Hair-pulling and braid-weaving

Ever since the minor kerfuffle over Titan Games’ Fat Princess, I’ve been wanting to write some more criticism of games, and not just because I love attracting defensive trolls who hallucinate de jure censorship and gamer-reviling boycotts whenever something problematic about a game comes up.

Fat Princess is basically a decent-sounding game concept that tragically hinges on one demeaning stereotype as a central metaphor. Only the concept for that game has been released to te public, so we weren’t able to talk much about the game itself. On the other hand, there are plenty of already-released games out there that deserve criticism too. And guess what? I don’t mean criticism as in bashing, I mean criticism as in “the kind of analysis and commentary that films, books, plays, and other media receive.” Games need criticism in order to evolve as a medium.

As a game designer, I love the rare moments when my games are picked apart at a level that transcends the usual “should I buy this” review revolving around fun, explosions, and how many hours of play the consumer gets. Unsurprisingly, I’m very keen on feminist perspectives on gaming as one lens of criticism and analysis. A lot of gamers looked at Valve’s amazing game Portal in this way, the standout being Joe McNeilly’s over-the-top psychoanalytic reading of the game, pushing the signifiers and comp-lit speak as far as he could.

With all that said, I present Braid, one of this year’s most hotly-anticipated and rave-reviewed games, but one that hasn’t received much attention outside of certain kinds of gamer circles. It’s a short but elegant game, a homage to and deconstruction of classic platform games like Super Mario Bros, and a moody meditation on time, memory, and relationships. Braid is a fascinating game for many reasons. Most of them are described in this preview, which I recommend reading if you want excuses to buy and play the game.

Seeing as this is a feminist blog, I’m going to talk about the game’s take on relationships. You see, in Braid you have to rescue the princess. Sound familiar?

Before we go any further, here is a warning. I am going to have to spoil the entire plot of this game, including the twist ending. If you have an Xbox 360, I recommend you download and play the game instead of reading any further. It’s definitely worth $15. If you like jumping on little round uglies, listening to vaguely Celtic music played backwards, and feeling like your perception of causality is being bent into pretzels, you’ll love Braid. In fact, if you hang out at a friend’s house who has an Xbox, I recommend you go over there before reading this. And if you really don’t like spoilers and own a Windows PC, you can even wait for the PC version to come out… probably in a few months. If you’re sure you won’t ever finish this game, or just don’t care that Jon Blow will weep salty tears and gnash his teeth in anger that I’m spoiling everything for you, read on.

So, back to the princess. Back, back, back to where it all began for princesses and protagonists. When was it? When she was being held hostage by a barrel-throwing ape? Kidnapped by a big spiky turtle guy? Let’s recap from last time: there are many ways of subverting the old helpless-princess stereotype. Making her fat for lulz? Not such a brilliant one. Braid heads off in what looks like a familiar direction, but ends up at an unusual destination. This princess was once in a relationship with the game’s protagonist, a diminutive redhead in a green suit named Tim.

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.

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 him with contempt.

So begins Tim’s quest to rescue the Princess. In the most obvious homage to its predecessors, the game leads Tim to a castle at the end of each set of levels; every time the princess is in another castle. As the game goes on, however, the nature of the quest grows increasingly muddled. Even the inhabitants of the castles grow confused as to what’s going on. It’s not clear if Tim is pursuing a real person, or some abstract ideal of princess-ness that he longs for.

Braid involves several different game mechanics that let you play with time and relate to the abstract storyline that frames Tim’s journey. Initially, you can rewind time to save yourself from dropping into a pit, or to bounce precisely off of enemies’ heads. What’s I find fascinating about this mechanic is that it transforms the hardcore nature of many platform games (miss the jump and die!) into a non-punishing sandbox that you can experiment and play in. There’s no real way to die in Braid; you just rewind. In a later stage, Tim muses on how returning to your childhood home or school is like traveling back in time. Accordingly, the gameplay connects your position in space to the timeline of each level, so that all activity plays forward when you walk right, and backwards when you walk left.

In the final stage of the game, everything except for Tim himself moves in reverse. And in the final level, Tim finally finds the princess, being held captive by a huge bully-like man. She escapes and starts to flee across the level, and Tim follows her in an underground tunnel. This split-screen action follows logic similar to other classic games; Tim and the princess help each other advance by pulling levers that open gates or lower bridges on the others’ path. Finally they reach a large, modern house where Tim finally can climb up to meet her on the balcony. (This all happens in the first two minutes of the video below.) But then something very strange happens.

Suddenly the screen flashes and the princess is shown in bed, asleep. Surrounding her are decorative and stuffed creatures that look just like the enemies Tim has been avoiding in the levels so far. He stands outside the window, looking in. Then the whole thing starts to play in reverse — or starts to play forward, rather, because it turns out that everything you’ve seen so far has been backwards. Watching the same sequence in the opposite direction reveals something very disturbing. Instead of following Tim, the princess is running away from him. Instead of helping him by opening doors and raising bridges, she’s trying to keep him from climbing up to her, trying to drop him in a fiery pit of lava. And when you get back to the “beginning” of the level, it turns out that the ogre holding her captive was really responding to her cries for help. When he yells “I’ve got you!” it’s not because he’s captured her, but because he’s caught her after a jump.

The narrative of Braid is abstract and fragmentary, and leaves much open to interpretation. Gamers on all the usual message boards seem to agree, however, that there’s something creepy about Tim. At the very least, he’s an unreliable narrator. My take is that he’s a stalker ex-boyfriend who only thinks he can “rescue” a woman he’s obsessed with from the man she dated after him. Of course, you’re totally unaware of his threatening delusion until the story turns the tables on you at the very end.

The epilogue to the game, which you can see in the last half of the video above, goes further into this idea of flipping the perspective and seeing events in a very different light. Each screen in the epilogue displays a different passage from a man’s point of view. Maybe it’s Tim, maybe it’s someone else. But when you move behind an object in the scene, literally taking Tim out of the picture, a woman’s voice sings out and the text changes. Here’s the first example:

The boy called for the girl to follow him, and he took her hand. He would protect her; they would make their way through this oppressive castle, fighting off the creatures made of smoke and doubt, escaping to a life of freedom.

The boy wanted to protect the girl. He held her hand, or put his arm around her shoulders in a walking embrace, to help her feel supported and close to him amid the impersonal throngs of Manhattan. They turned and made their way toward the Canal St. subway station, and he picked a path through the jostling crowd.

changes to:

His arm weighed upon her shoulders, felt constrictive around her neck. “You’re burdening me with your ridiculous need,” she said. Or, she said: “You’re going the wrong way and you’re pulling me with you.” In another time, another place, she said: “Stop yanking on my arm; you’re hurting me!”

The rest of the epilogue goes through other male/female dichotomies. A scientist who’s so obsessed with his search for the Princess that he doesn’t notice a real woman standing right in front of him; the creators of the atomic bomb, chastised by a female presence that seems to represent Mother Nature; finally, a little boy who can’t understand why his mother won’t let him have everything he wants:

She didn’t mind his screams and his shrieks, or the way he yanked painfully on her braid to make her stop. He was too little to know better. She picked him up and hugged him: “No, baby,” she said. […] “Maybe when you’re older, baby,” she whispered, setting him back on his feet and leading him home, “Maybe when you’re older.”

Every day thereafter, as before, she always walked him on a route that passed in front of the candy store.

There’s something sinister about that last line that bears further examination. Does Tim, or the archetypal figure described by these passages, want things he can’t have because “women have made him that way?” I can’t say for sure exactly what Jonathan Blow was trying to say with all of this flowery text, and I’m not sure he’d tell me even if I asked him the next time we cross paths. We’re left to make our own interpretations. For one thing, I suspect that the prose is deliberately pretentious, to say something about Tim’s mindset. For another, I wouldn’t be surprised if Blow was drawing on his own experiences in relationships, for better or worse. Ultimately, the protagonist of this story is left (just as the audiences) to ponder the fragmentary experiences that Braid has woven him through.

What’s remarkable about Braid is not just the innovative use of time-manipulating game mechanics, the incredibly tight puzzle design, or the evocative watercolor art and sound design. It’s also that the game’s narrative, traditional and linear though it may be in some ways, is willing to explore themes that games have generally shied away from, and in a way that allows for abundant interpretations.

I’ve dwelled on the tale of Tim and the princess because it uses the immersive nature of gaming to tell a story about relationships. Is Tim remembering his breakup — first in a delusional way that makes him out to be a hero, and finally in the accurate retelling where he chased and scared her? Has he learned anything from the events of the game? It’s hard to say. 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.

What’s your take?

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25 Responses to Hair-pulling and braid-weaving

  1. AndersH says:

    Thanks for a good analysis, I just finished playing it the other day, though I’ve not managed to get the green books in the epilogue. I guess I have to tinker with it a bit.
    I started feeling there was something a bit odd and creepy about the text on… world 3? The one about mistakes. So I was a bit troubled about it until the twist, where you find out that yes, Tim really is someone who doesn’t understand other people/women and relationships. He felt like a more extreme version of a forum (gaming) nerd, to be honest.

  2. Fervent Effervescence says:

    Basically, Tim is needy and overly analytical. He thought he and his “princess” were working together toward some shared ideal, but she felt burdened by his needs and backed away. So he set about trying to understand why, and she felt like a science experiment. Eventually, as much as she cared for him, she put up a wall. He pressed his face up against it, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t let him in. Maybe when he’s not so needy, she said. Maybe.

    But he still didn’t understand. He knew he did something wrong, he knew things weren’t right between them, but couldn’t figure out why. Thus the analysis over the course of the game. Eventually he hits his epiphany, and realizes the cause for everything. So he takes what he’s learned and builds his own castle — a small one, a work in progress.

  3. Speck says:

    I played through the epilogue again and noticed a few things: first, I don’t think that the woman standing in front of the scientist is a real woman – “Ghostly, she stood in front of him and looked into his eyes….But he would not see her; he only knew how to look at the outsides of things.”

    I also think the particular treats that the little boy is lusting after in the candy store vignette in the epilogue are interesting: “…the chocolate bar and the magnetic monopole, the It-From-Bit and the Ethical Calculus; and so many other things, deeper inside.”

    Compare this with the text from the books in the clouds of chapter 1:

    “People like Tim seem to live oppositely from the other residents of the city. Tide and riptide, flowing against each other. Tim wants, like nothing else, to find the Princess, to know her at last. For Tim this would be momentous, sparking an intense light that embraces the world, a light that reveals the secrets long kept from us, that illuminates – or materializes! – a final palace where we can exist in peace. But how would this be perceived by the other residents of the city, in the world that flows contrariwise? The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing, taking the castle with it; it would be like burning down the place we’ve always called home, where we played so innocently as children. Destroying all hope of safety, forever.”

    Now consider the opening scene: Tim on a rooftop, staring out at a city that looks like it’s on fire. Even the title, “Braid,” seems to be made of flames.

    I think the princess that Tim is chasing after throughout the game isn’t a woman that he drove away with his manias about protection and control. She’s a metaphor for the deep truths of nature that he desperately wants to discover, as a scientist. Unfortunately, his discoveries, the ones that were reserved for when he was “older,” end up ushering in the destruction of the very world he wanted to improve.

  4. Holly says:

    Definitely, Speck. I noticed all the references to theoretical physics and information theory alongside the references to the Trinity atomic test. I think the narrative is operating on several levels simultaneously, not really a surprising idea even if it’s one that’s rather novel for video games. After all, there are definitely some descriptions of fairly concrete flesh-and-blood women in parts of the text too, and the whole final level is a visual depiction of three people — a triangle of pursuit and rejection with conflicting (delusional) interpretations. It’s hard to explain that as a metaphor for science without stretching, but there’s also no reason Tim’s obsessive princess-hunting can’t be operating at a human level and a figurative level at the same time. After all, that’s what happens when we put people on a pedestal, or are caught up in “the idea of a person” instead of the person. It blends together. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that somehow at the ground level of this tower, there’s a woman running away from the “protagonist” in fear.

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  6. Speck says:

    Yeah, there’s definitely more than one thing going on here – perhaps I should have said the princess isn’t just a woman he drove away. Speaking of women that Tim drives away, one aspect of the story I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet is Tim’s wife, who he abandoned in pursuit of the Princess, be she real or metaphorical. The whole sixth level is built upon Tim’s wedding ring, which he tries to keep hidden, because it weighs upon him and slows his progress. I haven’t quite figured out how the paintings from the 5th and 6th levels fit into that, though.

  7. tenacitus says:

    So you are a game designer and a lawyer then you write all these posts on the blog, amazing Holly.

  8. Holly says:

    What, I’m not a lawyer! Must be getting me confused with other bloggers. I congratulated some bar-takers on taking the bar a while back, but I’ve never taken it myself. Lorem ipsum dolor?

  9. Anon says:

    Unfortunately, the secret ending isn’t quite as happy, but it does fit into the whole obsession theme.

  10. sara no h. says:

    Well, count me among the blown-away-can’t-wait-to-play crowd. I’m glad you’ve posted spoilers though, because looking over some of the puzzles as reviewed at Arthouse Games, I’m not sure I’d ever make it there! I’m a notoriously impatient gamer – even games I love, love, if they take more than a week or so of casual play to beat, I usually end up forgetting all about them. :P

  11. Dissent says:

    Spoilers for secret ending follow.

    Anon I disagree with you. If you get all the stars then you finally get to touch the princess and she blows up/dissappears. Then can go back to the epilogue level then the home level. Then you see the constellation filled in and its Andromeda-the chained maiden. A lot of people interpret this as a ‘bad ending.’ Tim captured and enslaved the princess.

    I think people might be mistaken about Tim ‘getting’ the princess when you get all the stars. Its not a ‘bad end.’
    When Tim gets all the stars, its not that he finally catches the princess-she disappears after all. Its that he finally realizes what she was all along. An inspiration, not a person. Tim doesn’t hold the princess, he sees a bunch of stars in the sky that look like a princess that is chained up. The constellation represents what started his journey in the first place. He mistakes a metaphor for reality. When you finally get all the stars Tim finally sees her what she is-unreachable stars in the sky.</SPOILERS

  12. Holly says:

    I was about to post here about the “secret ending” as well, since I got it this morning. I have to say, given all the theoretical physics and atomic bomb references, that this does feel very much like Tim “getting what he wants” just as the scientists at Trinity did. I mean, there’s a very clear sound effect of a trigger-like whine increasing in pitch, and then a bomb sound. I’m not sure how this connects to inspiration — or how the image of a woman chained / forces of nature chained is connected to inspiration. All the sciencey quotes about pursuit of world-changing inspiration seem to ultimately be about obsessive men who don’t realize what they’re really unleashing/leashing, the painful and horrific consequences of their actions.

    When I got the secret ending, which was really, really difficult to get, I immediately thought “Aughgh!! I fell for it like an idiot!” In the regular ending, the princess flees from and escapes Tim, which is as it should be. He’s left alone to contemplate what this ideal on a pedestal really means, what he was blind to, and all the moments of his journey in a metaphorical castle.

    But in the “secret ending,” the PLAYER’S obsession is also brought to bear, correct? It represents a whole level of hardcore play that requires pushing the dynamics of this game system to their limits, searching and pursuing the stars (that make up the constellation of the princess in the night sky) across the entire world again, obsessively. The player has to become just as obsessive as Tim, which isn’t really that uncommon in these sorts of games, with their collection mechanics and secret unlocking. There’s always the tantalizing promise of a secret area (or eight), another level that might be unlocked, an extra secret ending.

    A lot of times the secret ending is the “true ending” or the “best ending,” especially in RPGs. But in this case, I agree with the theories that say it’s a trick. By falling for the lure of obsession (just like Tim does, to the detriment of the real women in his life) players gives in to what they’ve just been told is a bad idea. So in the end, even though you know Tim should not REALLY be catching the princess if you’re trying to see something good happen with the story, it’s impossible to resist. So there’s an explosion — and presumably a nuclear explosion. Joke’s on you, you get what you asked for and what you were warned about.

    Speaking of warnings, you know the flags that raise up at the end of each world, on the castles? Another homage to Super Mario Bros, but apparently the colors and patterns on each flag are references to nautical flags, and spell out a series of warnings like “stop,” “stop what you’re doing,” “go back,” “cease your current course.”

  13. Ari says:

    I was really surprised nobody mentioned the recurring theme of alcohol in the jigsaw puzzles- drowning sorrow? Abusive relationships? Red Herring?

    The narrative here is so fractured and analytical that it’s wonderful to speculate about. Obviously quite intentional though. :) Is the theme really about obsessive love or is that just a front for a more subtle message about obsessive dreams of control, and how nuclear ambitions have the same terrible consequences? I’m going to have to cop out and say I actually like every interpretation of the game I’ve seen thus far.

    The one personal theory I will venture, I think, is on the whole “woman left behind for the princess” bit in the world five prologue becomes a lot clearer if you come back to it with the whole “tim is living time in reverse” bit. When he “leaves” her, he’s actually meeting her for the first time- hence why she loves him, Princess be damned. I like to think we got the happy ending and redemption for his mistakes halfway through the game, but our unreliable narrator hid it from us. ;) Of course, I’m probably counter-intentionally mashing up the backwards-themed ending with the shadow-themed midpoint.

  14. Dissent says:

    The last flag is code for:
    Communication is needed.
    AKA “We need to talk.”
    I mean that lends itself pretty easily to the relationship motif.
    The thing I wonder is the significance of the last world being World 1.
    Perhaps what we see there is just the start of Tim’s journey. Its not as much closure of course. Doesn’t the penultimate castle guy just ask if Tim is sure the princess is real?

    After reading some of Blow’s other speeches/rants (his words not mine) I think maybe the gender/relationship thing, while valid, is subplot. His main theme seems to be motivation as innovation. Why do people play games/keep playing games? Blow was pretty critical of games like WoW that seem to reward/encourage anti-social behavior. And not just that they require a lot of time/effort, but that they require the player to take amoral actions without much justification/context. The player just kills something to hit another level, or get another piece of gear. I think Braid is Blow’s Anti-WoW. No grinding, no gear, no way to lose a life. And at the end, you realize the thing you were pursuing is a fantasy.

  15. Lauren says:

    Hey Holly, just wanted to say that even though I’m not much of a gamer (I might be if I had more time and money to spend on the damn gaming systems) I do heart your game analysis. Good writing.

  16. Seconding the hearting. I wasn’t sure if I was going to buy this game for financial reasons, but your analysis and the discussion here in the comments are tipping me over that way. Now I want to see and experience it for myself!

  17. Dave says:

    These are all really interesting interpretations, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this. :)

    I don’t know if any of you noticed, but in the house, the painting from world 4 of the guy looking in a room is the Princess’ room, Then one of the other paintings is another room in the house.

  18. Tom says:

    Holly: I had just the same take on the secret ending. It only takes one guy to ignore his girlfriend trying to get those stars for Braid’s message to ring painfully true. And I’m sure that’s happened dozens of times by now.

    It’s worth mentioning, though, that neither the conventional ending nor the extra one actually end the game. That seems to be a key theme – even if you get what you want, it’s not over.

    My take on the conflicting evidence about Braid’s subject – girl, truth or atomic bomb? – is that Tim is the same guy throughout, but the nature of the Princess changes with each chapter. At first she’s a girl. Then he gets the girl, and is pursuing his work, his scientific obsession, and she’s sat at home sadly accepting that his interest now lies elsewhere. Then he achieves the understanding he was after in his work, but wants to put it to use. Then we are all sons of bitches.

    And post-nuke, even after his obsession has killed the very figure of the princess – be she innocence, safety, truth, mother earth or the love of a girl – some Tims /still/ seek a princess in even more unknowable, unreachable places, ignoring the Earth they’ve ruined for the stars.

    She’s different this time, not a girl just one castle away from reunion, but a thing which even when attained and understood, remains a chained maiden in the sky, light-years from us. That could be seen as either acceptance or eternal frustration on Tim’s part, depending on what kind of Tim you are.

    Braid says a lot of harsh things about the male psyche that, as a man, I find uncomfortably accurate.

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  20. Frank Lantz says:

    Very nice analysis. It’s especially interesting to consider all of these themes within the context of Jonathan Blow’s quest for Art. The candy behind the glass is sweet, sweet Art, so close he can almost taste it. With some games (or movies, or songs, or paintings) you feel like you are in good hands, and you can relax, you know you are being carried somewhere and even if you are not sure where, you know you will be well taken care of. Braid isn’t like this. With Braid there is a feeling of something off, desperate, out of control, in control, control pushed past the breaking point, all of the deliberate design decisions tightened until the pieces they were meant to join have begun to crack. It’s quite tragic and lovely, actually. It’s lovely. I really do love it.

  21. Waffle says:

    This game made me tear up and almost cry. When I was forced to watch the princess running away from me and into the arms of the “villan”, it was a perfect replication of the feeling of realizing that all of the work you’ve put into a relationship was really working against it – it’s now destroyed and there’s no way you can undo it.

    It even upsets me a bit at the moment, because I didn’t really want this feeling or to start thinking about relationships I’ve botched – I just wanted a distraction and some fun puzzles.

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  23. Lynn says:

    I was curious…but just reading this review induced a major bout of PTSD. I’d rather see actual developed female characters than control freaks being outed as control freaks.

    I can’t comment on the game, since I don’t think I’ll be willing to pay money to act out that relationship ever. But it occurred to me that Blow was doing the same thing that the Columbine RPG did: appropriate someone else’s game and paste a tragedy on top.

    I know most people don’t have the experience of desperately locking a succession of doors against someone who doesn’t want to understand ‘no’, and so I know this response is not normal.

    But it does seem in order for this to be successful, people do have to be someone entertained/unaffected by the scenario to appreciate the plot twist.

    (…Looking forward to the Beyond Good and Evil sequel, and hoping they keep Jade’s voice actress.)

  24. RadonPlasma says:

    AGH. And here I had almost given up on wringing any further enlightenment from that experience. Many kudos to Holly, et al, for such masterful analysis of the material. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been privy to the secret ending, but from your descriptions, I think you’re right. Damn, it’s getting late. I’ll catch you guys some other time.

  25. Sam says:

    If you examine the paintings more thoroughly you realize that in painting 1 Tim is with a women maybe his wife, maybe the princess, in painting 2 hes at a dinner table toasting to something might be with the family of his mysterious lover. But then in painting 3 you see a man entering a room (maybe its Tim) and another mans face in the sheets of the bed (maybe its his wife/princess cheating on him) and from then on his expressions and view of the world seem to change, within the text and in the paintings. Hes in an airport in painting four and everyone around him is up and facing the right but Tim is facing the left and sitting, depressed. Painting five is what gets me Tim is standing next to what i think is a garbage can with a golden light that somewhat looks like a ring, and the ring is shining and illuminating Tims face. The world around Tim is dark and evil looking, but not the ring. He is eying it greedily looking upon it not being able to part with it, because it resembles all of the good things in Tims life the things he used to have and he cant bear to part with the last piece of light within him, but also the very thing that wells the darkness and the monster beneath.

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