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GTA and Braid: Games as art

In Video Games on September 26, 2008 at 4:45 pm

The pinnacle of modern blockbuster video games is Grand Theft Auto IV, which came out earlier this year. Everyone knows GTA as the violent game where you can pick up a prostitute, do the deed, then heartlessly murder said prostitute as she leaves the car to get your money back. What most people don’t know, what gets little attention in the media, is that GTA IV is about an immigrant hoping to find redemption in the American Dream. It’s a game about American culture, which is why it’s full of violence and sex and drugs and dirty language and crooked cops and crafty politicians and offensive stereotypes. It’s why it’s there are terrible fast-food joints, strip clubs, AK-47s, fast cars, hummers, bazookas, ultra-right-wing radio talk shows, creepy dating websites and annoying ringtones for your cell phone. It’s satire and commentary. It’s unfortunate it is discounted as a waste of time simply because the protagonist’s actions are controlled by a joystick.

Just like there are blockbuster movies and indie movies, there are blockbuster video games and indie video games. And just like indie movies, indie video games tend to be me creative, and dare I say, artistic. aob07-12-s.jpg
The indie game “Braid,” which was released on the Xbox a couple months ago and largely been the work of one man, has been garnering rave reviews from video game sites, as well as major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and NPR (which is worth a listen). The best way I can describe Braid is this: it’s like Super Mario Brothers, except with puzzles based on manipulating time. It is one of the best examples of “games as art.” The most obvious aspect of Braid is the visual style. Video games aren’t expected to be pretty or contain a unique style, and most games don’t, but Braid does. The game looks like a painting, dream-like and fluid, which fits in perfectly with the rest of the game.

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Braid’s plot is loosely narrated via lines of text found in books at the beginning of each “stage.” The plot is more like a poem than a script, in that it sort of makes sense as you read go through it.. but not really. The texts are all fragments of a story that piece together in the end, but not in a nice, tidy way. It’s like “Citizen Kane” or “The Shining,” where people are still discussing and interpreting what happened in the movie. If you Google “Braid plot” you’ll find pages of blogs, articles, and forum posts detailing different theories. The game is about a character named Tim who is searching for his true love, that he somehow lost. Regret and longing are the most obvious and indisputable themes in the game.

What makes Braid a particularly cohesive experience beyond jumping around and solving clever puzzles is how the form is not separate from the message. The puzzles all revolve around manipulating time. Whenever you make a mistake, you can rewind, and undo the error. You must reverse and fast-forward time in ingenious ways in order to solve the puzzles. The time travel mechanic is, as the NPR story says:

a metaphor for Tim’s attempts to figure out what went wrong in his relationship and where exactly he fits into the universe. When you rewind time, the screen turns red and the music plays backwards — it’s disconcerting and disorienting, just as plumbing your own past can be unsettling.

This blog post points out how few works of art/entertainment actually combine form and meaning in the way Braid does. The blogger points specifically to the book House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. The book is a great horror novel and deserves its own blog post, but here is an example page from the book showing how the text accompanies the meaning:

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I’m aware of how pretentious and ridiculous it can sound to analyze and critique a video game. I haven’t even mentioned the great music, or just how fantastic the puzzles are, or the references to Donkey Kong. I hope some day it won’t be so nerdy to view a video game as intellectual, emotional, and meaningful as books, movies, or poems are. I really do think every one can, and should experience Braid. Watching Youtube videos just doesn’t convey it properly.

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