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

interstate78 wrote:
fucrate wrote:

You ask me for a reason Braid is purposefully incomprehensible and gives the impression that the artist is screaming "I AM IMPORTANT"? Blow is a huge fan of David Lynch. He uses shots from Mulholland Drive in every lecture he does. nuff said.

I really don't appreciate the condescending attitude that people have towards game designers who try to push storytelling in games forward. I don't know where it stems from but this kind of attitude is all too common

Honestly, I don't appreciate the condescending attitude the "games-as-art" crowd has for every other kind of game out there either.

Can't we all just get along?

First of all, let me say that it's great to see Borges, Barthes, Derrida, Danielewski brought up in discussion about Braid, Oblivion, et al. Thanks for putting that kind of thought into the article. I was similarly angered when I hit the epilogue, but later decided that my own dissatisfaction is a part of the game, and part of what makes it unique. The ambiguity of the game - the multiple story lines - parallel neatly a short story, say "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Borges, or Robbe-Grillet (if you've seen them, the Alain Resnais films Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad are close, if dull, approximations of this.)

But the game, as I see it, becomes about the people playing it, and why they are playing it. It is not specifically about Tim and his Princess, Tim and his mother, or about the Manhattan Project. There are multiple storylines thrown in specifically to refute that. What the game is about is Obsession, with a capital O. It's about the desire to solve the problem. Consider the type of game: a puzzle-solver. Consider the many references to the history of Princess-saving games. Why do you want to save the princess? Not "why does Tim want to save her", but "why do YOU want to?" What I think Braid tries to show us is that the single-minded desire for solutions (the reason for being a puzzle-gamer) is not always a good thing. In Braid, that desire, begun early on as an innocently childlike desire for something behind a shop window, turns into a stalker-like desire for a Princess who does not want to be saved, and is paralleled with the desire of the scientist who found the solution to the creation of the Bomb. The game indicts us for having that same desire in trying to solve these puzzles. The epilogue is frustrating because of that same desire for completeness (at first it lets you through to the beginning again, and you think you missed something, and so you go back, and yes, you probably do find the rest of the hidden text, but you are not likely to be entirely satisfied or even certain of its meaning.) It is perhaps a little more frustrating than it needs to be, but for me this was an ending that grew on me as my frustration waned, especially because I realized it left in me the same frustration that Tim started with. And the fact that the game drives home that the consequences of this desire cannot be undone (kaboom), all inside a game specifically about turning back time to change outcomes, is pretty smart.

gauntly wrote:

What the game is about is Obsession, with a capital O.

Calvin Klein is pleased.

I think you've hit the central idea that a lot of GWJ has started to agree on, if you read the other comments (we do that here). The things players have to go through to get all the stars did a great job of reinforcing that.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

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?

It's doublethink. Have you read 1984?

Finally, after waiting for Braid to come to PC, being daunted/concerned by the hype, buying it, loving it, finishing it, I have allowed myself to read your article (referenced in a few Conference calls) and though I understand the majority of your points, I'm left wondering if your criticism would have been much softer had you completed it without hitting the "inevitable wall"?
This isn't meant to be a critique on your gaming skills, rather I'm wondering if my love of the ego stroke I get from reading and understanding/playing and overcoming a text/game where there is something to be solved (for me, Braid had both text and game elements) has clouded my bullsh*t meter.

troubleshot wrote:

Finally, after waiting for Braid to come to PC, being daunted/concerned by the hype, buying it, loving it, finishing it, I have allowed myself to read your article (referenced in a few Conference calls) and though I understand the majority of your points, I'm left wondering if your criticism would have been much softer had you completed it without hitting the "inevitable wall"?
This isn't meant to be a critique on your gaming skills, rather I'm wondering if my love of the ego stroke I get from reading and understanding/playing and overcoming a text/game where there is something to be solved (for me, Braid had both text and game elements) has clouded my bullsh*t meter.

I'm glad someone who got in on PC chimes in. I think since he wrote that, Rabbit's opinion has changed. Unless I'm mistaken, I think he's finished it since.

Anybody else got it for PC now? How are you guys liking it?

Got it for PC and just finished it.
Actually its an hour ago now, since I had to read through this interesting thread

In some ways I probably shouldn't have read this so soon after finishing the game, since it obviously has influenced my thoughts about the game, and especially the ending.
Right after finishing the epilogue I felt a bit frustrated about the ambiguity. The game was overall very enjoyable, but it was like getting various hints toward some deeper meaning, just for it to be deconstructed at the end.

Now (and as mentioned, I cant be sure how I'd felt without reading through this thread) my frustration felt like it was meant to be a part of the experience.

I disagree with your article, on the basis that Braid does actually tell a clear story, if investigated carefully. Please see this link:

http://www.rllmukforum.com/lofiversi...

It gives a clear break down on the meaning of the game.

It is true that Blow's approach is vague, but you must agree that the conclusion is clear.

Shahmatt wrote:

I disagree with your article, on the basis that Braid does actually tell a clear story, if investigated carefully. Please see this link:

http://www.rllmukforum.com/lofiversi...

It gives a clear break down on the meaning of the game.

It is true that Blow's approach is vague, but you must agree that the conclusion is clear.

I'm fairly certain the author is aware of that particular interpretation. But the basics of literary theory, rejecting new criticism, of course, is that the reader brings what he will to the story, and there is no solid, verifiable interpretation or conclusion.

NSMike wrote:
Shahmatt wrote:

I disagree with your article, on the basis that Braid does actually tell a clear story, if investigated carefully. Please see this link:

http://www.rllmukforum.com/lofiversi...

It gives a clear break down on the meaning of the game.

It is true that Blow's approach is vague, but you must agree that the conclusion is clear.

I'm fairly certain the author is aware of that particular interpretation. But the basics of literary theory, rejecting new criticism, of course, is that the reader brings what he will to the story, and there is no solid, verifiable interpretation or conclusion.

Roland Barthes, raise the roof. RAISE IT!!

NSMike wrote:
Shahmatt wrote:

I disagree with your article, on the basis that Braid does actually tell a clear story, if investigated carefully. Please see this link:

http://www.rllmukforum.com/lofiversi...

It gives a clear break down on the meaning of the game.

It is true that Blow's approach is vague, but you must agree that the conclusion is clear.

I'm fairly certain the author is aware of that particular interpretation. But the basics of literary theory, rejecting new criticism, of course, is that the reader brings what he will to the story, and there is no solid, verifiable interpretation or conclusion.

Yep. There are supported and unsupported interpretations, but no "correct" interpretations.

wordsmythe wrote:

Yep. There are supported and unsupported interpretations, but no "correct" interpretations.

Didn't Mr. Blow say this himself earlier in the thread?

adam.greenbrier wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Yep. There are supported and unsupported interpretations, but no "correct" interpretations.

Didn't Mr. Blow say this himself earlier in the thread?

Hey, I'm not the one who nercro-ed this thread.

The linked article/post wrote:

The server at www.rllmukforum.com is taking too long to respond.

Well, I can't say that I've seen that interpretation of Braid before.

Clearly it's been a while since anyone felt like touching this, but I just got around to playing it, so shmeh. I think you're missing the key irony...which is fine and it's the author's fault maybe, or whatever. I thought I'd throw in my two cents.

One of the themes of both the gameplay and the story is that if you try really hard, you can discover everything. You will fail countless times, but if you keep pursuing the goal, you can achieve that goal. The ability to manipulate time to correct mistakes, so that a full playthrough is essentially a perfect playthrough--there are no mistakes, because those all happened in the future, and all those deaths are might-have-beens, not something that actually happened, in Tim's subjective timeline--that ability assists in a search for a godlike perfection and omniscience. You can do everything, find all the secrets, and be flawless.

But just because you can doesn't mean you should. To get one of the stars you have to wait 2 hours while a cloud goes by. Is that the best use of your time? Tim thinks that he is racing to save the princess; really he's trying to possess her, which destroys her.

Dogged pursuit, so typical of completionist gamers, becomes vice instead of virtue. The same impulse that made me get every last bedarned star in Super Mario World, the game asserts, is what led to the discovery of the atomic bomb. I want to know it all and have it all simply because it is there to be discovered, not because it is Good.

I think it does a fascinating job of reinterpreting the Super Mario trope. If she's not in *this* castle and she wasn't in *that* castle, and you're still running around killing things to try to rescue her and it's not working....maybe she doesn't want to be found... Maybe you should just find a better way to live.

I think it refers to You Have to Cut the Rope's ironic portrayal of the hero as well--YHtCtR argued that victory is essentially assured--it's defined intrinsically within the system. Braid argues that victory is often unethical. And I will say that playing Braid was the first time that I really felt like maybe I shouldn't be doing the things that I was doing, putting together the pieces of the puzzle. It made me a bad guy in a different way than just "playing as the bad guy" because my obsessive desire to complete the levels put me in an emotional and motivational equivalence with the villain whose goals I was trying to help fulfill.

Similarly, the opacity in the story seems to feed into this. If you keep working at it, you will understand it better--but is that kind of obsession healthy or productive?

I don't think it's the voice of the author really--the difficulty is part of the point. "You shouldn't be doing this," the game keeps saying. The fact that you, dear writer, are a student of the obscure means that you are both the target audience and that you likely possess the desire that the game is simultaneously feeding and frustrating. Its (negative) effect on you seems like an argument for its success.

Rarely does a game come along with such tight gameplay that speaks so closely to the themes of the story as well. The irony that is built in only heightens what I think is a genuine accomplishment.

Great post, stopworth.

The genius of Braid is that it's really a game about emotion, initially those of Tim, but ultimately those of the player. The old cliche states that the journey is more important than the destination, and Braid is an emotional journey filled with triumph and regret, excitement and frustration, sympathy and disdain. That is the core of the Braid experience.

stopworth wrote:

Tim thinks that he is racing to save the princess; really he's trying to possess her, which destroys her.

Funny. I sensed that Tim's motivation was suspect at the outset, and deleted the game shortly thereafter (admittedly for non-story reasons). Perhaps the winning move is not to play?

i