Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Obscurity's Rainbow

I see the world the fates had made

Our pasts and futures all conveyed

In long-dead dreams you now invade

The fine-spun threads for which I prayed

I grew and died as time had bade

My life of deeds all plainly laid

I see my life, all ripped and frayed

Its finest threads within your braid

I've recently been incredibly frustrated by the mind-numbing horrors of life, so I've been turning to one of my favorite methods of relieving stress, playing Braid.

Before I go any further, I just want to gush. Braid is effing fantastic, one of the greatest uses of video games as a medium. In a sea of blandly uniform clones, Braid is a phenomenal product whose unmatched dedication to creativity is a divine gift. Graphics are genuinely gorgeous and imaginative (as opposed to just shiny and expensive), gameplay has the marriage of perfectly intuitive design and mind-blowing complexity that you usually can only see in a spider web...even the soundtrack joins the fray, with beautiful flowing music that massages my temples and melts away all frustration.

I'm not going to go any longer, since Braid has been out for yonks and everyone knows everyone loves it. But remember, everything I say is from the standpoint of a huge Braid fan.

What follows contains spoilers for Braid, so if you haven't played it go play it right now before you continue. Go now. It's only 10 dollars; you spend that much for a mediocre dinner, and Braid makes you smarter and doesn't make you fat.


Oh, I should tell you, there are secret stars you can find. And by find I mean look up on GameFaqs, because finding them is nearly impossible on your own because the game gives you no clue you are even supposed to be looking for them and a few of the hidden puzzles run on insanely complex alien thinking. But if you do, there's a secret ending...or...not really a secret ending...this is leading to my point...

Anyway, gushing over, playing it again made me consider my previous post, particularly the point I made about the ending of Noir. If I have a criticism for Braid, it is its intentional obscurity.

The best moment in Braid is the final stage, in which you finally reach the princess, follow her as she flees from an ogre-esque kidnapper, she opens up some barriers and you in turn open one up for her, and meet her at the window of her bedroom…and then the game stops, and you can proceed only by rewinding time, watching her run from her house, watching her flee from you, as she tries to block your pursuit and you attempt to block her flight, and finally seeing her jump into the arms of her burly protector, leaving your life forever.

The beauty of this ending was that it embodied what Braid was; It was a visually and musically stunning artistic experiment with time and perception, a deconstruction of iconic “save the princess” endings, and a genuinely creative and perfectly executed splice of the game’s time-twisting mechanics with storytelling.

It was also the only time in the entire story where the creators made an attempt to be understandable…

Braid has two storytelling devices, blocks of dense prose exposition which tell bits and pieces of information about Tim’s search for the princess, and the time-shifting mechanic which is at play in the levels. In theory, the text blocks are supposed to set up the stages as exploratory visions of aspects of the human experience. For example, the world “Time and Place” has a mechanic in which you move backwards or forward in time based on which direction your character moves. The text blocks talk about Tim visiting his childhood home.

The problem is that, while the themes do come across and give a certain kind of expressionistic feel of their connection and significance…the communication isn’t very strong. Once a world’s original point is made…it all fades out and the puzzles are just puzzles again. It doesn’t bother me or anything…I mean the puzzles are clever and the music and art make it impossible to feel any frustration…it just doesn’t really strike me at all.

It isn’t because the game is poorly written, it’s because the creators tried so hard to keep it from communicating well. The story designer, Jonathon Blow, has explicitly stated that he tried to keep things vague so as to open it up to questions and interpretations and existentialism, that it was supposed to make you think and consider things and that he didn’t want any one explanation can be right.
(I’m paraphrasing, his version is more deeply explicated here…,8626/)

The ending is the most extreme example of this…after seeing her run away, you move on to an “Epilogue” section, in which a series of text boxes written with vague, disjointed separateness mention Tim meeting someone…maybe…and maybe going to a movie…and references to science, a quote from the Manhattan project…something about building a castle moving forward.

Also, if you collect the 8 deviously hard-to-find stars you can touch the princess and cause her to erratically blink around before the screen goes white, you hear a huge explosion, and you unlock the constellation Andromeda in the sky…combined with the references to science, the aforementioned quotes, there is a plausible reading that the princess represents the search for the atomic bomb.

I didn’t figure out every reference and significance on my own…I had to look it up…it honestly made me feel a little dumb finding all this stuff I totally missed.

I might just say that it went over my head, but I don’t think that’s it. In college, I had a hyper-genius professor named William Flesch who understood every single reference ever made by anyone ever in all of literature and film, and I’m sure he would have gotten everything in the game right away, but I don’t think that would have been enough; Braid’s storytelling is incomplete.

Blow intentionally made the readings and the story incomplete so that you could have all these different opinions, and rejected any attempt at a conclusive reading of the story. I admire what he’s trying to do…he’s really respecting a ghettoized medium as having potential as a legitimate format with depth and significance and challenging an audience to think expansively.

Still, though, I think he undermines his goals. In refusing to let the story be conclusive or clearly put out and intentionally dropping odd alternate readings in, Blow stops the story from finishing. Yes it lets you think, but it doesn’t really help the process. The fact that there is so much missing means you can tell your own story to fill the blanks, but really you HAVE to do that, and it doesn’t give you fuel for that. Since the plot ultimately doesn’t create a cohesive whole, you pretty much have to look for Blow’s telegraphed allusions…”The Princess is the Atomic Bomb” seems revelatory, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a reading that Blow didn’t gift-wrap intentionally for the audience to find.

In his otherwise positive review of the game, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (whom I highly respect) compared it to telling a joke wrong and having nobody laugh, but I’d compare it more to telling a joke and refusing to give the punchline…you tell people to figure out their own punchline, and that you wanted to give them a starting platform. Really, you could already think of alternate punchlines, withholding one just gives the impression of an incomplete product hiding behind it’s obscurity.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, a book which I admit that I have not read because it is long and nearly impossible to read and I have stuff on my plate, there is a famous episode in which characters liken “Hansel and Gretel” to World War II (a popular comparison which has endured elsewhere)...comparing their lost wanderings to the German depression and the witch’s candy house to the false promises of Nazism. The parallel’s fit very well, but obviously the story wasn’t an allegory for Nazism, considering it was written much earlier.

My point bringing it up is to note that a complete story doesn’t stop you from looking beyond it, in fact it helps. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ worked well for Pynchon because the simple story has ingrained itself so well into the collective unconsciousness…something that auteur dreck like Eraserhead and Donnie Darko will never succeed in doing.

Braid came very close with its endearingly simple, fairy tale of a man looking for his princess…but hid its selling points trying to force the audience into an expansive reading that, without its dense, awkward structure, they might have come to.

Again, though, I'm inclined to be positive to Jonathon Blow...sure he's pretentious, but anyone behind a product this good has a right to be. And trying to make people think definitely beats out "Space Marines v Aliens Gun Shoot Rampage 14: The Bloodgunshoooter" or another Final Fantasy.

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At May 3, 2010 at 12:30 PM , Blogger Jade Knight said...

Whenever possible, I like to point out that the Braid soundtrack is available on Magnatune, and Magnatune is fantastic (and gives 50% of what you pay to the artists).


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