Braid, and "art" in game design
I just finished Braid today. (Found it for $10 in the Ubuntu Software Center. It runs on Linux now!)
It's a fun and original puzzle game, where you solve puzzles by rewinding time. The story is intriguing, the puzzle design is ingenious, the controls are tight, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's nonlinear enough that you can try a different world if you get stuck, and there's no filler. It deserves the praise it gets for being well-designed.
But unfortunately, through no fault of its own, Braid has been blown way out of proportion by gamers who want to prove that Video Games Can Too Be Art!!
I hate the argument about whether games can be art. It's tiresome and pointless. On one side we got people who are ignorant of video games, and even proud of being ignorant. Like the author of this Atlantic interview with Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow. (The interviewer introduces Blow's upcoming game "The Witness" as "what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history" ...then goes on to describe a game very similar to Myst, in a way that makes clear he's never heard of Myst.)
On the other side we got people who don't give a fig about art, but they long for video games to have artistic legitimacy so they can, I dunno, feel better about their hobby or something. (See, e.g., the commenters arguing with Roger Ebert.)
The art people don't understand gameplay, but they understand storytelling. They know how to analyze that, so that's what they analyze. And they point out, correctly, that most video games stories are violent, trivial cliche-fests. Then the gamers are like No! Wait! Look at this game over here! It's got an amazing story! VALIDATE ME WITH YOUR CRITICAL RECOGNITION, I BEG YOU!
Braid is one of a handful of such games regularly held up as candidates for Art. With its ambitious story, painterly graphics, violin music, etc, Braid has the aesthetics of something artistic. More significantly, there happens to be a metaphorical connection between the theme of the story and the main puzzle mechanic. This guy Tim, he's got regrets. He wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Most video games are strictly representational, so the use of metaphor is unusal. Also, the ending is really cryptic! (Cryptic endings = Art, right?)
But the actual game is just a side-scrolling puzzle game with a neat gimmick. Braid's story talks a lot about forgiveness. But note that the game is played by pushing a "jump" button, not a "forgive" button. If you're trying to win, you spend all your time thinking about how to line up that monster so you can bounce off its head and get the key, not thinking about how Tim's relationship with the "princess" went wrong.
The story of Braid is not the game of Braid, despite their metaphorical connection. There's one part, at the end of the last level, where the story and gameplay mesh in an interesting way. Other than that, the story is just some cryptic snippets of text presented between levels. They're very easy to ignore if you're not into them. You won't miss anything gameplay-wise if you skip reading them. This is why I think looking for the "art" of a game in its story is a gigantic red herring. Say you made a game with story cutscenes so amazing that they rival the greatest works of film artistry. That still wouldn't make it an artistic game. It would make an artistic movie that keeps getting interrupted by a game. It doesn't tell us anything about whether the game parts would be artistic or not.
The essence of a videogame is a player making decisions about how to interact with a system in order to get closer to a desired outcome. Its effect on the player is via the thought processes the player has while trying to achieve the objective. Whatever the game asks the player to do to win, that's what the game is "about".
Braid - "Learn to picture yourself moving backwards in time"
Portal - "Imagine the possibilities of warping space"
Civilization - "Success or failure of societies depends on how their leaders choose to allocate resources and respond to crises." (The 'Great Man' theory of history.)
Adventure games - "Explore your environment thoroughly; you never know what might be useful!"
RPGs - "Put in a lot of time leveling up on easy stuff so you'll be strong enough for the big challenge when it comes". (also, "go into people's houses and take anything you can pick up".)
Action games - "Be quick or be dead"
Minecraft - this is an interesting one, since there's explicitly no goal. Minecraft says to me, "Life is what you make of it."
Non-video-game example: Chess. It's about outsmarting someone by predicting their reactions, several moves ahead. "To beat someone you must put yourself in their shoes".
Is chess "art"? Who cares? The question is meaningless to me. Would chess be art, if we painted the pieces beautiful colors and attached a narrative and a soundtrack? That's basically what the "are games art" argument is about. I hope you can see why it's a silly question.
Instead of "Is chess art?", how about: "Is chess an invaluable contribution to human culture which enriches the lives of those who choose to engage with it deeply?"
Most video games aren't very culturally significant or personally enriching, but I can think of a few that are. And unlike "making art", "significant/enriching" describes goals I can imagine how to aim for, as a game designer, through the gameplay itself.
How do we do that? Design gameplay that expresses something original and interesting, and not just a repetition of "be quick or be dead"? That is what I want to hear more about.