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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.

Can Survival Horror Survive?

Survival Horror is gone now - Silent Hill 2

When Brian recently flagged up Lone Survivor, I was intrigued, not only by the game itself but by the thought that I hadn’t seen a survival horror title gain a lot of press attention in recent years, and that the genre was on something of a downward slope. A quick google search later I discovered that I’m very far from the only person to have been struck by this observation. Other commentators have put out some well constructed arguments blaming the evolution of intuitive gameplay and the fashion for action shooters, or the ascension of western-style horror over the Japanese version. But those are slightly out of date now, and, inevitably, I had my own opinions that I felt the need to share. And seeing as it’s Friday the 13th today, it seemed a good time to do it.

I can’t claim to be a genuine survival horror fanboy. Of the classic games in the genre I have only played the first two Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles. And I have to admit that I was always slightly surprised that Resident Evil got quite the plaudits and success that it did. Not that it’s a poor game by any stretch of the imagination, rather that its subject matter and shock tactics were so very well-worn from horror films and books even by the time it came out. Zombies as a byproduct of bioweapons research was a dreadful cliche even in 1996. Mad scientists and tyrannical corporations even more so and it didn’t help that the game did cringe-worthy things like using the acronym STARS for a special ops team and naming a female character Valentine to further cheapen the mood. But whilst the basis for the scares of claustrophobic environments and things jumping out from dark corners was equally unoriginal that aspect was pulled off with undeniable skill and made the games well worth playing.

In most respects I was rather more impressed with Silent Hill. I’m not sure there have ever been games that messed with my head in the same way that those first two titles in this series did. In the first one, the simple but extraordinary emotion of a father’s’ love for a helpless, suffering child is leveraged with uncanny brilliance to make the player care in a way that I don’t think any game has managed before or since. The second was less intense but more intimate in the manner in which it cast the player as a person who had committed a terrible, and yet entirely sympathetic, act, forcing you to confront the complexities of morality and human nature. I’m not the only one to have been deeply affected by the content of Silent Hill. The team behind it released the extraordinary Book of Lost Memories to detail, in appropriately artistic terms, their creative process while even more bizarrely one fan was moved to write a 130,000 word analysis of the series, which actually turned out to be a lot more interesting than you might expect someone deranged enough to write it would have managed.

And yet in terms of pure gameplay, I have to give Resident Evil the edge. It was simply more thrilling, more focussed and it lacked the kind of frustrating sequences that I alluded to a couple of weeks ago where you ran around a monster-infested town looking for things that could be, well, anywhere at all. Basically, killing grotesque things with heavy weaponry pushes at your primal excitement buttons rather better than complex plots involving syncretic religions and existential guilt. Developers and designers know this: that’s why so many modern big-budget games have heavy shooter elements, because the big budgets mean that studios can’t afford to fail with their designs, and they know from experience that extreme violence sells. And because those top-dollar designs can’t afford to fail, they can’t afford to be difficult, which is another vital feature of the survival horror genre, because without difficulty, you’re going to have trouble generating an appropriately fearful response in the player. And so in Resident Evil we see a gradual shift in this direction through the course of the series, culminating in Resident Evil 4 which was more of a shmup with horror elements than a proper survival horror game, but which was brilliant nonetheless. And that brilliance sowed the seeds of destruction for the genre because if you can have a great game that looks like a survival horror title but can guarantee top-grade sales, why bother making proper survival horror for an increasingly niche audience any more?

Cliver Barker's Undying screenshot - atmospheric and unsettling
At least this is the way the conventional analysis goes, and it’s hard to argue with its basic tenets. However the presupposition seems to be that you can’t build a game that combines exciting combat sequences with genuine horror: offer the player too much firepower, too much capacity to deal with and control the hostile environment in which they find themselves and they won’t get scared. This is the bit I don’t get, because I’ve experienced otherwise, in at least three games.

Exhibits A and B are relatively obscure shooter Clive Barker’s Undying, and Half-Life 2. Both are in most respects fairly standard, if well above average in terms of quality, first-person shooters. Neither has a clear connection to survival horror, having bountiful levels of ammunition and nothing more than the occasional set-piece scare to keep you on your toes. And yet both feature what are, to my mind, some of the most extraordinarily memorable horror sequences of my gaming career. Undying featured a level set in a snow-shrouded ruin, through which the ghosts of monks flitted in the eerie half-light of a full moon, another in a hellishly bizarre otherworld, Oneiros. It also featured a “Scrye” mechanic in which you could look through the real world into the supernatural one to uncover clues and often, rather horrific surprises into the bargain, giving the player the constant sense that there was a whole gallery of unseen menace lurking just underneath the veneer of normality. In Half-Life 2 it was the intense feeling of sympathy the game generated for the appalling fates of the residents of Ravenholm and Nova Prospekt. In both cases, I was genuinely horrified. In both cases all that did this was carefully crafted environments and emotional responses. That’s all it takes to introduce horror into an otherwise standard action game of extreme violence.

They Hunger Survival Horror mod for Half Life screenshot
Exhibit C is a series of free mods for the original Half-Life called They Hunger. It’s you against the zombies again, that same tired old formula but I challenge you to play one of the games and and tell me that they’re tired, or in fact that they’re anything other than a living example of exactly what’s commonly held to be impossible: a survival horror game in the guise of a shooter. Ammunition is so dreadfully scarce that it got the point where I hated finding new weapons because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it supplied and would be worrying constantly as to whether I dared use it now in case something even worse was round the corner. The game rejected set-pieces scares and closed environments in favour of simply being overwhelmingly, oppressively dark. Not the pointlessly impenetrable blackness of Doom 3, but a perpetual inky twilight through which you could see half-shapes, suggestions of creeping movement that would have you desperately blasting with your limited ammunition at harmless bats while what was groaning in the blackness would suddenly come upon you from behind. And yet for all this disempowerment and terror it was still a shooter. Combat was fluid, skillful, exciting and satisfying. And it had the standard open-ended save model of old first-person shooters, so as long as you saved your game frequently, success was assured. Yet the game was so utterly emotionally gruelling that in some respects I couldn’t wait for it to finish, and what surer sign of a genuine horror experience is there than that?

Survival Horror as we knew it may be dead for good. But just as the best writers continue to find ingenious ways to keep our favourite horror villains coming back from the dead for installment after installment, there’s no reason why, with a little more vision, talented designers and developers couldn’t perform similar necromancy over the corpse of this seminal and much-loved genre.

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?