The other side of Braid
In this deeply-personal postmortem of her game Problem Attic, Liz Ryerson explores her relationship to iconic indie darling Braid—and what the game may say about the culture of development.
"He cannot say he has understood all of this. Possibly he's more confused now than ever. But all these moments he's contemplated—something has occurred. The moments feel substantial in his mind, like stones." - Braid's ending
On the evening of Christmas 2009, a damaged young transwoman in a bad situation purchased the 2D puzzle platforming videogame Braid in a sale on the Steam download service for a total of $2.50 with a gift card she just received. That transwoman had just graduated from college broke and without much of any support from her friends, eventually landing herself back in the same abusive home she'd been trying to escape from in the first place. She was deeply confused and broken.
Video games, thanks to the recent financial success of some old acquaintances, had suggested themselves as the one way to escape the hell of her current life. She decided it was time to finally experience this game—this game that had been explained to her as an antidote to her growing apathy towards video games by a former college roommate (who is now no longer with us) a year previous. It was touted as a Big Important Work of Art, the culture's Answer To Mario.
Playing Braid for the first time was like sifting through an eerie memory of hers that came all flooding back in at once. More than anything, the violin melody for the first world was burned into her brain. That Celtic melody, equally joyous and melancholic, over lush, shimmering green fields and the sparkly sounds that indicated she had just picked up a puzzle piece. It was hypnotizing.
It all seemed so familiar, yet now she was seeing it from a completely different perspective for the first time. She could also rewind, and rethink her actions. There was no death. The world was constructed with some kind of empathy—like it wanted her to understand and solve its puzzle. There was consequence, and real emotional weight to that consequence. There was a story about a real-life relationship between two people, something she felt more and more connected to. This was a piece of software that was attempting to poke deep inside of her, revealing something bigger—not just trying to push her along to the end. She hadn't really seen anything like it before.
Several months later, she left home. Only a few days later, her computer bit the dust and she was left borrowing an old, barely functioning laptop. She spent days her alone, in bed, laptop propped up on her bedspread, as if it were her only life support. She was very sad and could barely function. She didn't have many friends in the area and didn't have money to spend on alcohol, the one thing there was to do. She never left the bed most days, her headphones playing the same Björk album (Vespertine) over and over, sitting on IRC channels and struggling to find something that would help her escape from her pain.
She had to beg the abusive parent she was trying to escape from in the first place for rent money after quickly burning through what little she had saved up, and used food stamps to pay for the rest. She felt deeply selfish and broken. Learning all of Braid designer Jon Blow's game design insights through many lectures of his became an effective distraction, in addition to occasionally researching other game designers and critics like Brenda Romero or Ian Bogost. She struggled to understand everything she possibly could about the world so that she could ideally make some kind of basic sense of her own pain. She was also deeply bored and didn't know what else to do. She wanted to make money, and thought game design could be a way to do it. More than that, though, she wanted to be seen as Important and Valued, a powerful new voice.
Later on, many friends of hers would mock what they saw as Jon Blow's oversensitivity to the reception to his work. She empathized: she knew what it was like to have lofty artistic goals that peers met with confusion, disinterest, sometimes even outright mockery from people who weren't engaging from a genuine place. Jon Blow's profound disappointment and hurt seemed wholly reasonable in the face of people calling him pretentious and self-indulgent. It shouldn't be so ridiculous to want to aspire to something greater in your work and be recognized for that, she felt.
She began to think Braid and games like it would herald a new frontier of ways of thinking about game design. She also wanted some way to make money.
Braid, puzzle-wise, was a very clever game. But sometimes cleverness doesn't tell the whole story. As she reads back over Braid's story, an alternate aspect, a profound childishness shines through. The story almost seems as if it's mocking Tim, Braid's male protagonist—his self-assuredness, his inability to perceive the consequence of his actions. She sees that as probably an intended aspect of the game's narrative.
We, as a civilization, have built great technological marvels, from the internet and smartphones to automobiles and airplanes, and yet we still can't really make sense of what we're doing to each other every day, or what we're doing to the Earth. In a sense, that seems to be what Braid is about, more than anything else at least. Yet the game seems to do a profoundly weak job of acknowledging this at its own conclusion.
Braid's ending text does attempt to reveal the grotesqueness behind Tim's actions, at least to some extent - but much of it is missed if one misses the hidden text, which appears with an extended female choral "AHHHH", as if it's showing a universal "her" perspective. It implies that a female perspective being acknowledged for the first time connotes a real truth. It also briefly connects Tim's story to a childhood memory of not being allowed to go to candy store by his mother, in a bit of a hackneyed parallel, perhaps suggesting he sees women this way now—as if they're still holding him back from a treat, from the reward of exploring his work.
He can't quite make sense of this all but decides to build something out of these memories. At the end he puts up a flag to his new castle, in a nod to the first Mario game, but this time each tile of the castle is made up of individual scenes from the game, propelling him forward from a place of enlightenment and higher understanding from where he begun.
All of this is fine, but it makes one wonder—why isn't this theme explored more in the game itself? Why did it take so long for your protagonist to come to this revelation? It's as if the whole game is constructed around trying to find ways to exonerate Tim's wrongdoing. Look at all the stuff he's done, and how smart he is! It’s the most common argument made for successful artists and thinkers who have done bad things throughout history. The game's true hand is only revealed, and only barely, at the end.
Okay, but this broken young transwoman can't stop thinking about the infamous scene preceding that, where Tim tries to rescue the princess. Is it implying he might have raped her? The narrative never explicitly goes there, but there's enough reason to read into it, with Tim having been physically forceful to her before in the past, through the game’s stories. Not to mention the imagery of him creeping into the bedroom of the sleeping princess, and the explosion that immediately follows, as if it's a particularly painful memory he instantly represses. And then he finally sees everything undone as it really was, as it already happened, not as how it was constructed by him in the present. He starts to acknowledge it. But that's really as deeply as the game really gets into those themes.
She can't exactly figure out how autobiographical Braid is, but even if it isn't very much it leaves her feeling a little bit unnerved. Braid ultimately seems to conclude with a revelation, a redemption for its protagonist. When she first played the game back around Christmas 2009, she found that really emotionally resonant—but now she feels she never really understood the true implications of it until now.
The way that it's centering Tim's story, and attempting to rationalize or justify his guilt without really delving much into its source. How it dwells on pretty, idealized landscapes and music, suspiciously absent of despair or fear or conflicting forces until later on. Like he can only really see danger looming when it's far too late, and by that point the damage is beyond done.
Braid's sanitized nature becomes even more disturbing to her when she hears stories about Jon Blow abandoning his female friends at conferences. Or when he takes to Twitter to decry internet feminists as "just as bad as GamerGate". How much of a distance is there really between the man and his protagonist, after all?
Braid helped usher in a culture around polished experimental game mechanics that focus on one central hook. Many of these games either are even more conspicuously absent of ugliness than Braid, or (as is the stereotype of many "indie artgames") take their narrative’s drama to a melodramatic extreme, where all the subtlety is lost and nothing feels real or meaningful anymore.
The culture of independent game-making seemed to become more and more concerned with status and hero-worship and the legitimacy of massive commercial success than with being artists with things to say. She had begun to lose interest in games, and became interested in making games to express her fundamental disinterest with the form, if only just so she had something to show for herself.
She wanted to make something about rape, to do it from a survivor's perspective, because that's all she could think about anymore. But her work would go beyond that: it would be about confronting people’s barriers and constructions around themselves and their identities, and how constricting and suffocating those could be. Years after leaving the abusive nest of her home, she was in California, stuck sporadically dealing with homelessness, and thrust into all kinds of situations she had no way of processing or confronting. If Braid was from the perspective of a white man with a lot of power and resources, her game, Problem Attic, was supposed to be from the perspective of a protagonist with no power, with very little ability to escape or make sense of their situation.
She saw this as the real truth of Braid. The two games were mirrors of each other. The calm, quiet house in Braid is replaced by the highly abstract and disturbing hub rooms of Problem Attic. The smooth visuals and music of Braid is replaced by jagged, abstract solid-color forms that look like a half-remembered old Atari nightmare. It’s Braid problematized, put into a different light. It’s what Braid might look like without the filter and the videogamey shell.
She started to see Jon Blow as a self-parody, meticulously fussing over his puzzles and the details of his projects while seeming clueless and belligerent to the realities around him, just like Tim in his game. She started to see both Blow and Tim's world as fundamentally no different from the perspective of the average "gamer" or tech dude. It was so boring, so common: Desperate, emotional pleading for a dispassionate, subatomic view of the world, while decrying the messy social realities of the earth as less important or less profound. She began to hope for something much different, something more holistic, like one suggested to her in an album by Björk or Kate Bush or The Knife or a film by David Lynch—things which had helped her heal somewhat.
This temple you are violating is my body, she repeated. I am shell, I am bone. I am the earth, and the damage you do to me will be enacted back onto you tenfold. This puzzle universe of yours only functions as well I as I allow it to function for you. These constructions of yours are all so fake, easily destroyed by conflicting evidence and the vast, untamable landscape. You are so easily infiltrated. You will never understand the depth and complexity of what you've done.
Her game took about a month and a half to make. She wasn't sure at the end what to think, but at least she had something to show for it.
In Jon Blow's design parlance, her game was a failure. It was not stripped to its barest elements, it was not palatable in every way except its one challenging central mechanic. It was weird and ugly and hard to parse. It was filled with unpredictable, unanticipated twists and turns, awkward movements, and sudden changes of theme. She had not been thinking about how to make a good video game. She had been thinking about how to express very complicated, seemingly inexpressible feelings through the tools of a 2D platformer, which was what she had in front of her.
She expected complete disinterest from the typical gamer crowd. But it went much further. Even friends of hers couldn't make heads or tails of her game, and she didn't really feel like trying to explain something that wasn't meant to be explained verbally anyway. Maybe this was a testament to just how new and unusual an experience it was for them. The game disappeared quickly, and she began to feel like it wouldn't be too long before it disappeared forever. She fell into a pretty severe depression, aided by many other things. She felt betrayed, and like no one even tried to understand where she was coming from. She began to see herself as that heavily mocked image of Jon Blow hurt by the lack of nuance in the reception of his game, endlessly repeating the line "no one understands me" over and over. She started to feel selfish, like she was just taking up space.
She felt like she needed to be a strong person, to move on from this. But instead she did the opposite - she completely lost faith in herself and her work. She became deeply confused. The hurt was huge, amplified from so many other past hurts. It felt as if those she trusted were really no more trustworthy than the average destructive asshole had been in her life. She figured she should just shut up with her opinions and criticism and let someone else do it, because if those she thought were closest to her weren't even going to listen to her—if were going to lecture her on why she was demanding far too much of other people, she was obviously wrong. She needed to cater herself for other people just to survive, and that left her with a profound sadness.
Her sadness began to look up when a couple people, several months later, began to mount a defense for her game. It was nice but it was too little, too late. It made no real lasting impact. Those few people were meaningful, of course. But like so many other small, non-commercial games of today, Problem Attic went under the radar very shortly after its release and mostly stayed that way.
Video games are broken, she felt. They are pumped too full of ideological baggage to ever really escape from it. When access and production values are all that ultimately defines a success in even many of the more progressive videogame designers’ and critics’ minds, when all the cultural ephemera created by games is set to disappear or become unusable in only a short few years and no one has a sense of urgency about it, why support this ecosystem? Why continue to give so many people so many chances, when they had barely ever considered giving her one?
Part of her feels like the world still doesn't deserve something like Problem Attic. Part of her feels like the world doesn't really deserve a lot of the things that come out of it.
She wants to exist in a different, healthier, space, but doesn’t know where that might be. She knows the internet is the most toxic place to share work, but that it's also the most open and accessible to the greatest amount of people. She knows that every time she openly exists as herself online is a roll of the dice, yet it’s one of the few places where her expression feels unhindered by her flesh world anxieties about her being trans and a woman in public dealing with the baggage of past rape and abuse. She has trouble imagining herself being in a different place, even when it hasn’t always been very nice to her.
So many things have happened since then. Some good, many bad. She can't say she really understands all of it. In fact, she feels more confused now than ever. Sometimes she feels as if every day the world is being thrust further and further into a spiral of darkness and decay. Sometimes she feels like any sincere expression of herself is an invitation for her to be a target, not just from enemies, but also from those she wanted to trust. Sometimes she feels as if dysfunction is the only thing she can see around her anymore. Sometimes she feels like all anyone wants is to take advantage of her. Sometimes she can’t go outside without having an anxiety attack.
But within this sadness, within her suffering and confusion, something occurred to her. All these moments feel substantial in her mind, like stones. They are now made visible to her. She gazes upon the vastness of these stones in these moments and she finally finds, after a great struggle, that she can lift each one. She can begin to pick them up and fit them together to create a foundation, an embankment, a castle.
She can build upon the crumbling walls of those around her. To build a structure of the size she desires, she will need many more stones. And she will need to many more new materials to stabilize and strengthen it. But what she's got now, at least, feels like a decent start.
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