Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Braid: Contemptuous, Contemptuous Hair

I won't be writing about video games very much here because, honestly, I have no business writing about video games, since I am, as a general rule, terrible at them. But I've been playing Jonathan Blow's Braid the last couple of days and I was struck by two things:
  1. The gameplay really is as brilliant as everybody says.
  2. The writing is terrible.
When I pointed this out on the Twitter, I received a bit of pushback, so I figured I'd expand a bit on my thoughts here. But first, a pretty serious caveat: Not only have I not finished the game, I've barely begun it. So when I critique the writing, what I'm critiquing is not the story, but rather the style.*

Take, for example, the second passage in the game:
Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.
The final line here is presumably the line from which the title is derived. As such, it would be nice if it weren't so tortured. Braids, as unfortunate as it may be, do not "lash with contempt." Indeed, braids are not prompted to do anything by emotion, given that braids feel no emotion, given that braids are composed of hair, which is emotionless. This is not me being overly literal or rejecting personification as a valid literary tool. The problem is that this is not how personification should be used, and it's hardly clear that the author even intended to use it. On the contrary, what Blow seems to have been trying to say is that the princess was contemptuous. But what he, in fact, said was that her hair was contemptuous. Which is kind of funny, but probably not intentionally so.

Or take this line from the middle of Chapter 3:
But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications.
Getting too comfortable can be problematic.
Is Blow's version better? If so, why? Because it contains more words? Because it's less clear? Because "is a mode of existence" just sounds so, um, not stilted?

The problem here seems to be one of trying too hard. Blow was clearly trying to create something of artistic worth, and he was adapting the storybook style of the early Mario games, so he took the narrative style of those Mario games and tried to make it literary. Unfortunately, it reads not as great literature, but as a poor imitation of great literature.

Which is too bad because the rest of the game really is an artistic triumph.

*It also means that I reserve the right to change my mind if it turns out that the story justifies the style.


  1. I think the writing is justified in a way. It's trying its best to be intentionally vague. Not to spoil too much, but the writing is basically .telling three stories at once, and when you look back at it, you go "Ooooh, that's what that was about." Things that sound kind of dumb when you take one meaning make more sense when you go back and read it again knowing another meaning.

    But yeah, Blow definitely uses a lot to say a little. Which is kind of funny since I'm pretty sure he's a writer before he's a game designer.

  2. But the princess' hair is not alive, so don't be on the lookout for that.

  3. I think the writing was probably most interesting in Braid when it actually did effectively tie in with the new mechanic being explored in the relevant set of levels. I'd say the success at that was variable, at times I'd say it most effectively established a mood rather than a direct connection. All that said, I think the writing did a very good job of setting up the finale sequence but a less over-written story perhaps could have done so just as well.