Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why I Love Braid
And Why It Might Fail

Jonathan Blow gave me the opportunity to play Braid recently, and I have been enthralled by it for a few hours each night before I go to bed (sadly, that’s my only play time, but I’d be playing it a lot more if I could). As a game, I haven’t had this much fun being challenged to think outside the box since the advanced levels of Portal. I’d even go so far as to say that Braid ups the challenge rating a notch or two and I’ve only played worlds 1 through 4 (though I’ve unlocked 5 and 6, I’m a bit obsessive about collecting things before moving on, but apparently it’s your choice whether or not you want to do that).

Part of what makes Braid so enjoyable is the knock on the door of nostalgia for Super Mario Brothers. Were you to go back and play Super Mario Brothers, you probably wouldn’t have much fun. Braid evokes the fun of the remembrance of that classic but brings the gameplay to a new level. So what is it that has drawn me into Braid?

The premise of Braid seems to have much to do with time travel. If you make a mistake you don’t die, you simply rewind time to before the mistake. Or you can rewind all the way to the beginning of the level you started. If you’ve gone too far back, you can fast forward to get closer to where you wanted to be in your timeline, but when you let go of the time shift key you give up the possibility of traveling forward in time. You would think that this would make the game too easy, but that’s because you haven’t seen the myriad of layers that go on top of this element.

Without giving away any of the actual puzzles, I can tell you that there are gameplay pieces that are not affected by your time travel (and they are marked distinctly). Now when you rewind you have to consider what those gameplay pieces will be doing since they will not rewind along with you and the rest of the world. There are also sections of the world where your characters movement will actually manipulate the time stream of everything around you. Braid is a 2d side-scroller, so you’re usually moving from left to right or right to left. If you move to the right of the screen, everything else moves forward in time, but if you move left, everything will rewind. This presents a lot of complexities and things that are seemingly impossible require you to re-examine how movement and your rewind ability will affect the game objects around you.

The artwork is entirely breathtaking and unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game. I’m no artist, but it has the feel of an oil or watercolor painting brought to life. It’s simply refreshing to see such a completely different style of artistry in a game. Particularly since I’m so used to the 3D photo-realistic crap which has begun to grate on my nerves. While some may not like the style of Warcraft’s artwork, at least it’s different (and I enjoy it, so meh). Braid has succeeded in differentiating itself from the vast majority of its competition as well with its own artistic style. From the opening screen you’ll feel it soaking into your brain.

The puzzles honestly challenge you to think in a whole new way. It’s not unlike the feeling that Portal gave me when I first had to figure out how to portal loop jump. You can feel your brain grinding away at the problem trying to come up with a solution, trying to understand these new concepts and somehow piece these incongruous things together. It’s true beauty for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Games that have challenged me in new ways and failed to succeed. It was called Psychonauts, and although it was a completely different genre, feel and play style, it did have a lot of the core elements that I think make Braid great but will ultimately fail in the marketplace. How can such great games fail? I’ve wondered myself for a while and here is what I’ve come up with.

People don’t get it.
Some people just don’t understand the core of what the game is about. In Psychonauts you’re basically plowing into the inner-most thoughts and psyches of the people around you. It’s a platformer with puzzle solving, but for some reason people didn’t seem to gravitate towards the world. I think Braid may suffer from the same issue. It’s an ethereal feeling environment. The story is told through little books you read on your way to level selection (done by opening doors). The very intro screen is part of the gameplay (I actually sat there staring at it for a good 2 minutes before I realized I needed to do something). Most people are confused by such things, and generally don’t like to read (he said contemptuously).

Portal (the success story) on the other hand was very familiar territory to players. Anyone who had played through Half Life or any FPS could easily grasp what was going on there. The science labs were not much different than the labs you start off exploring in Half Life 1. Photo-realistic real world-esque environments. People got it, and that allowed them to try the game long enough to realize they actually enjoyed it.

Where Braid might have a leg up is in the nostalgia department. Everyone remembers Super Mario Brothers and its various incarnations. I’m hoping that people can latch onto that nostalgia long enough to give Braid the chance it deserves. However, people are generally loathe to try new things. They like their ruts, and they’ll continue to strut along them until they’ve dug their own grave. Can Braid get them out of that rut?

They’ll get frustrated.
This is where Psychonauts gave me pause. Some of the jumping puzzles were a little silly and would make me want to quit the game in frustration. On top of that, their save system wasn’t the greatest thing ever, so it left you to do things repeatedly. Things you hated doing.

Portal had a similar problem, in that once you figured out a solution (or thought you had), you could still die repeatedly while trying to complete that solution. Fortunately, their save anywhere functionality (as well as constant automatic quicksaves) stopped this from becoming a big pain in the ass. In addition, they did a LOT of focus testing to make sure that those sorts of frustrations were few and far between (something Psychonauts might have benefited from).

Braid seemingly has the perfect solution to this. If you miss a jump or run into a bad guy, you rewind time and try again. In this way, even the hardest set of jumping puzzles can become much easier to handle (although I do wish there were a way to slow down forward progressing time so I could time the jumps a little better without having to do them 10 times in a row). In fact the frustration of death is pretty much removed entirely. You cannot die, ever (that I’ve seen).

Yet Braid has another problem entirely. Some of the puzzles are incredibly difficult to figure out and understand. Even when you think you know what you must do, you can spend several minutes doing one jump over and over again, or in a more complicated test, end up rewinding a full minute of game play and repeatedly retrying a sequence. The fact that some of these puzzles require you to really think in order to understand them might also be a huge turn off for a major audience. People really don’t like to think (sad but true).

They Won’t See It.
This is a very real problem for games that don’t lie within the normal boundaries that most games fall in (FPS, Action Adventure Sci-Fi, RPG). While Psychonauts was a platformer, its core concept of psychokinetic powers is pretty rare in games. That probably got the advertisers worried. Yet, I do remember there being a lot of ads for Psychonauts in magazines. Perhaps people glossed over it thinking it was just another platformer. Maybe they don’t know who Tim Schafer is so they thought it was some crappy clueless company producing garbage and spewing it on the market (like Shiny or The Collective). I don’t really know, but both Psychonauts and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath had a severe PR problem. Despite countless positive reviews, both games pretty much faded before they even got a chance. I’m sure there are others like them, but I never heard about them…

Portal had two huge advantages towards achieving its popularity. The first was that it was packaged in a bright orange box that was crammed full of other goodies that any FPS person who had played Half Life was going to get. With Half Life 2, Half Life 2 episodes 1 and 2, Team Fortress 2, and a small bag of cocaine in the box, how could Portal not be seen? Anyone who enjoyed any of the other games were going to try Portal because it was in essence free.

I don’t know what Braid’s visibility is going to be like, but judging from the news coverage I’ve seen so far, I doubt it will be getting any real ad space. I suspect it will do very well in reviews, but as Psychonauts showed us, game review coverage does not equate to sales. The real trouble will be communicating the feel of the game without scaring away the people who don’t want to think (sadly, pretty much everyone). The first few worlds of Braid are quite accessible so maybe positive word of mouth will spread and make it into a success. It’s honestly hard to say, but my biggest concern for the success of Braid is Jonathan Blow himself.

The Creator Won’t Make it Accessible
I don’t doubt that the creators of Psychonauts and Portal both tried to make their games accessible. What Portal was able to do though was test every little bit of its game constantly and consistently to find exactly where people had trouble. They would then go in and make it easier or more obvious how to complete that area of the game. Where I think Mr.Blow’s Braid will come into trouble is his seeming unwillingness to remove the areas of the game that might cause confusion, or to “dumb down” the puzzles that may be too difficult for your average citizen. I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m being too presumptuous.

People are really simple creatures. They don’t want to think too hard in order to solve a problem. What made Portal work so well was that they removed anything from the narrative story that was too hard for the vast majority of people to understand after a bit of probing. I know that Mr.Blow is trying to push that boundary of understanding in people with Braid, but perhaps he’s more optimistic about humanity than I am. Ultimately I think that his goal of making people think, though noble (and I respect it whole heartedly), will ultimately fail. I fear that Braid may fail (in sales) along with it.

Optimism?
I honestly want Braid to succeed. I think there are a few minor things that could be changed to make it a little more accessible, and there are some other minor things that could turn it into a more consumable product. Accessibility wise for instance, the intro screen doesn’t give any clue that you’re playing the game already. After 10 seconds it should probably bring up some subtle text at the bottom that tells you how movement works. Just a few bits of explanation here and there could get rid of some of the confusion that I had while I was playing. Those are relatively minor points.

The more consumable aspects I don’t want to get into because they are puzzle related and I don’t want to ruin anything. I will say that there were a few instances that completely befuddled me and I will probably need more time to contemplate and then go back and try again. What’s interesting is that you can bypass a lot of them entirely if you get frustrated. It’s the collector in me that forces me to keep trying them over and over again. If this were the case in Portal, Valve would likely remove or decrease the difficulty of the puzzle in question that had the player base stumped (I’m assuming I’m above average at puzzle solving, maybe that’s just my ego talking though). Can Jonathan Blow do the same? I think so. I hope so.

Braid is a great game, and I do want it to succeed. So much so that I’ll be advertising it for free when it does publicly release. I’ll even offer up some bandwidth for on-line sales and create a store if they’ll let me (hell I want a cut if I’m wrong and it does reach commercial success, and if I’m right at least I tried to help).

So, here’s the deal. If you didn’t buy Psychonauts when it came out, shame on you. Braid is your chance to make it up and even perhaps, evolve a little as a game player. I guarantee you something beyond what you’ve experienced from your game library thus far. I know, I know, you want to grind out some more experience in WoW or gank someone in CoD4. Who gives a fuck about those games? You’re going to see another one just like it within the next year or two. Try something that actually pushes video games forward for a change. Maybe it won’t be for you, but at least you tried and supported something that wasn’t part of the stagnation/sequelitis problem that plagues our industry.

posted by CommanderHate at 7:19 pm  

10 Comments »

  1. I’m glad you are enjoying the game… I look forward to seeing what you think after you’ve finished it.

    I agree that there’s a risk Braid may not find a large audience. At the same time, I think there’s a potential for it to break out in a relatively large way. It just remains to be seen. If the game were not risky or challenging in some way, I don’t think I would have made it. It’s not interesting to me to just make some polished mass market game the goal of which is just to sell to the maximum number of people possible. I want to give an interesting/deep/different experience to as many people as possible — but the experience is the important part, and the audience size is secondary.

    Since Braid was not made by a big team of game developers, prospects are different than they are for an expensive retail game. If we can sell as many copies as Psychonauts did, then that’s okay! That wouldn’t be a smash success, but it would be more than acceptable.

    I agree that some players are not going to like the fact that Braid actually expects them to think and solve puzzles. But I am hoping that this will be balanced by people who are enthusiastic about a game that treats them as intelligent people. If enough people have a good response to the game, and just tell their friends about it, then that’s all Braid needs to be successful.

    The game as you are playing it is mostly finished. The “early player experience” kinds of things you are talking about may still be adjusted (email me if you have any specific suggestions!) but none of the puzzles are going to be made any easier. The puzzles aren’t arbitrary — they are carefully set up and there’s a lot of structure behind the way they are set up. So it’s not easy to just change them, and if I were to start doing that again now, the game would probably never be released.

    Some of the puzzles are hard, but different puzzles are hard for different people. If I were to cut out a puzzle because it’s hard for some people, I would be removing something that was a relatively easy (but still rewarding) experience for other people, which seems like it quickly becomes a way to water the game down.

    Anyway, the game isn’t really about posing arbitrary puzzles to the player. The puzzles are just the implementation of a philosophy, which is: hey, here’s a world where time behaves differently, let’s take a look at what that *means*, in terms of all these different things that can happen. Do you understand this ramification? How about this one? etc. This is part of what feels good about the game — the puzzles are not arbitrary; they actually mean something. At the same time, it means that if I cut out certain puzzles, the picture becomes incomplete. “Oh, there are some major consequences of this time behavior that are interesting but we didn’t show them because they resulted in puzzles that are kind-of hard”. The game would lose its grounding at that point, and become weaker overall.

    This does reduce the size of the potential audience, because a lot of people do seem to want passive “roller-coaster” experiences. At the same time, though, I am hoping it makes up for this by going really deep with a smaller set of people, such that they more-definitely want the game. (Another way to put this is that, while a lot of people do want roller-coaster experiences, there are a lot of other people who are tired of them and find them boring).

    It all comes down to what you want a game to be. In my mind, Braid is not really about “beating the game”. It’s about having an interesting experience.

    Anyway, we will see how it goes! You’re right that there is not going to be a huge amount of marketing for Braid, so it can use every blog posting it gets. Thanks for writing this.

    Comment by Jonathan Blow — March 5, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  2. “Who gives a fuck about those games? You’re going to see another one just like it within the next year or two.”

    Can I have your babies?

    Comment by downer — March 5, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  3. I am inclined to think that Jonathan Blow mouthed the words “how DARE you!” when he read your favorable comparison of Braid to Psychonauts.

    Here is what he said of Psychonauts on Quarter To Three:

    “I am on the ‘didn’t like it’ list too. I thought it was a pretty funny game, but the actual gameplay was quite bad. I quit sometime around the opera level.”

    I want to say, first, that I was blown away by Braid when I saw it presented at 2006 GDC in San Jose during the Experimental Gameplay Sessions. It was the game of session for me of all those presented then, some of which included Everyday Shooter and Flow, both of which received a lot of attention (and money) from the biggest publishers around. I had nothing but admiration for Blow until he actively began bashing his peers’ games.

    I attended GDC once again this year, and made sure to hit all the sessions Jonathan was leading (especially one titled “Ten New Challenges For Game Design”). I was really excited by what he had to say and show. It was very disappointing, then, to sit through him bashing popular, and genuinely fun games like God of War and even Half Life in front of his peers, and possibly the very developers who made them. Truly in poor taste. Meanwhile, he would draw our attention to Braid screens, discussing what he did right with such insights as making the background of a 2D platformer a less noticeable color so as not to detract from the information in the foreground. (Are you serious? Any designer unaware of this helpful tip has no business in the game industry). This, after saying that Valve ultimately failed with all their attempts to make an animation system that focused on emotions in order to help the player become more emotionally involved in the game. To be fair, he did hail Portal as a great game.

    The session seemed focused primarily on the hard luck that indie games were receiving in the industry, but this is fortunately not so based in reality anymore (thanks to Blow’s own efforts!), since the very games he helped present in 2006 got the attention they deserved. So what was he so upset about? It began to seem that Blow was simply bitter that his game didn’t receive as much attention from publishers as he’d like it to have. I could certainly be wrong about this, but that was the atmosphere he set during the talk. He seemed bitter and hateful, when the truth of the matter was that he should be pleased and optimistic about what his own and other indie devs’ efforts had already accomplished. His talk would have been a lot more inspiring to designers if he didn’t first offend them, and then had just framed his talk in a more positive light, focusing on what we were doing right and talking about what he believed to be our next step. As it was, I walked away pretty resentful.

    To play Braid now, something I’ve been really excited about, I’d have to get over the smugness of the developer a bit to really enjoy it. I hope Jonathan is more diplomatic in his future GDC lectures.

    Comment by A Reader of Q2Three — March 6, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  4. yeah, blow really has this way off pretending to be better than everyone else. i guess (i think een he himself said so on his website “how he thought more about the world than the other people, and thats why he didn’t fit in”, meanwhile, it was probably just because he was a weird) in school he was pretty much a nobody, and suddenly his got a bit of response and its all going to his head. problem with a lot of internet geeks, mind you. they never received attention, or was never “cool” before, but suddenly the internet has given them this new chance, but they just dont know how to handle the attention (having never received it)

    about the game being for “intelligent” beings.
    i don’t know. i can tell you that a lot of people with much more intelligent than blow will probably get annoyed by the puzzles. when you get home after work, you don’t want to start work right up again. you want to relax and have fun. sometimes there is a fine line between puzzles being difficult or just plain illogical. hopefully blow avoids the latter.

    Comment by johhny — March 7, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  5. Wow, someone is keeping track of stuff I said about Psychonauts months ago? Scary.

    Look, I am not bashing peoples’ games. I have a lot of respect for DoubleFine (I even did a little bit of consulting work for them back at the beginning of Brutal Legend). I am, however, calling things like I see them.

    There are some games that I like, and some I don’t like. Games do things I think are good, and other things that I think are bad. I am open and honest in talking about those things, because that is the main way that we make real progress in the medium — by everyone being honest and effective at giving and receiving criticism. If we are going to be all mealy-mouthed and polite for fear of offending people who made the games we’re talking about, then the medium suffers in the long term.

    When I talked about Braid in that lecture (which was *not* called Ten New Challenges for Game Design — that is something Gamasutra invented in their online writeup — so I kind of wonder if you were there), I was using it because it was a clear example of certain communication issues, about which I was very aware because I had just been working on the game for 3 years, so I could talk in great detail about them. It would make a lot less sense for me to talk about someone else’s game, and guess about things. (Which I actually did at other times during that lecture; but I wanted to fill it out with maximally solid information inasmuch as possible).

    I am not putting forth Braid as some game that is better than everyone else’s game. I am too close to the game to evaluate how good it is. A lot of people think it’s good, and hey, great.

    However, my design of the game is a direct response to things that I perceive to be lacking in other games, while at the same time standing on the shoulders of the things other games have achieved. That has always been my attitude when talking about the game; if you confuse that with arrogance, then, hey, that is your perception and that’s fine.

    My GDC lecture was not at all about indie versus mainstream. It was about art versus commerce — and I can see how one might get these things confused, but I was very clear in reiterating this point several times. The lecture had nothing to do with frustration at publishers. (I myself have a mainstream publisher!) It was, instead, about how to find ways to gain a deeper understanding of the medium so that we can create more-artful things.

    If you believe that the games of today are just great, and the games of the future should be like today’s games but just more and better, then we probably don’t share enough common ground for that lecture to make sense for you. Because I don’t think that the games of today are just great. (Which is also the reason why I chose not to do a lecture about all the positive things we are doing right now in game design — because hey, we’re not.)

    Comment by Jonathan Blow — March 8, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  6. – Jonathan Blow said –
    “If we are going to be all mealy-mouthed and polite for fear of offending people who made the games we’re talking about, then the medium suffers in the long term.”

    There’s a difference between obsequity and courtesy, and I’ve not noticed Mr. Blow stepping over that line.

    That said, criticism has its place, and I’m not sure criticizing some of the most critically acclaimed games in a massively public forum such as GDC is the right move without a lot of preparation and evidence to back up. While I mostly agree with what he’s said about game design, evidence always speaks loudest.

    -from the gamasutra article
    “We’ve succeeded at that latter approach,” Jon said, recalling the first videos from Valve depicting Half Life’s character technology. And yet, he called Episode 2 “just as robotic and lifeless a game as any FPS was in 1998, except it looks better.”

    I agree, but that doesn’t stop it from being a FUN game. It seems like Mr. Blow is saying that ‘fun’ may sell games, but there are other qualities that fall through the cracks. I’d hardly call Myst or Brain Age “Fun” yet there they are on the tops of the sales charts. I personally can’t stand J-date games (japanese dating sims) but they have a strong following. Sandbox games themselves aren’t by-design ‘fun’ because the player makes their own fun given the tools available.

    Ultimately the almighty dollar holds sway in the mainstream industry, while indie games are free to work outside that box. With digital distribution like XBLA and Steam games like Braid (which I’m looking forward to specifically because of this ongoing discussion) can demonstrate that there IS a market for intelligent, artful games that challenge a player.

    Comment by Technohazard — March 10, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  7. BTW, here’s the Gamasutra article from Feb 20. for those Haters too lazy to look it up.

    http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17535

    Comment by Technohazard — March 10, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  8. To Jonathan:

    I don’t know why you would be surprised that readers of a forum would remember something highly topical to the subject at hand that you said about a game when you are high profile enough to be hosting important GDC lectures every year.

    Also, I apologize for getting the name of your lecture wrong — I didn’t remember what you called it and assumed Gamasutra’s title was accurate. (It’s a little harsh to suggest I lied about attending it, though). In fact, I left anonymous feedback on the form that my above post just elaborated upon.

    Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan, you are perfectly entitled to your opinions. You can hate games as much as you want. All I’m saying is that a GDC lecture where people expect you to offer insight on design is not a good place to vent your disappointment with their games in the strong terms that you did. You are speaking directly to developers who might have worked on them or friends thereof and it’s just not very classy. There are ways of saying what you did much more diplomatically and achieve the same results.

    Never did I say that what the industry is making now is GREAT and that we shouldn’t deviate from the course for a moment. On the contrary, that’s what I love about our industry — that there is a future there always different from the present; there’s always innovation and as of recent, we’re especially seeing a lot more interesting advances in gameplay than we had for a couple of years (in large part, thanks to people like you). I came to your lecture because I thought the previous sessions of yours I’d attended were really inspiring and made me think I have the best job in the world (I still felt that way after this year’s Experimental Gameplay Sessions and the laptop addendum). However, I walked out of your design session feeling terrible.

    God of War is not my cup of tea, but I will defend to the end that it is a well-made, fun game, with at least as much visual attention to detail that Braid has and that no one should feel bad about making it or enjoying playing it. If it is off-putting to you to hear people talk about it and there is nothing in there for you and it’s not the game you really want to be making, that’s perfectly fine, but we’re not there to hear what you want to be making and how worthless you think that game is. We’re there to hear your advice and insight on how to make our games more meaningful, and your strong, largely negative opinions of our games get in the way of that.

    I admit that the Art vs Commerce discussion is a little silly to me to start with, because there has been an eternal debate within the art world, long before games came along, about whether mass art is art at all (and mass art has been losing for no good reason). I’ll msg you on Q23 if you want to talk about stuff more offline. I don’t wanna hog the comments section.

    Comment by A Reader of Q2Three — March 14, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  9. well done, man

    Comment by Minniebt — March 23, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

  10. […] this page seems to get a ridiculous amount of traffic (even now), I thought I would link to my first impressions and formal review on Braid so that my cussing about how good Braid is isn’t the only thing […]

    Pingback by Gamer Hate » I Just Completed Braid — December 16, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

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