Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Hated the 2008 Game of the Year

Last year a small title made it's way onto the Xbox Live marketplace. This small indie game named 'Braid' was developed by Jonathan Blow, a new pioneer in the games-as-art movement. The story behind the making of Braid is a tale all it's own. Blow worked on the game for three years by himself and funded the entire project with his own money. Jonathan Blow is of the new school of game design. From Wikipedia:

In a speech at the Free Play conference in Australia in September 2007, Blow suggested games were approaching the level of societal influence of other forms of art, such as films and novels. One example that Blow cites is World of Warcraft, which he labels "unethical", stating that such games exploit players by using a simple reward-for-suffering scheme to keep them in front of their computer. In his view, developers need to think about what reinforcement the games are providing players when they reward them for performing certain actions. He emphasized that there was a need for developers to design inspiring new games using "innovative, ethical and personal art.
When Braid was released last year it instantly won over nearly every game critic out there. It also found great success with gamers, becoming one of the most downloaded titles through the Xbox marketplace. It eventually won the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences "Casual Game of the Year". Everyone loved it.

Not me. I pretty much fucking hated it. As you're probably aware if you read this blog I'm a bit of a proponent of games-as-art. Braid was the game that was supposed to cross that magical barrier into art land and make Mr. Blow and all the other gamers feel that their medium had finally reached that magical realm of 'art' next to sculpture and cinema. But I would beg to differ. I thought the story was poorly written, difficult to decipher, and the game itself was just too difficult to derive any meaning from it. There were many opportunities for Blow to be more open with his narrative by giving the player an understandable and meaningful story, but it seems that at each opportunity to do so he purposefully hides the narrative through an obnoxious and pretentious writing style that only further obfuscates its intention. Why did Blow make this game and write this story if he didn't want anyone to see it? I think he might as well have just written the story in his diary if that's the case.

An annoying aspect about Braid is what's occured outside of the game itself. Because it's received such critical praise, because of the "Indie developer makes it big" story of its creation, and because of Blow's stature as an "Indie darling" most people seem hesitant to critique it. Critics think it's great because it has some sort of "mature" story and gamers think it's neat because it references older games such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, but for all I care Jonathan Blow can just go... blow himself (ok, that one was too easy).

At it's core Braid is a platformer, like Super Mario Bros. You play the character 'Tim'. The one difference is that you have the ability to manipulate time, by pressing a button you can rewind everything in the game world, like hitting the rewind button on a VCR where you get to see everything happen in reverse. This is also where the game derives its story. Tim is looking for 'The Princess', and there's a story told through books at the beginning of each world describing Tim's journey. Each level is basically a puzzle where you're trying to obtain a hard to reach jigsaw puzzle piece to complete a puzzle which reveals some aspect about the story and allows you to move on to the next world. These puzzles become increasingly difficult as you progress. By halfway through the game they're Grade-A Mensa level difficult. I'll admit, the puzzles can be fun and there's a nice rewarding feeling when you get when all of a sudden a puzzle 'clicks' in your head and you're able to solve it. It's akin to figuring out that really tough crossword clue.

This would be fine, but there's many problems. First off, the puzzles can be excrutiatingly hard. I stared at some for hours trying to figure them out. I think Blow went a little overboard with some of them. He's also quite adamant that the player figure out the puzzle with no help. On the official walkthrough there's basically no walkthrough. Blow only says "Figure it out for yourself". Like I said though, the later puzzles are really, really tough. I'll admit watching a few Youtube videos for some of the answers.

What's worse though is that some of the puzzles are just finicky as hell. For example, one puzzle piece is tucked away up high. If you jump off of a ledge there's a cloud that looks like you should be able to land on it and make your way over to the puzzle piece. I tried jumping from this ledge multiple times but was always just a little too far away from the cloud to land on it. I thought, "Well it would be too easy if all I had to do was jump on the cloud to get the piece", I mean, that's not really much of a puzzle. So I tried for hours to find some other method to get that puzzle piece. Finally I gave up and went to Youtube... only to discover that I was right all along, it's just that the game demanded you be standing on the very last pixel of the ledge in order to land on the cloud. Oh come on! That's not a puzzle, that's just overly demanding game design.

Hey it looks like Donkey Kong, it must be brilliant!

But that's not the worst aspect of the game. The worst part is the story. Critics said it was a mature story that really made you think. The story, told through the books, is written in this completely obnoxious prose that sounds like it came out of a high school writing class. Yes, it's trying to be deep, but it comes off as pretentous. Here's a typical passage:

“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.”

And it doesn't get any better. After completing the game I still have no idea what the game was about. Was the Princess even a real person, or did she just represent some sort of ideal? The problem is that Blow leaves the story so open to interpretation that it ceases to have any real inherent meaning. There's really no concrete aspect of the story that you can point to and say "This is what I think the story is about." Is it about the loss of a relationship? Is it about the perils of nuclear weapons? Is it about the loss of innocence? Is it a commentary on the state of the medium? Only Jonathan Blow knows.

There's an interesting disussion over at The Brainy Gamer between the writer of that blog and another about the meaning of Braid. I have to say, I was delighted when I read Mr. Brainy Gamer's response where he too wasn't the biggest fan, and he's a much better writer than I. Check out what he says. Braid comes to the PC on March 31st.
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Well blogging friends, I'm off to Reno to celebrate my 30th birthday with a bunch of friends (LE was too cool for school to come). When I get back on Sunday I'll be 30, so you'll no longer be able to trust me, as I'll now be part of 'The Man' trying to keep those young rapscallions 'down'. If you want to join the party we'll be at the El Dorado in the Player's Spa Suite (sounds awesome, eh?).

5 comments:

yoggoth said...

Great review. I haven't played Braid. I read article after article describing Blow's dedication to games-as-art, so I was really curious how he proposed to expand the genre. Oddly, none of the articles mentioned the mechanics of the game. When I finally read that Braid was a standard platformer with a rewind feature I was extremely disappointed.

For you non-gamers, rewind features were all the rage a few years ago, with mainstream franchises like Prince of Persia touting their inclusion. They work exactly how they sound, you press a button and rewind to where you were moments ago in the game world. What's so amazing about that?

The most interesting part of the games-as-art debates is dealing with game mechanics. Story and graphics are already recognized as art in other forms so there isn't much to deal with there. But game mechanics, the elicitation of fun, is the interesting part. So please, if you want to be recognized as some great game artist bring me something more than rewinding.

yoggoth said...

Also-

Happy Birthday Herr Zrbo! I've got a year and a few months till my 30th but I won't hold it against you. Your presence on the blog is much appreciated and has exceeded our wildest expectations. I'm not much of a gambler, but here's a toast in absentia!

Little Earl said...

Kick out the footlights old buddy. Sorry I don't make enough money to be able to go to Reno and gamble away my income.

Anyway, thanks for confirming that video games still aren't art so that I can just keep saying they aren't art without actually putting in any effort to learn about contemporary video games myself. However, although I didn't like the 208 Game of the Year either, I was also seriously disappointed with Septemius Severus' repairs of the Antonine Wall, and Cao Cao's surprisingly derivative Duan Ge Xing.

Herr Zrbo said...

The rewind mechanic is implemented well because the game adds new twists to the gameplay as you progress. Later puzzles start having things that aren't affected by time, so even if you rewind they'll still move around like nothing happened. Trust me, it's more than just the Prince of Persia "Oh I fell down the pit, better rewind" trick.

Andrew said...

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Thank you very much...
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Andrew
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