“Video games can never be art.” – Roger Ebert
I spent a long time trying to figure out how to judge art. I came to the conclusion, admittedly a bit of a cop out, that judging art is an individual, subjective process. Certainly critics, laymen, and others can reach a general consensus about what does or does not qualify as quality, but in the end, each person has to judge for themselves.
That said, Roger Ebert is dead wrong.
It takes a certain amount of bravado, even for a celebrated film critic, to declare that an entire medium can never reach the pinnacle of artistic merit. It’s easy to point to Ebert’s age and believe that he mistakes the old days of fun if story-bare games like Pacman and Donkey Kong for the immersive, in depth, and often narrative world of video games that exists today. But I think that lets Ebert off too easily. At base, anything that tells a story can not only be art; it can be high art, and Ebert ought to know that.
Anything that uses carefully crafted visuals to evoke a particular sense or emotion can be high art. Anything that envelops the audience in a character, in a world, and transposes their experiences into a grand fictional adventure can be high art. In the same way that a great novel crafts a compelling narrative, in the same way that great visual art compels with color and composition, in the same way that a celebrated film brings the viewer into another world, a great video game can reach those same artistic heights. In fact, video games are uniquely positioned to do all three.
Which brings us to Braid, the 2009 game from Jonathan Blow. Blow is the yin to Ebert’s yang, a man who believes wholeheartedly that video games can be art, but who is relentless in his critiques of the industry as it stands today for failing to live up to its potential. Braid is Blow’s biggest salvo in this fight, and his example to the world of what a video game can be.
Braid has been chief among those games cited as counterexamples to Ebert’s position. In fact, the game has been invoked so repeatedly that Ebert himself even touched on it in an essay defending his position on video games. (Ebert, of course, took a less-than-favorable view of the title, despite not engaging with it beyond watching a few minutes of gameplay.) Nevertheless, it’s a work that stands as playable challenge to the idea that games cannot be art.
Braid’s premise is deceptively simple. The protagonist, Tim, “made a mistake.” Now he has to traverse several obstacles and enemies in order to save the princess and set things right. The devil, of course, is in the details. The player does not have to advance very far in the game to realize that the princess in question is not necessarily a typical damsel in distress and that the quest is more complicated than just the usual “beat the villain, rescue the girl” script.
Blow crafts a story that lures the audience into discovering where Tim’s story is going and prompts them to wonder what’s really going on. Blow had a clear vision for the engaging visuals that not only create a backdrop for Tim’s journey, but evoke a very particular mood and feeling throughout the journey. He also created a haunting, off-kilter world that provokes a palpable sense of unease with each new puzzle. In short, in clear defiance of Ebert’s foolhardy proclamation, Blow created a game with a clear purpose to set a new standard for artistry in gaming and show that video games can indeed be high art. The big question is – did he succeed?
Using Gaming’s History
Part of what makes video games an art form, rather than mere diversions, is that they have a rich history to draw from. Yes, games like Asteroids or Pong can hardly be thought of in terms of high art, but they make up a treasured chapter of gaming’s past that later works can both draw from and reference.
Braid is a perfect example. It has direct references to prior games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. There are not-quite-Goombas who roam around as the game’s main baddies. There’s also a puzzle that immediately calls to mind the series of beams and ladders that allowed the player to defeat the ape and rescue the damsel in distress in Donkey Kong. But Blow’s use of gaming’s past goes beyond mere shout outs; he uses gaming’s past as a way to both subvert and capitalize on the player’s expectations.
I spent many hours as a kid with my dad playing Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Any gamer worth their salt knows the sting that comes after completing almost any of the game’s stages. Mario still finds himself empty-handed. The obstacles have been evaded, the enemies defeated, and the dragon slain. Instead of a victory so richly deserved, the princess’s attendant tells you that the battle is not over, the damsel is not yet saved, and there is still another set of trials to endure before the fight is finished.
That’s why when a character comes out at the end of one of Braid’s many worlds to tell Tim, “I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle,” it means much more than any random level-ending congratulations. When that same character’s affirmations became more wary, more disjointed with each new level conquered, it conveys the sense that something is wrong. That character was messing up the way the victory was supposed to sound and look and feel. Something was not right, not out in the open, about the quest the player had been tasked with, and it was unsettling in a way that could not be conveyed through exposition alone.
Blow took advantage of the language of gaming in the same way great directors use the language of film to convey moods or tension, based solely on the viewer’s expectations from prior works. By both invoking and vandalizing these tropes, Blow managed to convey the eeriness, the unease of what was happening by playing with the “grammar” from gaming’s history. There’s a level of sophistication in the medium that comes from having those sorts of expectations, both to avoid the unsubtle instances where a work’s creator has to spell everything out, and to allow that creator to reach the audience by defying those expectations.
The Great Divide Between Plot and Gameplay
In the same vein, the gameplay of Braid is both plain in how familiar it feels, and strikingly novel in its twist. The game plays like any Mario-inspired 2D platformer. You stomp on enemies, work your way through puzzles, travel through various worlds and reach a castle at the end of each level. It all seems pretty standard at first blush.
The twist comes in the form of your ability to manipulate time. Braid is not the first video game to use this concept in gaming, but few integrate it so flawlessly. Make no mistake, the player’s ability to rewind and fast forward through time, correcting or retrying their prior actions, is not just a gimmick. It’s both an essential part of the themes of the game and vital to solving its puzzles.
To the point, there are six main worlds within the game and each uses the time feature differently. One involves the player’s “imprint” repeating their prior actions after each rewind. Another ties the enemies’ (and the level’s) ability to move forward in with Tim’s own movements back and forth across the screen. Still another has the entire level moving backwards in time, only moves “forward” when Tim uses his rewind ability. Each level starts with a bit of text, not only providing some backstory on Tim and his quest, but more importantly drawing out the theme for each level.
Integrating a game’s plot and its action is often difficult. One of the biggest criticisms within gaming is that too many video games have a stark divide between their story and the gameplay. Often there’s still an engaging, worthwhile story being told, but it comes exclusively through cutscenes and breaks in the action.
Even if you accept my premise that anything which tells a story can be art, there’s a fair criticism to be made that Ebert is at least partially correct when he complains that games are just about action, not about expression. A solid half of the presentation in many games–to wit, the half the player is directly interacting with–frequently has little to no bearing on the story being told.
On the one hand, it seems like this sort of split, all too typical in games today, should help convince Ebert that video games can at least be a type of art. In 2005, the first time Ebert made his grand declaration about video games, he explained that video games were “inherently inferior” because “by their nature [they] require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
Well take heart, Roger, since many many games have a fairly even split between the plot and the action. The game’s authors can craft a story, told bit-by-bit, cutscene-by-cutscene, that is entirely linear. Then, once the game has revealed the latest chapter, it can send the player on their way to some nominally-related mini quest before they get the next one.
Hell, the game’s creators can, and often do, make the objective of that quest and the means of achieving it so straightforward that it’s questionable whether the player gets to make much of a decision at all. Based on such examples, Ebert ought to admit that video games in their popular iterations can be art, or at least some sort of hybrid between artistic expression and gaming.
Of course this divide is often a negative when it comes to games rather than a positive. Sure, it helps to create more of Ebert’s vaunted “authorial control,” but it also limits what truly sets video games apart as an art form – the way a skilled creator can weave together a game’s plot and its visuals and its quests into one cohesive whole.
Admittedly, that does involve contending with that oh-so-unfortunate boogey man of “player choice.” The creator of a video game has to both create a world where the player is trusted with ability to make real decisions that affect how the game progresses and also must craft a story that can not only adapt to those choices, but build on them and make them feel like meaningful steps toward the resolution of the plot. They also have to anticipate a multitude of player possibilities and still manage to impart the broader themes or messages the creator is trying to send.
When video game designers can achieve this, it shows a skill that matches or even surpasses that required of great authors, directors, or other artists. They have to present their messages, convey their meaning, and tell a story without the benefit of that pure narrative control. In these situations, the work goes beyond being a mere story, visual or otherwise, and becomes an experience. When done correctly, it’s something truly extraordinary that cannot be achieved in another medium and cannot be achieved when plot and gameplay are segregated.
Braid, on the surface, runs afoul of this separation problem. The main story of Braid is told to the player almost exclusively through the series of text boxes that precede the entrance to each new world. There is essentially no explicit way in which the story moves forward during the actual gameplay. Part of the player’s task in the game is to collect puzzle pieces (tokens akin to collecting stars in more recent Mario games) which can be assembled at any point in the game and which reveal more of the tale, but this too is arguably outside actual gameplay.
On the other hand, one of the things I discovered while writing this piece is how well-integrated every part of Braid is. Sure, the text boxes before each level do not directly intrude into regular game play, but each presents a theme, and that theme comes to fruition in the midst of playing through each level. The aforementioned puzzle pieces do gradually unveil more of the story, one step at a time. Each new gameplay mechanic introduced in each new world connects directly to the themes expressed and gives the player both insight into the protagonist’s psyche and into the larger point the game’s creator is trying to make.
The game is certainly not the straightforward, linear story that Ebert might prefer. Yet, Braid manages to weave together the obstacles the player must face and the game’s bigger themes so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to extricate them. The game’s various elements are all so bound together that it makes it difficult to talk about any one facet without implicating the others parts of the game that make up the whole.
Whither the Prose?
It’s a tribute to Blow and the game he constructed that he managed to tell a story almost entirely via pre-level text boxes and still have the player keep them in mind while actually solving each new puzzle. The only problem is that actual language he uses in those narrative text boxes is vague, ambiguous, and intentionally enigmatic.
They’re also not especially well-written. If there’s one criticism from Roger Ebert that I agree with it’s that Braid, “exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” I do think the game succeeds despite that. Blow lays out his text with enough broad strokes to convey his general themes, but it’s hard to praise the actual writing.
Many critics disagree with this point. Some enthusiasts see the writing as something to recommend Braid as a cut above the rest. There’s no doubt that Jonathan Blow is reaching for something greater, something with more depth, when he wrote these tidbits, but I’m not sure he actually gets there. What’s more, in the pursuit, he sacrifices clarity for inscrutable purple prose.
And that’s my biggest criticism of the entire exercise. Braid imitates one characteristic of great directors and authors and artists in particular – that many of their works are nigh indecipherable. Blow is a devotee of David Lynch (even thanking him in the credits) and it shows, not necessarily in a good way. I don’t know if the events of the game ever reach the surrealism of something like “Twin Peaks,” but overall Braid certainly matches Lynch in terms of a head-scratching unintelligibility. It hurts the game and it hurts Jonathan Blow’s goal generally. The venerable Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation encapsulates the problem perfectly:
“There’s a glimpse of absolute genius in a really well-done endgame sequence, but it still doesn’t explain much, and then it’s back to obscurely written text boxes for the epilogue, which ultimately left me confused and unsatisfied . . . And I refuse to accept that it’s just because I’m thick. . . . Braid is proudly wearing the ‘arty game’ label, but it’s possible that it might be taking refuge in that to avoid having to explain itself. Oh, people say it’s open to interpretation and you’re supposed to discuss it on forums and stuff, but I don’t buy that. It’s like when you tell a joke and nobody laughs. You then explain the joke and people go, ‘oh, that’s pretty clever, I guess.’ But they still won’t laugh, because you didn’t tell the joke properly in the first place!”
On the other hand, maybe Croshaw and I are focusing too much on those textboxes and not on the experience as a whole. When unleashing some bile regarding the Watchmen movie, Alan Moore decried claims that the source material he created lent itself to the cinema. He strenuously maintained that there was something essential about the medium of a graphic novel that was necessary to convey his story and ensured that something would inevitably be lost in translation when that context is removed. The same might go for video games.
Jonathan Blow certainly seems to think so. He maintains that his game’s ideas, “are very hard to verbalise,” adding that, “The sort of thing that I guide myself into thinking about, doesn’t succumb itself into linear language, or at least I don’t know how to do it. Even though there are text bits in the game, I think about the game as the whole thing, that it’s some kind of envelope that I’m trying to express, or points at it in different places and in different directions.”
Maybe there’s something there. It’s fair to say there is a certain harmony in the marriage of gameplay and plot and visuals and ideas of Braid that is lost when they are all chopped up and evaluated separately. Blow seems to be arguing for, or at least describing, an element of irreducibility to his art.
That said, how much can that art really move someone when it’s a slog to even begin to understand it? Even when Blow claims that the game “means something very definite” to him and that it is an “unverbalisable concept kind of thing,” is that meaning robbed of its force when its salience is lost on much of the audience?
There’s always a balance between subtlety and clarity in any work. Blow is not the first and will not be the last to lean too heavily toward the former. The problem is that this sort of intentional obscurity clouds the substance of the game. I believe there’s quality, meaningful substance there. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of problem that just provides fuel for Roger Ebert’s fire.
The Ever-Moving Goalposts
Unfortunately it’s a fire that’s unlikely to go out anytime soon. In logic, there is a concept called the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” The name comes from the fallacy’s most venerable example: One person affirms that “No Scotsman hates haggis.” Another responds, “my uncle is from Scotland and he despises haggis.” The original person then retorts, “Well, no true Scotsman hates haggis.” It’s a classic case of changing the criteria for truth in an to attempt to maintain the veracity of your position despite a clear counterexample.
Ebert is clearly an adherent of this particular fallacy. When he opined in 2005 that “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic,” he was flooded with messages and examples of games and stories that advanced cultural understanding, provoke questions about what civilization means, and earned the audience’s empathy by making them feel through the trials and travails of fictional characters. When he decried video games’ lack of authorial control, he received a torrent of examples of games with stories that proceeded in as linear a fashion as any film and others that presented a multitude of possibilities but still bore the author’s fingerprints in each.
Faced with this response, Ebert eventually admitted that there was some artistic merit in video games. But then, in 2006, he moved the goalposts again, saying video games could never reach the level of something like “The Great Gatsby” because games “don’t delve very deeply into what it means to be human.” In the process he was presented with, and ignored a myriad of games that force players to make choices, to see where those choices lead, and to understand how very human qualities like compassion, understanding, guilt, greed, and even good and evil come into play.
Then in 2010, Ebert went a step further and seemed to admit that video games could perhaps be art that explores what it means to be human, but that they could never be “high art” on par with the works of the “great filmmakers, novelists and poets,” presenting many of the critiques discussed here.
Chief among those criticisms, Ebert asserted that no video game could grow “better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” He argued that that boundary to artistic expression remains “resolutely uncrossed” in gaming. As a result, Ebert again witnessed a tidal wave of responses explaining how very flawed this reasoning was and how many modern games have the characteristics he seems to value so highly. But to no avail.
Roger Ebert does not want to accept video games as art, and so he won’t, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence on the other side of the argument. He admits that he simply does not want to play any video game, and that it prevents him from delving any deeper on the subject than making these arguments “in principle.” He waved a white flag at the vociferous defenders of video games, stating that he had no desire to experience the wealth of artistic expression in gaming firsthand, and waving off their litany of counterexamples by specifying that he was only discussing video games “in theory.”
The beautiful thing about arguing on theoretical grounds is that it allows you to backpedal with an alarming absence of friction. Ebert’s ever-changing criteria for what makes something high art always allows him a retreat position. That’s why he could, at last, relent ever so slightly and concede, rather belatedly, that he “should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games” and that “it is quite possible a game could someday be great art.”
One of Ebert’s biggest distinctions between “games” and “art” is that you can win a game while true art can never be won. He raises up works in other mediums like “a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film” because they “are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” In setting up these arbitrary obstacles to reaching the pinnacles of art, Ebert has managed to contradict himself, by creating a game that is impossible to win.
Despite his admission that games could someday meet his criteria, Ebert steadfastly held that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” I agree with this assessment if and only if Roger Ebert is the one who gets to make that judgment. Ebert makes the idea of video games becoming high art into one of those famed princesses, a goal that all video game creators are aspiring to. And by moving the goalposts with each flood of evidence that gaming has already reached this lofty plateau, he’s able to ensure that the princess is always in another castle.
What Does It All Mean?
But Jonathan Blow’s Braid was not directed at Ebert. On the contrary, it was directed at the other video games creators. Blow designed the game as both a challenge and example of how gaming can rise above such critics to become undisputed works of art, rich with value and meaning. This begs the question – what exactly does Braid mean?
The game’s big epiphany comes at the very end, which I am about to spoil. As you reach the final world, a large imposing knight descends down a vine onto a plateau above you proclaiming, “I’ve got you!” The princess is tucked firmly in his grasp. Suddenly, she breaks free, cries for help, and starts running away. Tim races along the bottom level in order to meet up with her. Suddenly, when you reach the end of the chase, there’s a flash, and instead of running to you, the princess is in her home, asleep. She’s unreachable, and does not seem to even notice your presence. It’s jarring and confusing at first.
Only when you attempt to rewind does the story become clear. It turns out that the entire level was playing in reverse from the minute you entered it. Only when you’re “rewinding” is time actually time moving forward. It turns out that the princess was not running to you, she was running from you. She was begging the knight for help and leapt into his arms. He says “I’ve got you” and whisks her away.
You were the bad guy this whole time.
Tim retreats to the “Epilogue” another mystifying series of text boxes that orbit around a few key themes: obsession, control, regret, and the birth of the atomic bomb. One textbox features the statement “Now we are all sons of bitches,” a quote from test director Kenneth Bainbridge on the occasion of the detonation of the first nuclear device, driving home the allegory. In the end, Tim decides to make a castle, the sum of all his experiences.
What to make of all of this? The epilogue’s text boxes give few cognizable clues, but I do think there’s a point to all this. It does not come through much in the prose, but rather from the exercise itself. In constructing Braid as he did, Blow is both commenting on and simulating the problem-solving involved and the act of working toward supremely challenging goals. It applies to the creation of the atomic bomb, but also more generally, to the quest for difficult-to-obtain knowledge, for enlightenment.
There is an alternate ending that plays even further on these themes. It involves finding eight stars that go beyond even the challenging difficulty of some of the game’s regular puzzles, devolving into obsession and tedium. They require an absurd dedication and devotion to sniffing them out and reaching 100% completion. When all these secret stars are in tow, you can play the last level again, except this time you can reach the princess before she makes it to the end. When you do, there’s a bright flash, like an explosion, and then in an instant she is gone.
You realize that you are essentially playing through a metaphor, one that certainly implicates the atomic bomb, but also all knowledge, all pursuits that involve that level of myopic, single-minded commitment. The player struggles to achieve the stated goal and receives a somewhat unsatisfying end, the same way Tim does, and the same way Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project tasked with creating the first nuclear weapon, did. A summary of this view from blogger Iroquois Pliskin has come up again and again in discussions about the meaning of the game:
“On one hand the complex thinking you do in order to solve all these puzzles leads to all these small and satisfying epiphanies that occur when you successfully intuit the laws of the various game-worlds. But on the other hand, Tim solves all these puzzles for the sake of an emotional connection, and yet his portrayal in the final chapter and epilogue makes it clear that the attitude towards the world that was necessary in order to unlock it secrets is simultaneously alienating– destructive to meaningful relationships with other people. In the end, even a his control over time and space leaves him powerless to attain the meaningful connection with the object of his pursuit.”
I believe the game is chiefly about that very thing – the search for deep knowledge, for projects that are both important and challenging, and how they are also alienating. At its most straightforward level, Braid is about a man focused on the pursuit of just that sort of knowledge and who estranged the woman he loved in the process.
That basic idea gives you the closest thing to a clear takeaway that Braid offers. Whether you look at the game on its face as a story about a man, whether you dig deeper and see it as a metaphor for the research and construction of the atomic bomb, or whether you generalize it a commentary about any search for deep knowledge, it explores one articulable theme – that it’s easy for become lost in an obsession, a pursuit, which becomes so consuming that it alienates you from the people in your lives, leaving you empty.
That’s why there was a certain irony, lost on me at the time, when one evening I was thoroughly immersed in trying to solve one of Braid’s thorniest puzzles. My girlfriend looked over and muttered in an annoyed tone, “You sure seem really into that game.” The message was unmistakable. I was too wrapped up in this collection of puzzles, and she was feeling ignored. Whether it was what he was specifically aiming for or not, something tells me Jonathan Blow would smile about that particular outcome.
In Braid, you work hard, you try to do what is expected of you, and you spend a great deal of time and mental energy trying to figure things out in an attempt to reach your goal. At the end, once you have, it turns out that you’re the bad guy. You have something akin to Oppenheimer’s stark realization that, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And what’s more, you’ve lost both what you were working toward and the personal connections sacrificed in the attempt.
It’s a poignant message that comes through in the very structure of the game. Unfortunately, that message is buried in nebulous, intractable verbiage.
* * *
Blow doesn’t necessarily have to spell things out for everyone, but by the same token, near-literally erecting signposts just to obscure the message, or bury the themes in purposefully vague prose detracts from his project. If you want the story to speak for itself, then let it. If you want video games to stand on the same pedestal as great cinema and literature, then don’t ape them, particularly their tendency toward a deliberate lack of clarity.
In the end, Braid does present us with something that it is equal parts novel and familiar. It’s a work that is deliberately ambiguous and enigmatic in a way that leaves it open to a vast array of interpretations. Many critics see this as a sign of the artfulness, or intellect, or poignancy imbued in the work. Much digital ink has been spilled turning over the myriad possible “meanings” of Tim’s journey, and each new would-be interpreter tries to peel back another layer of the onion to find what’s really under the surface.
Others, like yours truly, see many of the “insights” so desperately sought from Braid as well-worn and prosaic vagary, ensconced in threadbare symbolism. Make no mistake, Jonathan Blow has concocted a wonderful game that uses a novel concept, aims high, and makes some interesting points both through the story it tells and the themes it explores. That said, I think that all the people continuing to mine through the game to find the deepest, truest “meaning” of the work are on a fool’s errand, particularly those parsing the breadcrumbs of prose that Blow has scattered throughout the title’s many levels.
Braid is steeped in the sort of artsy affectations and doublespeak that can only create the illusion of depth and the shadow of transcendence, rather than support something firmly, movingly trenchant. It’s a badge of pretentiousness directed specifically at the art crowd; one which the game did not really need in order to make its points or to make them well.
It’s a product of the same refuge in inscrutability you find in every medium where creators reach toward high-minded, ineffable ideas and mask their inability to articulate them with a smokescreen of murky symbols and metaphors. As part of this time honored tradition, Jonathan Blow has, quite intentionally, created a game whose “true meaning” is that very same princess, just out of reach, and forever fated to be in another castle.
But damnit, if that’s not high art to a tee, then I don’t know what is.
Your move, Ebert.