Braid (2008)

A major, usually entirely subconscious reason people disdain criticism with which they disagree is, simply put, that no one likes feeling stupid. The ugly, reactionary, lizard-brained response to a contrary opinion (and I am speaking almost exclusively about genuine, well-reasoned criticism, not the infuriating, troll-infested ping-pong table that passes for discourse on the majority of the internet), is to deny, dismiss, save face by any means necessary. If this is a reply born from our lower instincts, it is not always one born from our most devious ones; if anything, our desire to shoot down those who disagree with us speaks to the sort of ardent, inexpressible emotional attachment that subtly informs nearly all our relationships with art and with each other.

This is especially true of video games, a medium whose appeal is primarily built upon joy and frustration, those mighty pillars of visceral reaction. Say what you want about the gamer community, but it is a passionate lot, and perhaps too used to playing on the defensive end when its hobby is criticized.

If you love or hate a work for an inarticulate reason, one you have no desire to pontificate upon beyond what is intuitive, then that is more than fair; not everyone is born a Pauline Kael or a Robert Christgau. Art is a personal journey, one in which we develop our own values and taste, and video games – where entertainment is still often seen as key as artistry – especially must make room for the thrill-seekers and literalists alongside the chin-scratchers and conceptualists. What concerns me is the difficulty these different schools of thought have coexisting when discussing games, and the deep vein of anti-intellectualism that outcasts and derides unpopular opinions, even when they are well-articulated and kindly phrased. Nowhere is this attitude more prominent than in the baffling, often venomous response to whenever Braid designer Jonathan Blow strings more than two words together.

I find it almost humorous that Blow has become a “controversial” figure on blogs and message boards. He is neither Von Trierian provocateur nor attention-seeking contrarian; true, he can come off as prickly and uncompromising, but it’s from a place of unquestionable passion and intelligence, like the rarely-smiling professor who pushed your thesis until it was something of which you were genuinely proud. I’ve watched and read countless Blow interviews – both in preparation for this essay and because I just really enjoy what the guy has to say – and I always think he comes off not as a fun-hating ogre, but a sincere game-lover frustrated with an industry undeniably amused by low-hanging fruit. I’ve learned a lot about games and design from reading up on Blow, but as with all good critics, it took me a moment to adjust to his perspective and idiosyncrasies.

And that, unfortunately, is where the disconnect begins: When Blow says the often dismissed Space Giraffe is gaming’s Finnegans Wake or that Valve possibly playtests some of the joy and discovery out of their titles, most people hear the disagreement and not the reasoning behind it. Though I believe he does it completely on accident, as a byproduct of his fervor for the medium, Blow is a master of making gamers feel stupid. And as soon as he makes them feel that hot flash of subconscious foolishness – that sick, blood-boiling response to being told they’re quote-unquote wrong – then Blow is pretentious. A douchebag. Out of touch with what gamers want. Jonathan Blowhard. Even many gamers I’ve encountered who like Braid immensely are quick to assure me that Blow’s opinions infuriate them. What makes this response all the more frustratingly ironic is that Blow’s actual work aches with a desire for a deeper connection and discussion between artist and audience, and between people in general.

For a game stuffed with allusions to the Manhattan Project, Braid can be surprisingly optimistic. The time-altering worlds protagonist Tim traverses are no less destinations of wish fulfillment than those in other titles, but where most games make the player into a super-powered savior of the universe, Braid‘s levels explore what would happen if that very universe was a little kinder to the player. Say what you will about the difficulty of some of its individual challenges (and many of them do make Portal‘s brain teasers feel like something constructed by Fischer-Price), but through its central conceit, Braid is easily one of the most forgiving video games ever created.

And why shouldn’t it be? Why should gamers be penalized (with death of all things, that ultimate punishment) for engaging with a game, for attempting to find a solution and reason out a dilemma? Blow creates a space away from mortality and regret, a place of encouragement where mistakes are stripped of their finger-wagging consequences. “If we’ve learned from a mistake and became better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?” Blow opines in one of Braid‘s expository early texts, and we realize the time reversal mechanic is not arbitrary what-if or even simply a thematic device. It’s a man’s sincere hope that people are truly capable of learning and bettering themselves. View all those Jonathan Blow rants and lectures through this lens and try not to be more endeared to him.

This is not to say Braid rewards you simply for showing up. Blow’s infamous, self-written strategy guide more or less tells you to figure out the damn thing for yourself. Never before has gathering puzzle pieces – frequently a bland, lazy collectible currency in childish platformers – felt like such an achievement. (That their presence reflects the game’s fragmentary, nonlinear structure certainly doesn’t hurt.) Braid contains no extraneous items, enemies, or platforms, and yet is still so assured of its tone and aesthetic that it makes you question those wasted hours chasing that last shiny trinket or laying waste to an infinite army of evil henchmen. Those gold coins that populate the roads of the Mushroom Kingdom haven’t really made sense on a design level since the original Super Mario Bros., when the game’s concept was new enough they did provide a constant sense of direction and orientation for neophyte gamers. But what are they doing there now? (The latest Mario title as of this writing, New Super Mario Bros. 2, has characters literally spewing coins across levels. It’s like someone high up at Nintendo didn’t take kindly to Braid‘s gentle Mario ribbing and designed a game to give Blow a brain hemorrhage.) Like most people who play games, I’m completionist enough to derive an addict-like pleasure from seeing my stats or inventory fill up, but those rewards result only in a calming of my blood pressure, an untightening of the compulsive grip the game has on me. Braid‘s puzzles are certainly more memorable than most because the effort-to-reward ratio for once is well-balanced. That Tim ends the game stripped to nothing but the building blocks you collected during your journey turns a denouement that could have been eye-rollingly nihilistic into a sweetly hopeful embrace of learning and self-improvement in the face of near-apocalyptic error.

As much hope as I see in Braid, it is undoubtedly, at its core, a tragedy. The game concludes in a flashback, still stylized and fantastical but granted a discernible “reality” due to its placement in the past tense. Tim is thrust back into a reality where his mistakes and decisions have consequences, where a literal fire burns the present into the permanent past. His entire quest to “rescue the Princess” has really been the Princess knowingly eluding him at every turn; all those puzzles were solved and traps were eluded to reach an unattainable goal. Again, this could be an overly adolescent twist on the “save the princess” formula; if you confine it too much, it does seem like the “hero” of the game is just some skeevy stalker.

Braid‘s conclusion isn’t tied to one particular meaning, be it the implication that Mario’s a panty-sniffer or the nuclear bomb allegory. The game’s narrative is as impressionistic as its lush fields and clouds, so it’s silly to pin it to such literal meanings. Its prose segments, filled with clunkers like, “Perhaps in a perfect world, the ring would be a symbol of happiness… a sign of ceaseless devotion,” certainly aren’t winning Blow any Pullitzers, but reaffirm this is more a story of ideas than actions or characters. Simply, this is a tale of regret, of how best intentions and high-mindedness can become confused and hurtful beacons when broadcast to the world.

That Blow makes allusions to both a failed relationship and the launch of the nuclear era – about as micro and macro as you can get in thematic purpose – could have been disastrous, an overly pat means of tying the game’s mechanics to both personal angst and larger meaning. Luckily, the atomic bomb subtext never overwhelms, embodying the very human awe and horror at its creation – “Now we are all sons of bitches” – and little else. I’m sure we all could have figured out “the Princess” represented more than the girl next door on our own, but the Kenneth Bainbridge quote does reveal just how much Blow feels his obsessive pursuits have alienated him from people.

It’s hard to review Braid without inadvertently reviewing Jonathan Blow. The game is so tied to his regrets, fears, and overall psyche that it sometimes plays like a well-stitched mesh of professional manifesto and tear-stained diary. While it perhaps functions first and foremost as a critique of the problems Blow sees in modern game design, it is criticism as intense, vulnerable personal statement. Not every artist can stand at the crossroads of the raw and the cerebral, and Braid covers everything Blow sacrificed to get there with excruciating honesty. He may regret pissing off so many people, but I sure hope he keeps doing it.


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8 thoughts on “Braid (2008)

  1. Laurie says:

    Great, great post. Love your wordplay. Have you ever watched the movie “Indie Game: The Movie”? I didn’t know much about Jonathan Blow (just that he made the masterpiece, Braid) but I had heard rumblings that he wasn’t very well liked in the industry because of his passionate defense of his game. When he is interviewed in that movie, and I found myself really relating to what he was saying and feeling sorry for him and myself, that I didn’t get his game on the level he intended it to be understood on, ha. Anyway. Thanks for following my blog! I look forward to reading more posts from you!

    • Thank you! I watched Indie Game about a month before writing this article and also found it very moving. I agree that it gets you to empathize with those guys on a level I almost didn’t expect; I knew it was going to be about them all “suffering for their art” or whatever, but their passion and excitement were so visceral that you immediately understood why they put up with the downsides. I really wish anyone who disses Blow would check it out, because it makes it pretty clear that above all else, he sincerely CARES about games, both his specifically and in general.

      And I just started reading your blog, but it’s great! I really like the playful tone, and the general conceit definitely struck a chord with my memory of playing games with my sister growing up.

  2. daoinelibra says:

    Hi! Noticed you following my blog and decided to check yours out when I had a minute. Can’t say I regret it. This is one of the most interesting essays on a game I’ve seen in a long time. Definitely going to read more of these when I have the time.
    I really liked your comparison of Blow to “the rarely-smiling professor who pushed your thesis until it was something of which you were genuinely proud.” I’d never really thought about it that way but I totally agree with you on that one.

    • Thanks a lot! I’ve been really enjoying your blog since I started following it, too. It’s a great mix of a very personal viewpoint and well-reasoned, well-research critiques.

      • daoinelibra says:

        I appreciate the compliment :)
        While writing, my general strategy is to get started on a subject and see what’s the most interesting way it can go, so I often fear I come across as a little too unprofessional. Nevertheless, I do make sure to research everything I talk about and I’m very glad to hear it shows!

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