Finished Braid

I just finished the time-manipulation puzzle game Braid and I absolutely loved it. I highly recommend playing it on XBLA, so you can contemplate the game on a comfortable couch, with an ergonomic controller in your hands. Normally, I dislike platform games; they require too much in the way of twitch skills and are too punitive (for failing a tweaky jump, for instance). Braid is the best game I’ve played on XBLA and one of my favorite games in a while.

The game’s level progression is satisfyingly consistent and cohesively domestic: A number of worlds, accessible from within a house. (Why won’t someone please turn House of Leaves into a game, btw?) Each world has levels with the same global mechanics. But each world also has one amazing new mechanic. The player is shown the rules—both the consistent, global rules and the new world-specific mechanics—in a gentle fashion. Each world’s completion is tracked with a painting, broken up into puzzle pieces.

The music and art for Braid are such a huge, integrated part of the experience that all the elements seem to elevate one another. “Unity of Effect” as Poe (or my friend and fellow game designer Ricardo Bare) might say. Partially, this might be aided by the fact that altering time during gameplay also alters the music. Further, a critical pragmatic point is the way the music changes from level to level and during rewind; since you spend a lot of time considering a given puzzle, repetitive music in Braid would likely kill your mind. Instead, the music is almost a companion and feels organically different and appropriate from moment to moment. In terms of visuals, I love the somber, painterly art style. It’s great to see something simultaneously atypical and really well executed. The game is just beautiful and the art style evokes the same feelings and concepts supported holistically by the other elements in the game, including the gameplay dynamics.

The rich, interesting background fiction for Braid is refreshing in a world of game content based on soldiers, aliens, knights, demons and spies. (Okay, admittedly, I still love that stuff, but it’s nice to have alternatives.) I love the time mechanics and the *generally* forgiving arcade play, but the cohesion of the elements and the atypical fiction were equally important to my experience. I also loved the feeling of constant allusions and metaphor. I had a teary-eyed fifth grade moment at one point and realized that I felt some sadness related to subjective memories of the Lord of the Rings books.

Most of the time, I loved figuring out the puzzles as much as I loved the cohesive vibe. To complete the game, I had to look up the solutions to three puzzle pieces, which I didn’t mind doing at all. For a guy with zero patience, only needing 3 hints to complete a mind-bender like this is hugely cool and a sign of the game’s polish.

An intermittent frustration involved places in the game where I figured out the puzzle but (felt like I) lacked the arcade skills to complete them without trying dozens of times, even with rewind. It’s hard to criticize a platformer for tricky jumps or a puzzle game for hard puzzles; especially if that game allows you to rewind mistakes and generally continue play without solving all of the puzzles. (Being able to leave a puzzle behind, returning to it later, is one of the best decisions related to the game’s level flow.) But once in a while the game nearly drove me mad. The larger issue, really, is knowing whether your planned approach to a puzzle is right or wrong. You might have an idea about how to solve the puzzle, but fail a jump several times and thus doubt your plan. So you move on and try another (flawed) approach. After a while, this doubt screws with you in other ways too. For the Fickle Companion puzzle, I first spent a lot of time working on a suboptimal semi-solution that *seemed* right; I tried one jump dozens of times, assuming it would eventually work.

That leads me to another critique. I believe that one of Braid’s strengths also points to a weakness: It feels like a heavily-authored experience, with little room for self-expression. Since that’s key to most of the games I love, I missed it here. (Oddly, Portal didn’t feel this way for me; perhaps the visceral movement through 3d FPS space gives Portal a sense of expressive movement, even though the puzzles generally have, I believe, a single solution.)

But the game is really about discovery. It plays to this strength and early on I had this feeling that the game was encouraging me to re-think the punitive designer/player compact. (And that’s a great achievement in game design.) I’m allowed to simply walk along almost to the end of the game? I can back up and correct any mistake? In general, softening failure is such a great direction to expand games. Randy Smith alluded to it in a GDC talk a while back, games like Prey tackled the concept in FPS form a year or so back, and recently Rock Band in tour mode has my favorite soft death/failure ever. (Not only are you given multiple chances to avoid dipping too low, but when you do omg it feels good to be saved or to save someone.) Braid really nails this concept. After a while, I felt oddly *comfortable* in the rules space of the game.

Whereas in many cases, platformers make it easy to figure out what you need to do, then vex you with overly-hard execution tasks, Braid makes execution fairly easy (in most cases), but requires devilish thought to figure out how a given puzzle can be solved. Braid reminds me of Portal (another favorite) in the way it allowed me to engage my mind at my own pace. By the time I finished the game, I was ready for it to end. I’ve heard that there are additional hidden elements that one can go back and pursue, but—having resolved the story—I don’t feel any desire to explore that aspect of the game.

Forbidden words…is Braid better than Mario 64? The latter game, when it came out, seemed like a revolution. It was so amazingly well done that it taught us all something about game design. Mario 64 is the work of one of the best game designers in the world and playing the game felt like attending his class as a very fortunate pupil.

But in Braid I have a sense of the little jumping avatar…who he is and how he might feel. The dimensions of his being are lightly but powerfully defined through snippets of fiction and through the metaphors involved in gameplay…undoing fundamentally life-altering mistakes, remorse. That’s meaningful to me. Mario 64 features some really clever timed jumping puzzles and generally (aside from the wall jump and the camera moving into bad spots) great controls. But Braid’s puzzles are nothing short of mind-altering…after finishing some of them I felt like my brain had been made more flexible, like I’d learned a new concept in some intimate new language. This is an order of magnitude in difference. Braid takes a simple concept—rescue the princess—and turns it into something deeply moving, something I’ll be thinking about for years. Braid is full of touching allusions of other games, works of fiction, and universal life experiences. Every inch of Braid is a painting; the core game dynamics make music. Unlike most platformers, Braid is forgiving; when you miss a jump, you simply back up time, and the visuals and audio cues associated with this mechanic are pleasing of themselves, aesthetically, while also supporting the underlying fiction.

Braid is amazing.

Frostbite’s first offering

I just finished Battlefield Bad Company and really liked it despite some insane difficulty spikes and some other minor stuff that bugged me.

The single-player maps are just non-linear enough to give me a bit of the approach-from-several-vectors thrill. The game makes good use of a few general purpose tools and supports some degree of plan formulation on the part of the player. (My favorite tool is the recharging air strike. I used it constantly through the middle of the game and it greatly enhanced the experience…allowing me to crawl into a risky position and take out a critical target. Even a minor option like this–on top of straight-up combat, vehicle use, explosives and sniping–makes gameplay a little richer.) There are side areas scattered through the missions, giving the game some exploration appeal. When low on supplies, sometimes I’d make little runs against side areas and stock up. The “next” area can be scoped out, approached in numerous ways, including vectors enabled by ground vehicles or boats. Again, additional play options—driven by the player’s own planning—make the entire game more interesting.

The most interesting aspect is the way the battlefield doesn’t reset when you die and restart an area. It’s a little weird at first, but not only does this make the world seem more lived it–and reinforces that I, the player, have been here–it also makes the game easier to crawl through. That reduces redundant replay. Instead of “Damn, I have to replay an area,” it’s like, “Well, I died, but at least 3 of those guys are dead and I know more or less where the others are hiding out.” That has the disadvantage of feeling like it’s committing the “don’t teach by death” faux pas, but it’s worth it for the two reasons cited above. It’s an interesting choice and overall it’s a win in terms of making the world feel alive/dynamic instead of canned.

Information economy in game design fascinates me. Lack of information is actually one of problems with BF:BC…a tank is shooting at me through some pines, several guys across the road are firing. I take cover, heal myself, prep my weapon, but still can’t tell exactly where the enemy is. As such, I sometimes die in a way that doesn’t feel fair. Later, once I know where to focus, the same tactical situation is really fun. The radar should help with the information situation, but sometimes I haven’t spotted an enemy yet and–even though my squad mates are engaged–the enemy doesn’t show up radar.

Deviating from my normal preference for medium, I played on Hard (on the Xbox 360). Playing on hard difficulty makes BF:BC more tactical without restricting movement. In this case, like Mercenaries a few years ago, hard just means that you’ve got to study the environment and try out strategies until something works. Most of the time “tactical shooter” means “press this button and stick to something so you can’t move–read interact–any more.” It’s really interesting to me that in a game like Gears, I wanted a setting that was easier than their easiest. In CoD4, I couldn’t play on the hardest setting for more than a third of the game. But in games like STALKER or BF:BC, I wanted more difficulty.

Sadly, if you get an Achievement for finishing a chapter on a harder difficulty mode, you don’t automatically get the lesser difficulty Achievement for that chapter too. I thought that was standard now.

I’m really glad I played through Battlefield Bad Company. Kudos to the game team and the engine team (for Frostbite).

New Speech by Jon Blow

Great new speech by Jon Blow. Highly recommended if you’re interested in the fascinating (but, to some, painfully slow) advancement going on in games.

Specifically, the part about changing the rules of Gravitation is really great (even though the game didn’t work for me as much as Passage, by Jason Rohrer, the same designer). Partially, this section was meaningful to me because of an experience I’ve had recently at Arkane. In addition to our longer-range RPG/FPS, we’ve been working on a side project that (when conceived) focused on two ideas: First, the notion that the overall game structure and the interactions between players would mimic a person’s life, touching on how that life is influenced heavily by a handful of people…friends, family, enemies, or strangers. Second, the way the human mind can look at icons, then read text, and assemble meaning. (I wanted to do something similar to what Mamet talks about in On Directing Film, a juxtaposed sequence of uninflected images.) Game design is hard enough when you’re just trying to make a game interesting or pleasurable, but it’s even harder when you’re trying to accomplish those things while also keeping an eye on whether the meaning conveyed by the plot (or theme or tone) for the game is in alignment with the meaning conveyed by the dynamics. But that’s the goal, and it’s exciting to be working in a time when designers are pushing themselves for more, asking these questions. In the case of our little game, we’ve sometimes held to the two ideas above, and sometimes we’ve just altered rules to give players more of what they want. Whether this is good or bad depends on your goals as a game designer.

The first person I heard talking about meaning-from-dynamics was Ian Bell, who was mortified later in his career about what Elite ‘said’ about Capitalism. The fact that people are discussing this at all is a great thing, in my view.

Another section of Jon’s talk that was great was related to Bioshock. One of the best games of 2007, there’s still this conflict between the meaning imparted through traditional storytelling vs the meaning created through game dynamics: The plot asks you to altruistically aid the Little Sisters or–in the name of merciless, Randian self interest–to harvest them (and the Adam resource they carry). However, the game dynamics impart a different meaning, since the player who opts not to harvest ends up getting almost the same amount of Adam. Go view to Jon Blow’s speech, and follow along with the slides, because he says it best. Jon is articulating something crucially important. Not crucially important to making games or making games fun; crucially important to elevating games as a medium. I enjoyed Bioshock more than all but a couple of games during 2007. It’s an RPG/FPS, my favorite type of game, and it made me teary eyed. In my book, it’s brilliant and a step forward, despite any problems with plot/dynamics alignment.

Jon mentions a potential future where—because they’re making tons of money—mainstream games never even bother to solve some of these challenging problems, where art games do but are largely ignored except by a small group that loves art games. Much more likely, I believe, is a future where art games, by the very nature, stay ahead of AAA games in terms of experimentation and interactivity, but where those AAA continue to absorb the interesting explorations of art games, always a step behind in this way, but getting there nonetheless.

One of the best sections of the talk is called Challenge Substitutes. It touches on some devilish problems for games as a medium. Specifically, the mention of Delivery vs Interactivity gave me chills, because of all the times at Ion Storm we had to fight it out with people who wanted us to change Deus Ex so that it would “demo well.” Obviously, the more a game depends on the player for “cool stuff” to happen, the more interesting the game is, as a system…as an interactive thing. But what that means is that someone walking up to a controller at a trade show is not guaranteed to see something amazing in 5 seconds.

Jon’s stuff is thought-provoking and at the end of the talk, he even pushes hard against the current direction of art games, via Frank Lantz (another favorite, ever-challenging voice in games).

This line of thinking is really important and I hope everyone checks out the speech. Jon’s game Braid is coming out soon for XBLA.