Is Braid great art?
After much delay, I finally did myself the favour of playing Braid. I’m always skeptical when people lavish too much praise on a game, because such titles tend to disappoint by not living up to the hype; but Braid isn’t really like that. It’s beautiful, it’s clever, it’s heart-wrenching at times. I loved it.
Yet, it is over-hyped. It was impossible to go on all these years after its release without constantly coming across Braid in the critical blogosphere. Together with Flower and Ico, it has become one of the favourite pieces of evidence for the “games are art” bunch. And in that respect I found it lacking.
(Minor spoilers for Braid ahead, as well as a big one for Shadow of the Colossus.)
To me, Braid is a very cool package of expressive visuals, hauntingly beautiful music and a thought-provoking story. The way the game plays, with its constantly evolving mechanics that never grow stale, was mostly fine for my taste, although it was a bit too hard in places. Overall a very strong offering and quite deserving of praise.
But art good enough to rival the best other art forms have to offer? I don’t think so.
A lot has been said about the meaning of Braid’s mechanics and the way its levels play out. One example is the “Donkey Kong” level. In it, what — to me — look like pinecones with faces run down several tilted platforms in a level layout reminiscent of the iconic Nintendo classic. Tim, the game’s apparent protagonist, has to go through that level multiple times, but in each iteration time behaves differently. On one occasion it stops when Tim stops, moves forward when he goes to the right and backward when he goes to the left. The setup is inspired by quantum mechanics, which state that time has to abide by the same rules regardless of the direction it runs in.
The reason this link to quantum physics is known to us is that creator Jonathan Blow has said it exists. I doubt that anybody would have been able to take away that relation from simply looking at how the level works. And that is why I think Braid is fine, but not great.
Art is always inspired by something, but the best works of art don’t require their creators to make the inspiration explicit so that it can be appreciated by the public. A masterpiece is able to communicate something that has stirred its creator to other people in a manner that stirs them as well. Braid achieves that in the way it looks and sounds and through the story it tells, but not through its mechanics. The actual game bit in the whole experience is the part that is by farthest removed from being art.
Consider for instance Francisco Goya’s The Shootings of May Third 1808. It was painted as a commemoration of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s occupation of the country. It’s about war and horror, and perhaps heroism. But you don’t need to know all those details in order to understand it and feel the impact of its emotional force. All you have to do is look at it and it’s all there.
At the beginning of Braid we learn that Tim has made a mistake. The obstacles he has to overcome on his quest to find the Princess can be seen as penance for that mistake. However, we never know what the mistake was. I’m not advocating being literal, but this knowledge is important — I think — for the understanding of what is going on. Is Tim being punished too hard or unfairly? Is he simply getting what he called for?
The figure of a devastated protagonist who is doing the wrong things is used to a much better effect in a game like Shadow of the Colossus. Realising the gravity of Wander’s mistake at the end of the game unleashes a veritable volcano of emotions, the stronger because the player, by controlling Wander, has become complicit in his crime.
It will be some time before the “are games art” issue is finally settled and some games are really taking great strides towards recognition. Braid is a very good platformer, but it isn’t one of those games.