Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Michael Abbott Offers some Concluding Reflections on Braid

Michael Abbott posted the final installment of our conversation about Braid over on the Brainy Gamer today. Thanks go to him and Corvus Elrod for engaging in this conversation, it's been great. I still have some ideas about Braid's narrative and gameplay, but I'm going to let those thoughts marinate for a few days, as the internet appears to be saturated at the moment.

And also, if you have not purchased Braid, I really encourage you to buy it. It is a game that could change the way you think about games forever. It is a game with uncommon aspirations, and more games will aim to achieve the sort of emotional and thematic depth it strives for if we (as a gaming community) support it and reward Jonathan Blow's efforts financially.
I live with one foot in a gaming world and the other in a non-gaming world. Most of my local friends are academics who teach art, theater, music, rhetoric, philosophy, etc.. Without exception these people are curious about the world and eager for an intellectual challenge or exchange of ideas. They're sensitive to the nuances of human communication; they love the arts; and they're genuinely curious about new ideas and forms of expression.

And none of them can play Braid. Not one. Most of them can't even figure out what they're supposed to do. I know because I've put the gamepad in their hands and watched them. Sure, these folks aren't gamers like me, but they're also not senior citizens or video-game-phobics. They're mostly people in their late 20s to mid 40s who may play games now and then, but could never be described as gamers. And they're all pretty smart.

The tragic thing is they want to play. The music, the visuals, the opening text - all hook them and pique their curiosities. They didn't know games aspire to explore the human psyche. They didn't know games can look like paintings. They didn't know game music can feature a cello. Braid invites them in, and they willingly enter. Then, just as quickly, Braid boots them out and slams the door in their faces. They discover that the game is as inaccessible to them as an unknown foreign language.

The tragedy of Braid, to me, is that it bars the door on what might have been its most receptive audience. I understand that one game can't be all things to all people. I get the fact that Braid is, in many ways, a gamer's game with homages to iconic aspects of gaming history. And I'm sensitive to the fact that Braid relies on our collective sense of games and our experiences playing them as part of its meaning. But when you consider how small that audience really is - and when you subtract from that number "hardcore" types like me who found the game severely unyielding - what you're left with is a relatively small group of devoted gamers who truly love the game and find it meaningful to them. That's great, and I don't mean to diminish that experience in the least.

But is this what we want? Why must we so often isolate ourselves in this way? It's a shame to me that a game with Braid's narrative, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations is inaccessible to so many people hungry for exactly those things. I have an agenda here, and I make no effort to conceal it. I want my friends - the painters, poets, musicians, and philosophers I work with every day - to experience for themselves what video games can do and say and mean. I believe they will meet us halfway if we offer them a reasonable hill to climb and a meaningful experience for their efforts. I wanted Braid to be that game, and I'm disappointed and a little sad that it wasn't.

This is my last post on Braid. It's been a terrific discussion, and I'm terribly grateful to Iroquois, Corvus, the commenters, and the designer himself, Jonathan Blow, who have made this multi-post cross-blog conversation so vigorous and thought provoking. I greatly appreciate your interest. Now I'm gonna go play me some Madden.

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