Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Braid: I persevered.

First, there was the phase of frustration and despair.
This was the phase of bafflement and anger.
Finally, I got to the phase of careful reflection.

Special message: There are apparently a lot of people for whom playing Braid was a positive emotional experience. That's great. But if that's the case, you may not want to hear someone venting his Braid-hate, in much the same way that you do not want to hear someone saying bad things about your lover. If that describes you, you should skip this post. I am going to vent my hate. This is not going to be a very rational analysis. It's therapy. It's frustration. There will be arguments, but there will also be rhetoric. You were warned.

I persevered... and almost wish I hadn't. That was it? This "revelation", and these pieces of completely disconnected, meaningless prose were what I endured all those keyboard-smashing moments of frustration for?


Don't let anyone tell you that the game is "easy", and more about "puzzles" than about "platforming". It's not. It's full of nasty platforming moments. That supposedly great final level with the nanosecond-tight timing for jumping on some ugly brown guy three times, pulling a lever, and then jumping down just in front of another guy so you can sneak through a small passage unharmed before the fire gets you -- that was what made me want to hit Jonathan Blow most. The "elevator action" (or whatever) level where you have to drop a ring, jump on a falling ladder and climb up all during the one second that you are still glowing green is a good runner up. And there are so many more.


And the puzzles! Some were really good. There were a couple of excellent levels, where I actually had fun. But there were so many other levels where finding the solution required you to somehow intuit what the unexplained rules of the game were. For instance, that same "elevator action" level has platforms that make you glow green. In previous levels, platforms that made you glow green were immune to time running back. In this level, they are not. Why? Nobody knows. How you are supposed to know this is unclear. These puzzles are not to be solved through thinking, but through trial and error.


The most egregious example of this lack of information is the level where you have to grab a key your shadow is holding as he falls into a spiked pit. Absolutely nothing in the game has suggested that you can grab a key someone else is holding -- in fact, I'm almost certain you can not grab a key held by a monster and they cannot grab a key held by you. (In both cases, one must first kill the other person.) So how can this puzzle be solved except by divine inspiration? Well, by reading a walkthrough.


I have already written enough about the prose in my previous post. No, wait, I haven't. This stuff is so bad that you could base a "learn to write" course on just the fifty or so sentences that occur in this game: every possible mistake will be exemplified. Let's discuss one new example: "[...] a light that [...] illuminates - or materializes! - a final palace where we can exist in peace." If you don't know what the verb "materialize" means, that's okay. Really, it's fine. But if you don't know what it means, please don't use it. It means: "to come into being". This is intransitive. You cannot use it in a sentence with a direct object. Seeing it used in such a sentence makes me cry. It is ugly. It is meaningless. Ugly and meaningless things make me sad. Go and reverse time to undo your mistake.

I have an explanation for the badness of the prose. In this interview, Jonathan Blow talks about his double bachelor in English and Computer Science:
English is very much creatively-driven. It's mostly analysis and interpretation and history of literature. And basically, the entire bachelor's degree in English is all about bullshitting things. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.
Jonathan Blow believes that when it comes to English, you don't have to know what you are doing. You don't have to know what you are talking about. In university, he has learned to bullshit things. And he has put this skill to excellent use when writing the prose for Braid. It's all first-grade bullshit.


So, after hours of torture, one gets to the final level. According to everyone on the internet, it (a) shows that Tim really is the evil guy, and (b) the whole game has been playing in reverse time. But (a) has been obvious from the moment that we heard that Tim wants to cultivate a "perfect relationship", because as soon as someone says that you know they are a psychopath murderer who regularly talks to the mummified remains of his mother. And (b) just isn't true, unless I am supposed to accept that Tim is a guy who has this weird relationship with gravity where he can only go down using ladders or enemies, but can go up to any platform at will through thin air. Granted, the final level is somewhat interesting, but generate deep insight or recontextualise the game it did not. (And when I say that it was fine, I'm of course talking about the story, and not about the obscenity sequence where you have a nanosecond to jump on an obscenity monster, pull a lever and jump back down again in order to not be hit by that obscenity firewall. Obscenity Jonathan obscenity Blow. Obscenity. There is a difference between generating tension -- think of the firewall in that excellent Starcraft 2 mission, Supernova -- and generating frustration -- think of the firewall in Braid.)


And then there is an epilogue which gives us a lot of disconnected pieces of text that don't mean anything to me. And a lot of empty books. Apparently, the story Blow wanted to tell is about an atomic bomb, even though there is not a single sentence about an atomic bomb that I have seen. But that's fine: if you have something important to say, you don't just want to say it! You want to hide it! You want to say other things, and the really smart people will know that you actually mean something else. Or something. Or whatever.


Braid is a piece of crap. I actively hate it. As far as I can remember, it is the only game I have ever actively hated.


It is also a game that has gotten almost unanimously positive reviews, that has moved people deeply, that has brought joy and inspiration to thousands. This makes me willing to sort of suspend judgment. Maybe I do miss something. Maybe the problem is with me, not with Braid. (For the record, I believe aesthetic worth to be non-subjective.) This is possible. If you loved the game, please continue to do so. I am not here to dissuade you. But I very much doubt that you can dissuade me of my opinion -- although the comments are open, and you are allowed to try.


(But perhaps it is better to not have a lot of discussion. One of the things I dislike most is talking about something I love with someone who hates it -- it will always, in some measure, and assuming that one takes one's discussion partner seriously, poison one's subsequent enjoyment. I dislike having my enjoyment poisoned, and I dislike poisoning other people's enjoyment. Let's put this message at the top of the post as well...)

9 comments:

  1. But (a) has been obvious from the moment that we heard that Tim wants to cultivate a "perfect relationship"

    Yeah, I guess I spoiled myself on the ending a little (this is the sort of thing that happens when I can't actually play a game), but the text before World 2 made me think, "Gosh, wanting to turn back time so you can undo the one mistake that made your girlfriend dump you is actually pretty stalkerish."

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  2. In reference to the whole atomic bomb thing: I am about to tell you something that I am sure will make you dislike Blow more.

    There is a series of "secret stars" in the game, one in each world, entirely unclued. These require things like waiting a very long time, or misarranging the ending puzzle (already completed it? You have to start the game over).

    If you get all of the stars, it opens up additional narrative in the end-game storytime space, which is where the atomic bomb narrative comes from. Of course, the Internet Brain tends to think that this second, secret, parallel narrative is instead the "real story" of the game.

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  3. I tried playing it a little, didn't see what was so interesting about it, and then quit. So you're not the only one who doesn't get all the over-flowing praise for this game.

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  4. Gregory: I had read about those stars, but hadn't realised that they actually unlocked parts of the story. That's... a really weird design decision. I can see how "having to wait 2 hours" and "having made an irreversible mistake at the beginning of the game" embody some of the motifs of the game. But whether that is reason enough to annoy your players?

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  5. Your last two posts are especially interesting in light of Blow's recent PC Gamer interview.

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  6. Hrm, you don't need the secret stars to see the extra epilogue text, do you? I thought you could see it all through clever navigation of the epilogue level (pay attention to the "ahhhhhh" sounds that play when you stand in certain places).

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  7. While I mostly agree with your assessment, I have to point out that you *can* pick up a key while it's being carried by someone else without having to kill it first, you just have to jump at just the right time. I found that out in "Fickle Companion", World 4.

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  8. In previous levels, platforms that made you glow green were immune to time running back. In this level, they are not. Why? Nobody knows. How you are supposed to know this is unclear.

    The platforms that make you glow green are identifiable by the little white bubbles that float off of them. Anything immune to time-reversal is identifiable by its green glow.

    The platform at the end of World Three that you're talking about is both glowing green AND releasing white bubbles. The platforms from World Six are just releasing white bubbles, not glowing green. So that's how you're supposed to know.

    The logic by which Braid's world operates is actually consistent, it's just hard to pick up on things like that sometimes.

    For me, figuring out the little fiddly details behind how the world worked was a big part of what made Braid fun, but I can definitely see how it could be frustrating to other people. I'm sorry it frustrated you.

    And yeah, the prose made me wince a little. I think it's because I've been spoiled on IF.

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  9. I played this recently, and it’s interesting to read your take on the game.

    The thing about Braid is that it’s a platform game. It requires more thought than most, but at its heart it’s still in the genre of Super Mario Bros. It uses many tropes from the genre, and most especially the frustration that comes from being able to see exactly what you have to do, but lacking the dexterity, timing and concentration to pull it off. Frustration is a feature of the genre, and for an afficionado, it’s exactly that frustration that makes success so sweet. I still remember the level in Super Mario Sunshine where I died more than fifty times before my first completion, and there was nothing in Braid remotely as hard as that. But nonetheless, repeated frustration, failure, and rehearsal are what the genre is all about, and if the rewards don’t make it worth it then the genre is not for you.

    Braid could most definitely have done with better presentation of its mechanics. Each mechanism is indicated by a graphical treatment (for example, glowing green objects are immune to time reversal), but some of the treatments are far too subtle. Like you, it took me a long time to spot the bubbles that make you immune to time reversal, and even once I’d identified them I found that I could still miss them in a level, because they blend in so well with the various level designs. Graphic design focus ought to be on making things clear to the player first, and only then on making them aesthetically pleasing or thematic. In a well-designed game like Ocarina of Time you learn that only certain walls can be destroyed by bombs, but the game makes it quite clear how to identify those walls by having a series of puzzles that train you to look out for the relevant colour and texture—and only once that lesson has sunk in does the game start to use them in more complex puzzles (for example, I can see the bombable wall, but how do I reach it?). It’s a problem with Braid’s shortness that it doesn’t take the time to train you up on simple examples before it starts presenting the complex puzzles.

    I completely agree with you about the abysmal quality of the prose. Video game prose doesn’t set a particularly high standard, but this is just atrocious. Luckily it makes no difference to the game if you read it or not, and I did my best to ignore it.

    Even aside from the quality of the prose, the concept shows that the designer’s priorities are back-to-front. As I said on Emily’s blog, Blow’s attempt to reduce an original and entertaining platform game into a metaphor for a stalker-ish protagonist’s regret for things that went wrong in his relationship seems to me to be based on a kind of cultural cringe: he thinks that games ought to aspire to the status of third-class bourgeois novels.

    I ought to correct your misapprehension about materialize, though. According to the OED it has several transitive senses, including the one which Braid seems to be using (“to make something (seem to) appear”).

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