Monday, July 14, 2014

Braid, Greatness, and Interactive Entertainment

Braid: all lush and pretty
Braid is a promise, a tantalizing window into what could be and should be, but this does not make it great. 'Great' always has an implicit reference frame. I can say that Fargo is a great, that My Name is Red is a great, that the Kandinsky retrospective at the Met in 2009 was great. Consuming these works have been notable experiences in my life, they are Great within my overall cultural context. I can also say that Days of Future Past was a great superhero movie or that Arminn Van Buren puts on a great show. These are great within a niche, a great choice among the options afforded to me.

Braid is the second kind of great. It is a great video game. I wish that Braid wasn't great at all but rather a baseline for what is considered a publishable game. But alas, the state of video games is such that I play Braid as a happy escape from rummaging through indie detritus looking for a worthwhile review to write or a design lesson to learn. Braid is great; it delivers all the things that I thought I wanted from games. The game is a fresh puzzle platformer which relies on time manipulation as a central solution vector. You are able to play back the recent events like a VHS tape going forward and back to find the point where you want to be. Certain features of the level are immune to time manipulation and properly matching up the things that move when you rewind with those that don't is typically the crux of the challenge. This mechanic is well polished with puzzles maintaining an internal logic and are typically not contingent on chancy spacings or other unpredictable variables. The player has the full control to experiment, probe, and edge towards a solution. Braid does these things well, but really it should be unacceptable for a game to do anything less. Having polished mechanics which can be understood and manipulated by the player to achieve goals is the ground zero of games. 

Where Braid attempts to make the leap from great game to great work is with the integration of mechanics into narrative and experience. My belief is that this approach is the only way through which games will get their first masterwork. The idea of Braid is to create a world where the mechanics work to explore the nature of  the author's personal experiences. The game is about learning from ones mistakes, and recapturing a love lost. The mechanic of playing time backwards and forwards is a good way of expressing a way in which many us try to make sense of painful experiences. Going over them, again and again, trying to gain a piece of insight that can give meaning to pain. The reward for solving a puzzle in Braid, having massaged a problem every which way, is just one small (literal) puzzle piece that allows you to see a bit more of the picture of events that transpired. A picture which you slowly assemble at the end of each episode/world. To me this expressive feature of mechanics is the seam through which games can pass into art. 

Still the best example of video games as art

Where Braid does not live up to its potential is that it tries to tell rather than share. As a player I am being shown the pain the author endured. And, if I am so inclined, I can make the effort to relate the ideas that he is presenting to my own life. But within a game I want to personally experience the loss, the need for answers, and the pain of trying to make sense. The only place where the creator leans on narration is in describing the pain of losing a love and the struggle this creates. This is delivered through a series of text boxes which fail to engage the player. The narrative goal does not effect my experience and so I don't care. The big lesson for me is that a great game has to go beyond a tightly crafted rule set, a great game has to do all its work communicate within the realm of player experience. This is why a good game of chess can evoke the feeling of battle and of sparring. Or a game of Catan can make you feel like a Machiavellian Ruler while arguing over sheep. Experiences stemming from design subsume all theme and style. 

Specifically in Braid, the author wanted to tell me about his experience instead of bringing me along to feel it with him. I would have liked to have seen the player lose something in game, and not be told that he lost it, but feel it being lost. Specifically a mechanic, a rule, a power or something that I truly valued in experiencing the game world being taken from me. Then my struggle with the puzzles would have been an echo of the creator struggling with his past. 

I think Braid is in fact a high mark for games because of its ambition and commitment to ideas. But while offering a tantalizing peek at the potential of the medium it demonstrates how difficult it is to create an resonant experience for the player while keeping tight control over the path which the player can take. I suspect that while a Braid-like game that transcends its niche will come,  the first great work of gaming will come from an openly experiential direction. 


  1. Don't you think that games can be truly great AS games? Why would they even need theme or narrative to become art? Chess has minimal theme, Go arguably has none. Yet they are both considered great games.

    I believe that the best a theme can do for a game is make the mechanisms more intuitive, i.e. it supports the mechanisms and not the other way around. The mechanical interworkings of the game system (i.e. the rules) are the heart of a game. They ARE the game, and nothing else is. It's just easier to understand that a "sword fighter can attack adjacent enemies" than "the square stone can remove adjacent stones, while the round stone can...". That's the reason why theme is important, but it doesn't make a game more or less "like art".

    By the way, the definition of the term "art" is another thing I'm highly sceptical about. It seems to me that any more exclusive definition than "the result of a creative process with the intent of stimulating psychological needs" is just arbitrary. Yes, by that definition Candy Crush is art, just as Half-Life or Civilization are. But that's okay, because "being art" is not a quality criterion in itself. There's good art and bad art.

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    2. I agree that mechanics is all there ultimately is, but I think for a game to cross into the realm of a something that both communicates to and enriches the audience needs some way to interpret the rule set and make it personal.

      Perhaps relating games to art is a fruitless endeavor (and something that I will think on more) but Braid certainly wants to be art so this play through put me in that perspective so I wanted to get my thoughts down.

      On the other hand,it just feels like games should be able to communicate. A mechanic of removing your opponents stones from the board feels different than constraining where your opponent can place them. Aggression, positioning, cooperation, etc all have emotional content. It seems like there is a way to shape these emotions in a way that can communicate ideas experientialy. A topic(theme) could frame that experience and guide a particular kind of reflection. I'm not sure if a game can transcend the medium without some sort of broader relatability.

    3. I don't think you need to interpret anything. A game can be extremely enriching on its own. It's just that we almost exclusively have mechanically very poorly designed video games (which is understandable given the youth of the craft).

      I didn't mean to imply that games couldn't be art. I meant to say that ALL games are art anyways. But that fact doesn't mean a thing.

      Exactly, mechanics FORGE emotions. They don't need a strong theme, metaphor, narrative or whatever to do that.

    4. you should occasionally blog in english so I can read about your ideas!