Let me start by saying it took me an unfortunate, maybe slightly embarrassing length of time to realize the extent to which the “reverse”, time-manipulation function could be utilized in this game. At first, I thought the use of the “Shift” key was meant to perpetuate the gameplay and, in a sense, the narration. It brought me back to my experiences playing Nelson’s games. many (if not all) of which also removed the “death” obstacle from the game. I was almost bothered by the fact I couldn’t die in some games. It seemed to take away some of the incentive and, admittedly, it removed an easy exit from the game (we’ve all committed virtual suicide out of frustration or boredom).
We’ve spent some time in this course talking about conventions, specifically those of a novel. In these examples of narrative games we have looked at, a popular gaming convention–that being the obstacle of death (a limited number of lives, etc.)–has routinely been explored and “toyed” with. Instead of just allowing the character to continuously regenerate and start the level anew, however, Blow has given the player in Braid the ability to retrace his actions to the point of error and correct his or her mistake. It was clear early on that Blow wasn’t merely taking death out of the game in order to force us to keep playing. The character’s ability to travel back in time mirrors the narrative text which tells us there is a complicated history between the princess and the main character, which has had a profound impact on their relationship and presumably, the circumstances that exist in the game. We are led to believe there are events in the history of the characters which Tim wishes he could change, something he can do if only he can travel back in time.
The narrative element of this game is what sets it apart from the popular games other members of the class have alluded to: Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, etc. We get something that is missing in those games, a real back-story or reason for the actions we take during the game. Sure, we know that Mario also wants to rescue a princess, Princess Peach, but we are spared intimate details of their relationship which is likely deemed inconsequential to the frenzied gamer. Blow gives us a game, a medium which we participate in, in an interactive way, but he doesn’t neglect the storytelling element and instead of merely attaching a storyline to the gameplay, he offers us narrative text we read almost as we would a book, in sentences and paragraphs on the screen. It reminded me somewhat of reading a player’s guide or even a comic book alongside a game we are familiar with such as Zelda or Mario. I liked that, unlike in some of Nelson’s works, the text was not a part of active gameplay. You didn’t have to read text while battling noxious creatures. In a safe environment, you could read and re-read text and weigh its importance.
Anyone who makes a narrative game must confront the dilemma of an interrupted gamer. Do I want to read or do I want to play the game? I think for narration to work in a game, you need to give the player time to do both, separately. This is why I would limit my own criticism, which has been raised by some, that there isn’t enough text in Braid. That may be true, but if there was to be more, I would want there to be similar pauses in the game or safe environments available in order to take my time with the text.
One of the most frustrating elements of the game, for me, was when I did finally realize how to use the time manipulation effectively–how you can magically reverse in time without losing a key you had just picked up. It took me awhile to recognize the distinction between “reversing action” and “traveling back in time.” When you travel in time you can take objects with you. If you’re merely reversing what you did, this isn’t possible. I like how Blow favored time travel, a richer experience.
To end, I would politely disagree with anyone who asserts Braid is a database and not a narrative. It could be argued (effectively) that the game is both since the ability to travel backwards and forwards and “break up” the narration with puzzles is given to the gameplayer, but there is still a narrative being told and, in effect, being driven by the player. It is a story which, at times, functions as a database.
What do others think about the narrative-database question? I ask because, while I still feel its both, I recognize myself typing in circles and struggling to support the argument since the line is so blurred in these works.