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Monday, Jan 12, 2009
A rundown of the part of Braid that gets people the most worked up, as opposed to the whole thing.


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.


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Monday, Jan 12, 2009
Winners of the 2009 I.G.F. have been announced!

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.


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Friday, Jan 9, 2009
A defense of the narrative elements in Gears of War 2.

You’ve read the reviews.  Gears of War 2 has a marked lack of depth.  It’s relentlessly immature.  Its characters are a little corny.


As our own Ryan Smith puts it, “The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy.”


All of this is entirely true.  I have no argument refuting any of it.  What I will argue against, however, is the idea that somehow the story (or lack thereof) in Gears of War 2 makes it less of a game.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I’ve found a game whose story complements the gameplay quite so well as that in Gears of War 2 in quite some time.


Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations.  When you pick up a game that says Gears of War on it, to expect any sort of meaningful story is to be asking something of a game that it was never intended to provide.  The entire point of the Gears of War series is to blow stuff up and, if possible, look good doing it.  If you blast an enemy in the head enough times, that head explodes into a crimson gush of alien blood.  If you’ve got the guts to run up to a baddie, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to take a chainsaw to said baddie.  Your reward for doing all of this is to fight bigger bad guys and see the sights that new terrain has to offer.


The strength of the “story” in Gears 2 is that it is almost entirely motivated by moving the player from one dangerous situation to another.  The game starts in a bombed-out gray ‘n brown environment that looks entirely familiar to just about anyone who played the first game, but then you’re given an excuse to shoot reavers (giant airborn squid things) in lush greenery.  Then you end up inside(!) a giant worm.  Then you end up dodging “razor rain” in an all-too open environment.  Then you’re in a giant temple.  Along the way you blast away some humongous beastly looking things, ride a reaver and a brumak, and confront the Locust Queen.


The longer cutscenes in the game do their part in heightening the player’s anticipation.  A long sequence at the beginning features the gears’ commander giving a Big Important Military Speech.  Yes, it’s a clichéd trope when it comes to this sort of movie or game, but while he’s doing all of that, you get these tremendous panoramic shots that convey the scale of the operation you’re embarking on.  The scripting and the cinematography of the scene is perfect, and it’s a great way to get motivated for the operation ahead.


The intimate conversation with the Locust Queen does the same thing, but in a completely different sort of way.  Her quiet confidence and the constant presence of the impossibly agile, impossibly strong Skorge by her side as she speaks heightens the dread you feel as you know you’re about to face off against the Predator-like beast that caused so much havok early in the game.  She’s rambling on and on about infected locusts and lambent whatnots and maybe western philosophy and how to balance a checkbook, but it doesn’t really matter because, again, the game is not really about the narrative, the game is about look and feel.


Ah, but then there is Maria.


Maria, the captured love of Dom’s life, is where my argument is in danger of falling apart.  Maria is the closest thing here to narrative for the sake of narrative, because nowhere is the search for Maria truly integral to the progression of the story.  Still, in a land where the toughest guy wins, the search for Maria served to make Dom tougher, even as it gave him a gooey center.  Maria is his motivation, before and after we learn her ultimate fate.  His anger at losing her rubs off on the player, which actually makes chainsawing enemies into bloody giblets even more satisfying.  Again, the story feeds the sense of scope, heightening the drama and determination of the player. 


Of course this won’t be true for everyone; for every player that thinks the story works wonderfully with the game, there’s one that thinks it’s a distracting mess.  I have a theory as to determining which side of the fence you’ll fall on: Did you like Independence Day?  Did Armageddon make you tear up a little at the end?  Did you think The Rock was a cinematic masterpiece?  Aside from proving I’d never make it as a film critic, the fact that I can say yes to the aforementioned three questions (or anything similar that relates to big, stupid, Michael Bay-style action movies) has a lot to do with why I find the story elements of Gears of War 2 not only tolerable, but pretty fantastic.  The story makes everything bigger, and it gives me even more reasons to enjoy blowing things up.  What’s not to like?


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Thursday, Jan 8, 2009
Some thoughts on the demise of the one-time top dog of gaming magazines.

If you’re the type to follow a blog like this one, you’ve no doubt heard the news of UGO Entertainment’s purchase of the 1Up network and all of the properties underneath it, followed closely by the news of game rag stalwart EGM’s sudden (not to mention unfortunately timed, at one month before its 20th anniversary) cancellation.  The entire fiasco has resulted in a confirmed list of at least 30 staffers suddenly finding themselves having to check the “unemployed” box on every form they fill out for at least the near-term future.


Thus far, UGO’s been saying lots of nice things about letting 1up remain its own brand while simultaneously getting rid of a whole bunch of the people that made that site stand out (that is, the podcasters) among the major game sites, but I’m not going to be too hard on UGO here, because when you get down to it, it’s just business, as much as we’d prefer to think of it as more than that.  That’s small comfort to those who were just pink slipped, but turnover always happens in these situations, and we’re just not in the sort of economy that welcomes exceptions to that rule.


Gamers of a certain age will never forget this page.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget the Sheng Long hoax.


For many older gamers such as myself, the disappearance of EGM is really hitting home.  This is the magazine that gave us the infamous secret of Sheng Long, the magazine that started the “Lair is crap” wave of anti-publicity, the only magazine that most of us would ever have thought to have bought despite the presence of Fabio on the cover.  Heck, I remember the first one, which I bought shortly after spending way too much time with an Issue of Nintendo Power trying to figure out whether those Mega Man 2 screens were too spectacular to be real.


Still, the departure of EGM is just another domino to drop in the course of print media’s apparent march to extinction.


One could argue that print is already flirting with complete irrelevance as far as gaming goes, given that the only major American gaming rags left are Play (whose primary claim to fame is its “girls of gaming” feature), Game Informer (whose circulation will continue to thrive due to its status as a “free” bonus for signing up for GameStop’s membership card), GamePro (I’m sorry, I just never much cared for GamePro) and the official platform-specific magazines.  Europe still has a couple of solid mags in the form of Eurogamer and Edge, and Japan’s Famitsu continues to be a nationwide tastemaker (nothing solidifies the hype of a Japanese release like a 39 or 40 out of 40 from a Famitsu review).  Even so, with the ease of internet access still exponentially increasing and the shrinking window that separates “breaking” with “outdated”, it’s hard to see much of a future for print.  On an online source, you can see video previews of upcoming games; in print, you need to look at pictures.  Online sources can publish instantly, leaving print sources at least two weeks in the dust when it comes to news.


Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…


If a print publication is to succeed, it is going to need to a) appeal to the nostalgia of an audience that grew up with print, and b) provide a service that online outlets can’t.  In the case of Famitsu, for example, that service is in the presentation of scored reviews by a core set of reviewers which still garners as much or more respect than any of the current online crop of reviewers.  For English-language audiences, however, this approach is more difficult because any of the writers who could pull this sort of clout are already gainfully employed online.


Perhaps if there were a print mag that was structured more like an academic journal, in which experts, scholars, and the rest of us were encouraged to submit essays to a prestigious editorial board, the best of which would be published, we would want to subscribe to it.  Of course, The Escapist already does this online, so it’s difficult to see it succeeding in a subscription-centered arena.  Gonzo game journalism already has its place online, as does some surprisingly well-constructed fan-fiction.


The truth is, there really isn’t anything that print magazines can offer that online outlets can’t, and even the most nostalgically-minded reader is going to favor something free, current, and dynamic.  Even I’ll admit that despite my own subscription to EGM, I wasn’t really reading it anymore; maybe I maintained it for the fresh-ink smell that a just-delivered magazine has.  Still, EGM was something of an institution in its own right, a holdover from the Nintendo age that managed to hold on longer than it could have thanks to some sharp editorial minds and solid writing.  Inevitable as EGM’s demise may have been, January 6, 2009 was still a sad day for gaming as we knew it.


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Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009

Dear Supreme Ruler 2020,


I don’t think we should see each other any more. 


You’ve probably seen this coming for a long time now.  Ever since you came into my life back in July, things have been somewhat strained between us.  I thought I could handle your eighty pages of documentation—after all, who actually reads that stuff anyway?  After a cursory glance at the table of contents, I was eager to get to know you, and after I navigated your tutorials, I thought I understood you pretty well.  But when we started getting serious, it didn’t take me long to realize that there is far more to you than meets the eye. 


It’s not you, SR2020, it’s me.  You’re a real catch, with your lovely graphics, excellent ambient musical score, and your substantially varied level design.  You deserve a gamer who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated—with the respect and devotion a game like you requires.  I’m just not looking for a serious gaming relationship right now. 


There’s so much to love about you, SR2020.  You’re a fantastically in-depth turn-based strategy with a well-constructed and believable, historically-based backstory.  I thought that you would be a perfect match for someone like me, with a Master’s degree in US History, or anyone with an interest in military history, international diplomacy, or combat strategy.  And I think that there are gamers out there for you.  I know there are.  But I’m not one of them, I’m sorry.  It’s a personal failing of mine that I can’t keep straight the difference between an A4D and an A3J, and I’m working through this. 


You’ve got to believe me, SR2020, I gave it my best shot.  I read the entire user manual.  I played the tutorials, which I have to admit left me a bit cold.  I was okay with that, because you seemed to have such promise.  And then I played a vehicle-transport level, and everything was great.  But when I tried to defend the borders of the US against simultaneous attacks from Canada and Mexico, things really started to break down.  Maybe things would be better if we tried again with the help of the Supreme Wiki.  It’s constantly expanding and has grown considerably since last time I saw you.  But I just feel like I need some time off right now, to cry and learn and grow. 


So, SR2020, I guess this is goodbye.  I’ll never regret our time together, and I’ll always remember you with affection.  I know you’ll make some lucky wargamer very happy someday. 


I hope we can still be friends. 


Always,


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