Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Letter to the Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott Concerning Braid

Hi Michael,

I've been looking forward to Braid for a long time now, because I've been listening to Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, talk and critique modern game design for about a year now. Blow really interests me, since he strikes me as one of those quintessential modernist avant-gardistes who is avid to declare that everything being done with the art form is wrong, and that his own magnum opus is going to point the way the future. He's wrong about the tradition, of course, but his mere existence and the viability of his game is a sign that the creative ecosystem for games is healthy and flourishing, as it ought to be.

So I proposed that we conduct this correspondence about the game, and you-- being both gracious and unaware of what you were getting yourself into-- agreed. In the interim, the Internet has been rife with intelligent commentary on the game, so let's move things forward.

When I was racking my brains for something interesting to say about Braid, one of the first things that came to mind was your “narrative manifesto” post last week, which included some comments by Blow. All of the designers you mention seem to recognize a common problem with realizing narrative in games: The player is a creature of whimsy, an “agent of chaos,” and the choices they tend to make with their freedom in the game's world are not usually conducive to narrative coherence. In order to convey a narrative with specificities of character and plot, the designer needs to devise scenarios that take control over the narrative out of the player's hands-- through cutscenes, slow-to-open doors, elevators, and other devices. And by doing this they remove the feature-- interactivity-- which gives games their unique potential as works of art.

Most of your subjects said that their solution is to abdicate the role of author: they put the scriptwriting tools in the player's hands in the form of the game's rules and then give them responsibility for crafting their own interpretation of the world and characters devised by the designer. This approach goes hand-in-hand with a particular gameplay aesthetic, the open-world game genre exemplified by GTA and Oblivion.

Since I've played Braid, I've come to think that Jonathan Blow is the odd-man-out of your examples, Mike. Braid is not about the player's creation of a narrative from the game's rules. It's about finding the one way to get each puzzle piece-- choice doesn't enter into it. And at the level of game design, I think the game is a masterpiece. The time-manipulation mechanic is both innovate and easy-to-use (this is no mean feat), and I liked how each level introduced new wrinkles into the manipulation of time.

The creation of these puzzles is an art in itself, and I thought Blow's design choices on this front were just superb; each challenge struck me as both unobvious and logical. (When I was playing I remembered your recent game-club discussions of Grim Fandango, which illustrated how important it is to strike this balance.) For me, it hit that sweet spot where I found myself mentally navigating some sticky puzzle before I went to bed, and I had to restrain myself from crawling out of bed and firing up the console when the pieces dropped into place just before I went to sleep. (The last game to do this to me is Portal, and this is good company indeed.) When I finally figured out how to get that one piece, I felt like I was being rewarded for doing something genuinely praiseworthy, and for me this sensation is the one experience I wish all games aspired to create.

Blow could have rested his laurels on the quality of the fundamental design. But Blow isn't a man to settle. The little story-vignettes between levels aren't there to tell a story, really, but are there to color the player's experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles. These vignettes are modest devices as bearers of the game's whole plot, but they are appropriately suggestive-- I really thought they transformed the basic gameplay and invested the mechanics with a sort of allusive depth and significance. I think that Blow's attempt to wed form to content by transforming our experience of the game's mechanics into something with a definite narrative texture was brilliant. It's gotten me thinking about how games themselves (all our other games) alter our experience of time and give free rein to our fantasies about perfection and repeatability. (Maybe you're like me and you just find it satisfying to run across games that have something to say about what games mean to the players, what their ethical significance is. Perhaps it's because they facilitate coming up with blog posts.)

So I love Braid. But I'm wondering what you thought of the artistic package as a whole. I had some reservations about the aesthetics, especially the writing of the narrative vignettes, which carry so much weight. Am I being curmudgeonly for feeling that text is a really retrograde way for a video game to convey its framing themes? Gameplay of this caliber covereth a multitude of sins, but do I give the man a pass on appearing (in some places) to have torn some pages from a high-school journal and pasted them into the game?

Yours,
Iroquois Pliskin

11 comments:

Tom Armitage said...

The little story-vignettes between levels aren't there to tell a story, really, but are there to color the player's experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles.

Yes. This is the thing I'm amazed has been understood so poorly - everyone is either picking up on this as the "story" and then the game is through the doors - much like some kind of cut-scene. Some critics - Edge, notably - have been less than kind about the writing.

But the text snippets as thoughts to bear in mind whilst you play the forthcoming levels - thematic tidbits to think about - is exactly how they're designed.

The slow emergence of the idea that not everything is reversible, in World 3; the what-ifs of World 5; and, most notably for me, the ring in World 6; these mechanics are themselves characterised in those snippets of text.

As a result, I really, really liked the writing in Braid.

Charles said...

Yeah, I'm of the mind that the 'narrative' in the larger sense was pretty good, or at least reached its potential, but the text blocks were a bad idea and were really poorly written.

The review over on ACTIONBUTTON.NET made the interesting point that the story is actually incredibly misogynistic!

Nelsormensch said...

I had constructed a lengthy comment about Braid, but given that I haven't properly finished the game yet, I reconsidered. I'll save it for later in the discussion once I've finished the game proper. But I did just want to say I'm very excited to see you and Michael have decided to publicly correspond about this and am eager to see the discussion play out.

Chris said...

After reading your commentary on Braid I went home and downloaded the demo. After playing for about 20 minutes I'm left hanging.. but not in a good way.

I'm not asking anyone to come to Braid's defense, but I'm trying to justify the purchase. I don't mean for these to be criticisms, but comparatively, I've played games that have lasted me months for $20. Can anyone give me their sense of the following:

- is the full game this coldly intellectual? The 'story' feels oddly intellectual, as if the textual bits were awkwardly engineered.
- the music tracks in the demo are wonderfully arranged, and they really match the visual aesthetic. The gameplay aesthetic, if I can call it that, feels a bit out of place compared to those two. Any different in the full version?
- I'm really enjoying the time reversal/forward function, even though it feels a little gimmicky. Is there some kind of narrative framework that makes it meaningful in the full version? Or is it strictly a gameplay function?

Like I said, these aren't criticisms of the game because I haven't played the full version - but I am a bit concerned that I'm not getting much more out of the full version of the game than I would be by playing the demo. I'd hate to shelve this after playing it for a couple of hours and finishing it.

Jonathan Blow said...

[cf. my comment on Brainy Gamer where I object to the phrase "...and that his own magnum opus is going to point the way the future..." as being inaccruate. Dang mirrored postings!].

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@chris: If your are on the fence, I really cannot recommend Braid strongly enough. It is worth the cost, and the time manipulation mechanic is not a mere gimmick. The first level included in the demo only uses the mechanic in one way, but the later stages introduce ingenious new wrinkles into its implementation; the mechanic (as I indicated in the post) has a definite narrative function.

@Jonathan: Thanks for coming over to post here, even if it is to chide me for mischaracterizing/misjudging your work. I have been huge admirer of lectures on game design for several years, and I think Braid is an excellent game which you should be proud of.

I'm going to reserve commentary on your specific points, because I think they will arise in the exchange that Michael and I are going to be developing over the next few days.

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