A Metafictive Reading of Braid

on Sunday, April 1, 2012

Braid is perhaps the most talked about of the the current crop of highly acclaimed 2D indie games. It's creator, Jonathan Blow, has inspired polarized opinions, ranging from pretentious jerk to gaming messiah. I think it's safe to say reality lies somewhere in between. In any case, Braid seems worth talking about, because it seems to be impacting how people think about gaming. The internet is full of interpretations of the plot of the game, and those interpretations most frequently center around the somewhat simplistic conclusion that Braid is some sort of commentary on nuclear weapons. While there are undeniable references to the atomic bomb's creation, such an interpretation is incomplete because it fails to successfully implement the gameplay mechanics themselves when deriving meaning from the work as a whole. Other readings focusing on the nature of accountability, regret, and blind ambition tie the game together more convincingly (I will write up an analysis of this reading at a later date). There is another potential reading, however, that I'll turn my attention to here. I find that Braid can be convincingly interpreted as a comment on the state and progress of interactive art (i.e., "games as art") in addition to its more obvious personal and political themes.

To consider Braid fully, we must integrate meaning derived from the two nearly orthogonal modes through which Braid conveys meaning to the player. The first consists of the highly evocative and nonlinear text segments that comprise the plot, while the second is the extremely logical, linear (albeit convoluted with respect to plot) gameplay system that makes up the gaming portion of the title. It is worth noting immediately that the dichotomy of these two modes itself seems reminiscent of the medium of gaming. As an artistic medium, games are necessarily that intersection so far in their history. To function as a game, logical gameplay mechanics are required so as to allow for meaningful interaction across a range of players. The crux of the problem of expression in interactive form is how to implement such mechanics while still allowing the interactivity to contribute meaning beyond what non-interactive portions (e.g., cutscenes) of a work create on their own. If the the mechanics themselves contribute nothing, then the medium is wasted, and a non-interactive form, such as film or prose, could achieve the same effect. Perhaps, then, Braid is suggesting through the sharp juxtaposition of those two components that the player should be considering these issues when contemplating the themes of the game.

The prose portions of the game are present in the level-choosing hub worlds as a series of books that do not interrupt player control. This is significant in that it both suggests an attempt towards integration while keeping text entirely outside the game world. It does away with the frequent need to click through dialogue that is found in other games, and the player might therefore skip through it even faster. This is especially likely early in the game, when it becomes apparent that the text is not one coherent plot but before the gameplay has seriously deviated from an ordinary platformer. Later, in the game however, the player is forced to reconsider the integration of the prose. Because the final level forces two different readings upon the same scenario through the time reversal mechanic, one wonders about the integration of previous plot points with the gameplay. Reinspection reveal both the disorganized plot as well as the aforementioned thoughtful attempt, but partial (and intentional) failure, towards integration of prose with gameplay. This revelation, coupled with the time control mechanic, seems a comment on the state of games. So far, the medium has failed to adequately integrate exposition and gameplay, and the fixation and reliance on traditional gameplay modes has left the medium misinterpreted and incomplete.

Plot wise, the main character, Tim, is complicated. Initially painted as a hero, the final level suggest he is to some extent the villain, harboring stalker-like motives disguised in escapism. If his Princess is taken as a stand-in for an idealized state of the gaming medium, then we initially see Tim as a savior, one who pushes toward the ideal, only to find that he is stalking old tropes - he becomes the state of redundant development so often complained about. The persistent allusions to the Mario and Donkey Kong games support this idea. Those games embody the collective unconscious our society holds toward gaming; the mechanics and characters are nearly innate in our culture. If this is a game about gaming, then, what does it mean that there is never a Princess in need of rescuing in the castle? Tim seems to be simply escaping in those familiar images; he is, as the gameplay suggests, only able to continually look into the past while limiting his future. Like the general plot of the game, the Mario-like flags at the end of the worlds always fly backward compared to the ones in the games from which their inspiration was taken.

Parallels to the Manhattan project are suggested by the in-game text, perhaps hinting at gaming's origin. It is a technology that can be misused, and, perhaps, we are already at a state where it is hard to change its course. Complicated development cycles and closed formats hinder creativity, and few artists have emerged in this new medium. Perhaps development of the atomic bomb and the irreversibility of such a development, indicated by certain plot details, should be seen as a contrasting outcome to that of the development of cinema as an artistic medium, perhaps indicated by the serene graphic and sound design. We can go the route of unthinking blockbusters alone, or work at developing something new.

At the center of all of this is the gameplay. It is tight and focused, with logical and difficult puzzles that utilize a relatively unique gameplay mechanic. It is littered with little hints toward the potential of gaming. For example, Braid's universe is necessarily incompatible with the real world: in one level, velocity in space is linearly proportional to velocity in time, falsifying special relativity. Players must demand, it seems to suggest, that games utilize these world-breaking abilities in ways that actively add to an experience (this is in contrast to simple unrealistic artifacts of finite computing speed and imperfect simulation). The gameplay is exceptionally polished, which is in contrast to most other attempts at high-art gaming out there. Those games (I'm thinking of titles like, for example, those by Tale of Tales) mostly fail to use gameplay effectively to create meaning, and they thus maintain the dichotomy between gameplay and narrative. Braid rejects that dichotomy. The gameplay fundamentally enhances our ability to interpret the narrative. The continual manipulation of time, frequently in the context of otherwise standard game puzzles, forces us to displace our perceptions about the linearity of narrative. Games can create ambiguity of meaning through all of the unexplored potential paths that interactivity allows, in direct contrast the mediums like cinema. In Braid, the way that we have been playing the game is what tells us how to interpret the narrative.

Mixed into all of this is the overall structure of the game. Braid avoids a main menu or end credits, which keeps the player active from the moment the game is launched until it is shut down. It suggests an endlessness to the experience and hence to the creative process on which it is commenting. Similarly, there is the hidden collect-the-stars minigame. The stars are absurdly tedious to get. One requires more than an hour of inactive waiting, while another is impossible to get if you've completed all the puzzles as the game implores you to do. In return for collecting them all, the player is rewarded by being allowed to catch the princess and see a more bombastic ending. The game might be poking fun at the prevalence of mindless reward-based motivation as seen in many other games. In reward for all of the player's pointless work, a more mindless, but also more traditional, alternate ending is earned.

At the end of the game, a Mona Lisa can be seen going forward in time, but it changes to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. when going backward in time. This change encapsulates one possible reading of Braid that I have roughly outlined here. If gaming is to mature as an art form, it must break from tradition in an irreverent way. The game asks us in an early level to commit what is traditionally platformer suicide by jumping blindly into a bottomless pit, only to be saved by time reversal. It asks us to do that with the future of games; we must make games that are willing to discard traditional game conditioning and learn from how past mechanics affected people. Braid is not perfect, and, indeed, that's part of its point. Gaming does not yet have a great masterpiece, but, like the castle built from levels at the end of the game, Braid "feels like an acceptable start." While there are certainly other thematic levels in Braid, such as the personal themes of learning and forgiveness, the game is intimately tied to its medium as well, and serves as an interesting commentary on that topic.

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