Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Braid, Aesthetics, and Ethics

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 4, 2008

This week’s 1UP FM is a fascinating round table/interview with Jonathan Blow (Designer/Programmer of Braid), David Hellman (Artist of Braid), Rod Humble (Executive Producer at EA/Experimental Game Designer), and Sean Elliott (possibly NSFW links there) and Nick Suttner from 1UP. The talk kind of goes all over the place, but I found it fascinating throughout. If you’re at all interested in Braid, experimental game design, or the ethics of games you should go listen now. I thought I would provide a possibly useful service by annotating some of the more interesting things from the podcast, with times. Anyone know a better way to link to and discuss podcast content?

NOTE: Braid (and BioShock and Deus Ex) spoilers to follow.

2:00: Metareactions to Braid – Jonathan spends way too much time reading reactions to Braid, which doesn’t really surprise me. Apparently the title screen was NOT intended to be a city on fire, but Jonathan is okay with that interpretation of it, because it fits with some other themes. Jonathan says he would cut things that contrast with the overall ideas in the game, but is fine with letting it evolve somewhat.

7:00: Iterative Design of Braid’s Puzzles – Rod jumps in and says that he thinks the puzzles of Braid could only have been made by a designer/programmer, and not created on paper or in some really abstract way. John confirms this, and illustrates the iterative process for crafting Braid’s puzzles: “How do I make a puzzle with the minimum number of elements that still contains the core of this idea”.

10:00: Single Artistic Vision – Sean Elliott jumps in and brings up a comparison between comics that are written and drawn by the same person, and a small-team game like Braid. It’s kind of long-winded and seems to confuse Jonathan a bit. I generally love Sean, but sometimes he needs to learn how to ask shorter question.

13:00: Ambiguity – Jonathan makes it clear that the story of Braid is not trying to lead people to anywhere in particular, but is trying to create a “space of mental existence”, instead of a linear experience. Jonathan says he took some cues from authors such as Milorad Pavic, who created essentially “hypertext” novels. This is not a form natural to books, but games are inherently nonlinear so he felt it would make sense to push it as far as possible that way.

16:00: Braid Is Not a Puzzle – Rod Humble gives his view on Braid, which is that although it CONTAINS puzzles, it is not actually a puzzle. It is not a work in the form of Memento and similar works, where there is a specific, literal interpretation. Instead, it is more about there being several defensible interpretations of it. One of the reasons Jonathan isn’t talking much about the story is because he doesn’t want to steer people towards a specific interpretation. The concrete footnoted text is dominating the discussion more than Jonathan would like. But, he’s still happy that at least there is a discussion, he was worried people wouldn’t care.

20:00: Things Don’t Need To Fit Together – Both Jonathan and David talk about how there is no need to bring together the disparate elements of Braid. For instance, the end-of-zone paintings are ruminations on themes, and were not built with the intention of fitting into a whole. This discussion makes it pretty clear to me what the title Braid actually means: A bringing together of disparate artistic, narrative, and game play elements into a functional, but not fully synchronous whole, much like a braid of hair. Braid was designed from the start as a joining of disparate elements.

28:00: Explaining Art Games – The discussion shifts to Rod Humble and some of his experimental games. Rod discusses the choice of providing explanatory text for his game The Marriage. He says he provided the text because he felt there is a perception of modern artists not being able to “back up” their work with some meaning, so felt he had to explicitly lay it out.

30:00: Artistic Expression of Game Rules – Rod Humble feels games are the most important, exciting art form in the world now, because there is no established body of critics who have “figured it all out” the way they have for other art forms. David Hellman says there isn’t a developed literacy about game rules being expressive, and lays out how The Marriage expresses deep ideas entirely through game rules. This is a good summary of Art Games, by the way. Expressing ideas entirely through the elements unique to the medium of games.

36:00: Gamers Have Trouble with Art in Games – Rod points out that non-gamers got the ideas behind The Marriage much easier than gamers. Gamers come in with the baggage of trying to win the game, and aren’t able to step back and analyze the interactions for their own sake. David Hellman says that there was a similar problem with Braid, where a lot of gamers complained about the lack of integration between narrative and gameplay, when that’s actually one of the explicit goals of the game. Jonathan replies to that by saying that the gameplay and story ARE related, but at a deeper level. I’m not really getting him here.

41:00: The Stars – Nick brings up how Jonathan is strongly against walkthroughs and such, but the Stars are so difficult to acquire that they almost demand cooperative effort. Jonathan seems vaguely evasive and doesn’t say anything about the purpose behind the stars.

47:00: Huh? – Apparently at some point in Braid, Rod decided that he needed to solve it without destroying the enemies, because they were kind of cute. He felt guilty for killing them, and he felt an obligation to save them. David mocks him mildly.

49:00: EA vs The Marriage – Rod discusses how he sort of splits himself into the half that works on the Sims team, and the half that does selfish art games, that a large audience would hate. He seems to be pretty happy with it, and says it’s better for him then trying to meld it the way Braid does. Jonathan says that Braid did compromise, and took several steps that limited the audience while (in his opinion) increasing the depth and impact. Jonathan is unapologetic about leaving people out. He then insults EA games.

57:00: WoW is Unethical – Discussion moves to Jonathan’s comments on how WoW is unethical. Jonathan tries to argue that MMO designers design in way to exploit players, and not benefit them. He says it probably isn’t explicit, but that MMO designers don’t sit back and question if they’re making the right choice. I totally disagree with him here, and need to right up my thoughts more fully eventually. His general point of stepping back and thinking is good, but I don’t think most MMOS are much worse than any other game.

1:04:00: MMO Design is About Control – Jonathan makes the point that many of the things that make MMOs fun are considered “broken”, and game designers spend a lot of time trying to strip out all the fun so they can control the players. There is definitely truth to this, and this is something holding back a lot of MMO design. We all need to unclench.

1:09:00: The Pope – The Pope gave a statement about how game designers should think about what they’re making, and many gamers reacted poorly to it. Rod thinks it was a well written, valid statement, and thought the backlash was immature.

1:11:00: Sean’s Take – Sean asks a rambling question that results in him saying how he feels the Tim character in Braid is an overly logical character that represents much of the audience, and that the references to nuclear physicists are mostly there to make this parralel more explicit (who were overly logical and destroyed things while trying to solve a puzzle). Jonathan doesn’t confirm it, but this reading seems VERY strong to me.

1:15:00: BioShock’s Conflicts – Jonathan discusses some of his comments about how BioShock has a story/game conflict. He brings up the conflict between the altruism/greed choice and the rest of the game. “You just shot 27 people in the head, that you didn’t even know” and then you have to apply normal human emotions to the Little Sisters. My personal complaint about BioShock is that after the big reveal of why you didn’t have control over things before, you still don’t have control over things. Argh, that pissed me off.

1:20:00: Baby Steps – Nick argues that we need to make small steps like adding Little Sisters to shooters, because people are too used to killing random dudes. Jonathan argues that The Sims involves no shooting, and is the most successful franchise. He says we don’t need baby steps, and that people are holding back too much. He makes the point that Wii games suck, but people play them because they provide different types of experiences.

1:24:00: Controversy? – Sean brings up the idea of making Call of Duty about shoot/not shoot, and discusses reasons why that would be difficult. Jonathan brings up that movies do that, and it’s not controversial. Sean brings up the fact that some people feel it would be “you” that is doing it, but Jonathan says we need to cross that hump. At this point I was remembering that we’d already CROSSED that hump, and wasn’t the only one…

1:31:00: Deus Ex – Jonathan brings up the fact that Deus Ex, 10 years ago, did all the stuff Sean was saying was too hard for games to do, but it didn’t get followed up on. There are multiple shoot/no shoot choices in that game, and they have actual gameplay consequences. That game features empathetic terrorists, the US Government faking a terrorist strike on the Statue of Liberty, and launching a Nuke on US soil.

1:35:00: Developers, Not Politicians – Rod brings up that in basically all cases it’s the development team that decides to not do something controversial, and not the higher ups. People just clone their favorite game, and that’s how the game development idea of what is “controversial” is divorced from reality.

1:39:00: PoMo – There is a discussion of how games are a medium created after postmodernism, and many of it’s best and most interesting games have a strong sense of meta. Rod expands on this and says that games are the best way (except for improv theater) to discuss many issues because there is a dialogue. Various people question the strength of the dialogue. Then, as discussions of postmodernism tend to, it drifts off into tangents (mostly about MGS4) and I fall asleep.

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3 Responses to “Braid, Aesthetics, and Ethics”

  1. Thanks for this! Very useful.

  2. […] Braid, Aesthetics, and Ethics « Double Buffered "This week’s 1UP FM is a fascinating round table/interview with Jonathan Blow, David Hellman, Rod Humble, and Sean Elliott and Nick Suttner from 1UP… If you’re at all interested in Braid, experimental game design, or the ethics of games you should go listen now." In the meantime, Ben Zeigler has provided some excellent annotation for us all. (tags: games aesthetics play braid wow ethics art expression podcast annotation ) […]

  3. […] Blow (who also mentioned Deus Ex recently) has given a couple of lectures about the conflict between game design and story, […]

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