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Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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Friday
Sep112009

Forever is Composed of Nows

I usually prefer not to write about games immediately after I’ve finished them. The excitement of the experience can get in the way of the ability to evaluate it, and the internalization of the mechanics can take a while to unwind. It’s akin to writing about a relationship immediately after it has ended: one single emotion is likely to dominate, and it is difficult to understand what really just happened. What I was able to summon immediately after Braid was released was a simple parody– something that, while amusing to write, was ultimately a rather flippant reaction to a work that was clearly the product of a long and often lonely struggle. The game, of course, deserves better.

We know that the distance of time allows us to realize things we had not been able to know at the moment of our experience. That doomed relationship, for example, may now seem to have been inadvisable from the start, or as much due to circumstance as either one’s fault. Slowly, over the days and months, we piece together the story, weaving the scattered fragments of our memories– words, faces, feelings– into something resembling a coherent sequence of events. During our lives we constantly, sometimes unconsciously, look backwards and ask ourselves: “what really happened?” The answers we settle upon become the narratives of our existence. In other words, they become who we are.

In Braid, time does not flow like a stream, but is rewound constantly, in the manner of a person trying to figure out where it all went wrong, someone who constantly revisits his own mistakes in his mind until he decides what he ought to have done. The game does not just invite us to look backwards– we must travel backwards, again and again, in order to get anywhere at all. It examines time in a series of thought experiments: here is a world where it all runs in reverse. Here is one where traversal through space and time are inextricably linked. Here is one where multiple timelines exist simultaneously.

In Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman, the young patent clerk’s meditations on time in various fantastic configurations are what lead to his enlightenment about how it works in the world we know. His dreaming is the act of taking assumptions and seeing them through to their logical consequences and conclusions– a exercise of make-believe that leads to truth. But whereas Einstein’s Dreams took on the world, Braid takes on the past. The entirety of the game looks only backwards, save for a moment at the very end. The game is not just nostalgic, it positively drips with sentimentality at times. It gives us a world made out of clouds and great castle-building stones, where diffuse light shines from nowhere and everywhere at once. It makes constant retrograde reference to the unimpeachable classics of the Mario series. The text struggles with events from a hazy past, and the innocence of childhood comes up more than once. As we begin to play we are told not that we are searching for the princess, but that Tim is. We are not Tim, and we remain distant from him as we guide him through what appear to be the shards of his own shattered consciousness.

Braid’s breathtaking climax, in which a sequence played forwards is revealed to have another interpretation when seen backwards, is the game’s most clear articulation of the ideas behind the literary modernism in which it finds inspiration. By putting the princess on a pedestal, by defining her rigidly, Tim has not attained her but lost her entirely. The way we understand things is not linear, not always the orderly, gradual process we want it to be. Of course, the hunters for that singular interpretation, the Cliffs Notes writers, are given plenty of grist to chew upon. What do those cryptic snippets of text about candy stores and atomic bombs signify? Why are there alphabet blocks arranged in the traditional WASD pattern in Tim’s bathroom? Is speed run mode a bonus in the name of replayability, or part of what we should be analyzing, too? Are the piranha plants simply coy homages to Mario, or are they, too, suffused with some secret significance?

This is Braid’s troublesome aspect, to me– the way it tacitly encourages meaning-as-metagame, the idea that there is a single specific explanation to be found for it all, and Jonathan Blow’s assertion that nobody has yet done this (at least who has made their theory public). This attitude interprets critical thought as a kind of guessing game where, I am imagining, Blow will one day descend from his mountain fastness onto a blog, a forum or an academic conference and say, “yes, you got it– you win.” Although most of the extant purported explanations of which I am aware seem wrongheaded, I do not think it is really possible to have it both ways: in order to successfully convey meaning, one must either be didactic or acknowledge that interpretation will take place.

One of the tests of a great work, though, is how we can see ourselves in it. And I know what Braid is about for me. I recognize the way it loops back over itself constantly, revisiting and trying things a new way, the way its mechanics build in successive steps, fugue-like in its theme and variations, and the obtuseness of the puzzles themselves– the frustration when one gets stuck and the rush of the breakthrough when the way forward suddenly becomes clear. I recognize the longing for the spectral thing that may or may not exist, the employ and dead-end of pure science, the consuming need to somehow capture and regain an early magic that was lost. I recognize the triumph at the end when Tim resolves to build a castle out of “the moments he’s contemplated.” Braid is, of course, about the process of creation.

Reader Comments (13)

I did not enjoy Braid. Not in the slightest. However I did enjoy reading what you had to say about it. If that makes sense. Maybe you need to read it in reverse to understand it. *mystical profundity!* Or maybe not, lol!
September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBen Abraham
What? Good criticism? If this means less humor on your blog I'm not sure I'm ok with this.
September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBorut
Unlike Ben, I enjoyed Braid an awful lot. Similar to Ben, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. I think that these two enjoyments are intertwined because I spent a good deal of time thinking both about what Braid was supposed to mean and what it means to me personally.

For me, this has been a unique experience that few other games have brought me, which I think is the reason why I thought Braid was so masterfully composed.

Regardless, as I said, I really enjoyed reading this piece. Thanks!
September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRyan
I was always bothered by the seemingly universal assumption that Braid has one single meaning that we the players are all meant to discover. I can kind of see why people would be inclined to think this, after all the puzzles in Braid each have one single solution, so the metaphorical puzzle pieces written in Braid may also. Also Blow himself has said something to the effect of how "no one has figured it out yet," which strongly implies one authored meaning.

The problem I have with this is that any piece of art or literature that only has one meaning usually isn't very good. The fact that one painting can have countless meanings for every individual is what makes it art and not just a picture. I don't mean to diverge into a discussion over what defines "art," but I want to illustrate my concern.

If it does turn out that braid has exactly one specific meaning then my first reaction will probably be a partial loss of respect for Blow. Making a very surreal game with one meaning shows a lack of understanding of what the surreal style is about. I shouldn't pass judgment too soon though, Blow probably has some great reasons for whatever he meant to accomplish, so I shouldn't criticize him for hypothetical intentions. But I know for a fact I'm never going to find any one true meaning. I'm not interested in that.
September 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
I don't think you give Blow a fair shake. I understand that shortly after the game came out, he gave the impression that discovering the "true" meaning of the game was some sort of ultimate puzzle, but he later (in comments to Julian Murdoch's article at Gamers With Jobs) expressed regret both for some of his statements and for giving the impression that there was a single, definitive interpretation. You can follow the meta-story over at Critical Distance.
September 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErik Hanson
I really did enjoy the analysis of time and memory earlier in your post, though!
September 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErik Hanson
Thanks for pointing out that comment, Erik. I'm glad to learn that Blow does not view his work in the way that I described with concern in my post. Unfortunately, much of the gamer audience still seems to view it this way (I am thinking in particular of a tin-foil hat level crazy "FAQ" on GameFAQs that advances the notion that Tim is a nuclear scientist).
September 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew
Glad I could help, Matthew. You're of course right that many still think that the game does or should have one definitive meaning, but I'm not sure that's Blow's fault so much as it is a general missing of the Postmodern boat by a large part of the population.

Put plainly, I think that even if we went on a campaign around the world, telling everyone that the game doesn't have a definitive meaning and wasn't intended to have such a meaning, I suspect many would reply by saying that a lack of definitive meaning is "stupid." (Though a minority might think it was just part of the many levels of obfuscation in the game.)
September 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErik Hanson
What Jonathan Blow constructed is indeed a curious beast. I appreciate what he was attempting to tell, but I feel he's in need of a ghostwriter. It's actually a shame that more people don't eschew the text he presented as the definitive interpretation of the story, but it is, cryptic though it may be, a more direct approach to tackling the concepts the story presents. What kills it for many is the allusion to real-world events. It becomes hard to ignore a connection to reality when it's laid out for your audience to see. However, the concept of Tim as a nuclear physicist doesn't gel with my perception of the game's progression.

In fact, as I'm typing this, I realize that I have no interest whatsoever in Tim as an individual. It is his portrayal as a vessel of regret that drives me, the player, forward, and thus backward, attempting to uncover what has happened and where things went awry.

That said, my relationship with Braid is an uncertain one. I enjoyed the core.. experience, we'll call it, and exploring the intricacies of the worlds, but the epilogue itself left me questioning where I had just been.
September 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny Fowle
I agree, and I suspect that we're so used to getting a game's story in snippets in between levels that it's easy to focus undue attention on the text in Braid, when the levels themselves deserve just as much (if not more) close attention.
September 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew
Braid fascinates me; here is a game that actually bothers to make new mistakes. (Was it really a mistake on Braid's part to have the strict contrast of the text and the game, or a mistake on our part to see them as seperate? Maybe it's a statement, a mocking about how little we have dine in terms of contextualizing a given system of gameplay?)

Here is a game that is finally over Mario. (Yes, you can jump over pits. Whoop de-fucking do.)

Here is a game that is actually subtle, as opposed to being obviously subtle. (No more Soon To Be Final Bosses spouting CRYPTIC METAPHORS. Consider that you never fight your antagonist.)
September 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPi
I disagree, Pi, I think you do fight your antagonist, it's just that he takes the form of a nefarious game designer who likes to obscure the solution to puzzles behind obtuse rules and complex interactions. The whole time I spent playing Braid I felt like I was fighting Blow.

I wish I could appreciate the game for it's subtlety, I truly do, but it's like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa if Da Vinci was continually standing in your way and every time you moved your viewpoint he'd go stand in your way again. Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe it.
September 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBen Abraham
I've been following you blog for a while, and find it refreshing and fascinating to read. Though I have not played Braid (and i don't know if i want to, it sounds scarily close to some of my nightmares), I found this piece specifically good, and beautifully written. Thank you.
September 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMiro

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