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Braid: It’s Art, but is it a Game?

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - title screen

Since I cottoned on to the idea that game criticism could learn a thing or two from arts criticism, I’ve inevitably been sucked into the world of games as art. It’s an interesting space: before platforms like Steam and XBLA made it possible for indie developers to create and release something and make a profit there was simply a vast gulf between blockbuster, big-studio AAA titles and artists occasionally dipping their toes into computing. Now that space is gradually becoming filled with games like Journey, Limbo and, of course, Braid.

Having now finally had the chance to play Braid, I’m struck by the fact that it’s almost unquestionably art. There’s so much about it that fits that definition. The visual style is heavily reminiscent of post-impressionist painting, pretty much unique in the video gaming space, and distractingly beautiful as you play through. The snippets of narrative text that flash up as you wander through the gateway to each world are lovingly scripted and surprisingly profound. I have discovered that I end up wanting to re-read them every time I fire up the game and enter a world, and discover new elements of insight on most occasions that I so. The overarching story is clever, filled with metaphors that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, most of which can lead to further meditations on humanity and relationships. I even love the sound, although I understand that was recycled from elsewhere. Whatever definition of art you choose, Braid seems to fit.

However, the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve become unsure as to whether or not it’s actually a game.

Braid very much belongs to the puzzle genre. No problem there, of course, there’s a long and proud history of puzzle games dating back to Q*bert in 1982 and arguably further, most of which were, in my opinion, unspeakably awful. It’s rather more unusual that in Braid the puzzle elements are combined with platform ones but there are still some well-known antecedents such as Lemmings and Wario Land. What’s unique about Braid is its supreme, clinical coldness. The way the story is presented as a series of philosophical observations with no attempt to engage the player emotionally. But most of all the manner in which it presents the player with a series of discrete puzzles that are almost entirely intellectual in nature. Experimenting and working things out are the order of the day here, and in spite of the occasional pixel-perfect jump you’re required to make, physical dexterity, reaction time and manual skill very much take a back seat.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - everything needs more dinosaurs
What it reminds me of most are the apparently endless series of small puzzle applications and flash games that people use to while away their office lunch hours, rather than anything you’d be likely to find on the console of a dedicated hobby gamer. More than that, playing Braid feels almost like solving Sudoku, or some other popular pen and paper puzzle format. The exercise is so focused on the brain that you almost start to wonder why you’re bothering to play this sort of thing on a computer when a crossword or nonogram would offer a similar kind of pleasure in a cheaper and rather more convenient format. I get the same feeling playing some European-style board games, where the strategy is often more about making best use of the rules than actually engaging with your fellow gamers, but at least in a board game you’re playing face to face in a social situation. Braid is like a European board game but with even less warmth.

Of course, Braid has this funky time-rewind thing going on that it uses as the basis for most of its puzzles and there’s no way you could do that with pen and paper. And you have to stand back and admire the cleverness of that mechanic, which is not only unusual but leveraged to make you ask yet more questions about the game itself and the wider world which you inhabit. But really that’s pretty flimsy reasoning because while that particular approach to puzzle construction might only be doable in a video game, the basic prerequisite, which is that you think your way through every stage of the game instead of running, jumping and gunning through large parts of it as is the norm, didn’t require the time-rewind. A good puzzle designer could have built Braid as a standard platformer and still made it interesting, still made it deeply philosophical and still filled it with fiendishly intractable puzzles. No matter that it happens to have a clever gimmick, we’re still back to pen and paper logic puzzles.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - donkey kong homage

So how about that allusion and metaphor rich story that overarches the whole thing then? The ability to participate directly as the central protagonist in a thrilling tale is one of the central lures of video gaming, and has be used to create unique circumstances and surprises in games like Silent Hill 2 and Knight of the Old Republic. Could Braid perhaps earn its video gaming credentials there? Well, no. The narrative is immensely clever, but it’s mainly text-based and offers little you couldn’t get from a novel or a film. Indeed I was reminded a little of Time’s Arrow on more than one occasion whilst playing.

There are antecedents in terms of games that engage the player primarily intellectually rather than physically though. Computer wargames are the poster child here, although the wider world of strategy games offers other candidates, and no-one would suggest those weren’t video games. But again, Braid is different. All the computer strategy games that I can think of either utilised the computer to do something you couldn’t do in a physical format, or had heavy elements of hidden information and randomness that forced the player to make moves based on intuition as well as intellect. Often these were one and the same thing, such as a fog of war effect, or complex calculation for hit and damage. By contrast in Braid everything is open for the player to see, and almost all the puzzles are trials of pure logic and deduction.

And yet, for all the criticisms I’m here levelling at the game, for all that it remains remote and unengaging, I’m very impressed by it, perhaps more as a concept than as a game. It’s eaten many hours of my time none of which, and this is an astonishing rarity for a video game, feel like they’ve been wasted, although some of them don’t feel like they were actually very much fun. And ultimately the argument I’m pushing here, which is that it isn’t really a video game at all, leads to an even more interesting question and conclusion. Namely, that if it isn’t a video game, what is it? And I have no idea what you’d name it, but it is all of the things I’ve compared it to, rolled into one. A pen and paper puzzle, a (short) novel, a philosophical exercise and a piece of visual art. And in that amalgamation, finally, is our vindication and our answer: nothing other than a video game could successfully unite such disparate elements. And in doing so, Braid, like many of the other indie-art games that came after it have finally started the long-overdue process of pushing the envelope of what a game can be. Whatever you think of Braid, and it’s creator Jon Blow, it deserves acclaim for that feat alone.

Four stupid things I learned from owning an Xbox 360

My Xbox 360 hasn't done this to me so far, but here's some things it has done ...

Over the weekend, I became the proud owner of an aged but functional Xbox 360 Arcade with an attached 20GB hard drive. It didn’t come with any games though, and it being a bank holiday weekend here in the UK all the used games shops were closed, so I had to resort to XBLA to get my first taste of gaming goodness. Going to hit the charity shops with a vengeance this lunchtime though. But here’s a short list of unexpected things that I discovered as a used console owner.

1. GamerTag profiles are stupid

Being enthusiastic, I made the gross error of setting up my XBLA account *before* I set up the console. It then took me half an hour to actually sign on to Xbox live, because every time I tried to enter my email and password, the machine told me those details were already matched to an existing GamerTag. I tried changing my profile name, deleting the old profiles on the machine, searching the online help and menus, each and every time having to tediously re-enter my long email address and password without a keyboard all to no avail until I discovered, quite by chance, that if you already have a profile you have to download it first. Am I the only person who found this “feature” to be idiotically well-hidden?

2. Microsoft Points are stupid

As I said I had to get my first games from XBLA. There were three that interested me: Braid, Limbo and Trials Evolution which would come to a grand total of 3200 “points” if I wanted them all. Can I buy 3200 point? Not if I want to get a discount on RRP and buy them in blocks from cards, no. This is so screamingly, obviously a ploy to force people to overspend and then use the excess to engage with other parts of the Microsoft shop to buy mp3’s and such that I’m amazed there hasn’t been more of an outcry about it. I think it’s absolutely disgusting and I’ll be doing my damnedest to try and make up round numbers from promotions and freebies where I can find them. Although I note that the Bing Rewards scheme is arbitrarily only available in the US and therefore closed to me, so way to go to alienate a substantial chunk of your user base, Microsoft. Also, I found it extraordinary that the critically acclaimed Braid, an XBLA game from 2008 will cost me approximately £8 in points, whereas the copy of the critically acclaimed Fallout 3 from 2008 that I secured on Ebay cost me £4 including P&P. No bloody wonder manufacturers are keen to squash the second hand games market: this isn’t just about stopping used sales, it’s about encouraging downloads and locking down the means of distribution at which point you have an effective monopoly and can charge what the hell you like.

3. My TV is stupid

I still have an old cathode ray set. I have never seen the point of HDTV: I have friends that have it, and I’ve seen it demoed in shops and it really hasn’t looked all that much better than SDTV to me, especially when you factor in that the vast majority of broadcasts in the UK are still in SD and that they look marginally inferior when viewed on an HD set due to having to be processed through scaling software. As far as consoles go I stupidly thought the same would apply, especially since I’ve seen adverts for games on the TV that looked okay. But the minute I loaded up a game to play, I could see what the problem was: horrible fuzzy edges everywhere. I’m perplexed as to why I perceive this problem so much more in computer graphics than actual TV transmissions but for now I’m just encouraging my kids to throw heavy objects at the screen in the hope the insurance will cover a new one.

4. Consoles are stupidly effective money sinks

I picked this console up because it was a bargain. And then promptly spent £30 on XBLA points and used games from Ebay, and that barely scratches the surface of what I want to play. Now I’m thinking I need a new memory stick and a bigger hard drive. And I’m tempted to buy The Witcher 2 even though it’s new and can only be had for near full price because it sounds awesome. My six-year old daughter would absolutely love Kinect. Oh, and Brandon told me about this handy-sounding recharge kit for the controllers. And at some point someone is going to challenge me to some online gaming and then I’ll need to upgrade to Gold. So I’ve gone from from trying to economise to spending tons of money, all because I managed to pick up a bargain. How the hell does that work?

So that’s my weekend in a nutshell. The first game I spent those points on is Trials Evolution – might post a review next week as it hasn’t had much coverage round here, and it’s totally not what I was expecting when I downloaded it.

Games: They’re not Films

Braid screenshot - developer Jon Blow points out that games need to emphasise what's unique about the medium

It’s funny how things often tie themselves up in satisfying little bundles. One week after posting a long rambling piece on how we can go about forging a style of criticism unique to games, I came across this interview with Jon Blow. Now I’d never heard of indie developer Jon Blow before, or even either of his games Braid or the upcoming The Witness but it made fascinating reading nevertheless, which tied in nicely with the whole games-as-art thing that I’d been thinking about. Here’s a man who’s not just echoing what so many of us are saying about the one-dimensional nature of modern video games but doing something about it too.

It’s a long piece although entirely worthwhile. But just in case you don’t have time to read it I’ll go straight for what I thought was the money shot, toward the end of the article:

As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.

This is one of those times where I was forcibly struck by the fact that this was screamingly obvious once stated, but that I’d never heard it stated before. Games are not films, and to become the unique artistic medium they can be, they need to concentrate on what it is that they can do uniquely.

And the tie-back to the criticism piece? Well, if this message is true of the medium, it’s true of the criticism as well. As writers we need to be thinking about this, about what makes games unique and focussing on that when we de-construct and analyse things. And not only that, we need to be thinking about what makes writing about games unique, and using that as the basis to forge our new art.

This is a Warning

Congressmen Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have introduced a bill that would require video games to carry a warning label similar to cigarettes, only in this case the warnings would inform consumers that video games have been linked to aggressive behavior.

Finally! It’s high time the government steps in and lets consumers know that every game ever made, including those violence mongering Dora cooking games, can cause little Timmy to explode in a fit of rage at the slightest provocation. Also, it’s about time that Congress take time away from such trivial matters as unemployment, staggering wealth disparity, the growing surveillance state and dependence on foreign energy sources to tackle something that really matters, informing consumers of nebulous ties between games and aggression.

Unfortunately though, for all that the warning does, I don’t feel that it does enough. I think that games need specific warnings so that consumers can be shielded from unpleasant experiences as much as humanly possible. What kind of warnings you say? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Read Dead Redemption – WARNING: You may think you’re about to embark on an epic Sergio Leone style western, but instead, prepare yourself to pick lots and lots of flowers. Yeah, flowers. Also, we hope you like bears!

Dragon Age 2 – WARNING: Bethany’s boobs are not really as big in the main game as they are in the tutorial. I know, right? Such a let down.

Halo: ODST – WARNING: Upon completing this game, you may feel like Nathan Fillion is your very bestest friend and that he will totally help you move on Saturday. Neither of these things are true. Alan Tudyk, on the other hand, may be able to help out, but only for like, an hour.

BioShock 2 – WARNING: Playing this game and making choices based on your own notions of child rearing may uncover what a truly terrible parent you are. Please return your children to their womb of origin immediately.

Dark Souls – WARNING: Failure to complete this game will brand you as a worse player than Bill Abner. No greater shame can be imagined.

Marvel vs Capcom 3: Ultimate Edition – WARNING: All of your wins have been against the AI. You are not ready to go online. No, seriously, don’t—see, I told you. Man, that has to be some sort of record.

L.A. Noire – WARNING: Actually, there’s not much game here. Carry on.

Cooking Mama – WARNING: This bitch is crazy.

Mass Effect 3– WARNING: This game may do nothing to assuage your fears that every choice you’ve made has been meaningless and that the yawning chasm of unfulfillment that exists at your core has been excavated by a lifetime of poor decisions. Also, you may be inadvertently exposed to gay sex. Icky!

Angry Birds – WARNING: Involvement with this game in any capacity may make you prone to hyperbole and to proclaiming the death of any game that isn’t sold at the App Store for less than a dollar.

New Super Mario Bros – WARNING: You are no longer eight. Failure to adjust your expectations accordingly may diminish your enjoyment of and/or ability to play this game.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – WARNING: While playing this game, you may feel like you’ve played it before. That’s because you have, like nine times.

Left 4 Dead – WARNING: Todd will shoot yo–oh. You’re dead. Told you.

Braid/Journey/Limbo – WARNING: Failure to enjoy these games may cause feelings of inadequacies as you wonder if you’re just too stupid to “get it”. Enjoying these games may cause feelings of blind allegiance to common gaming tropes simply because they’re presented as being artistic. Eff it. Go play Call of Duty.