Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Interpretation of Braid

**Coletta Factor: Braid spoilers below**

I'm lucky that Braid has such a long tail. I've been having to restrain my native penchant for theory-mongering for a few weeks now, since Michael Abbott and I had covered the bases pretty thoroughly and it seemed like the internet might be Braided out. But in the weeks since I left off there's been some great coverage of the game: an interview by Chris Dahlen with the game's creator, Jonathan Blow, over on the Onion A.V. Club; an epic two-hour 1up FM podcast sit-down with the game's creators and Rod Humble of EA; and even a segment on NPR about the game's success. A running theme of the coverage has been the internet's (mostly) unsuccessful attempt to discern what Braid is about. I reckon it's time to throw another crackpot theory on the pile.

One of the reasons for the difficulty decoding Braid, it seems to me, is that we are eager to turn its narrative into a story. That is, when we try to make sense of things after the epilogue, we are prone to thinking that we've got it figured out when we can piece together a series of events from the scattered bits of text: In 1943 Tim spills a glass of wine on a picnic blanket, thus setting in motion a breakup with his girlfriend. Despondent over the break-up, Tim becomes a thermonuclear engineer in April of 1944 and proceeds to create the A-bomb, etc. There has been a tendency to seize on one aspect of the epilogue text, and then treat it as the key to unlocking the true sequence of events. Maybe there's something to this, and it's natural anyway. But it doesn't seem like an approach that is going to make much progress in accounting for the significant elements of the game's design; and part of me thinks there just isn't a linear set of events to be gleaned from the text. Blow's avowed inspirations are Calvino and Lynch, after all, and both have shown how it's possible to tell narrative without constructing a plot.

Instead, I'm going to see if I can get further by treating the experience provided by the gameplay itself as the locus of narrative significance. I don't think you can get a story out of this approach either, but I do think otherwise-mystifying elements of the game's text begin to congeal when you consider them from the perspective of the underlying structure that governs the gameplay.

The object of Braid is to collect the puzzle pieces scattered among its levels by manipulating time, in order to save the Princess. In each level, the world you must overcome in order to achieve this goal is governed by a different set of temporal laws. And so in each level, you have to learn those rules anew in order to solve the puzzles; you must observe the behavior of the world, experiment (“will I move faster than the slab if I rewind faster?”), infer (“So, if I need there to be an enemy on that platform in order to reach that puzzle-piece, there must be some way to get him past the cannon”), and so on. I believe the immanent design-goal of Braid was to construct the puzzles such that deliberate experimental reasoning would yield a solution in every case. Even if you're not explicitly thinking about using these tools as you are move through the game and problem-solve, you're using them unconsciously all the time, because it's what the game requires of you.

I see the epilogue as a commentary on the ambiguities inherent in this unfettered mastery of time and space bought through this form of reasoning. In his essay In Praise of Knowledge, Bacon heralded the scientific method for its consummation of “the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things.” Braid is about an unhappy match between the mind of man and the nature of things. On one hand the complex thinking you do in order to solve all these puzzles leads to all these small and satisfying epiphanies that occur when you successfully intuit the laws of the various game-worlds. But on the other hand, Tim solves all these puzzles for the sake of an emotional connection, and yet his portrayal in the final chapter and epilogue makes it clear that the attitude towards the world that was necessary in order to unlock it secrets is simultaneously alienating-- destructive to meaningful relationships with other people. In the end, even a his control over time and space leaves him powerless to attain the meaningful connection with the object of his pursuit.

In Braid, the mastery of the world effected by inquiry is tinged with impulses towards violence. As Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in the Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Men pay for the increase of their power with estrangement from those over whom they use this power. The Enlightenment comports itself towards things as a dictator does towards his subjects; he knows them, insofar as he can manipulate them.” The atomic bomb and Tim's violent impulses at the candy store in the epilogue are both, in a way, emblematic of a kind of covert violence inherent in our manipulation of the world when it infects our relationships with other human beings. (This is reflected in the art style as well, whose generally serene aesthetic is tinged with surreal and disturbing elements.)

For all its undercurrents of alienation and destruction, Braid ends on a note of redemption. In place of the Princess, the protagonist builds a castle of his own. The castle is Braid itself-- fragments I have shored against my ruins. The castle is a monument to how a work of rigorous analysis can aspire to an emotionally and intellectually meaningful connection with a player. Games, as an art form, are odd and contradictory creatures; they are things born from rules, struggling towards beauty. Braid is a rich and rewarding chapter in that struggle.


Kirk Battle said...

Gah, just when I'm about to think of something coherent about that game its creator does some huge interview where he insults writing and English Majors as being a huge study of bullshit.

Sorry for the above post...I think the rule analysis approach is the best one. I do like some of the writing in Braid but I also think he could've used an editor. Ergo, it's best to put it aside since the game design explores the deeper stuff anyways.

Etelmik said...

The relationship between knowledge-seeking and relationship-building is always tumultous, isn't it? You pointed out one of my favorite things about Braid--it's a game that includes games and the game itself as one of the themes and areas of exploration. A gamer's Don Quixote!

I wonder how long it will be until we get the next crop; I'm hoping it's not as long a period as it was between Cervantes and the coming of age of the form he worked in, and I'm optimistic.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@l.b: I had some reservations about the writing too, but the strength of the game is the space opened by the interaction of the rules and text, and I think the game represents some intresting things through the medium of those rules.

@etelmik: Games are a distinctively postmodern medium, and I think they have unique potential for this kind of formal reflexivity you see in Braid. If you look at the Metal Gear Solid series and Bioshock, those games are also examples of this phenomenon. So there's reason to be optimistic.

Nels Anderson said...

Very interesting Iroquois, I was wondering when you were going to unleash this theory. It definitely feels like it's getting close to the Heart of what Braid is actually about. Exactly what this is we may never know, but I feel very strongly the core of Braid revolves around the juxtaposition of the mechanisms for exploring/ understanding the world and the mechanisms for building/maintaining human relationships. Always good to hear I'm not the only one with this crackpot theory.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: I remember thinking you were on the right track too with your comments a while back on Steve Gaynor's blog. Like you, I think the "meaning" of the game, (whatever it is) comes from the way the player interacts with the set of rules. And when I thought about the very experimental, even methodical attitude you have to occupy in the game it seemed to fit with the emotional ambiguities thrown out in the epilogue, and the way they were explicitly tied to scientific inquiry.