On Braid and Bullshit

07 September 2008

A quick note: this post is long, and it’s been a lot of work just to bring it down to some kind of coherent structure and size. It perhaps could have been better as a series of posts, but for now, this is the form it takes. I hope, despite the length, that you enjoy it. Shorter content is forthcoming…

I love Braid. It’s a remarkable game that I’m enjoying playing a lot; it’s a game I love to talk about to both gamers and non-gamers; and it’s a game that is always yielding up new insights and interpretations the more I play it. And most importantly, you have to do more than just talk: it’s a game that only really reveals itself through the act of play. Which is, you could say, how all games should be, but it’s still impressive how much Braid concentrates into its mechanics.

Because of the potential for insight it offers, there’s been a lot written about it since its release, and as the amount of writing on Braid grew, I realised that I was growing dissatisifed with much of it, and that I needed to articulate why.

The starting point for this post was a long, invovled forum thread on rllmuk about the story of Braid, which presented a long, coherent (if at times a little sketchy) interpretation of the game as being about the Atomic Bomb.

What frustrated me was the way the author of the post presented it. He began like so:

Braid is a story that focuses on the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the irreversible impact it had on all human conflicts thereafter. At the very same time, it deals with the very human story of a relationship breaking down due to one person’s obsessive need to control this power. Finally, at certain points, the perspective of the bomb creator as a child comes through.

As I said: it’s an interesting reading. The commenter has clearly taken a long, careful look at the game, and come to an interesting conclusion. But why does he have to frame it as a solid, single interpretation?

A few posts later, the rllmuk commenter admitted that the unsubtlety of his phrasing was deliberate:

It’s also the absolute proof, if ever such a thing was needed that something like Braid can be any number of things; stylistically, a homage to 2D platformers of old, the play on the hero/princess stories we’ve been sold any number of times over the years, the take on jealously and obsession… I presented my argument the way that I did because it’s the one angle that I don’t think has been commented on yet, and I’m of the opinion that there is sufficient evidence to support it.

This assuaged a lot of my fear – I think, if anything, he pressed on with his take on things even when his reasoning was sketchy precisely in order to illustrate the many ways the game can be read. All credit to him for that.

I’m still playing Braid, but the one thing I’m pretty convinced by is that it’s about more than one “thing”. There’s more than one sensical and valid reading of it, and it supports many that the author may not have originally intended.

(Beyond that, I’m also convinced of two things: firstly, that wherever the game itself takes place, the world “Tim” lives in is our world, not the world he platforms through, and secondly, that Tim plays videogames.)

I’m tired of games criticsm being so cut-and-dry; so focused on what things are about, rather than what they could mean. We’re not so blinkered in our criticism of any other medium, so why do we have to be like this with games? There’s a nice story, wrapped up in that RLLMUK thread – first I’m frustrated with the tone, but everything turns out alright in the end, as the author’s tone is revealed to be another kind of artifice.

Anyhow, like I said, it got me thinking about the way we currently criticise games.

Then, a few weeks ago, Jonathan Blow (who can unarguably be described as Braid’s “creator”) did an interview with the Onion AV Club, and for the first time, he said something that rubbed me the wrong way. Blow is obviously a smart chap, and he has a lot of excellent things to say about games, and what they can be. Until the release of Braid, a lot of this could only be seen as talk, but now he has a platform to stand on – the game itself, released into the world – and it’s exciting to see someone deliver on their promise of an attempt at change: the game espouses his points itself without any illustration.

But I kept returning to that interview, and the passages that rubbed me the wrong way, and I realised that lot of it was about the nature of criticism (not just games criticism, but criticism itself) and that I had to write about it now or lose it forever.

I don’t want this post to be a Fisking of Blow’s interview, because he says a lot of interesting things in it, and I agree with quite a few of them – but it’s the first time he’s said things that I disagree with at a very fundamental level. And it all began with this statement:

I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.

This is not what I discovered throughout my degree in English literature (and I’m going to assume that by “English” Blow means the study of literature and its criticism, rather than “creative writing”, as it were). The one thing I learned pretty fast is that the last thing criticism is about is bullshitting. I got away with some heinous bullshit as a secondary school pupil, but believe me, my supervisors forced that out of me pretty fast, and I began to learn how to write my own criticism – rather than a condensation of that of others – that stands on its own and, crucially, shows that I know what I’m talking about.

What Blow is describing is a problem I’ve seen many times before, though: the difficulty of engaging with criticism.

People I knew began to get disillusioned with criticism – as applied to, in this case, English Literature – around the age of 16. In England, this is towards the end of GCSE and the beginning of A-Level. As we were taught to delve into the text, to find meaning within it, they felt we were losing touch with the original material. You couldn’t just say what you wanted – you had to find evidence within the text, point to what you were interpreting. But we were encouraged to seek justifiable meaning within it, and many of my friends and contemporaries thought that we weren’t finding “meaning” at all – we were just bullshitting. And they began to lose enjoyment of books as literature, and just see English classes as exercises in semantics. Understandably, that’s not much fun.

“Meaning” doesn’t mean “what the author meant“; it means “a meaning you can validly discern”. Criticism is about trying to come to new understandings through the text. Good texts speak to us not just we engage with what they say, but because they resonate with us at a deeper level. Sometimes, that means that we apply readings to them that the authors might never have intended.

Consider Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Whilst it was written in the late 19th-century, there are many things that the Ring could represent, and many readings of the work published. In the late twentieth-century, it would have been hard to watch the cycle without considering the Ring as an artefact of the nuclear age (for good or ill); destroyer of worlds and promise of energy all at once.

Of course, Wagner didn’t know about the atomic bomb when he wrote his opera cycle, and he didn’t write his opera intending it to be read that way – but that’s no barrier to this being a valid critical reading of the text, as long as it is suitably backed up with evidence – reference, quotation, argument.

Evidence is central to convincing, well-written criticism. How is this different to the “facts” and “knowing what you’re talking about” that Blow says are the preserve of science?

If his complaint is that the meaning I have drawn from his text does not correspond to the fact of his intended meaning, then I’m afraid that’s not a valid complaint. Criticism has to ignore authorial control of it. We can’t deny facts such as those of authorial biography, or historical fact, or truths about the text that the author may have documented – but we can’t respond to authorial rebuttal, either. When it comes to the text itself, we have to criticise it in its own right, and perhaps as part of a larger body of work.

This still requires care, particularly when dealing with texts by living authors. I wrote my second-year dissertation at University on the poet Tony Harrison, who’s very much still alive, and as my supervisor forced me to be more critical of myself and my own writing, and to actually write precisely what I mean, rather than wishy-washy bullshit phrases, I found myself becoming scared that the inferences I was drawing from texts, and the arguments I was constructing, might actually be “incorrect”; that they might clash with “the truth”. My main reason for this fear was simply that Harrison was still alive, and that I was loathe to cause any offence or misinterpretation.

I think you have to learn how to ignore that fear. If what you’re saying is reasonable within the rules of the game – what is known, what is available to you – then there’s no reason to fear an angry creator. If you’re not careful, you end up thinking you can’t write anything.

Barthes declared the Author dead in 1967. What he meant by that was that once texts (and not just written texts – any source material) are created, existed in the world, we have to understand and approach them as isolated, standing objects. We can infer an author through them, but we shouldn’t have to take the author into account. The text must speak for itself. By extension, this means that the only author of the text we can discern is the author wrapped up inside the text itself – no more.

This is a somewhat postmodern conceit, I appreciate, but it’s very fundamental to a lot of late-20th-century criticism, and I think it applies in this case.

But there’s a problem applying it to games.

Games are a strange medium for two reasons. Firstly: almost all games creators are still alive, and the works they create are of relevance from the second they’re created. No-one’s dug up a game 200 years after its creation and declared it a lost masterpiece. At best, we have cult classics – games that may have passed under the mainstream radar initially, but still had a small following at the time.

Secondly, the author themselves has almost as much (if not more) exposure before the game is complete than after. This is part of the PR/hype cycle, where previews and exclusives give us insights into the offices of game studios. It’s also where journalists will – with good reason – focus on the personalities driving the games as much as the product themselves; this is compounded by games that are (seemingly) directed by an auteur-figure such as Will Wright or Peter Molyneux. And then, when their game is complete, the author and development team fades away, and we suddenly have to focus on the product alone.

But that’s very hard, and growing harder. Because of the PR and preview cycle, we’ve been so exposed to the idea of authorial control over games that it’s very hard to dissociate the production team and process from the game itself. Look at the recent example of Denis Dyack and Silicon Knights’ Too Human; the games press and industry spends years asking him about Too Human, as it goes through a trouble production cycle, being nice enough to guarantee future previews whilst expressing some mild concern (mainly given the long development period of the game). Then, when the game is released, to less-than-favourable reception the press and games community turns on Dyack as he turns up in forum threads and editorials trying to defend his product. The problem with Too Human isn’t that it’s a terrible game – it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but has its moments – but more that we were expecting more given what was promised in that PR cycle. Perhaps we need to consider that when the text is complete, not only is the author dead, but so’s anything we might have gleaned from our previews; it needs to be approached genuinely freshly.

Other media – literature, drama, art – barely focus on the creative process as it happens. Hype in these arts is almost entirely post-release. The music and film industries offer us tiny peaks behind the curtain – the odd preview, the odd interview, maybe a trailer – but by and large, they’re constraining the lifespan of the product/artwork into “now” and beyond. “Games” begins so much earlier than any other art form.

This was meant to be about criticism, and why aforementioned criticism isn’t “bullshit”. Criticism itself relies entirely upon evidence: and that evidence is the text itself. In this case, it’s the game in question. If your criticism is based upon a reading of the text, and can explain the meaning it draws from the text through the text alone, then it’s valid. It may not be good, but you can’t see it’s not a reasonable stance to take. Criticism is inherently evidence-based.

That doesn’t mean it’s always correct, though, and I find Blow’s correlation of argument informed by fact with “being correct” somewhat concerning. An interpretation of Braid has to be based on the facts that the game presents, but it might still be “incorrect”, in the sense that it doesn’t match up to the author’s intended reading. Criticism, whilst fact-based, is definitely a subjective act.

As the AV Club interview went on, I became increasingly troubled by Blow’s position regarding “facts”, empiricism, and the ongoing conflation of science and the scientific method. For instance:

But to totally pull out of my ass a quote that I read a long time ago, and that stuck in my head, but I have no idea where I read it: at some point we had philosophy, and then a couple hundred years ago, that started changing, and this thing called science was born. And a lot of people didn’t want to think in the scientific way, and thereby excluded themselves from the most relevant discussions of the meaning of our world that are possible right now.

This is a really, really dangerous paragraph. Science grew perhaps more slowly than Blow makes out. Newton and his contemporaries would have self-idenitified as natural philosophers, not scientists. For all Newton’s empirical discoveries of science, he was also a noted biblical scholar – not to mention one who believed in god-as-creator. This doesn’t make his science less valuable – it’s just important to note that the natural philosophers take quite a while to come around to not just science but also the scientific method, and in that process, they also learn how to reconcile the empirical with the less empirical aspects of their life.

To suggest that people “don’t want to think in the scientific way” also seems like a dangerous, muddled statement. Thinking in a scientific manner is one thing; understanding science itself is another. A lot of the most relevant questions within science right now demand a deep, sophisticated understanding of scientific theory. “Not wanting to think in the scientific way” is an awkward phrase; is it referring to people who prefer not to think scientifically, or who prefer not to think about scientific matters, or people who simply made a choice at one point in their life not to study that scientific path?

…that’s where the philosophical discussions ought to take place. There’s a way in which anyone who’s postulating about free will, who doesn’t know quantum mechanics, is just talking out their ass. Because they don’t have the facts, [and] we have a lot more facts now.

The construction of “they” and “we” is an interesting one here, and I think, that for all this illustrates Blow’s awareness of science, it also hints at a lack of understanding of what the actual study of philosophy looks like. I think most of the people I know who’ve studied philosophy to a high level would say that there’s far more to discussion of free will than “facts”, and facts that are slowly emerging from cutting-edge scientific apparatus at that. “Just talking out their ass”? I’m not quite sure how Blow feels qualified to make this remark; it’s an emotive phrase that comes off as ill-informed and somewhat amateurish. Given the quality of his analysis and insight elsewhere in both this interview and elsewhere, it seems disappointing that he’s trying to push an understanding of the world that rejects any notion of subjective criticism and positioned insight, and instead relies on nothing but “facts” and “evidence”.

And that’s part of what I’m doing when I design a game, is that I’m exploring the universe in a certain way. I’m trying to understand true things about it, or to uncover things about it, in ways again that are less bullshitty than just writing words on a paper. Because somehow, and I could be totally fooling myself about this, but I believe that somehow, there is something more meaningful about creating a system. Because the universe is a system, of some kind. And writing is not a system.

Whenever I talk about design, I advocate the act of making as being key to it. “Sculpting, not painting“; sketching in the final medium; rapid prototyping. There’s a real value in process, and there’s a value in failing fast so that you can better understand that failure. I like the idea of trying to frame systemic responses inside systems, and I think building games as a way of talking about games is a smart thing to do. But I really I don’t understand why Blow thinks that his work is “less bullshitty than just writing words on paper”, the most important word in that sentence being just. Is writing about things that are not written a “bullshitty” act? I am confused from the earlier comment, about English being “bullshit”, as to whether Blow’s problem is with criticism, or writing itself. Art often acts as a direct response to the wider world, and to disparage the entirety of literature and poetry in that one statement (which may or may not be being confused with writing-as-criticism, remember), seems foolhardy.

As for the idea that “writing is not a system” – this kind of comment stems from someone whose notion of systems is influence entirely by a scientific ideal. Literature has notions of systems that Blow ignores here. Metrical verse is one that immediately leaps to mind. The systems and constructions that Virgil and Homer worked into their stories to keep them memorable, consistent, and always constrained perfectly within a regular meter are remarkable, and to call Virgil’s dactylic hexameter “not a system” is simply incorrect. Consider also some of the experiments of Oulipo at “constrained writing”.

Blow suggests that because the universe is “a system, of some kind“, the most meaningful way to represent it is as another system. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, but I’m not going to complain – I think it’s a very interesting kind of response. Models – especially reductive models – are interesting because of what they choose to exaggerate or ignore. At the same time, is he suggesting that it’s a failure of all other art that it isn’t a system? Whether you agree with him or not is beside the point: here, he’s openly admitting that this is a very subjective perspective. It’s not about evidence, or facts, or science, or “bullshit” at all. It’s about what he personally believes.

I have no problem with this; I think it’s very important to take personal stances, and acknowledge their subjectivity. But my problems with this interview stems from suggesting that things which are not systems are, in essence, flawed, primarily because they aren’t based on rules and empirical evidence.

The AV club interview doesn’t make me like Braid any less, and whatever my peeves around Blow’s wholesale characterisation of the humanities, I still think he has a lot of interesting and exciting things to say about games through games themselves (not to mention through the written and spoken word) and I’m always going to look forward to them.

Braid itself is a very rich text: it hints at and supports many readings, and it pushes back about as hard as you push. More to the point, it provides ammunition for the critic within the gameplay itself, not only in illustrative story or loading-screen text. The game stands alone, for itself.

As critics, we need to work out how better to respond to games such as Braid in a manner that befits them. The creators of games perhaps also need to understand how to respond to subjective, written criticism, and how it differs from the “review” template we’re so used to. I hope we can come to an understanding beyond insisting upon systemic readings of systemic art, and perhaps one that won’t invite being described as “bullshit”. I’m going to keep trying, for sure.

5 comments on this entry.

  • Ben | 7 Sep 2008

    Nicely systematic writing and not a word too long.

  • MacDara | 7 Sep 2008

    Thinking in a scientific manner is one thing; understanding science itself is another.

    Ding ding ding. That makes me consider my own relationship with maths; practically speaking, I’m hopeless beyond arithmetic, but at the same time, philosophically speaking, I’m in awe of mathematics as the language of the universe. I think it’s a distinction that’s lost on far too many.

  • JPL | 8 Sep 2008

    Very well-reasoned argument, and – most admirably – terribly evenhanded . I know, from personal experience, that it’s frequently difficult to talk about Blow without descending into the realm of the ad hominem attack, even if you do like his game. I will try to refrain, but… no promises.

    I have to say, one of the problems I have about his spiel is his seeming inconsistency – first he pillories game designers for being unethical in their reward structures and name-drops Italo Calvino, then he (apparently?) calls out literature as “bullshitty,” and belittles arts-major-types as being out of touch with the Way The World Really Works. I find Braid to be a pretty compelling game and a great conversation piece, but ultimately I think it suffers from the same flaws as Blow consistently seems to: namely, resorting to self-congratulation and – worse – intellectual bullying at the drop of a hat.

    I once had an English professor that explained his role as that of a gatekeeper, in that he would turn back (i.e. fail) anyone who was unworthy. I couldn’t stand the guy; brains are not something to be wielded like a club.

  • Roland | 9 Sep 2008

    You may be interested (if you haven’t already) to read Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’:

    “For the essence of bullshit is not that it is _false_ but that it is _phony_. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing […] what is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made […] The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong”.

    The crucial thing here is the “how it was made” part. Criticism at its core is stating what you think about things – and as you rise through the Education/Professional world there may be more rigor, but there are also incentives that start to conflict with criticism at its rawest. You do not get paid as a Critic (nor do you get a Degree) for saying that you have nothing interesting to say about a subject, even though that may be the case.

    In addition, your thought is modulated by the environment in which you are writing. The first essay you write at University may be worse than the last, but _in some sense_ it is more honest – it hasn’t picked up the style, references and concerns that are not really your own, and that one absorbs almost unconciously. Looking back at some of my essays today, I think that Bullshit is exactly what they are.

    It is not that all criticism is Bullshit, it is more that it _can_ be, and it is hard to work out which is which because it depends so much on the intention of the writer.

  • Andrew Walkingshaw | 9 Sep 2008

    Most of this, I must admit, is above my critical pay-grade; I know my limits, and they were around Higher English. But I have spent a bit of time doing science, and this bit you quote of Blow’s:

    I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about…

    … doesn’t sit right with my experience. If you can prove something beyond doubt, it isn’t science by definition: it might be mathematics. The philosophy of science is itself a minefield, but for me a scientific argument consists of a truthful and as far as possible unbiased set of observations supporting a model, where that model itself makes falsifiable predictions.

    Substitute “observations” with “quotations” and “model” with “worldview”, neither of which is too much of a stretch, and that sounds to me awfully like the process of the criticism you’re describing. You’ve lost falsifiability, sure, and means the conclusions you draw aren’t scientific – but the process by which you draw them doesn’t appear, on the surface, so different.

    Maybe a lot of criticism is bad, or at least lacks rigour. I’m not qualified to talk about that. However, you could certainly argue that enough of the science out there is a bit one-eyed in its assessments. Maybe the boundary Blow’s talking about is really between the certainty of mathematics and the uncertainty of everything else? I don’t know.

  • 17 Sep 2008

    Trackback: Leapfroglog - links for 2008-09-17