If Mario had a therapist… on Braid (PC) and Jonathan Blow

Braid is not a fun game. And that’s the point. Or so indie games designer Jonathan Blow says. Convenient, you might think, but I suspect Jonathan actually means what he says. He’s one of those intellectual types who quotes James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon whilst denouncing the use of phrases such as ludonarrative dissonance. In Braid, Jonathan tried to make a game that was familiar and nostalgic, but also made you think about games as a form – it is a self-concious game, the thinking man’s Mario if you will. So how successful is Jonathan in realising his vision? Is Jonathan a pretentious genius or just plain pretentious?

Beautiful artwork. Pretty sure the artists didn't get paid #thatindielifeWith its beautiful artwork, the whole of Braid is imbued with mysterious golden light. Pretty sure the artists got paid through exposure #thatindielife

Beautiful artwork. Pretty sure the artists didn’t get paid #thatindielife

There are six worlds in Braid, each with its own set of physics laws. At the start of each world you can read short passages which make up a strange story about a man called Tim and a girl he is in love with, a princess. Instead of making coins being a plumber, Tim has gone to university – probably studying English and Philosophy – and, judging by his patched suit, is likely earning a lot less than Mario. It’s a mysterious tale which mirrors the gameplay mechanics – for instance, the first world is about reversing time, which matches Tim’s desire to change the past. In short, we explore his emotions through play.

Braid captures the essence of the 2D platformer and then explores a moral dimension that is “missing” in Mario. If Mario sat down to discuss his life’s regrets, this game would offer an image of his inner psychic world. And according to Braid there is something sad and cruel about the inner life of a 2D platforming avatar. You’re forced to kill innocent creatures (including cute bunnies) to get ahead. You’re trying to save a princess – but what if she doesn’t want to be saved? What if it’s your ego, not justice, that motivates your actions?

time-and-forgiveness

Braid is interested in how videogames allow us to consider big concepts like time paradoxes and physics…but also the puzzles of the human heart…

A lot of people really enjoy this ethical chitter chatter, with many people discussing the meaning behind The Princess (is she a symbol for the atomic bomb? Or a social justice warrior in disguise?), the morality of killing Goombas, and whether any of it is real or a dream or the psychic state of someone having a breakdown after a relationship. There are deep puzzles in Braid – both philosphical and mechanical – that make us think about how videogames are different to other mediums.

But, as I said, Braid isn’t fun. And when a game isn’t fun, that’s a problem, right? Jonathan’s philosophy sounds similar to writers and artists in the modernist movement in the early 20th century who argued that true art is difficult – and, to an extent, shouldn’t be (obviously) enjoyable. Here is Jonathan talking about difficulty and accessibility in games:

Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t holding your hand the whole way through to make sure you understood every paragraph. It’s exploring things it thinks are interesting, and if you can keep up, great. If you can’t, you can come back to it in a few years and see it from a different perspective. Games don’t seem to have that at all – and that’s part of what makes art deep and interesting. That’s what really interests me.

I’ve never agreed with this opinion, whether it be with art, books or videogames. I believe games can be both enjoyable AND deep and meaningful. I’m wary of positing a binary where good = THINKY and bad = FUN. Modernist works are frequently regarded as elitist and I would hate for videogames to be seen in the same way. I don’t think games need “highbrow” and “lowbrow” distinctions. What’s great about videogames is that they’ve managed to stay away from those binaries for so long – silliness and depth co-exist in weird harmony in most games, and that’s not something I ever want to go away.

(Here is a video of Jonathan where he says many things – including that he doesn’t play Japanese games anymore. He lists some reason or other, but it’s probably because he’s a bit silly himself, deep deep down.)

In a sense, I want game developers to stay out of the “are games art” debate – and just focus on pushing the boundaries of what games can do, without forcing a paticular artistic mode or a didactic ART FOR ART’S SAKE agenda. And though I agree with him that games developers need to become more aware of how videogames work differently to films and books, there are already examples of this historically, notably my favourite game of all time, Shadow of Memories. But maybe I’m just butthurt – I don’t like it when people make big generalisations about Japanese games :/

Although the cynic in me considers Jonathan’s self-awareness an anathema to true creativity, I’ve been weirdly addicted to reading interviews with him. There is something very cool about a guy who can explain why he did what he did in lurid, flowery prose. Differing opinions aside, I have a lot of respect for Jonathan as a game designer, but especially as an indie developer. Not only are some of his ideas in sync with my own (a very attractive quality in a man), but it’s awesome that his recent game The Witness (PS4) was a self-funded project which took seven years to complete. This, if nothing else, shows a passion for discovering what games are truly capable of. I wonder if it’s any fun…

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12 comments

  1. themancalledscott

    Simply put, just plain pretentious. This game can be thrown in the pile of self-indulgent indie games that try to pad “themes” and “atmosphere” onto an empty game to pretend like there’s actually something to it. Sad thing is, like Limbo, people fell for it hook, line and sinker.

  2. Aether

    I’m a big believer that games don’t necessarily have to be fun to be worthwhile. However, it is absolutely a lot harder to design a worthwhile game without the fun. I know Red Metal’s brought this up as an example to me, and it’s absolutely an excellent example, that Paper’s Please was so much better at delivering the atmosphere, plot, and all the ‘high art’ ideals of the pontificating game developer because of it. On the flip side is something like Season 1 Walking Dead, which was absolutely not fun at all to play, but before the Telltale Formula became the Telltale Formula, it was an absolutely fascinating piece of videogame storytelling. But it was that because it filled the gaps where the entertainment would normally be with something else. It still had a complete experience there, even without the fun. A lot of the art games out there don’t get that far, just cutting out the fun without putting in the experience to take its place.

    In terms of Braid, though, I played the demo. Got the hints of the story, but just got too bored with the gameplay to ever bother getting into it. The game wasn’t fun, the story didn’t interest me, so I moved on. I’m the type who will happily dig way, way deeper than even the writers intended into something I’m interested in, but you have to give me that line of interest in the first place.

    • veryverygaming

      Well to start with let me say a massive thanks for responding to Maya’s post on your blog, it’s really great to get that kind engagement. Sadly I’ve not played either Paper’s Please or The Walking Dead so I can’t comment on how well or badly they handle this question of fun… still now having read your blog post I have a better sense of where you’re coming from. That doesn’t mean I’m going to have any answers though!

      I agree that the survival horror genre is a really interesting example of inserting something else where the “fun” would be in a more traditional game. Ultimately I think it comes down to individual preference – I know people who don’t play horror games, not because they’re too scary but because they find them dull and un-fun. Then you have me complaining that Resident Evil 4 wasn’t as scary as the old Resident Evil games because it was too fun! Even so I’m struggling to say whether an “engaging” experience is the same as a “fun” one. I have fun with survival horror games, I would say, it’s just a different kind of fun. Same with RPGs – the base gameplay is not fun in the same way that Mario is fun, but the story, the environments, the atmosphere, the characters, make it compelling.

      In Blow’s case he’s got an intellectual horn to toot which involves (in some cases) being deliberately anti-fun and anti-engagement. Like at one point in Braid there’s a (thankfully optional) collectible that requires waiting on a screen for TWO HOURS for a slow moving platform to move to the right place. This isn’t just any old bad game design, it’s intentionally bad game design. And if you’re bad intentionally, it becomes good! Like Maya wrote in the post, there are ways of incorporating intellectual ideas into game design, but subtlety is key. The original Sonic games on the Megadrive/Genesis didn’t need to have an environmentalist message in order to be fun games, but they did, if you ever stopped to think about it.

      • Aether

        Ah, it was Maya who wrote this? I should correct the attribution over in that post, then. But yeah, happy to respond. This post led to me thinking more than what would fit in a responsible comment, so I appreciate the inspiration from her!

        I think Blow really falls into a trap a lot of people do of trying to figure out and set rules for what capital A Art is rather than just creating and enjoying it for what it is. Whenever you set rules for what art has to be, someone else is going to blow it away by making something great that breaks those rules.

        And yeah, making things that are intentionally bad is just painful, no matter how many people say that ‘no, it’s really good because it’s on purpose!’ I remember arguing that a lot about No More Heroes back in the day. They had this massive open world that was nearly empty and completely worthless, and required you to complete random tasks in it over and over again before they’d let you move on to the next story mission. A lot of people said it was really a smart ad artsy move because it was a giant parody of open world games, yet, even if there was a point there, it was only made the first time you had to deal with that world, yet it was there and made you spend a good long while in it between every single mission. That’s the biggest negative factor against that game, one of the biggest reasons I’ve never bothered finishing it, and the idea that it might be deliberately bad is absolutely boggling to me.

  3. ambigaming

    Bottom line: in order to want to “revisit” a game, we need to have wanted to visit it in the first place! And while I don’t have a gaming PC, I wasn’t really impressed by the few Let’s Plays I saw of Braid. Like Aether, I much preferred Papers, Please, for similar reasons.

    I’m reminded of a time I went to an art museum, and there was an enormous canvas, all white, except for one small red circle in the corner. People were all standing around it, murmuring to each other about its meaning, nodding thoughtfully.

    Cool, you can discuss what it means to you. It’s a nice philosophical discussion. But paintings are visual arts. I don’t want to look at that painting again because it was boring. So that means… no revisiting. I didn’t like looking at it the first time, and visual arts are things you need to look at to experience.

    But I could look at Klimt’s The Kiss for hours, and have a long discussion about it, as well. I could stare at Monet’s Waterlillies all day and be happy, just assaulting my eyes with beauty, and then launch into a conversation about being part of something bigger than yourself (or something equally nerdy).

    I’m a musician when I’m offline. I’ve listened to (and played…) atonal and “modern” music. Sure, some of it prompts a good discussion because the form, instrumentation, placements of the notes on the page and bla bla bla bla comments on society, but it’s not nice to listen to. So who’s going to listen to it again? But Verdi’s Defiant Requiem is awe-inspiring, and can prompt a social and philosophical discussion as well. Music is something you listen to, so it’s something you need to hear to experience (surprise!). If you are going to revisit it later, it can’t have made your ears bleed the first time.

    A video game is an interactive medium. People need to want to interact with it, which means it needs to be at least enjoyable. It needs to have a compelling story, or an interesting mechanic; it needs something to engage us so we want to interact with it. Once we’re experiencing the game, we’ll discuss the story, if it’s done right.If we’ve been grabbed. If we’re engaged.

    ART needs to be accessible. In my opinion, if any ART thinks it doesn’t have to be accessible simply because it is ART… it’s doing it wrong.

    Also, checked out a video of Shadow of Memories, and it seems really interesting! I’ll have to find a copy and dust off my old Playstation 2!

    • veryverygaming

      Great comment right here! Couldn’t agree more that accessibility is never a bad thing. Formal exercises are all well and good but it’s rarely going to move or inspire the listener/viewer/player. You might engage a portion of the audience at the level of mental masturbation, but who else besides? I agree with you that re-playability is the real test – what brings you back again, time after time?

      Maya mentioned in the post that self-awareness is often bad for creativity, and I think that’s often the case. There’s a reason why literary critics and academic types rarely write good fiction themselves 😛 Maybe it’s because there’s something mysterious, unconscious about making a piece of “art” and self-conscious people cut themselves off from influences they can’t make sense of intellectually? Whatever the reason, Blow sounds like a critic who follows his head over his heart when it comes to designing games. I’m saying all this, but for all I know his next game could truly Blow us away! (I’m truly sorry.)

      On a related note, I’m learning from these comments that I should really try Papers, Please. And of course I absolutely recommend Shadow of Memories! It’s a little known gem of a game which despite our best efforts we’ve been unable to convince anyone else to play 🙂

      • ambigaming

        Blow us away…. very punny! (haha)
        Yes, maybe that’s it. When something tries to be intelligent, or tries to be funny, or tries to be moving, it doesn’t work because it’s not tapping into the creator’s emotions; how can they expect their creation to tap into ours?

  4. Pingback: Artful Vs. Pretentious Game Design or: Why I Don’t Like Many Critical Darlings | Wizard Dojo
  5. Matt

    Nicely written thoughts!

    I fully agree with you here:

    “If any art thinks it doesn’t have to be accessible simply because it is art… it’s doing it wrong.”

    With that being said, I loved Braid for its gameplay and plot twist. =D

  6. moresleepneeded

    I have not played this game but I did find the description interesting. I like the idea of having six worlds which have different physical laws (adding changes to the gameplay), while giving a reason to do with the story. I, personally, like the idea of people developing a wide variety of games as they can create unique ideas and can help games evolve. Games used to be simple with little story and an easy gameplay, but games developed to become more complex, with developed plots and complicated gameplay. I also like the idea of the player considering the hurt caused to the enemies, I used to joke about Mario committing genocide by murdering countless goombas. I also enjoyed the discussion of art against entertainment
    How is the morality of the player’s actions explored? What philosophical ideas are discussed?

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  8. Red Metal

    This year, I reviewed Mr. Blow’s works, Braid and The Witness, and I can say both games make the fatal error of being unable to determine the difference between challenge and annoyance as well as having a bunch of weird symbolism that only comes across as slightly more coherent than reading random facts off of Wikipedia. As for Braid itself, I can appreciate that it encouraged other indie developers, but my ultimate conclusion is that the indie scene didn’t really achieve greatness until they abandoned the super-artsy approach Mr. Blow pioneered. The irony is that the misguided attempts at elevating the medium seemed to do a better job at stifling innovation by encouraging a style-over-substance design ethos.

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