Games

ZA Critique: Braid

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.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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