-with-a-capital-A crowd pronounced it art because it was inscrutable, whereas LBP was just beautiful and fun and therefore unworthy of the "art" appelation. I'm probably wrong-- there's probably a real reason why Braid is considered art but LBP isn't, but I don't know what it is. Anyone have any thoughts?

I don't have a PS3 ([dramatically:] yet...), so I haven't played it yet, but I'm pretty sure that LBP is an astoundingly artful game. I think the difference is that LBP has more commercial or mechanical elements alongside its artfulness, whereas Braid is nothing but art. Someone once said that nothing can be art unless it serves no purpose other than being art, so a gorgeous car, for instance, might be artfully made, but it's a product, or a tool, not art. If someone sculpted the same car out of a rock, that'd be art.

It's sort of like that, I think...Unless LittleBigPlanet just lacks any symbolism, metaphor, or deeper meaning, in which case that would be the difference.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

She also posed an interesting question that I'd like to pass on, because I couldn't answer it: Why is Braid an "art game" but Little Big Planet isn't? The only thing I could think of is that the Art-with-a-capital-A crowd pronounced it art because it was inscrutable, whereas LBP was just beautiful and fun and therefore unworthy of the "art" appelation. I'm probably wrong-- there's probably a real reason why Braid is considered art but LBP isn't, but I don't know what it is. Anyone have any thoughts?

In my roundabout explanation, it's similar to why the Guggenheim or the Disney Concert Hall (in Los Angeles) are pieces of architectural artistry, but a playground might not immediately be considered as such.

Braid, though its many pieces, challenges the player. We have multiple interpretations of character agency, of plot meaning, and many views on how the symbolism of setpieces ties into the whole.
I haven't experienced LBP myself, but I don't believe there's an overriding narrative present in the various Sockworlds (though there was certainly some interest in creating a "story" level that revolved around a theme). It's largely a playground where the player is able to experience pure, unrestrained fancy. There's certainly aspects of The Art in it, but it's hard to derive some kind of critical meaning (without sounding like a jackass). Unless I'm fantastically incorrect, LBP serves no other purpose other than to entertain and provide a great social experience.

The copout answer is that they're both art, just as the David, Guernica, Calder's Stabiles, duChamp's installations, a mural on the side of a liquor mart, or the latest full-color spread in Batman are art pieces.

I loved the Braid story. If you asked me what it was about I'd say "no idea" and that we were looking through eyes of the main character: a delusional genius. The bizarre thoughts and the obtuseness of it all were fitting for a madman. I found it fascinating.

Something as vague as Braid is not imposing anything on you. Only something concrete can be shoved down your throat ("the moral is: don't do drugs"). I think the reaction here is more to the post-release Jonathan Blow interviews and his postings (e.g. the walkthrough) rather than the game. Of course a work is going to be a reflection of an artist. Was that not the case for Bioshock? If you want to experience an artist's creation in a vacuum then stay away from any of his other ramblings. If you hadn't read those post-release ramblings and had no idea who Jonathan Blow was I don't think you'd be making your current argument about him imposing himself. You're reviewing the walk-through rather than the game. I think you're arguing Jonathan Blow is inserting himself into the work solely because you found it "vague and pretentious", and implying Ken Levine isn't inserting himself into Bioshock because you understood and liked it's story.

Braid is vague? Absolutely, and I liked that aspect about it. Others obviously don't. My main complaint with Braid is, other than that last level (or World 1), the gameplay and story connection is tenuous at best. They have little to do with one another.