Friday, February 12, 2010

Braid's Allusive Appeal

Thanks largely to Jorge and David Carlton, I have been thinking about the idea of "maturity" in video games. Fortuitously, Jorge and David happened to get this discussion started as I was finishing up Braid.

It is difficult to pin down what constitutes a "mature" game. The ESRB uses the word to describe games with explicit violence, naughty language, or nudity. Others argue that a mature game should speak to societal issues and seek to be something more than a mere diversion from the outside world. Some say that maturity is tied to the rules of a game and the skills necessary to succeed within a limited framework. I suspect there is no single answer, which makes me less guilty about advancing another theory.

Braid's use of artistic, thematic, and structural allusions to other games demonstrates an awareness of both the medium's history and its potential for growth. Braid's references go beyond simple tributes: they are tools that help define, and also challenge, the concept of "gaming literacy." Braid's maturity stems from its engagement with other games, as well as with the players' expectations.

Braid's art evokes Super Mario Bros., which serves to usher experienced gamers into a familiar world while simultaneously paying tribute to the world's antecedents. The most prevalent enemy is a round, two-legged baddie that attacks the player in a brave, yet suicidal, fashion. The landscape is dotted with green pipes that hide killer plants that nip at Tim's heels as he vaults them. A world's end is marked with the traditional flag, castle, and pseudo-reptilian occupant. The game is littered with symbols encoded with years of cultural significance in regards to games: little baddies are for jumping on, spiny plants will hurt you, and the princess is being held in the castle by a dragon. Braid welcomes old players in with honest tributes to fond memories, while also ushering new players into traditions that constitute the foundation of video game culture.

Almost immediately, Braid shifts from a simple tribute to a work dedicated to exploring the themes behind this imagery. Rather than a spiky, flame-breathing Bowser character, Braid's castles are inhabited by a helpful plush-doll-like dinosaur. The Greeter is an aesthetic contrast to a Super Mario-style end-level boss and it becomes clear that the character has no interest, motive, or even ability to act as an antagonist.
The Greeter's soft, stitched-together look gives it a visual honesty that mirrors its thematic purpose. The first time the Greeter suggests that the "princess is in another castle," it is easily written off as a joke reference. However, as the game wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that this simple stuffed doll is speaking the plain truth: not only is there no princess in this castle, there may be no princess at all.

As both a platformer and a video game, Braid is surrounded by other works whose themes have remained remarkably static over the years. Whether it is an Italian plumber or an armored space marine, there is almost always a bad guy, a good guy, and a damsel in distress that needs rescuing. Any obstacles to the aforementioned damsel are attributed to the antagonist as a foregone conclusion. The game avoids this simplistic trope and constructs a morally-ambiguous plot, one that recognizes challenges the player to consider the thematically-mature concept of a world painted in shades of gray.

Because Braid is a game, these visuals and themes are explored through interactivity. It is here that Braid's sophistication is most impressive, as its intertextuality stems from the gameplay itself. Sometimes, this manifests as direct references to other games in the form of timing-based jumps, or the physically nonsensical (yet extremely well-established) action of gaining jump height by spring-boarding off of enemies.

Braid's novel time manipulation mechanic lays bare both the absurdity and beauty of long held gaming conventions. No one needs to read the instructions to learn that fire pits are deadly, but even if they make
a mistake, they can rewind time and bring Tim back to life in a way nearly identical to how one would rescue Mario from an errant jump. The difference in Braid is that, in addition to being mechanically acknowledged, resurrection is also artistically and thematically integrated into the game and the notion of player progress.

For decades, progress in side-scrolling games has been implicitly defined as movement to the right side of the screen. Moving to the left (when it is allowed) has traditionally been a way to "reset" the game and bring back enemies and platforms that the player previously dispatched. In world 4, Braid confronts this idea from a novel perspective: When moving to the right, time travels forward, when moving to the left, time goes back.

However, Braid is most interesting when it uses traditional gameplay conventions to challenge players' the gaming literacy they have acquired over the years. One of the most striking examples of the game's ability to undermine gaming tropes and player expectations is in the "Jumpman" stage. Here, all Braid's intertextual qualities are on display: the level takes its name from Mario's original moniker and contains a structure built in the image of the original Donkey Kong game. An artistic representation of a giant ape resides at the top of the structure, but the thematic allusion is given a twist via the princess's absence.

This notion of the subverting the familiar is made explicit when the player attempts to scale the platforms in the tradition of the original Donkey Kong. No matter how good their jumping and running skills are, it is impossible to overcome this task the way a conical source has trained us to play it. Instead, we must use the game's mechanic to break from tradition. The puzzle requires the player to literally and symbolically venture outside the traditional boundaries of the game. Playing "Jumpman" in Braid is to deconstruct Donkey Kong and then play it in a new way.

Braid walks a thin line between being indulgent self awareness and thoughtful self reflection. While it is not always humble, it a game that explicitly engages with the player's expectations and the works that preceded it. It is a game that mixes deference to tradition while also challenging the complacency that such deference breeds. Striving to maintain its balance with one foot in the past and one in the future, Braid makes a subtle commentary on the culture in which it was created, thereby demonstrating a maturity that transcends sex, gore, and profanity.


  1. I'd call it more of a maturation (aging, more than anything) of the medium, that it can have its own internal tropes and references. The story of Braid isn't really anything all that impressive... though it is nicely devoid of blood and sex. The mechanics really are well done, though, if occasionally frustrating.

  2. @ Tesh
    While i agree that the mechanics are well done, i would have to disagree with most of your comment. Often times it would appear that developers try and highlight how far the industry has come by showing off intense "realistic" graphics, it is rare that they break the typical idea of, You good guy, beat bad guy, save everyone. Its a good model, but it is not the only option available. Braid, while occasionally frustrating, (due to its breaking of traditional mechanics imo) does an excellent job of not only being self referential (Mario bro. references, etc) but Braid does something more. It rewards an attentive player, one that is looking for a story told in the experience of the player, rather than the game itself. A few examples are the books at the end of the game, as well as some of the text throughout. You can skip right past this, never read it, and still do some guess work to what the game is about, if that’s even necessary. A different player might read everything, and thus have a different experience. This is a HUGE shift in gaming, as typically games have a set overall experience that all players have. Now I’m not entirely sure what this means for the industry though. Do games need to become more literary? There is something oh so satisfying about cutting limbs off your opponents, and hacking (or shooting) your way to an expected end. It is a familiar and a less taxing experience on the player. That being said, i think games like Braid (or even world of Goo) are needed. These games punch through the 4th wall at times, and make players really question what it is they enjoy playing, or rather, have the opportunity in playing. Are we just playing the same story over and over, or is there something new going on here? Sorry Tesh, this wasn’t really meant to be a rail against you, i hope it isn’t perceived that way. I just really Dug Braid, and wanted to toss in my 2 cents. Ill be interested to see other comments.
    Thanks Scott Juster, and all the Experience Points contributors. Best site on the net.

  3. Braid can get away with all of its references Mario etc. because it is fundamentally a different game. At first blush, it seems like a side scrolling platformer, but it quickly becomes clear that the skill required to complete Braid lies more in warping time to solve puzzles than it requires jumping around collecting coins.

    Braid also gets away with such a loosely structured and vaguely intellectual storyline because that story plays right into the game mechanics. It is a game about memory and perception and "what would you do differently if you could turn back time?" Therefore, the story can be vague and loose because that's how memory is and the time warping mechanic plays into that rather brilliantly.

  4. There is a test I sometimes use to measure how "mature" something is: If it is boring for the younger audience but actually quite engaging for an older audience it probably quite mature.

    Ironically this qualifies sex and violence as not mature - which I interpret as the test being accurate. ;)

    Using that test on Braid yields conflicting results. The gameplay can be enjoyed even by young players. So it's not necessarily mature. The story, on the other hand, is something young players might find boring so it has a mature quality.

    So what does that mean? Is Braid a poorly thought-out game that doesn't quite know what audience it should address? Or is it actually a smart game that transcends notions of age groups?

  5. Mario, no offense taken. ;) I'll readily concede that the *way* the Braid story is told is engaging and interesting, entwined with the mechanics as it is, I just don't particularly care for the story being told. It's trope- and angst-ridden gibberish.

    That said, it is definitely a step above most game stories. *shrug*

  6. @Tesh
    Glad to hear it.
    Gibberish might be a good word. The game's narrative seems to give just "enough" to string something of an interpretation together. Then again, I love that sort of thing, being an English major myself.
    Here's something that I often find on my mind when contemplating video games... Braid goes a different route, as many of us can agree on. I find that i don't play it often however. Only one play through in fact. I think the question I’m fishing for here, is how we define, or what we think the function of video games are. Are video games (like braid, World of Goo to name a couple) meant to be somewhat elusive in meaning, but worthy of at least one play through, or are they meant for consistent, seemingly constant appeal (insert any game you play all the time)? I don’t really have an answer to my own question sadly...

  7. Thanks to everyone for the insightful comments!

    Like Tesh initially brought up, the maturity of Braid as a single entity is debatable, but I think it is easier to make an argument that its intertextuality is a sign of the medium coming to terms with its own identity.

    Mario hits on a good point (one that I would expect from an English student) in the possibility of differing takes from different players. And also that Experience Points is the best site on the net... ;-)

    But seriously, although some have criticized the storytelling implementation (i.e. over-reliance on text), I found myself questioning it's comparative effectiveness to something like a cutscene. Even though one must read a good portion of the story, it is one's choice to do so; the books Mario mentions could just as easily been passed by. I think it shows a certain amount of confidence in the players when developers allow them to control the time dedicated to plot exposition.

    However, it's probably not right to get too hung up on the words since, as JT said, the themes are subtly conveyed through the gameplay as well. In fact, I've got a post kicking around in my head on this very subject...

    Krystian, now that I've finally finished the game, I'm going through your posts on it. Great job on the puzzle design analysis. I've been trying to decide whether the puzzles seemed "fair," and your stuff has been great to read as a juxtaposition to the "Official Walkthrough."

    I think your last question is spot on: I think Braid rewards a mature gaming background rather than the accumulation of years on this planet. A teenager who has played a bunch of old puzzle and platformers and is proficient in the ludic language of those genres will probably get more out of it than someone who is more mature when it comes to years, but less experienced with games.