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Braid is eliciting some great analysis

August 12, 2008

I’m playing and loving XBLA puzzle-platformer Braid at the moment. If you’ve found your way to WG, then chances are you’ve also played if not beaten indie developer Jonathan Blow’s time-twisting gem (not to mention you’d be one of the first to actually read this damn blog!)

Braid is one of those games that comes out every so often that really gets people thinking and elicits some fun-to-read critical analysis. Some of it comes in the form of well-written reviews, like Dan Whitehead’s Eurogamer review:

Braid doesn’t have a story, at least not in the traditional linear narrative sense, but there’s a lead character, Tim, and his mission is to find a princess. She’s not a literal princess though, but a metaphor – the romantic cliché of that perfect soul mate as filtered through popular videogame motifs. The classic Mario line “our princess is in another castle”, knowingly reused here, is more than just an ironic wink to gaming history. In the context of Braid’s melancholy mood, it becomes a bona fide commentary on the human condition. Our princess is always in another castle.

… I have no problem admitting that I found myself thinking about people and places that I’d not considered for years. Relationships that ended too soon. Some that went on far too long. Memories that no longer seem reliable. Others that are still painfully vivid. It’s a platform game. It’s an emotional journey. Whatever you invest in Braid, it repays many times over.

1Up editor Shawn Elliott questioned many critics’ emotional reactions to Braid, not because he thinks they’re pretentious jerks, but because the core game design is so devilishly well-designed and because it seamlessly melds form and content:

I’m an analogical thinker to a fault. I find metaphoric meaning in almost anything. However, as I rewind and rethink orders of operation in Braid‘s watchmaker world I feel as though I am taking (and often failing) an IQ test. This intricate timing and calculation — these ingenious and remarkable mechanisms — speak to the mind, not the soul. Perhaps that’s the point: Passion is not a solvable puzzle. It’s a princess in another castle. Whether or not it stirs sentiment, this interpretation in which story and gameplay meanings collaborate allows Blow to braid a second strand.

While Braid reminded Elliott of the time-warping film “Momento” (one of my faves), it reminded Globe and Mail game writer Chad Sapieha of another time-turning flick:

As I played, I couldn’t help but think of Michel Gondry’s psychedelic time-shifting love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is acclaimed for its musing on wrecked relationships and our desires to at once treasure and be rid of their memories. Like Mr. Gondry’s film, Braid masterfully leads the audience through something that has the potential to be thorny and inaccessible, keeping us on track until we arrive at its obvious—and, as it turns out, inevitable—conclusion.

Even the Wall Street Journal got in on the act, mentioning Braid in a brief review in its Advisor section. The write-up mentions Blow’s outspoken role in the game dev community, and his stated goal to strip all the filler out of his games.

Such a mind-set often puts Mr. Blow at odds with the bulk of the videogame industry. “It’s kind of like punk rock,” says Jesper Juul, a video game researcher at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab, about Mr. Blow’s attitude. “They were a reaction to big progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd who had these elaborate tours.”

And like principled adherents of punk, Mr. Blow is known for maintaining his artistic vision in the face of criticism. He says that Microsoft asked him to add clues after user testing suggested that players sometimes needed help. “I had a line and I would’ve pulled the game and eaten the loss,” he says.

I enjoyed several common aspects of these pieces. The first was that many referenced Braid’s reference (we’re getting meta here) to the iconic Super Mario Bros. line “our princess is in another castle” when writing about the game. I think one sign of a maturing medium is a willingness by modern creators to reference classics. This goes way beyond the “fan service” style of referencing classics such as remixed soundtracks or unlockable characters from older versions of the franchise. It’s about tapping into widely-known and instantly understood moments from the past. It’s why the Bible and Shakespeare have been directly and indirectly referenced countless times in Western books and media. Every gamer knows that line, and so Blow is able to play off it to create his own meaning in a way all can quickly “get.” Similarly, the writers are able to use the line when analyzing Braid and give readers — even if they haven’t played the game — a sense of what the game is going for.

I also like the cross-media references to movies and books. Chalk that up as another category here at WG. I want to see more of that!

Finally, I just relished reading about the emotional reactions to the game. It’s way too rare in gaming to have an honest-to-god emotional reaction that isn’t either a cheap scare, or the shock of seeing a companion character get killed, which is interesting but played-out at this point. I know there’s a small backlash to what some see as an “underlying pretention” in Braid, but Blow isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done countless times in other mediums. Just because it’s trying to get you to think about some shit doesn’t mean it’s trying too hard.

I say you can’t fault a guy for trying. Push it forward. If it fails, at least someone’s trying, which is more than we can usually say in this medium. Eurogamer’s Whitehead put it nicely:

You could argue that by using the doomed romanticism of an introspective male as its core that the game is treading clichéd creative soil but in a medium as emotionally stunted as videogames it still represents an enormous leap towards realising the potential of the form. Great novelists, filmmakers and painters have cultivated entire careers and acclaimed bodies of work from this sort of thing, so it seems churlish to criticise a games designer for attempting the same.

Full articles: Eurogamer review; Unraveling Braid (Shawn Elliott); Super Mario Bros. for grown-ups (Chad Sapieha); Time Out of Mind (Wall Street Journal)

AND: More here.

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