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.
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?