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Ugh, stop twitching
games Posted 2008-08-10 19:47:11 by Jim Crawford
Braid is a puzzle platformer that indie developer Jonathan Blow has been working on for the past three years. He's been fairly notoriously outspoken of late about the ethics of game design. For instance, he believes it unethical for a game to reward the player for accomplishing something trivial, because it amounts to rewarding the player for continuing to play the game. Getting a rare drop in an MMORPG clearly qualifies, but so does something as simple as the pleasant ding and score boost you get for picking up a coin in Super Mario Bros. He makes an analogy comparing this kind of gameplay to “drugs,” contrasting it with “food” gameplay, in which the gamer is rewarded for learning or improving a skill set.

I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint, and I think the analogy is a good one, but I think that “drug” games, like literal drugs, have their place. For instance, Portal is the kind of game that you play through once, stretch your spatial reasoning ability, and enjoy the writing and atmosphere. You might play through it again, like you might a book or a movie, but it's intended as a one-shot. Portal is a food game. World of Warcraft is the kind of game that takes minimal skill, but is merely there to provide you with background noise for your brain. Once you're familiar with how the game works, playing it is a menial task like knitting or folding laundry. I mean no insult here; in both cases you zone out, relax, think about other things, maybe talk to friends, and get the satisfying feeling of accomplishing something. When I'm stressed out from a day at work or whatnot, I appreciate that kind of gameplay; I just don't consider it edifying. The ethical problems only arise when the game's ability to provide the illusion of accomplishment takes over your life and you find yourself doing nothing but play World of Warcraft all day.

Jonathan Blow has clearly tried to make Braid the foodiest game he can, even to the extent that he's tried very hard to discourage players from going to a walkthrough to solve the puzzles, because if players cheat to get to the ending, he's been an unwilling party to rewarding someone for doing something trivial.

Braid's gameplay is based around time-manipulation. For a start, it takes the rewind feature from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and extrapolates that to allow you to rewind all the way to the beginning of the level. That's neat, but not particularly exciting. After establishing that mechanic, Braid goes on to layer on an astonishing variety of time-bending mechanics, each of which it explores deeply with a collection of associated puzzles. Each of these new mechanics will stretch your temporal reasoning ability in the same way the Portal gun stretched your spatial reasoning.

Some of Braid's puzzles are very hard. I spent close to an hour on one of them. They are also very, very good; I never would've spent the time on that particular puzzle unless the puzzle design had earned my trust, and in every case, putting the time in paid off with an extremely satisfying solution.

With one bizarre exception that I'll get back to later, every puzzle makes sense within the established rules of the game. There are no tricks. No red herrings, no hidden rules or features you need to guess at. Everything visible is important, and everything important is obvious; you merely need to figure out how to exploit the rules that have been established. Sometimes the puzzle is complicated and you need to carefully plan out a solution step by step, but much more often the puzzle is so simple that it seems like it would be trivial to prove that there is no possible solution. I love that stuff.

Braid may be the prettiest game ever. Bear with me, here. David Hellman, the artist, has created a look which is indistinguishable from an animated watercolor impressionist painting. It is stupendous, but the main reason I say Braid may be the prettiest game ever is that it doesn't have a whole lot of competition. 3D games just don't look that good, because real-time 3D rendering has historically had a very ugly and artifacted look, and only recently, with advances in both hardware and software techniques, has real-time 3D art begun to approach the visual fidelity provided by 2D techniques. Braid uses those hardware advancements to show us what games would look like by now, had 3D never taken the fore. So I don't mean it looks sort of like a painting except it's at 320x224 and has visible polygon corners and a ton of texture aliasing, like Okami. It is indistinguishable from static, hand-painted art.

On top of all this, Braid is also trying to break new ground with narrative. The story evokes Super Mario Bros.'s search for “The Princess” as a metaphor for... the search to rekindle a failed relationship? Obsession in general? It's not made clear.

The writing is doled out in a few short paragraphs prior to each level. It's very artsy and poetical and can't really be taken at face value, so it's really not obvious what the story is actually about. I have my theories, and I enjoyed the writing, but I can also understand why some people see it as unbearably twee and pretentious. Luckily for these people, you can skip right past this text without reading it.

The important thing I'm trying to get at here is not so much whether or not the writing is genuinely sophisticated and literary, but that it's attempting to be. Most games have narratives of about the same quality as porn narrative, and the best of them seem satisfied to be about as good as quality genre fiction, so it's really refreshing to see someone trying to be Joyce. I want to see more games that Internet Forum posters will call “pretentious.” Lots more.

There's another element I want to talk about. Of all the riches Braid has to offer, this is probably the most notable. There is a moment at the end of the game, a coherent section of story, that has a pretty incredible twist that is inextricably tied to the game mechanics. It's an emotionally scarring narrative moment that simply couldn't exist outside of a video game. That's something of a landmark for the medium, but it's also important to note that it applies only to that short story segment, and it's not at all clear quite how that section of story ties into the story of the rest of the game.

Oh, and that puzzle I said I'd get back to. I'm not sure what to say that wouldn't spoil it. I'm not even sure whether I shouldn't spoil it. It is a pretty delightful puzzle; it just belongs in a different game. It makes Blow's brow-furrowing rickroll-style walkthrough into a lie. I think it was a mistake.
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