In the dying moments of the calendar year, gaming journalists ritually thank their luck stars for making it through the November rush unscathed, and look to the approaching holiday as sanctuary, a time period where one can relax, sit back, and actually play the games reviewed in the last two months. But before then, one last duty is required: the game of the year. So while ‘best of’ lists are streaming in at every other website imaginable around the Internet, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to get in on some end-of-year discussion.
This is largely because there was one game this year that I had a lot to say about that I never had a chance to: Jonathon Blow’s Braid. Like some of the other games I’ve written about recently, Braid is a game that has inspired its fair share of discussion, so I’ll be brief.
I hate Braid.
I absolutely hate it. I feel so strongly about my dislike for Braid that I often surprise myself. I’m not usually one to strongly dislike anything; even in bad films I can usually find something to appreciate. I’ve certainly never felt this way about a game before. Even thinking about playing it makes me clench up and mentally withdraw in anticipation.
This is despite the fact that I really should like Braid. I am certainly its target audience, as I believe games should be encouraged to do more of what I feel Braid attempts to: be self-reflexive, marry gameplay and fiction effectively, and tell stories that don’t involve space marines or the Second World War. In many respects, I think that Braid represents the future of game design, and I applaud Jonathon Blow for his innovation and thoughtful design.
However, I cannot play Braid. I’ll admit here that I haven’t finished the game; I became so sick of failing, of the impenetrable – and sometimes, seemingly arbitrary – nature of many of the puzzles, of the repeating backwards motions and looping sound effects when I held down the ‘X’ button. It became like fingers down a chalk board.
Some time ago, I likened Braid to the French New Wave, and I think this is a surprisingly helpful comparison. Specifically, I’d like to compare it to Alan Resnais’ film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. This is a fitting analogy in more than one way, and I’d really quite like to see someone who has finished Braid in its entirety to draw out the thematic similarities. Of course, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as the name might suggest, is about love and nuclear bombs, just as (it has been suggested to me) Braid is. There is a certain melancholy between the two that I find strikingly similar, and I wonder if Blow used the film as inspiration, or if it is simply happy coincidence.
However, it is also in my reactions to the two that I find similarities.
On an intellectual level, I very much appreciate Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It’s an amazingly thoughtful film, and being one of the first of the New Wave, it played a huge part in film history. However, as much as I can appreciate what Hiroshima, Mon Amour is trying to do, and is tying to say, I just cannot stand to watch it. It is beyond boring. As a cinema lover, I usually revel in slow takes, and in languid, emotional performances, but while watching Hiroshima, Mon Amour, I was in serious danger of falling asleep in that darkened theatre. The repeated lines, the deliberately obfuscated plot, and the whole mood of the film both numbed and irritated me.
Similarly, as much as I can appreciate what Braid is trying to do, I just cannot play the damn thing. It’s frustrating, and incredibly unrewarding for me. As I’ve already said, I can understand how others could get enjoyment out of it, just as I understand why so many love Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
So for me, Braid is the best-worst game of 2008. It is great for what it achieved, for what a towering work of intellectual design it is. At the same time, I truly believe Braid to have been my least favourite game all year. No other game caused me such brain melting frustration, and yes, even anger. So while I hope that designers take Braid as inspiration, I hope that it does not kick off a New Wave of gaming; a series of intellectual games, which just like the French New Wave of films, I can appreciate, but only from a distance. I want to be able to love our harbingers of change.