(Excerpt from a comic by David Hellman and Dale Beran, from the incredible A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible. Hellman is artist for Braid. That’s why I posted this.)
Yesterday GameSetWatch posted a write-up of Jonathan Blow’s talk at the Develop Conference in Brighton, UK. It’s a great read. Among other things, he talks about the problem of games where the story and the actual gameplay conflict with each other, instead of working together. “”We are a young medium because we’ve yet to come to understand this.”
- BioShock: there’s a ‘Little Sister problem’ in altruism versus balance. Blow noted that there’s only a marginal difference in the rewards you receive, no matter whether you choose to rescue or kill the Little Sisters. The game mechanics are telling you that it doesn’t matter which way you choose. So effectively, the game says that the Little Sister doesn’t matter, while the plot says that it does matter.” He suggested that “…this is disingenuous [and] robs the game of its emotional impact and potential.”
- Grand Theft Auto IV: Blow commented that girlfriends (and boyfriends) all have ‘benefits’ for befriending them. However, one character does not – Kate. The game rules tell you that you have no future with Kate (as she gives you no gameplay benefit) but, in the plot, the writers make Kate a romantic interest – a person pivotal to the story. So the game designer is saying ‘don’t care about this person’, but the game scriptwriter is saying ‘do care about this person.’
These examples aren’t deal-breakers in either game. A lot of BioShock fans enjoyed thinking and talking about the little sister dilemma, even though it had little impact beyond which ending you got to see. But I agree with Blow: the game would have been more engaging if the choice had mattered – and by the way, don’t forget that those final cutscenes were crap.
So what game solves this problem? Well, I don’t see anything in this write-up about Blow tooting his own horn, but his new game Braid - due out on XBox Live Arcade this week – is up for the challenge. He uses the text to add meaning and consequence to the gameplay.
As you play Braid, you can manipulate time in a number of different ways – to undo your mistakes, to slow down the action in a limited space, or to watch a ghostly version of yourself retrace your own steps while you go off and try a new course. The text gives this resonance, by telling a story about a boy who lost a girl and wants her back – but who also has had a lot of other experiences in his past that he’s trying to relive, or reshape, or just can’t remember so clearly anymore.
The text makes you realize that this isn’t a game about time, it’s a game about memory – and how much we like to run around changing our own, in the hopes that’ll change who we are and how often we’ve screwed up in our lives.
Okay, but does that make it a better game? And how well does Blow wed the text and the gameplay, anyway? Per Blow’s citations, Braid‘s like a mash-up of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. If that sounds like an odd combo, it is. I spent much of the gameplay just focused on solving all the ingenious, awesome puzzles that were gating me from the final sequence of the game. Once I got ‘em all, I went back to reread the pieces of text that introduce each level – so my attention was finally really shifting to the story, but even then, the story doesn’t really click until you finish the end-game. At that point, the whole thing about memory and Princesses and not really liking yourself goes absolutely hand-in-hand with fast-paced platforming gameplay, and the result is pretty fantastic.
And yet, even after you “beat” the game there’s more text – so, all of a sudden, you’ve gone from putting all your attention into jumping around solving puzzles, to moving around puzzling together the narrative and its meanings. I’ve been reading Invisible Cities this weekend, and if you’re a Braid nut I highly recommend it, as the influence on Blow’s ideas is pretty clear. But I am experiencing the game now in a very different way than I was a week ago. Blow tells the story well through the game, but he’s clearly made the decision that you’re going to have to ponder all his ideas on your own time. I hear a lot of novelists do that, too.
Anyway, these are all notes by way of finishing my review, which I’ll file tomorrow and should be up on the AV Club a week from Monday. In my 400 words I spend a lot more time talking about this kind of stuff, and not so much highlighting just how fun, and satisfying, and well-designed the game is – how really nothing is wasted, how every puzzle is awesome in a different way, how great the music and art are. Like, never mind that we’re trying to namecheck Calvino here – the game is really, really fun!
(By the way, I’ve asked before if game critics should be able to cheat – but in the case of Braid, even though I was tempted several times, nobody’s posted any hints. The fact that I had enough time with a preview to do it all myself, and no way to cheat myself out of the pleasure of nailing one of these head-spinners all on my own, probably made me enjoy the game a hell of a lot more.)
UPDATE: My review at the Onion is now live.