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The More You Know


Dee Yun Dee Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-09-12 13:08:02

Good or Pretentious?


It won't come as a surprise to anyone that I love videogames. As a former literature and philosophy major, I have a strong tendency to value videogames as art. That very inquiry, "Are videogames art?" is a rhetorical question to me. A more pertinent question is, "Are videogames significant art?" Are they important and relevant; are they good art?

Socrates, who was essentially the founder of Western thought, refused to commit his thoughts to writing, because he felt that any such discourse was useless or even harmful without reciprocative dialogue. Every form of art/entertainment to date has been passive. Western education has revolved around forcibly creating a dialogue via the critical examination of works of art, from paintings and sculpture to novels and film. Often, that dialogue is limited to a student's arduous outpouring responded to with a simple letter grade, but the goal is to establish a certain literacy used to communicate commonly graspable values.

Videogames are unique in that they're interactive. They require active participation, not only in the interpretation of the material being digested, but in the very act of progression through the work itself. The gamer is constantly required to make decisions that affect the trajectory of the narrative. This too requires a unique sort of literacy. Just as a newcomer to poetry has no idea what iambic pentameter is, a newbie to first person shooters would struggle with the twin stick control scheme that has been the standard since Halo.

Videogames are still a nascent art form. I've compared Metal Gear Solid 4 to Birth of a Nation, which is a primitive film from 1914, that was nevertheless instrumental in the development of the medium. Much of the interactivity of videogaming is stifled by technical limitations, or more often, the clumsy implementation of sophmoric narrative design choices. Nonetheless, videogames are progressing as art. I'd much rather replay Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare than watch, say, whatever Michael Bay last directed. I'm jealous of gamers 50+ years from now, who'll be playing fully realized examples of the form.

Which brings me to Braid. WARNING BRAID SPOILERS! ALSO, WARNING - I GET EVEN MORE PRETENTIOUS!

Braid is unique in that it requires both literacies I discussed above to fully appreciate, which instantly slashes the potential audience to a sliver. It's meticulously and purposefully crafted - from the art style to the music to the gameplay, and all intertwined with the express purpose of enriching the narrative.

First, you get those snippets of prose in those books. As a general rule, I'm against text in a videogame, but these instantly establish specific themes of loss and regret (and also later tip off the allegorical context of the game), which should be internalized as meaningful to the game's structure as you progress. The art and music present a wistful mood, while still celebrating the archetypical roots of the platforming genre it uses as a base.

Next, the individual levels contribute to these themes. Taken simply as a mind challenge, Braid's temporal logic conundrums are easily among the best puzzles ever. However, consider the mechanics of each level and how they connect with the narrative. The world where time flows forward when you do, and backward when you step back speaks to the frustrated and trapped mental state of the protagonist. The eerie backward disjointed music is caused by your actions, yet you're unable to prevent this unnatural state. The level in which your past functions as a shadow delivers omens and fore...um, shadowing. (Rearshadowing?)

The paintings that you assemble further contribute to the subtext. They aren't simply redundant restatements of the material in the books or gameplay, but a reductive insight into the game's motifs. Even the little nautical flags on the Mario-esque castles are specific warnings that communicate Braid's themes. (I never would've picked up on this myself.) The attention to detail and commitment to convey meaning is exemplary.

And then you hit the ending. After building upon the trite archetypical plot of rescuing a princess, the twist reveal is that you're the fucker who abducted her. After struggling through both the gameplay which stood in your way, AND the moody themes hoping for forgiveness and redemption - this is a heart render. In each gamer, there is naturally a desire to solve the puzzles obstructing their way, paralleled by the protagonist's longing to repair the loss and reclaim his love. Even the old joke, "I'm sorry, but the Princess is in another castle," takes on new meaning in this context.

And then, in an obtuse fashion, a few specific textual reference unambiguously reveals Braid to be a WTF? allegory of the development of the atomic bomb... I specifically admired the use of the Kenneth Bainbridge quote, "Now we are all sons of bitches." He was the director of the Trinity test site where the first detonation took place. He clearly understood that the world had changed in an irreparable way, and that they were responsible. The quote also functions in a recursive function to the ostensible meaning of Braid. How many of us have fucked up relationships with actions or words in an explosive, irreparable fashion that demonstrated us to be little more than "sons of bitches"?

However, it is important not to go overboard. If you simply enjoy Braid purely as a puzzler, well hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In searching for clarification of the atomic bomb allegory, I came across Braid forum threads that exploded with truly pretentious fanboy vitriol and drama. Ironic, really. Socrates would be appalled at the "sound and fury" of these discourses. Many posters were flailing to find meaning and connections in every random direction, and insulting anyone with the temerity to disagree with them, despite insufficiently establishing their positions. Chill the fuck out. There isn't a singular underlying "solution" to Braid. That's like trying to "solve" The Brothers Karamazov or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

(It reminds me of Lost fans who fall victim to rabid cryptomania, trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Here's a clue: the writers are making the shit up as they go along.)

David Vargas David Vargas: (dave-deleteme[at]-deleteme-squishycomics [dot] com) 2008-09-12 17:30:21

But I'm the Good Guy!


((Semi-Spoilarz))

Dee already covered a good deal of Braid. All I offer you now is my own moments in that game. Or rather, it's all the same "moment" drawn out over time.

First, Braid makes me think that I'm a bastard. I'm a bastard for failing to see what is right in front of me in favor of something that's essentially unattainable.

Then Braid says, "No, you don't understand; you're a Bastard." I'm a Bastard because, as Dee pointed out, I wasn't really trying to obtain something unobtainable; I already had something that I SHOULDN'T have, and it's trying to get away from me. That made me say, "Oh, wow, I'm a Bastard!"

Finally, Braid says to me, "No, you still don't get it, you're a BASTARD!" After beating the game, putting together all of the games pieces that I had gathered, and drawing on my admittedly slim knowledge, I realized just how big of a bastard I was...

Yeah, Dee's right; there's nothing wrong with taking Braid at face value. It's an awesome puzzle game. But if you stop and think about it and let it take you, it'll kick you in the nuts.

Dee Yun Dee Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-09-12 19:06:46

Specific Puzzle Spoiler Warning


Oh, and I've been wanting to point this out, but never had the opportunity without committing spoylarz:

There is always a clean and simple solution to each of Braid's puzzles. The one that kills me is when people use the example of 'the three plants that chew on the beasties' as a criticism. It typically goes something like, "Itz so stupid the answer is obvious but getting the timing with teh ring is a pain in the ass!"

You COULD do that, but you don't need to use the ring AT ALL. Simply FREEZE time when all the plants are down, and the time-free beasties will stroll over to where you need them. It takes two simple button pushes and absolutely no gamer dexterity whatsoever.

The puzzle is seven minutes into this vid:

What's neat is that he does it in a way that didn't even occur to me: by pushing time forward and backward so the plants dodge the monsters. My (vastly superior!) solution was to wait until all three plants were down, and to set time to x0. Both are far more elegant than using the ring to slow the plants down, and hoping for the best. I love this game.

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