Supple Think: Spiel und Zeit

Spiel und Zeit

by Zen

Posted on Saturday, November 28, 2009
Labels: , , , , , , ,
A lot's already been said about Braid. Back when it was released everyone was in a froth about the limitless potential of indie gaming, or (again and again) about whether games were finally art yet, or about how it's a game for smart people and did I mention how much it appeals to me? It was an enormous flurry of New Games Journalism, one which served as a model for a lot of other releases that didn't have as much going on under the hood. I've honestly avoided writing about it, if only out of a desire to distance myself from the enormous reflex action. Call it my inauthentic moment of the day.

In case you missed it, Braid is an independent, download-only game on XBOX Live Arcade and, as of November 12, on the PlayStation Network (which serves to make this post timely on some level), made by Jonathan Blow, the guy who described World of Warcraft as "unethical" for many of the same reasons I previously complained about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The level artwork was done by David Hellman, who did the art for a comic called A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible, (a title which is an interesting inversion of one of Braid's core themes). It was a real nut-up-or-shut-up moment for Blow, who had been talking shit about the state of game development for some time without ever releasing a game of his own. I think he succeeded, and not just because Braid has an interesting story.

Many audacious things have been tried with video games over the years. Usually the developers responsible have eyes bigger than their stomachs, and resort to things like quick-time events (Mavis Beacon for idiots, as a dude once scoffed) that result in the simulation of a video game. I love playing Typing of the Dead as much as the next guy (this isn't an oblique jab--the game is a lot of fun), but it succeeds mostly on the merits of its exquisite perversion of the rail shooter genre. You can't say that you've made a game out of an everyday task like waking up and making coffee just because you played a video of it to someone who had to play Simon Says to keep the video going. This is why I have a hard time getting excited for such supposedly iconoclastic projects as Heavy Rain.

What I've wanted to see games do ever since I decided to be pretentious about them is make a point with the game itself. Games have had stories, music, and pictures that make points before, and they have certainly been art before, but very rarely does it all come together in a way that couldn't have happened as anything but a game. Most people, when pressed, will (rightly) cite Hideo Kojima and maybe a little Shigeru Miyamoto before shrugging it off as a pseudoproblem. I guess I think too much, but I'm still waiting for the medium to come to presence and establish itself as a part of our lives rather than as an escape from them. I was delighted to find that Jonathan Blow agrees:

You can go to a movie just as escapism--and be swept up by the visions and emotions, or whatever. Or you can attend a movie with a more expansionist mindset: you want to experience those same visions and emotions, but you're doing it to connect those things to the rest of your life, to bring them back; not to escape from the rest of your life. The goal is, maybe, to expand yourself into perhaps a greater, more experienced person. Even just a little bit.
Games can provide this kind of mental, emotional and spiritual expansion, and they can push it in a different direction than movies, or books, or music, or whatever.

[All Jonathan Blow quotes were taken from this interview at the MTV blog.]

Braid, for all its pretense and boisterous ambition, is the perfect example of how to provide this kind of expansion in a new and fascinating way.

There was a time when, for various reasons I'll try not to enumerate, we were willing to put up with a lot of grief from games. We were so happy to just be in control of what was happening on screen that we put up with all kinds of spiteful design to make it happen. There are still some rude dudes out there keeping it real (God bless you, Treasure), but as many will lament we've moved beyond that. There are so many games, so many worthy games to play, that most aficionados are unwilling to hammer away at a game anymore. Worse, the very idea of playing through a part of a game more than once has become a deal-breaker. When a modern-day game player has the idea in his head of what he wants done, he doesn't want to fuck around figuring out how to make it happen. It has to happen, like that. This instant gratification, what Blow calls "the Skinnerian reward most modern game design", has been a serious problem as games have tried to establish themselves as a serious medium of expression.

The game that blew everything wide open was Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. Not only was it an inspired revival of a celebrated and, in retrospect, probably painful franchise, but it introduced the idea that when the player had something go against his plan he could just rewind to before he screwed it up. It reminded me of cheating with save states in a Super Nintendo emulator, only it was built into the game itself and I was encouraged to go hog wild. Suddenly, we were all making tool-assisted game runs. If you've ever done anything like it, you know that the experience can be a little less than fulfilling.

What Braid does that is fairly mundane is give the player this absolute control. Every mistake, be it major or minor, can be reversed. Where Sands of Time let you cheat death by rewinding under certain conditions, Braid offers no genuine way to lose. "Rewind was going to be the basis of the game", writes Blow. "If rewind conflicted with some other element of the design, then I would throw away that other element--regardless of how traditionally necessary it was."

It iterates on this idea, presenting challenging and immensely creative puzzles around the theme of time control, but never strays from the constant of being able to undo your mistakes. What Braid does that is profound is explore the ramifications of this mode of interaction. As the game itself puts it:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: “I didn’t mean what I just said,” and she would say: “It’s okay, I understand,” and she would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser from the experience.

Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.

[Braid "Chapter 2: Time and Forgiveness" parts 4-6]

While presented in blocks of text between levels, the story of Braid is more than just a bit of writing hidden behind the fa├žade of gameplay. The two are not only intensely related, but they rely on each other to fully realize the game's argument. In playing the game, the player is not only controlling Tim on the screen but experiencing his (quest for) perfection firsthand.

Many games present brief windows of opportunity to catch secrets. Missable items, characters, story scenes, etc. are part of the structure of video games. An unexpected consequence of this behavior is that some players obsess over getting "the perfect save file", even to the point of arbitrary self-punishment. A friend of mine, while playing Final Fantasy Tactics, would reset if an opponent stole even a cheap and replacable item from him. The game never counts or keeps track of whether you've been robbed, but he didn't want a save file that had done anything but an optimal path.

In Chapter 3 of Braid we see the consequences of this behavior:

For a long time, he thought they had been cultivating the perfect relationship. He had been fiercely protective, reversing all his mistakes so they would not touch her. Likewise, keeping a tight rein on her own mistakes, she always pleased him.

But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.

Tim needed to be non-manipulable. He needed a hope of transcendence. He needed, sometimes, to be immune to the Princess’s caring touch.

Off in the distance, Tim saw a castle where the flags flutter even when the wind has expired, and the bread in the kitchen is always warm. A little bit of magic.

[Braid, Chapter 3: "Time and Mystery" parts 2-5]

The message, as I take it, of Braid's storyline is that a quest for perfection, for the "thought in the mind of God", the pursuit of an ideal that makes no mistakes, is fundamentally missing the point. The world and one's life are more about mistakes than successes, more about flaws than perfection. By pursuing those areas of science that "follow the rules", one is forcing science to be what one expects of it, forcing the Princess to please you "perfectly". At the same time, one is penned in by these expectations.

This has, of course, been said before. While in my opinion quite well written, the words and story of Braid are only a part of its message.

Through its time control mechanics, Braid the game has the player make the same decisions as the character in Braid the story. All the trappings of gameplay serve to reinforce the idea of escape, of trying to attain an ideal, of trying to protect everybody all the time and maximize the result of every action. Much like with Shadow of the Colossus, the player's complicity in the game's events serves a greater role than any cutscene or passage of text. The final level of Braid uses the current of its gameplay to accomplish the single most poignantly expressed storytelling I have ever experienced.

While surely unintended, a part of Braid's tale that alludes to the Manhattan Project reminded me of this bit from Simulacra and Simulation:

...the real danger nuclear power stations pose: not lack of security, pollution, explosion, but a system of maximum security that radiates around them, the protective zone of control and deterrence that extends, slowly but surely, over the territory--a technical, ecological, economic, geopolitical glacis. What does the nuclear matter? The station is a matrix in which an absolute model of security is elaborated, which will encompass the whole social field, and which is fundamentally a model of deterrence (it is the same one that controls us globally under the sign of peaceful coexistence and of the simulation of atomic danger).

[Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, "The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence", p. 61]

Here, too, we see a perfect system of coexistence. Here, too, we see "absolute security", an encompassing of "the whole social field". This dance of repetition until perfection is achieved, this absolute terror of impermanence, of failing to maximize on the immediate opportunity, is one of the most dangerous tendencies of our age. We have a hard time remembering that we usually don't understand an event until we reflect on it, and that our quests to save princesses may not always be advisable, or even welcome.

The risk of nuclear annihilation only serves as a pretext, through the sophistication of weapons (a sophistication that surpasses any possible objective to such an extent that it is itself a symptom of nullity), for installing a universal security system, a universal lockup and control system whose deterrent effect is not at all aimed at an atomic clash (which was never in question, except without a doubt in the very initial stages of the cold war, when one still confused the nuclear apparatus with conventional war) but, rather, at the much greater probability of any real event, of anything that would be an event in the general system and upset its balance. The balance of terror is the terror of balance.

There lies the true nuclear fallout: the meticulous operation of technology serves as a model for the meticulous operation of the social. Here as well, nothing will be left to chance, moreover this is the essence of socialization, which began centuries ago, but which has now entered its accelerated phase, toward a limit that one believed would be explosive (revolution), but which for the moment is translated by an inverse, implosive, irreversible process: the generalized deterrence of chance, of accident, of transversality, of finality, of contradiction, rupture, or complexity in a sociality illuminated by the norm, doomed to the descriptive transparency of mechanisms of information.

[Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, "The Precession of Simulacra", pp. 33, 34-35]

Even after the game's final moments (which I will not spoil) there are meaningful surprises to be had. Like most games nowadays, there is a post-game quest for secrets. A constellation appearing on the hub level can be fleshed out by finding hidden stars throughout the game's other levels, and completing it gets you... absolutely nothing. The requirements for getting them are unreasonable, and I'm inclined to believe Blow put them there to make a point about how much the completionist's attitude prevents us from enjoying or even experiencing games (and life) anymore. In a time when completionists are pandered to, where "Achievement Points" are sought after as ends in themselves, we see how the technological mode of being has affected us here. Tim's pursuit of the perfection of science, of "a principle of objectivity of which science is never certain, of which it secretly despairs" [Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, "The Animals: Territory and Metamorphoses", p. 129], is the same as the player's pursuit of that perfect play-through.

Braid, like any game, can't possibly be for everyone. Nevertheless, I strongly urge everyone who reads this to at least give it a go. It's a spectacular achievement, one that speaks on a personal level and has the ability to mean something to you in your life instead of just pulling you out of it for a few hours. I've thrown down some thoughts here, but there's more in the game than I could ever write technically about, more than I have any right to enumerate for you. As Blow put it, "The story of rescuing the Princess has a literal interpretation, as well as a metaphorical one; and then there are other small-scale levels of change to the interpretation, too. I don't intend for any of them to be the sole truth; the story I am trying to tell is something like the quantum superposition of all these things."

That statement, like Braid itself, is for me about the nature of truth as aletheia, as a phenomenological pulling-back of the curtain on beings in the world rather than a technical attempt to freeze them in time. Please discover and let me know what they mean for you.
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