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by L.B. Jeffries

12 Jan 2009

I’m a bit late to the Braid party when it comes to blogs. When the prestigious Soulja Boy has weighed in with his opinion, there is clearly not much new to analyze about the game. Still, I’ve had this thing on the back burner for a while and now seems like as good a time as any to post it. People always have a funny reaction when you try to explain the problems with a piece of writing. When you say something is causing hiccups in the process, yet is still grammatically correct or communicated its point, one wonders what more can be expected. One way of explaining writing is that it can be seen as a system that needs constant tweaking based on the message you’re trying to communicate. Order of information, complexity, and presumptions about the reader all have to be factored. The words and phrasing must be adjusted to fit the message. For example, you don’t quote a Shakespeare line about doom to tell someone that a bus is coming at them because “Hey, car, watch out” will suffice, right? You do that because it’s a simple communication. It’s a simple message and doesn’t require more explanation that communicates greater depth. Contrast that to when someone asks you why you’re upset. “I’m upset because my girlfriend dumped me,” communicates a comprehension of their emotional state because we can presume the reader knows what this means. “But I thought you hated her,” your friend asks back. What we now have is a hiccup in the system. Past statements are conflicting with the explanation, listener’s past experiences don’t resonate, or they aren’t following the train of thought sequentially. What do you do?


I’m starting this critique of Braid with that explanation of writing because I think the game’s short vignettes warrant explaining. Jonathon Blow created a metaphorical video game design about time and he incorporated the writing into that design. He’s also taken a lot of flame from people for having the guts to make this game not be highly accessible and I can see why it would put him on the defensive. Popmatters did an excellent review of it and as Subramanian points out, the writing is the only thing one can possibly bitch about in the game. Blow himself explains in an interview with Joystiq, “The narrative in Braid is not being obscure just for obscurity’s sake. It’s that way because it was the only way I knew how to get at the central idea, which is something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly.” Of all the things that people seemed the most conflicted about with the game, I thought this one merited addressing. So what’s the problem? The writing is neither bad nor incorrect. It is out of order.


Back to the barrier of communicating why the girlfriend you hated still made you upset when she dumped you. What do you say? There are two basic choices: indicate that this is a complex form of sadness OR use an example. Essentially, “It’s complicated, man” or “Well, she could be a real pain but she really made me feel good about myself too.” Which has communicated more to you? The example, right? I’m filling in what your brain does when you try to understand something, I’m providing the frame of reference for the conduct that you don’t have. That’s why writers always say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me that you’re upset, show me why. Don’t tell me the character is lonely, show them acting lonely. It’s the traditional method for communicating complex feelings because it’s still functioning like a simple “Hey, car, watch out” by supplying the person who doesn’t understand the image of the car as well. Braid, with its themes of time manipulation, chucks a big monkey wrench into this whole process. The text, which we are expecting to be some kind of introduction or explanation, is actually a combination of responses to the level and metaphors for various things going on in-game. What’s off-putting is that we’re getting this before we have any frame of reference. Just as the game is about the implications of time travel and achieving goals, the text is about experiencing a variety of emotions and experiences out of order as one would expect once sequential time is out of the picture. We’ll take a few examples and watch this in action.


A green book from World 2:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly
with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt.

But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it,
shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for
the mistake?

The paragraph makes perfect sense after you’ve played the level. This is talking about the larger implications of forgiveness and time travel. It explores the time-reversal mechanic by explaining it as a form of forgiveness, of being able to undo punishment. Other books follow similar suit, World 3 talks about being non-manipulable and not always controlled by the princess, the levels involve the glowy green stuff that is immune to time rewind. World 4 talks about visiting childhood memories and reliving them, time travel moves forwards and backwards in conjunction with you. When we are thinking about our memories, we are in absolute control of their movement. In combination with quantum mechanics, it also proposes the idea of time not being linear and how all these alternate realities are spooling out. What throws the player is that you’re reading this text before you play the level. You’re being warned about the incoming car without having any frame of reference for the car itself. It’s saying “This is complicated, man” without me having any understanding of why. Thus the complaints of being intentionally obtuse: the text is designed to be experienced out of order from the actual comprehension. This confusion is corrected as soon as one plays the level, but it’s the reason for the reaction many people had.

Let’s look at a book from World 6:

But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a
beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion,
distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.

This is the world where the wedding ring acts as a way to make a time bubble. Anything in the bubble slows down significantly, allowing you to slow down cannons or platforms so you can get through at just the right time. Stephen Hawking is about as far as I get with quantum physics but my understanding is that the game design is calling the wedding ring a blackhole, the idea that time slows to absolute zero at certain points but are also inherently empty. Ergo the part about “people being slow to approach and terminating social interactions. Or not, given the part about being a shining beacon, but it’s the way the symbol resonates with me the most. Like the other texts, you can’t quite get a grip on what he’s talking about until you play the level. It works once you play and think about the point Blow is making…but that’s not what the audience is expecting when they read these books. They want an explanation or introduction. This quirk in writing is particularly effective provided you play the game without using gamefaqs and don’t try to do it in one sitting. On my initial encounter with many of these books I didn’t follow their point and went through the door confused. After playing in that world I’d get tired of a puzzle and leave to try a different world. When I came back ready to try again, another glance at the books and suddenly they made sense. In this way the actual text is understood in the same fluctuating way that the game’s design deals with time.

The ending stays strong, including the atomic bomb reference, as a collection of examples of goals one pursues but how our relationship with these goals collapses under quantum physics (we already got the goal) and personally (there is always another goal to pursue). Short vignettes before a level starts that establish the setting and story have been done before and under conventional game structures they act like an introduction. Braid’s upsetting of that norm is ultimately welcome for many people looking for a new kind of game experience. The point of this critique, as I pointed out above, was to figure out why people complained about the writing. The argument that language is about being understood is a good one but one should never get too confining about what their art can and cannot do. There is a proud tradition of writers and artists who have taken this ideal of communication and told people to shove it. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce all wrote some of literature’s greatest books in non-sequential and incredibly confusing manners to experiment with time and rationality. If it’s any consolation to those irritated by the game, keep in mind Faulkner got a lot of shit for

The Sound & The Fury

too. But it’s also a great book once you realize what he was going on about in the Benjy section.

by Lara Killian

12 Jan 2009

Do you remember what sort of books you enjoyed when you were a teenager? Or if you’re a teenager right now, what are you reading? Last week I started a youth services course and as an opening exercise we were asked to think about what our lives were like when we were 15 years old. (I won’t lie, some of us cringed.) The instructor brought in stacks of books and laid them out on tables; some familiar and some totally unknown. We were asked to pick a book, whether we knew it or not, and then explain what had drawn us to the particular volume. Obviously cover art or titles, and occasionally an author’s name, attracted many of us.

I picked up a book called An Earthly Knight (2004) by Janet McNaughton. The old style calligraphy font of the title reminded me of the historical fiction I started reading as a teenager. It always seemed preferable to spend time with my mind in another time and place than the all-too-real-and-scary present. After we’d discussed why we were drawn to the books we’d chosen, we were invited to take them home and read them. Why not?


There is some wonderful historical detail in this book; the author has clearly done her research. At its heart this is a love story of a slightly immature young woman doing a lot of growing up in a short period of time, and learning to recognize the motivations people have for their actions. Caught up in the possibility of someday becoming the Queen of Scotland, Lady Jeannette (Jenny) allows her behavior toward family servants to become petty, as she stamps her feet and shouts when she doesn’t get what she wants. She immediately realizes she’s behaving badly, but believes such behavior is expected from those who are privileged. Though status is all-important to her father, Jenny finds herself intrigued by a young man who lives apart from society. He is always gentle and kind, and Jenny feels herself around him—calm, peaceful.

Teens, particularly young women, are likely to identify with Jenny’s rapid changes of temper and emotion, as well as her desire to be her own person and yet cultivate the approval of the more powerful figures in her life, especially the men. She behaves badly, then realizes that in her heart it is more important to have friendship and love than power and pretty clothes. McNaughton points out aspects of language and culture, at this intersection where local Scottish culture interacted with the English Church and Norman tradition. (There are even a few of the wee folk present and working their mischief.) Without overwhelming her audience with too much historical detail, McNaughton tells a good story, while educating her reader a bit at the same time.

What were you reading at age 15?

by Rob Horning

12 Jan 2009

Nicholas Carr, building from my post about dilettantism and incorporating an analysis of the Clash’s “Complete Control” to boot, draws this pertinent conclusion: “Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable.”

That seems right to me. The implication is that the level of our interest in our amusements, and worse, in what we may consider to be our life’s work, has its limits set by the sort of society we live in—the tendency to become distracted is not some personal failing or the indicator of someone’s weak will, but the accomplishment of a bundle of associated forces that help naturalize certain consumerist preferences. Our susceptibility to boredom is “programmable” through the amount of stuff thrown at us and the amount of stuff a “normal” with-it person is assumed to know about and the various ways cultural ignorance can be exposed. (Hence the useless entertainment quizzes and trivia contests and the like. These seem innocuous enough, but they help calibrate our boredom, suggesting what the breadth and depth of our knowledge should be.) Fortunately, we are not yet “perfected” consumers in this fashion, but—if you’ll forgive a lapse into teleology—that’s the goal a consumerist economy hopes to accomplish. That trend is palpable (though perhaps that is because those resisting it do not register, have no way of communicating their resistance to a hypermediated and hyperaccelerated society without acceding to its terms). If we are not vigilant, our attention span will continue to shrink, and the “helpful” tools to force more and more material through that tiny pinhole of focus will proliferate. (Just as road-building worsens traffic problems, media-management and organization tools tend to exacerbate our attention problems. I spend as much time editing metadata as I do concentrating on music I’m listening to.)

Impelled by a sense that we must streamline our consumption and absorption of information and experiential opportunity (a need fomented by media technology, which both extends marketing’s reach and expands the amount of information we can readily acquire), we end up going for quantity over quality, the superficial over the complex, and regard convenience as an abstract good rather than being defined in relation to some other activity. Convenience only speeds our pursuit of more convenience. In this, we come to resemble our society’s economic system, which seeks profit for its own sake. To keep up the incidental Marx references: in The Limits to Capital David Harvey points to this relevant passage in Capital:

The simple circulation of commodities - selling in order to buy - is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.
As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value…becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

Basically, the economic roles we fulfill—for most of us, that means “consumer”—shape the horizon of our subjective aims while serving the underlying function of reproducing the existing system. That means embodying the restless pursuit of novelty, at least to the degree to which we want to be at harmony with the culture we live in. We become consumerism “personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will.”

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of missing out on something, no matter how into whatever it is we actually are doing. Alternatives are always filtering in to taunt and tempt us, and we hold our ability to become absorbed, to achieve “flow,” in abeyance, waiting for the diversion.

The urge to devise a scorekeeping system for our consumption grows as we seek a way to manage it all and compare what we’ve done to some standard—to restore the meaning that’s lost with our failure to become absorbed and committed to something. So if there is no way to keep score, then the activity can seem pointless. (A commenter to my previous post made that point about Guitar Hero, adding that this aligns our personal pleasure seeking with corporate notions of total quality management. If there were only some way I could attach some kind of scoreboard to my guitar when practicing scales, maybe I would do it more.) For example, I start to fetishize the number of posts I plow through in a day in my RSS reader; if the unread posts figure reaches 500, I go into orange alert, and start reading faster, skimming more, leaping past the longish posts and the Vox.eu papers and such for BoingBoing and Metafilter links.

Consequently, we end up having to set up defenses against distraction. Writer Cory Doctorow, a BoingBoing.net contributor, offers this compendium of advice for getting writing done. The advice all seems sound if not ultimately somewhat tautological—the best way to avoid distraction is to not allow yourself to be distracted by bells and whistles on word processors or by instant messaging or the infinite research possibilities online. Such resistance makes sense if we can muster it, but it can feel bad, like stifled curiosity. The problem is that in our culture, curiosity has been co-opted, inverted, made to function as its opposite—distraction, novelty for its own sake. The growing burden on us is to enforce rigor on our curiosity or exercise the discipline to ignore the would-be forbidden fruit.

by Mike Deane

12 Jan 2009

Love Tsunami

Love Tsunami

Montreal’s the Silly Kissers are making the type of perfect ‘80s synth-pop that can only be made in the late 2000s. All songs are written and produced by the song writing duo of David Carriere and Sean Nicholas Savage and they perform the songs with vocalist Jane Penny and three others. The songs are almost always focused on love; whether it’s love lost, strong love, sad love, all love facets are covered here from male and female perspectives, and at times in a single song (that’s right: lovers’ duets). It seems that only with the passing of 25 years can the synth-pop genre be fully utilized in a stripped-down and self aware format. 

Admittedly, this band is not really breaking new ground, but are creating keyboard-based pop music focused on the most salient and enjoyable aspects of the genre: interesting instrumentation and infectious hooks. The lyrical content often takes a back-seat to the hooks, and borders on the cliché cheesiness you’d expect from genre pioneers like the Human League, but the evident obviousness allows guilt-free appreciation. This is not to say that they’re insincere; the content that they touch upon is standard for any genre, but the abandon with which they tackle their theme is a tip of the hat to their predecessors.  And there certainly isn’t any tongue in cheek in their delivery.

by L.B. Jeffries

12 Jan 2009

The tricky thing about the independent game scene is that much like the music world, there is an absolute ton of material to dig through. With so many games offering variations and minor adjustments to genres, it helps to have someone whose willing to dig through it all and point out the games that really do something interesting.

This year’s IGF Finalists are a fantastic place to find just such a narrowing down. The huge variety of games nominated also means that there is something for any genre fan to find from the list. Whether it’s the artistically amazing browser adventure game Machinarium or the psychedelic tunnel chaser Brain Pipe, games that innovated in a huge variety of ways were able to win praise. Particularly interesting are the breakthroughs in interface this year, such as Musaic Box using changes in sound and tempo to create puzzles or Mightier incorporating printed out puzzles and a webcam into the game. It’s good to see that even though games that were pinnacles of refinement are present, there are also one’s recognized for sheer innovation.

I’m particularly glad to see The Graveyard made it on the list under innovation. As was brought up in the coverage of that game’s post-mortem, it’s extremely hard to classify it as a game since there is no choice to it. All you can do is a linear series of actions combined with a random event. The blurb explaining the nomination says, “It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.” That’s an appealing sentiment to me because even though the game could improve on the exploration aspect it still acknowledges its strength: the game is just a beautiful space. It’s just a black and white graveyard, a single poetic act, and a sad song about death. If a game like You Have To Burn The Rope is going to be praised for its snark and simple mechanics, then the The Graveyard deserves a nod for its minimalist approach as well.

In addition to I.G.F.’s choices is Indie Games’s choices for best games of 2008. These are broken up by genre instead of awards and include shooters, adventure games, and browser games along with several prolific artists being listed. All of these games are guaranteed to work on just about any PC and several are present on console services.

//Mixed media

Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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