• "When another scholar worries that if one begins with data, one can “go anywhere,” Ramsay makes it clear that going anywhere is exactly what he wants to encourage. The critical acts he values are not directed at achieving closure by arriving at a meaning; they are, he says, “ludic” and they are “distinguished … by a refusal to declare meaning in any form.” The right question to propose “is not ‘What does the text mean?’ but, rather, ‘How do we ensure that it keeps on meaning’ — how … can we ensure that our engagement with the text is deep, multifaceted, and prolonged?”" Which is interesting, as is the whole article – the author is not convinced by the 'digital humanities', but he still links to some very interesting stuff about algorithmic criticism.

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.

Continue reading this post…