This past week, I’ve been playing one of the most critically acclaimed game of all time–Jonathan Blow’s Braid, an indie game with gorgeous aesthetics and a compellingly unconventional plot. I will confess my ignorance of this game until now: it was only the recent Atlantic Monthly article on Blow’s newest project, the forthcoming Witness, that introduced me to Braid. My reading of this article coincided with an interesting conversation with a colleague about hypertext fiction: he maintained that works such as Victory Garden (Stuart Mouthrop) and Patchwork Girl (Shelly Jackson) had staying power; I claimed that they were overly-theorized intellectual parlor tricks that few people still read outside of the academy. Hypertext fiction, as I argued in my dissertation, is finally a frustrating experience for the reader and decidedly not the best narrative use of the new digital media.
Braid, on the other hand, is close. It includes traditional narrative devices: linear textual pieces that reveal a broken relationship between Tim, the protagonist of the story, and the Princess, whom he must rescue. As fiction, these bits and pieces are a little overwritten, but they are much, much better than the typically unbearable “plot” sequences interjected between levels on most video games. You know–the parts you skip. At the same time, Braid offers some really cool puzzles that Tim must figure out if he is to get his girl back. Each world presents Tim with a series of puzzles–he solves them by reclaiming puzzle pieces from diabolic traps, and then reassembling the puzzle pieces into a larger image. The interesting part is that Tim can reverse time to help him solve the puzzles. The game flows backwards; Tim gets another chance at the puzzle. Blow is clearly playing around with the idea of narrative linearity, but doing so in a way that makes more sense than hypertext. After all, what do we do when a relationship ends? Relive it again and again, stuck in perpetual rewind.
The artistry is amazing–the backdrops have the feel of breathing paintings. Created by David Hellman, these tapestry of light and color explode the medium. Game developers usually give us grey dungeons, but not here. The explicit goal of most new video games is realism: the more realistic, the better. Hellman and Blow challenge this idea that the entire gaming industry seems to have bought into. There is also a classical score accompanying the gameplay–no more mind-numbing, repetitive soundtrack. It makes me excited to think what Witness might be like. For now, the good news is that Braid is only $3.99 at the Apple store.
Braid is a really cool combination of story telling and game playing–well worth your time. It might also be worth talking about in a literature class.