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    the aesthetics of frustration III

    Back in January, I was browsing the website of the Independent Games Festival, and was looking at their list of award-winners from 2006. That led me to stumble upon a game called Braid, which caught my attention for two reasons—one, because it was developed by an entity identifying itself as "Number None, Inc." (which means that the developer is making the same obscure cultural reference as my band), and two, because it was described as "a platformer/puzzle game about manipulating the flow of time" (which means that the developer shares at least some of my documented fixation with chronology). The fact that it had won the competition for "innovation in game design" and promised to take an "unconventional stance about what is fun to play, and what the player should spend his time doing," were really just icing on the cake.

    My curiosity fully engaged, it seemed only natural that info about the game would also be totally cryptic and that the game itself would not actually be available anywhere. It still isn't available, although we're finally getting closer. Specifically, we're at version 0.847, which I know because the folks at Arthouse Games have gotten an exclusive preview of version 0.847.

    The text of that post threatens that it contains spoilers, so I haven't read the whole thing, but I was powerfully struck by a particular passage, about the way that Braid throws out the concepts of both "lives" and "save points." After you die, you are presented with the opportunity to press the Shift key:

    "If you ... try pressing the Shift key, and you will be greeted with wonderful sights and sounds: the game rewinds time right before your eyes. The background animations, the goombas, and all of your previous actions move backward. Even the music plays in reverse. You un-die, and up you un-fall, out of the spikes and back onto the platform from whence you jumped. If you let go of Shift, you're ready to try that jump again. If you keep holding down Shift, you can rewind back through all of your actions, right back to the point where you entered the level. Everything can be undone.

    "You're suddenly free to try, practice, and learn from mistakes without any annoying overhead. It's like practicing basketball shots without ever having to chase after the ball. I found myself becoming an expert at 2D platform jumps in very short order---I could try a single difficult jump 50 times in a minute or so, racking up much more practice during a few days of Braid testing than I did in a whole lifetime of playing other 2D platform games.

    "The upshot, of course, is that standard 2D platform challenges, like difficult jumps, are rendered trivial. You can instant-retry your way through anything, and Braid celebrates this fact throughout World 2 by throwing all sorts of nearly-impossible challenges your way---you'll never see this kind of stuff in a standard platform game, because players would never be able to get past it.

    There's a commentary lurking here about video games: they waste the players' time by forcing them to trudge through the trivial over and over in order to retry the challenging parts. Traditionally, with each life lost, you go back to the start of the level, even if your point of failure was near the end of the level. Worse yet, if you run out of lives, you go back to the start of the game, even if your point of failure was near the end of the game. Who wants to replay an entire game over and over just to retry the hard part at the end? No one, obviously, so we invented save points---after the game ends, players can resume from wherever they last saved. But even save points become tedious: you still need to navigate the 'Load Game' menus each time you want to try again. Not as bad as replaying the whole game, but more like chasing after the basketball between practice shots. Still, computers can do whatever we program them to do, so why should we force players to chase the ball? Braid strips out every last scrap of tedium and leaves us with nothing but the core challenges."

    This slots neatly into the whole "aesthetics of frustration" thing I was on about during my playing of Shadow of the Colossus last fall: great game, but not always good about making the player not go through the tedious parts again.

    It gets more interesting:

    "Further, it shows us that the standard challenges really aren't that interesting, or challenging, without the tedious filler that usually surrounds them. [So] the designers forged ahead and asked another important question: if the rewind button renders even the most difficult timing challenges trivial, what kind of new challenges can we come up with? Worlds 3 through 6 answer this question with an assortment of new time behaviors and puzzles based around those behaviors. In World 3, time works the same as it does in World 2, with the addition of 'purple sparkle objects.' These objects ... are immune to the rewind button."

    And that was the point at which my mind began to explode thinking of the possibilities, and I decided to quit reading and just wait for the game to be released.

    Arthouse Games also has an interview with Jonathan Blow, Braid's creator: turns out he's also an Invisible Cities fan and a Lynch fan. This is a rare opportunity, it seems, to play a videogame designed by someone who has identical cultural tastes to my own.

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    Friday, March 02, 2007
    5:53 PM


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