Friday, April 17, 2009

Favorites.

Despite having played the game eight months ago, I seem to be unable to stop thinking about Braid. It was my favorite game last year. It is a 2D platformer, much like an old mario game. You play as Tim, who is trying to find the princess. The main difference between the way that this game and a classic platformer play is that you can manipulate time in various ways. Here's a trailer for Braid that highlights some of the gameplay:



What the trailer doesn't get across is that the focus of the game is on getting through the levels and collecting little puzzle peices through solving puzzles. These puzzles, as it turns out, often force your brain to do handstand pushups. The game is very frustrating, but the puzzles are never really unfair, so the satisfaction that you get from figuring out a real trickster more than makes up for the trouble.

I like puzzles and all, but the real reason that those in Braid are so good is that they are an example of gameplay contributing directly to the communication of meaning to the player. Most of the time, when a game tries to communicate meaning to a player in the way that non-interactive art does it ends up being nothing more than an afterthought. According to the usual way of thinking, whether you're playing a first person shooter or a role playing game, if you have a message you want to get across you can simply tack on some cutscenes and change the setting and you've got some real good communication of meaning. The problem with this is that the ideas presented to the player end up being hollow at best.

This game has been at the forefront of the continuing discussion of how to deal with the issue of presenting ideas to a player in a way that doesn't fail. Some people dismiss this issue in favor of concentrating purely on play. This argument has some merit, but I think that dismissing the potential of games to take on a broader range of roles is to deny exploration and creativity. I'm not cool with that.

There are at least two points of view within the group of designers that want to use games to create a "deeper" experience. One is that designers should abandon the idea of purposefully engineering their creations to convey a specific idea in the way almost all other media do. Instead, they propose that it is a better idea to design gamespaces in such a way as to create a sort of meaning generator. The player has more say in what they take from the game, and should therefore be more attached to the experience. Far Cry 2, an open-world game where you play as a mercenary wandering around Africa, tries this method of design, but remains some amount of authorial intent. No matter how you choose to play the game, the emergent narrative will be something fairly nihilistic and depressing.

The point of view that you find in Braid gives the player far less control over what the game means. The game is linear and has some clear and some not-so-clear ideas. Instead of avoiding the problem of getting a point across by saying "here's a system in which you can play around until your brain makes whatever you want," Braid displays a clear vision. One might think that a game that does these things would fall into the same trap of behaving like non-interactive media and falling flat.

Where the game stands out is in the fact that everything about the game pulls you in the same direction. Frustration, loss, ambition and obsession are what the game are all about. In most games, ideas like these would have to be presented through cinematics, dialogue, music, and visuals. In Braid, text, music and visuals all play a role, but they are secondary. Your interaction with the way that the game plays, in addition to how the gameplay interacts with the secondary modes of communication, is what will really warm your brain.

This was the first game to provoke a weird abstract emotional response from me in the way I assume a painting is supposed to. Not only that, but I experienced a range of emotions, from the soothing, forgiving first world to the frenetic lead-up to the final sequence. The ending of the game particularly affected me. Below is a video of the ending of the game. You won't get the full effect without actually playing it (and everthing that comes before it), but for the same reasons, you won't lose much if you end up playing it for yourself:



There was a time when I first played through this sequence where I had a "Oh shit the princess isn't going to pull through! Oh but she just barely did! How could I have doubted her?" moment. I got all introspective for a moment. Then you "beat" the level and play it backward to find out that you're this obsessed creeper that the princess is trying to escape from.

You could say that these themes are boring, standard stuff. I partially agree. If you like, you can believe one of the other interpretations. For example, there's the idea that Tim is one of those working on the Manhatten Project and the princess is The Bomb. However, I think that the point of the game is something more general and diffuse than what one might initially think. In any case, this game is a step in the right direction (for the games that choose to go in this particular direction) and gets me pumped.

2 comments:

Peter said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZHh9ckRC6M

Lucas said...

From the designer of this game: http://www.smh.com.au/news/articles/ethical-dilemmas/2007/09/19/1189881577195.html#

Seems like a sharp guy. Looks like an interesting game. Too bad they don't have a Mac version yet.