Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The biggest little game ever

I was tempted to postpone Braid again to discuss the academy's crime against batman, and yet again to discuss Y: The Last Man. From there I would make a running gag of it, habitually ignoring the easily ignored little game which I have been imploring everyone not to ignore. It was a hard idea to turn down, since it was A) thoroughly ironic and B) had the potential to generate an awesome sort of reverse hype that might have compelled curious readers to look up the game themselves. But delays have grown familiar enough on Sarcasmancy in light of recent commitments such as loosing the fight against my WoW addiction and contributing to my anthropology's class blog. All those interested in cyberculture should check it out. Lots of smart young people saying smart young stuff. Now on to the entree.

I don't really remember when I first heard about Braid. For an independent game, it drew lots of pre-release buzz, and while it never really grew into a full blown phenomenon, it consistently made headlines in the gaming industry. In critical and journalistic circles, it garnered some of the most interesting, refreshing commentary I've ever read about a video game. It was positive sure, but hyperbole is the grammar of gaming journalism. What really caught my eye was that reviewers were talking about Braid's implications as a work of art. Jason Roher's comment from Arthouse Games preview in particular really stuck with me: "Braid has the potential to change the way you think about reality. It will certainly change the way you think about video games."

Now I'm not gonna argue that every game should strive to alter our perception of reality. Entertainment is gaming's reason de etra and sometimes simply blowing shit up, stompin' some goombas or dealing with an endless deluge of blocks is more entertaining than a mind bending masterpiece. Still, the staggering potential of video games; the ability to live out the “What if” science fiction questions, is what allows the video game to transcend their status as a simple platform for escapism and instead broadens our perception of reality. This dialectic between the 'reality escaping' and 'reality enhancing' is especially interested when compared to fiction, and recent distinctions being made between casual gamers and hardcore gamers.

As is customary for the English Major, I'm going to fall back on Shakespeare to explain my point. Contrary to popular belief, writer types do not celebrate The Bard for his timeless plots, which were all stolen from earlier storytellers, but rather the way he told them. That's right, the language that confounds frustrates and frightens most casual readers is the writer's aphrodisiac. It's harder to decipher, and requires a greater familiarity with the mechanics of language, much like Portal requires more experience with moving through a simulated avatar through a simulated environment than a game like Tetris does. If you don't believe me, watch somebody who doesn't play video games regularly try to walk around and work the camera in a 3D game. Bring popcorn. Part of the reason hardcore gamers feel Portal is superior to Tetris is because they appreciate the complexity of the game’s mechanics. Most casual gamers prefer Tetris because they can understand it, just like casual readers prefer the easy to read Twilight to Shakespeare. That's right, Twilight is to literature as Tetris is to videogames.

According to this structural comparison, Braid is a lot like Hemmingway minus the chauvinism and alcohol: It uses a familiar easy-to-read vocabulary to create an experience that will challenge readers’ intellect and patience. If they see it through to the end, they will be rewarded with that kind of yawning comprehension which is as unsettling as it is satisfying. In this case, the familiar vocabulary is platforming and time travel. The two-dimensional platformer is probably the most accessible representation of a virtual world which is why Mario was so important: it gave gaming something to stand on (Hahaha! Platform! Something to stand on! Do you get it? …oh go to hell, it’s funny!). Overhead games are also fairly straightforward, but non-gamers are frequently confused about where they are supposed to go. The single axis of interaction makes progressing intuitive and it also gives the game an inherent narrative quality. Time traveling in videogames got really popular with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but it’s really as old as the concept of extra lives. Resurrecting to try the same level again is conceptually identical to the plot of Groundhog Day. Every time you die and comeback, your Bill Murray Proxy does a little better based on the mistakes you made earlier. Hopefully, anyway. Sometimes you just throw yourself in a bath tub with a toaster.

Braid returns to the temporal basis for these trial and error systems, and pushes them further by tweaking with the stuff we take for granted. For example, what if certain objects were immune to time travel, so that you could jump to your death to obtain them, and rewind back to life with them still in your possession? Or what if time rewound different obstacles and enemies at different rates? The puzzles derived from such concepts are daunting to say the least, but they are even more incredible after they’ve been solved. The mind can’t help but boggle at their craftsmanship. Braid has set a new bar for both puzzle games and level design. Even Portal’s magnificent trials are humbled by this 2D titan’s offerings. Yeah, really. Because unlike the portal gun, which is modified only once throughout the game, Braid introduces new quirks to every group of levels. There’s one world where the flow of time switches according to whether your character walks backwards or forwards.

Not everybody would agree. In addition to the praise it garnered, Braid made news last year when mainstream gamers cried foul over its $15 price tag feeling it was an inexcusable departure from the typical $8 they had come to accustom to paying for XBLA titles. Holkins and Krahulik tackled the subject back when it was topical, with the cynical wit I try so hard to emulate. People complained that the game was too short, but for a game where rewinding is a near constant practice, it has a surprising amount of replay value and variety. You can complete it fairly quickly, but its quality is certainly just compensation. The lighthearted watercolor graphics won’t win any technical awards, but their simple aesthetic pairs perfectly the game’s surprisingly solemn story. As for the audio, the music is appealing when heard frontwards or backwards (a fairly crucial but easily to overlook touch), and the amusing sound effects are themselves homages to a time when arcade games where defined by their beeps and boops.

Really, I suspect that this negative, undervalued reaction stems from people who ripped the puzzle solutions from the net at the first sign of trouble. For a leisure activity that usually consists of a hand-eye coordination coma, genuine intellectual challenge can be a bit jarring. Some simply won’t stomach it. They don’t want to play games to broaden their horizons or better themselves, but to have some fun and relax. I can sympathize to a certain extent. Much of the entertainment I find most relaxing requires very little intellectual legwork, and where promise of self improvement is concerned, most of Nintendo’s recent offerings, (which resemble digital training regimes than actual games), hold little appeal for me. For others, I suspect it was an image thing. Many hardcore gamers are deeply offended by the recent trend of simplifying game play in the interest of appealing to a broader audience is not just unappetizing but offensive. The irony of course, is that the hardcore gamer sold as a rebellious liberal persona, has become an entrenched conservative, afraid to accept change. Prose, music, film, comic-books and television have all seen similar arguments and tiresome as the bickering is, I can’t help but be excited by it, as it seems to acknowledge the narrative potential games have achieved. At least in my humble, but ardent opinion.

It's a debate which has been brewing for a long time. Roger Ebert famously drew the ire of every serious gamer on the planet when he declared that games were an inherently lower art form than literature and film years ago. He noted that those who created videogames had to surrender some degree of creative control to their audience; a structural quality he argued was antithetical to the craftsmanship of narrative in film and literature. Of course, Ebert does not play games and those that do had little difficulty pointing out the falsehoods and idiocy of his declaration. Considering all the creative effort that went into crafting Braid’s puzzles and weaving its narrative into a perfect circle, there is no question that gaming can produce experiences as thoroughly crafted and moving as any other narrative format, if not more so. Admittedly, the inherent vision structure of the video game’s structure does pose some questions. For example, can the way we play a game make it higher or lower art? Those are questions for another day, though I believe it will arrive very soon.

Those of you sick of videogames will be relieved to know that other subjects, like those mentioned at the top of the post, are coming up next. No promises as to when though, I’ve learned my lesson.

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