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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.

Hidden Information

Lara Croft of Tomb Raider dead after missing a jump - the tedium of hidden information

When Tomb Raider came out, it seemed as though wherever I went, I’d find friends playing Tomb Raider. People even used to play it in little groups, gathering round the screen to discuss plans of action and taking turns trying to execute particularly difficult jumps. This perplexed me, because I hated Tomb Raider with every fibre of my being.

What, may I ask, is the point of playing a game which largely seems to involve hurling yourself at blank walls and desperately stabbing at buttons in the hope that there’s going to be a handhold to grab on to? In a nutshell, the problem I had with Tomb Raider is that it encouraged you to experiment with the game environment but gave you very few clues as to how you should shape that interaction in order to progress. I’ve always loathed that aspect of game design – it seems supremely lazy to me and hateful to play through. It made it’s first appearance in early adventure and interactive fiction games where the “puzzles” seemed to consist of you just trying different inventory objects in different locales until one worked, with precious little rhyme or reason as to what combined properly with what to achieve the desired effect. It was bad enough in adventure games which at least gave you time to stop and think. But Tomb Raider was the first time I ever saw this gameplay technique in an action game. And boy, did it suck big time.

Since first playing Tomb Raider, I have discovered this in a variety of other titles. In one instance I had to keep replying a section of Brothers in Arms because I needed to find a tiny hidden spiral staircase in order to progress. In another I discovered that to complete a critical mission in Knight of the Old Republic you had first to talk to a completely unconnected character in the planet. In all of these cases the problem is not that you have to discover something in order to progress, but the fact that little or no clue is offered to the player as to what that something is, or how to go about fixing it.

The worst offender that I actually slogged through myself is probably Silent Hill 2 which features several instances in which the protagonist must search the town for a hidden item with little or no clue where it actually is whilst having to endure a gauntlet of horrible, endlessly spawning monsters, without the benefit of save points or endlessly spawning ammunition. It’s a testament to how good the rest of the game is that I put up with these instances of awful, lazy, tedious, repetitive design but they’ve burned themselves on my memory with hideous clarity and put me off playing future iterations of the franchise. I suspect fairly strongly that the lack of this sort of daft game play is a key reason why Resident Evil caught the imagination of gamers in a way that Silent Hill did not, in spite of its superior scripting and atmosphere.

There are parallels in board games too, albeit fairly loose ones. In a lot of European style games where the theme has little relevance to the rules or play of the game, I often find myself struggling to understand how, exactly I’m supposed to leverage the mechanics of the game in order to progress. When I finally get to grips with it, sometimes the game underneath is good and fun, but I never have that sort of struggle in games with strong themes, where you can usually use some sort of real-life experience to guide you. If a game involves negotiation, everyone knows how to that to some degree. If it involves moving armies across a map, even a pacifist can relate to the basic concept. If it has an element of trading then we instinctively appreciate how the values of different things relate to one another. But in something like Stone Age which features prehistoric people smithing metal, taking turns to have sex in a specialist “love hut” and apparently gold-plating their mud-walled dwellings, how on earth is the novice player supposed to get a handle on what the hell is going on? This disconnection is the number one reason I’ve found for casual players being turned off supposedly simple, supposedly family friendly European games. It matters not a jot how simple the rules are if the mechanics make no sense to the players.

I was reminded of this when reading through this fantastic essay on game design by veteran RPG author Greg Costikyan of Paranoia fame. Greg says “If you don’t tell the player… what good is it? It won’t affect the player’s behavior; it won’t affect his decisions” and as I pondered the truth of that observation, the memories of all those dull hours of fruitless searching, of watching my friends repeatedly fling Lara Croft at blank walls, came rushing back to me. And I wondered how on earth it was that something that seems so obviously flawed to me, backed up by an observation from a highly respected designer, ever became a central tenet of a certain genre of game?