And How Its Plot is All Shoehorney
By: Joe

Braid is a good game. I think a lot of people know this already so they don't really need to hear me reiterate it. So, instead, I'm going to talk more about the plot because this is one of those games that is getting cited as an example of "video games as art" and the plot tends to be one of the reasons this claim gets made. Personally, however, I think the plot largely falls on the not-very-good side of things.

At its most basic, I think Braid's plot is fantastic. By this, I am referring to the plot of a little guy in a suit who runs through levels that may or may not be depictions of his actual reality in the pursuit of a princess who may or may not actually be a princess. The game's main mechanic, the ability to manipulate the flow of time, is very well utilized and built upon throughout the game and, at the climax, leads to an awesomely executed plot twist, the likes of which I really can't think of any comparison to (at least within the medium of video games). The problem is that Jonathan Blow, the creator with the easily abusable last name, wasn't content to just leave it at that.

Aside from any narrative one might glean through Braid's gameplay, the only other aspect of the game that resembles a storyline is found in the rooms full of books sat on pedestals that precede each level. In these rooms, as you pass by each book, it opens and a fat chunk of text appears on the screen. I have a problem with this because people cite the story told within these books as interesting and unique and beautiful and so forth and, while I'm not saying that it's badly written (because it isn't) or that it's not a decidedly unconventional story for a video game (it is), I do think that it is poorly presented.

The fact of the matter is that I am still playing a game and when I'm playing a game I expect to be doing stuff, i.e. hitting buttons to make things occur on the screen. Compound this with a story that is intentionally vague with few especially obvious connections from one section to the next and I know that I personally, though I did read what was contained in each and every book, had a tendency to read the text quickly, think "Um, okay..." and then enter the level so I could get back into the game proper. I would venture to guess quite a few players skipped over these portions of text entirely and, to the game's credit, you certainly aren't forced to wade through it all and can just run through each book room, ignoring the text popping up, and start the level. In support of how frivolous I feel all of this text-based exposition to be, the kick-ass twist ending that I mentioned before manages its kick-assity entirely without the addition of what's said in all of the books. I retained next to nothing from all of that reading I did and believe I can safely say that a person who elects to simply skip it all will be able to get just as much satisfaction from the game's climax as I did.

Now, I'm not saying that text and exposition (or textposition) have no place in video games ever, but I do think a game needs to incorporate it properly for it to work well. For example, one of my favorite game series (and also one of the only video game series that has managed to maintain a decent storyline throughout) is Phoenix Wright. The games in this series are examples of Japanese productions that are so text-heavy they should arguably be referred to as interactive novels of some kind, rather than video games. The crucial detail is that Phoenix Wright establishes itself at the outset as this sort of game. The text isn't just dropped into the middle of the gameplay sporadically. Rather, nearly constant exposition and dialogue are the game. If you cut out the text in a Phoenix Wright game, you'd be left with aimless button pressing and a totally confused player. Contrastingly, remove the text in Braid and the game remains thoroughly playable.

Some of my other favorite games are the Lucasarts' adventures of yesteryear. These, too, are chock full of exposition and engaging in conversation with a character will often lead to several minutes worth of dialogue. Not that there weren't times some of these titles went a bit overboard (The Curse of Monkey Island can get pretty damn chatty at times), but, again, throwing a ton of dialogue at you is really just part of the gameplay and, very often, essential to progressing the story. If you're someone who's into adventure games, you understand that conversing with other characters is part and parcel to the experience and you even probably enjoy it (unless you're playing Broken Sword because, come on now, there are limits). These are games in which I would argue that the exposition builds upon the gameplay. Actually, it's more than that; the exposition is one piece of the gameplay whole.

Braid falls more (but nowhere near as heavily) on the side of the woefully misguided Metal Gear Solid series in that the storytelling feels like something altogether separate from its gameplay. When the two don't compliment each other well, they feel much like two unrelated entities and the player is probably much more likely to favor the gameplay, finding the story less and less interesting the more frequently it chooses to interrupt, until it begins to feel like nothing but a hindrance barring the player from getting back to the meat of the thing. Again, Metal Gear is far, far more guilty of this than Braid. Braid's story and its gameplay barely interact while Metal Gear's plot is not entirely unimportant to its gameplay, but is horribly implemented (e.g., two green heads on a black background yammering away for minutes at a time as the score swells - something that is evidently meant to have substantial dramatic heft). Basically, Braid's text dumps are inconsequential to the core game, while Metal Gear's narrative diarrhea actually detracts from its overall experience. Certainly Braid is less at fault here, but, all the same, in both cases, the story is poorly (or barely) integrated into the gameplay.

There's a rule in filmmaking that, of course, is in no way the be all, end all of how to make great cinema, but which I largely agree with and it is "show, don't tell." In other words, since you're dealing with a visual medium, you should make use of its benefits, progressing the narrative and developing your characters by showcasing action rather than having someone blabbing about their motivations or what they're going to do next. Therefore in a game, seeing as though it's an interactive medium and all, I believe the rule should be "play, don't show or tell." One game that did this especially well was Half-Life, which is a game that, as far as I can recall, at no point did not provide the player with at least some level of control. Yes, the story was rather simple, but so what? It was still immersive in a way few other games have managed. Another game that did a lot -- establishing a mood and providing the sense of experiencing an adventure -- with really only the bare bones of a plot was Shadow of the Colossus. In terms of story quantity, these games are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Phoenix Wright and the Lucasarts' adventures that I brought up previously (and if I were try and pick something that falls around the middle, I'd maybe go with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), but what is important is the manner in which their stories are implemented. They're done in a way that compliments the gameplay that Metal Gear and Braid don't really achieve. I want to feel like I am playing through the story, not being interrupted by it and I think Braid's text dumpery, in what is otherwise a puzzle-platformer, is little more than a distraction.

I want to reiterate that, if the text is ignored altogether, I do believe Braid functions as one of these sparse, yet solid, narratives that culminates in a brilliantly executed twist ending. Now, I've seen some people argue (on the Internet, because that's what it's for) that Braid's storyline is essentially whatever you wish for it to be. So, yes, technically, I suppose I can pretend as though the text just isn't there and enjoy the story at its most basic level, but the problem is that, well, the text is there, isn't it? And, on top of which, something about it, best exemplified in the game's epilogue, has a very "look at me" attitude to it. The epilogue comes after the twist ending and is a tiny level unto itself in which you run around reading books (some of which require a bit of puzzle-solving before you can get to their contents). The fact that the epilogue is the last thing you reach in the game implies that this is sort of your reward for finishing it -- probably something of a letdown or, at least anticlimactic, to those people who put little to no stock in the written portion of the narrative. However, my biggest issue is with all this atom bomb nonsense.


A few of the pieces of text you find in the epilogue seem to make reference to the Manhattan Project. This, coupled with an alternative ending (obtainable only by being a masochist as well as one of the game's designers) featuring a 'splosion has given credence to the possibility that the lead character, Tim, is actually a bomb engineer and that the "princess" is actually the atom bomb or some crapola. Now, this is the thing: I've seen people comment that it would be foolish to accept this idea as Braid's plot and be done with it. Again, the basic argument, if I'm understanding correctly, is that the bomb scenario is just one of a nigh-infinite number of possible stand-ins for the meaning of Braid's story. In other words, Braid is simply a blanket metaphor for the concept of the pursuit of anything that, uh, shouldn't be or doesn't want to be, um, pursought. Or something like that. But, I'm sorry, this atom bomb junk still feels cheap to me and here's why.

It's a simple fact of fiction or, hell, even non-fiction really, that one can apply any reading they so desire to a text. You're free to read Sherlock Holmes' mysteries as the adventures of two closeted homosexual lovers and Harry Potter as some kind of maleficent anti-Bible; you could even say that The Wizard of Oz is about a magical donkey on a quest for friendship (I think you'd be hard pressed to find evidence supporting this reading, but you're welcome to it all the same). So, yes, Braid's story may allow for multiple interpretations, but that's really not a unique feature and also sort of just boils down to it having an extremely vague, obtuse storyline. Furthermore, there's the cheap aspect, which comes from the whole atom bomb thing.

Okay, yes, I don't have to accept the bomb as the ultimate explanation of the game's plot, but that it's brought into the game at all means that players (those who read that stuff anyway) are bound to make some connections between the game and the Manhattan Project. Truly, if interpreting Braid was to be a more perfectly open-ended prospect, leaving out the bomb (as well as the majority or all of the text) would have served this purpose far more appropriately. So while I don't have to consider the A-bomb as part of the Braid plot, having read the epilogue text I'm almost certainly going to and the reason this seems so cheap to me is that it's an unfair way to try and prescribe a bit more pertinence to the game that it didn't really need anyway. By tenuously tying the game's events to a massively world-changing occurrence, it seems like it's trying to feebly insist that it's actually very important and, in doing so, it instead comes off as a little silly. Added to this is that all this bomb garbage shows up in the game's absolute final moments, which makes it seem all the more a shoehorned-in afterthought (much like the text dumps themselves). It's a cry to be taken more seriously that it hasn't made a case to deserve. It would be like if I wrote a novel about a guy in pursuit of some mayonnaise for his sandwich and on the very last page, in the last line I wrote "This story was about the Holocaust... Or was it??"

Modern lyricist Soulja Boy Tell 'Em provides us with his own unique interpretation of Braid.

So is Braid art? Sure, why not? It's not like you can refer to a specific definition of art to compare it against so if you think it's art, that's great. For me, I suppose my deeming something art comes down to whether or not I'm caught up in a story, or even just an experience. I think Phoenix Wright is art because I actually care about the characters. I consider Katamari Damacy art because it's like pure fun and happiness captured in a virtual medium. I think Shadow of the Colossus is art because it got me to feel bad for a goddamned CG-horse. I'd even call Resident Evil 4 art because it made me feel like the star of my own action-horror B-movie.

However, Braid, though a very pretty and fun game, in my mind largely comes down to a series of frustrating-as-hell puzzles. Aspects of it certainly astounded me and captured my imagination and, just once more, I can't stress enough the coolness of that twist ending, but, beyond that, it's just a series of hard-ass puzzles. I'm not saying I don't like to be challenged, but, well, something about staring at the same screen for minutes at a time wondering what the hell to do just doesn't give me a sense of immersion. It just makes me think "Wow, this is a challenging puzzle game."

I highly recommend Braid. I think it's a game that provides a fairly unique experience and is well worth playing. But it also happens to be saddled with a poorly-implemented, text-based story that wants to be far more important than it deserves and that is, ultimately, unnecessary.

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