“Braid” is Lex Luthor, not Superman: Why sexism, pretentiousness, and apathy will kill the game

Braid

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 7, Response #6

 

To get to my discussion on Braid, I need to go through a rabbit trail. I have an issue with current hipster and boho trends. At their heart of hearts, nothing is wrong with either. The first (essentially) advocates genuineness and nostalgia and the later prides itself in supporting free spirits and all things natural.  But like all little-brother, schoolyard-bullied, swirlied-nerd groups that seek free expression and safety outside of the “norm” and its high-standard judgments, they are at risk of becoming the very elitists they ran from. Their precious, “unique” attributes begin to leak into popular culture, and so, when everyone is finally enjoying and embracing the formally-demonized traits of the group, they grip the toy tighter, insult the general populous, and bar entrance into their club unless you can go the distance and measure up. To be considered truly hardcore hipster or boho, my wardrobe alone would cost several hundred dollers per item, my diet would change to rare and self-processed goods, and my media consumption would be limited only to what no one else (save the few with “good” taste) enjoyed and which did not contradict the many invisible rules around me.  This is the worst case scenario of what often happens to grassroots trends; no matter how good the heart of the group was (and maybe still is), the body is now sickened with ugly pride and a dangerous inferiority complex.

That is what I see in Braid. At its most basic description, it is a meticulous puzzle game with excellent mechanical interworkings and a tricky story.  The game is a challenge. Its simple appearance masks a game that has tests on many levels (literally and figuratively). The narrative has mystery and (at least to gamers) many possible interpretations. But…the tone of the game (which one can only assume reflects Blow’s own opinions) is so aware of its uniqueness, of its own complicated intellectual value, that it feels as forced as a scholar trying too hard to write a “smart” paper or an emo punk band trying too hard to sound melancholy.  More importantly, Blow himself is constantly degrading other games, particularly Japanese adventure games, for “holding the player’s hand” (theguardian.com). Teaching a player how to use a sword combo and allowing players to explore logic puzzles require different training wheels, but to Blow, if a player cannot both figure out what the rules are as well as master the game, they are wasting their time and not participating in true art. Julian Murdoch, a blogger on gamerswithjobs.com, critiques Blow’s double standard of demanding player autonomy and equally aligning his opinions with mastery of the game: “And of course, he famously posted a walkthrough where he informs players that they are essentially idiots if they can’t finish the game: ‘Solve them for yourself and do not use a walkthrough! … All the puzzles in Braid are reasonable.’ This was my first encounter with the unwelcome voice of the author. Blow inserted himself into my experience of his work. I had been pre-chastised by the author: I was a moron if I couldn’t do it on my own” (Murdoch 2009).  Few games–or any pieces of art for that matter–are as critiqued or regulated as Braid is by Blow; through interviews and videos, he has set himself as a sort of standard both within the game and without it. I wonder though, how does that kind of judgment and interaction affect players and their involvement with the game? Are they playing to solve the many puzzles in the game or to solve the challenges set by Blow?

Like the corrupted modern hipsters and free spirits, Braid as a fallen version of what it could be.  For all of its accomplishments and praise, the game relies on intentionally poorly hidden sexism and pretentious, flowery writing to prop up its goals and story. Most of Braid‘s continued existence in the geek-culture’s eye is (most likely) primarily due to Jonathan Blow’s self-proclaimed genius and continual pats on his own shoulder for being the savior of modern video games.  But neither he nor Braid are Superman; they are not saving the masses from the horrid fate of falling in love with sub par games which fail to reach the ultimate, true, purest form…his games.  Granted, in many interviews, Blow presents excellent points as to why exploration and puzzles are important and unusual in games. The trouble comes when he begins to uphold himself and his style as perfection, while all other games and all gamers who cannot reach him at his level are somehow flawed or not true art/artists.  And so I dub Braid as the video game equivalent to Lex Luthor: a smart, potentially-great character whose inferiority complex defeats him more than Superman.

But before I continue connecting Blow to his game, I will address the two negative charges I have brought against the game itself: thinly-veiled sexism and off-putting pretentiousness.  The entire story hinges on an age-old trope: the Damsel in Distress.  For all of the intelligence and creativity in the game, narrative originality is not its strong suit. In an extensive interview, lead by Chris Dahlen, on Braid, Jonathan Blow mentions narrative directly–as a piece of the game–only twice and in the usual, vague fashion that most of his answers come in:

“I could’ve made any game, and found cool things to show people. And the reason for that is actually tied up in the narrative.For me, the meaning of the fiction is very, very closely related to what you’re doing from minute to minute in the game. And I think that somebody out there will understand that. Most people don’t seem to understand the story to that degree. But maybe I’m okay with that, right? But it’s personal in a different way, I guess is what I’m getting at there. It’s important enough to me that I spent three and a half years of my life trying to express it.” (A.V. Club 2008)

I have no doubt of Blow’s intentionality in creating a very specific narrative. It’s all he talks about in his interviews and videos. And even without his explanations, I can see in the game that something is happening with memory, perception, control, and paranoia.  However, Blow’s vision is so specific and the game is so vague and wistfully eloquent that whatever grand, seamless story or idea he’s trying to convey gets lost on most of his audience.

Blow, in the quote above and in much of the same interview, believes that the game derives meaning from even the minute details, and that this great, vague meaning is his mission and vendetta.  But as someone who isn’t privy to his innermost thoughts, I question how this vague mission–which apparently is revolutionary and life-altering–is best shown not only through such a redundant trope but also through such an unhinged, emotionally unhealthy protagonist.  No matter Blow’s grand scheme, the player is given Tim as their playable character. Tim is unashamedly chasing after his ex-girlfriend, The Princess, who is upset with Tim’s neurotic attempts to control every aspect of their relationship with his time-bending abilities. Without any interpretation, that is what is told to players in the little text blurbs after each world. Every text blurb is about Tim’s unhappiness about the lack of precision and perfection in his life, whether that concerns The Princess, his powers, or whatever vague work he does (which is assumed to be nuclear weaponry by most interpretations).  The gameplay reflects Tim’s obsession with precision, as every level requires absolute perfection in order to get every puzzle piece. Your control of time and space as well as the mayhem around you cannot be off in any way. And after all of your hard work perfectly nailing each level, the end level and narration reveals that the Princess has been running from Tim all along; he was the villain.

But surely if players are as intelligent as Blow says they should be, it’s rather easy to see that Tim is unstable. He’s neurotic, whiny, incredibly emo, controlling, and dangerously self-reliant. In every completed puzzle memory, Tim is surrounded by people, but he is alone. He drinks alone, he sleeps alone, he travels alone. He complains about the ease and carefree-ness of childhood. He asks for help from no one in his work or his quest. He even talks about faking his love for his girlfriend just to make sure she wouldn’t leave, even though he felt nothing for her. Yet after all this, players are supposed to sympathize with him?

I personally had difficulty attaching myself to the game. Solving puzzles just to advance Tim on his anxiety-ridden quest to reclaim his Princess felt like one of the most anti-feminist plots I’d participated with in awhile. As Anita Sarkeesian states in part 1 of her “Damsel in Distress” video series, this trope is, essentially, all about “trading the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters” (feministfrequency Youtube).  Tim gathers the memories in order to remind the Princess why they need each other or, rather, why he deserves another shot at their “relationship.”  The game, on the surface, is entirely about Tim regaining what was lost: his Princess, his simple life, and his sense of control.  Perhaps gamers are meant to find this twist of the trope amusing: that the Princess doesn’t like the prince and she’s hiding in the castles. But Tim’s obsession with claiming her as an object, no matter how “ironic” it is, should not be dismissed with humor.  In the article “The Bittersweet Pleasures of Patriarchy Lite,” Dr. Mike Sell expounds on this backwards humor, saying that “sanctimony is just one more symptom of air-quoted masculinity: the obsession with boyhood hobbies is secured by the childish insistence that everyone else take those obsessions very, very seriously” (killscreendaily.com).  The Princess is running from Tim, and he is chasing her to take her back.  No amount of brushing-off should cover up how twisted this motivation is. But because she is running from him, we are supposed to laugh, because what girl in her right mind would ever 1.) leave her man and 2.) leave a man who is willing to go so far for her? Obviously a very smart one. It’s a pity this game isn’t about her.  Feministe.us gives an excellent summary of the insidiousness of praising this relationship: “It seems to me that Tim and the nameless characters of the epilogue represent archetypes of some kind. They don’t stand in for every man and woman, certainly, but they’re emblematic of a certain kind of dysfunctional relationship, one where ‘I’ll protect you’ turns into ‘I’ll control you.’ Where obsession with an ideal version of the other leads away from truly being able to see or emotionally connect with a real person. Where the attentions of a self-defined hero are ultimately unwanted and terrifying” (feministe.us).  No matter Blow’s intentions, the relationship represented is unhealthy, and yet he has made no comments as to why this is the vehicle for his game.

After finding her, the Princess is taken away by a strong knight. Ignoring the potential metaphors, I can’t help but feel like this ending deserves some Freudian readings of the subconscious. After the ending, I could only picture Tim as the quintessential misogynist gamer boy, the one that longs for the kingdom of his own that he could control and rule, the one that longs for the “old days” of bliss and youth instead of accepting reality and change. Tim is the “nice guy,” who selfishly goes the distance for the girl he wants, only to have her “taken” (as if people can be traded off or stolen from each other) by the jock. And even if the Princess is some metaphor for the A-bomb, then Tim has, in his delusion, been angrily blaming his “mistake” on a feminine figure, and what does that say about him? Why a Princess? If this game is some sort of critique on the false human perception of control–of life, war, mass destruction, etc…–then why frame that in the journey of an emotionally wrecked man trying to recapture a woman?

In the same interview, Blow briefly addresses the plot’s topic, saying that “In Braid, I was trying to do both things. I was trying to write about issues that are very meaningful to me, but at the same time – those aren’t the surface issues. People say, ‘Braid is about a break-up,’ or whatever. I’ve had break-ups in my past, but I wouldn’t go so far as to spend three years making a game about a break-up and forcing everybody to play it. It means more to me than that. A lot more” (A.V. Club 2008). Again, Blow avoids discussing why he framed his game in this particular narrative. Yes, gamers can sense that there is more going on beneath that (like the A-bomb theory), but the obvious, in-your-face plot seems completely inconsequential to the man who created it. For all of the “genius” supposedly behind this game, even the creator seems to have trouble explaining why most of it exists at all.

And so here is my critique on the tone of the game and its connection to Blow. Admittedly, I did struggle through the game, but mostly because I cared so little for it and its grand ideas. Yes, the puzzles were difficult (perhaps a bit too obsessively-perfect in my opinion, but that attitude certainly did fit with Tim’s character), but that wasn’t my issue with the game. Tim, as a character, was incredibly bland: a neurotic white dude chasing after his girlfriend and his “perfect” life. The text blurbs were ridiculously vague and soggy with teenage angst. The puzzles were randomized portraits of Tim’s lonely, self-centered life. And the end, for all of its grand words and pseudo-intellectual allusion to J. Robert Oppenheimer, fully reveals that Tim is a crazy-lunatic that the Princess is running from and possibly responsible for mass destruction. That last bit should sound exciting, but I was so tired of Tim and of his pointless whining that all I could think was, “Well, at least his life means something now. He’s a metaphor. Whoop-dee-doo.”  And then I shut the game off and I doubt I’ll think much on it after this.

And perhaps I’m one of the idiots that Blow often references as “not getting his game.” And perhaps I don’t care. Blow, in many cases, both supports interpretation of the game and slams anyone who misinterprets it. He also claims to have some sort of god-like intellectualism stuffed into his game (that only the chosen few can decipher), yet he never explains what it is or why he framed it in such a way.  Concerning interpretation, Blow says that “Now on the one hand, I did leave the game very open to interpretation. [But] I feel that a lot of people are a little bit too quick to take concrete bits of evidence that they find and that they recognize, and to use those to create a definitive explanation of everything and to bend all other facts to fit that explanation. Whereas, why didn’t you take those facts that you found and bend those facts to fit other facts to make another explanation” (A.V. Club 2008)?  In other words, why don’t all gamers take the facts to fit his explanation? Because, why should they? For all of his ranting on exploration and expanding the human mind, Blow has a very limited window for what he is “allowing” gamers to see in Braid. He provides mountains (vague as they are) of facts and instances to draw interpretations from, yet he is unsatisfied that no one is thinking on the exact same wavelength as he is.

Concerning the popular feminist interpretation of Braid, Blow commented that “often it’ll be somebody has an agenda – like, there was a very feminist-oriented critique of Braid [on Feministe.us] and it was an author following her feminist agenda and interpreting the game. Which was fine, but it didn’t have much to do with what I put in the game” (A.V. Club 2008).  Oh, but it does, Mr. Blow. Simply because Braid is an “intellectual” game, does not mean it cannot stoop to prejudice. To Blow, whose mind is obviously lost in the clouds of his own self-praised genius, using Tim’s abusive relationship or the sexist trope of Damsel in Distress as a tool without thought is just as dangerous as employing it because it is openly believed to be right. You cannot use the smart card as a free pass for misogyny.  As Dr. Sell explains, “The masters of Patriarchy Lite can talk the beat-structure of a good masturbation joke and the choreographic nuances of a silly walk, but can throw down feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism, too” (killscreendaily.com).  Blow is very clearly educated, as are most of the players of his game, but his knowledge of gaming, theory, and social issues does not exempt him from sexism.  In fact, having as much knowledge as he does yet still choosing to use and ignore prejudice is further damning.

To me, it seems that Mr. Blow is less angry with the supposed un-originality of others’ thinking and more angry that no one is paying his exact vision homage. Most of this interview (in fact, most of all of the interviews I found of him) is Blow discussing how creativity and mental exploration are great, but how everyone is selling themselves short thinking in different ways than him. Normally, while authors and game designers express why their game meant a lot to them, their interpretation is hardly as tied to their personality and the value of their game like it is for Blow and Braid. As much as Blow pretends and even directly states that Braid is not about him or any emotional crisis, I would definitely question that. If it wasn’t, then why does he fight so hard to defend this formless, unexplored genius he put into the game that no one can find (or really, no one cares to find)?

To me, there’s a lot more of Blow in Tim than he is willing to admit, and Braid is his Princess. If he continues to try to control everything about it, from its interpretations to its impact in culture, he could ruin not only the relationship that gamers have to Braid but also the openness and versatility that indie gaming could become.  To end on a bittersweet note, David Thier, author of “Jonathan Blow Isn’t Going to Save Video Games, muses that “Blow is a dangerous gamer. He has serious talent. If he can surround himself with smart people that can cut his arrogance into something that communicates to an audience, he could become a great game designer. But If he helps games develop the kind of insufferable pretension that plagues other media, he’ll have robbed video games of one of their greatest assets” (forbes.com).  To bring this full circle, if Blow tries to advance video games through technological and mechanical mastery and pseudo-intellectualism–just as literature and film media has before it–while ignoring the damage it inflicts and the prejudice standards it sets, he will have only added to the pyre.  Video games will just become games–fun situations without relevance–and the cancers of sexism and elitism will ruin the genre. And that’s why Braid must be taken seriously, but perhaps not for the reasons Blow is hoping.

Works Cited