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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.

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.