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Adventures in Braid and the overwrought metaphor

by: Randy -
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New Year's Eve 2008.  My wife Grace and I paid fellow GamingNexus writer Sean Nack and his wife Stephanie an overnight visit.  We brought over Monopoly, but we weren't feeling very cutthroat.  We brought over Balderdash, but weren't feeling definitive.  Nothing at the theater piqued our attention.  And so my mind wandered back over the year, as minds are wont to do when another 365 days have come and gone.  And I'd resolved to pay more attention to indie developers for the upcoming year, 2009--but it didn't feel like it was too early to start.

Jonathan Blow's Braid was a game that I'd continually skipped past.  My Xbox 360 red ringed a week before it hit XBLA.  By the time my 360 came back, Spore hit.  Then Warhammer Online hit.  Then Civilization IV: Colonization hit.  Then Fracture (wince).  Then Dead SpaceFable II, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Need For Speed Undercover (wince again), Prince of Persia...then a revisit to Pirates of the Burning Sea and the new-to-me Europa Universalis III.

And through it all Braid has been taunting me, calling me a spineless, lilly-livered coward for (predominantly) sticking with this holiday season's no-brainers.  Jonathan Blow is a man that, as far as I can tell from photographs and videos, has never smiled in his life; and he wasn't smiling at me now either. So it was time to take my cowardice and crutch myself on Sean Nack and his wife.  One hour before an incredibly slow-moving ball was to drop in Times Square, I convinced everyone to participate in what's been heralded in certain circles as the Most Pretentious Moment in Gaming for 2008:  Braid.  Plus it's been showing up--rather conspicuously--as the media darling on more than one Top 10 of 2008 list.

All four of us took up strategic positions on the couch, and it took all four of our minds put together to make it through the infernally-puzzling Braid.  We played, we laughed, we scoffed, we scolded, we shook our heads in defeat, we threw our heads back in victory, we pumped our fists with elation then alternately wished we could punch Jonathan Blow in the face.  It'd been several years since I'd been on a roller coaster ride, but traversing Braid certainly counted.  And just because we made it through doesn't mean the entire journey made complete sense. 

Here's what Braid's aftertaste was like to Sean and I--the following is copied and pasted from a back-and-forth email between the two of us--plus Sean divulges his sentiments on the endings of Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 as well.  We figured it was high time the discussion of Braid be taken beyond the "It's the greatest ending ever!" platitudes.

* * * * * SPOILER ALERT * * * * *

...And if you haven't played Braid, then none of this will make sense out of context anyway.  [Continue reading "Adventures in Braid and the overwrought metaphor."]

Randy on Braid:

Grace and I were in deep discussion about Braid during the three-hour drive home last night.  We were rather...dismayed by the insistence of it being a metaphor for atomic bomb construction.  We felt the story, in and of itself, was strong.  The character development, the human but individually tragic relationships, the open-ended sense of loss--despite "closure" being achieved, which I felt was never truly achieved--was stellar.

Ultimately, the story is awesome...until one tries to break it down into an overwrought metphor regarding the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer ["the father of the atomic bomb"].  Then?  It fails.  My Dad has given me plenty of advice over the years, but rarely is it eloquent.  He's a practical guy.  But one time he said something that stuck with me ever since.  "Just because no one understands it doesn't make it 'art'."  Besides that shocking-but-true point, Grace and I are fairly literate individuals.  We all have different things that we fixate on, and Grace and I are the type of people that fixate incessantly on plots and subplots, themes, motifs, symbols, texts and subtexts.  We're decently versed in those types of machinations.  (That's not bragging in the least.  There have been plenty of times where I'd trade that fixation for the ability to change the oil in my vehicle.  It'd be far more useful.)  So if Grace and I don't 'get it,' (if anybody doesn't get Braid) that's not a failing on the person playing it.  That's a failing on the part of the creator.  The moment you have to over-explain your wonderful metaphor, that's the moment that it crashes to the ground.

Then Grace hypothesized something.  Something she doesn't fully buy into, even though she threw it out there during the discussion.  I think it works.  She said that Braid isn't just a metaphor about the atomic bomb.  It is, in fact, three storylines braided together.

I gave that some deep thought.  And I like that theory. 

There's the atomic bomb strand of the braid.  Fine.  Slapping us across the freaking face with a direct-pull quote and a footnote makes that one irrefutable [Oppenheimer's famous "Now we are all sons of bitches" quote].  It was crass and heavy-handed, but it's there, so there's no way to ignore that.

But that doesn't discount the rest of the human instrospection on the level of individual relationships either.  Which, in my humble opinion, stand out stronger on their own merits as opposed to veiled references to "The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing, taking the castle with it." 

I think the other two strands of the braid deal with the relationship with his mother and the relationship with the woman that ultimately got away:  His soulmate (though I'm reticent to use such a loaded term).

This disucssion between Grace and I went on for a few hours, so this is unfairly boiling down some of our conclusions.  But here's another thing to consider, in case Jonathan Blow might fret that Grace and I are a couple of people that just don't 'get it' when it comes to his story:

Once a piece of artwork (as he clearly feels Braid is) is presented to an audience, the artwork is no longer the sole property of the creator.  There are three areas at work:  There is the artwork itself, then there is the viewer, and then there is the space between.  There is a series of mental and emotional negotiationsand compromises that take place between the artwork and the viewer.  Once the connectino is made somewhere in that clumsy no-man's-land between the two, then that is what becomes the final standing on the work of art (though "final" can be as temporary as subsequent viewings at any later point; art is 100% capable of evolving).  The art, after this compromise, is no longer the same size and shape as when the artist first conceived it.  There's no way for it to remain the same.  Otherwise--if the artwork was a static structure--it would be more of a math proplem, and less of a piece of art.  If Braid was static--if it was an A+B=C math problem with only that singular solution/interpretation--then it would arguably no longer be art.  That explosive middle ground?  That is where the art truly takes form.

That may sound like a bunch of hoity-toity collegiate Art Interpretation 101 garbage to some, but that's how my mind deals with artwork.  Art is like those particular variety of fruit seeds that have to pass through an animal's digestive system before it can germinate.  Now, in this overbaked metaphor, Braid is the fruit, I am the fruit-consuming animal, and the germinated seed that I poop out is the final manifestation of Braid.  Jonathan Blow?  He was the tree.  He spawned the fruit, but the fruit would only fall to the ground and die without an audience/animal/Randy-Grace-Sean-Stephanie to come along, eat it, and poop it out again.

But you know what?  When all's said and done, if I were of a mind to make a Top 10 of 2008 list, then Braid would unquestionably be on that list.  Just because I didn't fully accept some of the conventions Jonathan Blow assembled doesn't mean it wasn't one of the most enjoyably complex tests of mental endurance I'd engaged in this past year.  Braid is brilliant.  The mindful debate that Sean and I put forth shouldn't diminish that in the least.  It was simply time for the dialog on this game to open up.

Sean on Braid:

For me, the bomb thing is fine, it's the specifically Oppenheimer focus of the theory I read that I have trouble with. I'd prefer to think that Tim [Braid's protagonist] is representative of humanity's quest for power, the Princess being the power, the candy store being temptation ("it from bit and ethical calculus"), and the mother being kind of nature or our innate humanity. Something like that. 

I like that Mr. Blow thinks that games should be art, but I think that he's going in an obscure direction that I don't necessarily think fits the medium. Braid works really well as a sort of poetry (kind of...intimately distant, making you feel emotions but at the same time you're not very sure why or more accurately where they're coming from, your motivations are so aloof), and while that's cool, the story is extremely disconnected from the gameplay. It's fantastic as a kind of love letter to a bygone, 2D platforming era, but on top of that already fun concept is foisted this extremely pretentious nuclear cautionary tale? It would've made more sense to me to make it, I don't know, a little J. Robert Oppenheimer in a lab coat and glasses hopping over Nazis and atomic particles, you know what I mean? Significantly less subtle, but significantly more sensical.

Aside from Braid being merely disjointed, I think that games have a great potential as more of an experiential art medium, like a play or a movie you participate in. The problem with that is that in a lot of cases, in order to have great drama, a game's story requires you to make certain decisions. Not a perfect example because it wouldn't be that great of a game, but imagine a Schindler's List game; if the choices were all completely free, the player could choose not to save the Jews, but then where would the story go? Manufacturing sim? Another great example is something I've been dying to discuss with you: the ending of Far Cry 2.

As you already turned it in, I assume you won't finish it off, so I'll tell you: the Jackal ends up being a guy who's actually trying to stop the war because he's become so disgusted with himself and what he perpetuates, so at the end you can either detonate a bomb to block off a canyon and save the locals from the pursuing warlords that requires your death, or you can have the jackal do that (and die in the process) and you can escort said locals to the border with a bribe, pay off the other nation's guards, and then kill yourself because "you're part of this cancer." Either way you decide you die, and it has somewhat of an emotional impact, but it would've been higher maybe if you felt more about either character, for which I would place the blame on the cracked-out-fast voice acting; good stuff's there, it just goes by so fast (and is so difficult to find; why put the best parts of the story on tapes scattered in random places that you'll very rarely find by any other method than luck?) that it's hard to absorb. It ultimately feels inevitable, but the game's ending is scripted while allowing you free choice in a tactical-gameplay aspect, which is a great experience even if it gives you a total downer ending.

The ending for that one and Fallout 3 are very similar, in that it requires you to either do something that kills you or have another person do it; me, being the Wastland Savior that I am, did it myself, and while it had an emotional impact it was stunted somewhat by the "I can't play this character in the world anymore" sadness. That's fine and it was an in-character decision, but you know, I also have a radiation-immune supermutant right there that I could've sent in; they sacrificed some storytelling common sense for the sake of a heroic ending, which is ok, but for a game that's all about my behavior and what I choose to do, the choices at the end are a little limited. I could go on and on about good versus bad endings, but my point is that this medium is capable of inherently involving choice to a degree that others are not capable of, even if at this point we're somewhat hampered by the fact that it has to...go in a direction, it has to end.

Games all have a story, and this is a story that someone is telling, so even with options you still end up at choice A, B, or C. But i think...fantastical endings are great, but why not have a situation where...I'll use this scenario from the upcoming Heavy Rain as an example (though I'm adding in my own options): you're trapped in a house with a serial killer, and your options are A) jump out the window and run away, him never knowing you were there and he shows up later in the game oblivious to your investigation, B) you hit him and run out, but now he's more weary and harder to catch, or C) kill him and move on to another villain who may behave differently because you now have this reputation. Each one of these actions could have far-ranging consequences about how you and the killer would behave inside the game, have wildly different experiences based on any of these choices (if you hit him and run out, maybe he figures out who you are and he's more of an important villain than he would've been if you had just escaped, or if you killed him the police are suspicious of you and make it harder to perform your investigations), even though the ending would be the same. Games should have crazy reveals inside the narrative, be first and foremost about the journey, not the destination. All throughout Braid we were sitting there saying "wtf?", and at the end we were left saying "WTF?"

If games were novels, I'd prefer they be either fantastically scripted epics, like Call of Duty 4 or Half-Life, or Choose Your Own Adventure books, to a degree that the Fables and Fallouts are just starting to approach, but are still very distant from; heading towards a conclusion, certainly, but a conclusion that is a result of the choices you make. Games are unequivocally art, but Braid? Braid is Salvador Dali; Fantastic, surreal, provocative, but ultimately bizarre and somewhat unfulfilling, even if you can't look away.

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[ADDENDUM FROM RANDY:  After poring over the script further, Grace, my frighteningly insightful wife, devised an even more plausible theory:  Braid is made up of not just three but six different strands (correlating with each of the levels/worlds)--not necessarily interlaced with one another--that play out more like the movie Groundhog Day. Tim was capable of fully rewinding time, and he did so on six separate occasions, each time with six relatively different starting points, and six different conclusions, despite his general goal remaining static.  The Oppenheimer connection?  That's a seventh braid introduced very late in the game.  That's why it's so discordant with the other worlds' streams of thought.  But this particular theory would require yet another very lengthy blog...]