Street of Crocodiles/Tree of Codes

For my final paper I plan to look at Jonathan Safran Foer’s most recent work, Tree of Codes. Foer is a pretty notable author, but strangely Tree of Codes doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. If you want to know more about it, your best bet is to look at some of the descriptions on sites like Amazon–I discovered the book because my boyfriend is a huge JSF fan and bought it when it was first released, but I think copies of this book are actually pretty hard to come by and fairly expensive (for a college student). But basically it’s a cut-up novel taken from Foer’s favorite novel of all time, Street of Crocodiles by deceased Polish author Bruno Schulz. Foer took Schulz’s novel and literally cut it up using the die-cut method, creating his own text. I haven’t read either of the books so that’s mainly what I’ll be doing for the next week, and I’m interested in looking at Foer’s authorship versus Schulz’s, and how the physical book itself challenges or adds to some of the conceptions of “books” that we’ve been considering in this class. For example, I’ve been reading some of the interviews Foer did to promote the book, and he often talks about it as if it were a work of art or a sculpture instead of an actual novel. Is Tree of Codes really a book at all, or just a piece of visual art? What’s the difference, and where should we draw the line? What makes it different from Street of Crocodiles, and what makes it its own text? (Foer himself has stated in interviews that he believes himself to be the author of this book, and NOT Schulz). The book itself reminds me a lot of some of the artists’ books we talked about earlier in the semester, and I’m hoping our conversation on Nox next week will give me some more insights I can discuss in my paper.


Braiding New Gameplay with A Classic Storyline

One of the things I noticed about Braid was how very similar it was to Super Mario Bros. Most of us know that Mario is probably the popular 2D video game ever, and you have to stomp on the enemies to kill them just as in Braid. But there are so many other similarities: the block-head like characters, the nets used to climb, the lava pits, the cannon balls, even at the endings to the worlds seem strangely familiar to Mario. In both games, someone would tell you that the princess must be in another castle.

This makes me ask what the creator of Braid is trying to say by creating the syntax of his 2D game so similar to the most popular 2D game ever created. Is he trying to say we have come so far in the world of video games, particularly 2D games, we must now play with HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED, or perhaps more clearly, should the object of Braid be to manipulate the linear sequence, maybe even chop it up like DJs do with classic records? This seems that is the case.

Also, It is incredibly easy to get through the levels, but extremely difficult to collect all the puzzle pieces. I became so frustrated with collecting the puzzle pieces that I just wanted to get to the next world in order to read the storyline. And that makes me wonder something else. The creator gives players the chance to find a lot of out what happens between Braid and his girlfriend (or the princess) without actually beating the game, by beating the game I mean collecting the puzzle pieces. Perhaps in some aspects the creator wants players, whether they are testers or noobs, to learn about the values of being patient with others, like the ones you care about, rather than being patient with the actual game.

When I was young, I probably would have wanted to learn all the tricks that players can learn in order to capture the puzzle pieces. Right now, I am more interested with the detailed summaries, the fantastic soundtrack, and the stunning graphics that Braid had to offer. After initially getting through worlds 2 through 6, I am definitely more interested in finding out where this girlfriend/princess is. And now that I have learned a lot of the tricks, especially the one that slows down time, I can go back through the worlds and obtain all the pieces. I think the creators tie the aspects of actual gameplay with the storyline very carefully to keep all kinds of players interested in struggling with this puzzling game.

In Another Castle

While playing Braid, I was struck first by the similarities between it and Legend of Zelda. In both games, your hero must rescue a princess by completing puzzles that can be extremely complex. You have to use keys to unlock doors and there are monsters there to get in your way. Braid, however, introduces a whole new complexity in the form of time manipulation. This aspect of the game makes it incredibly challenging. It was challenging to me, in any case. Like a lot of the interactive fiction we played before, such as Bronze, there are obstacles you have to pass in order to reveal more of the story lines. In Braid, it appears that you have to collect puzzle pieces, put the pieces together, and then a picture will be revealed to you and will show some sort of story element. Unfortunately, I myself have not been able to put an entire picture together yet, however, in some of the picture frames, I see an image of a man (sometimes more than one) and  a woman drinking wine in a field. These pictures appear to be related to the narrative told in the little green books before each adventure behind the doors.

What also strikes me is the fact that there are several narrative outside of the game narrative (the game narrative being the one in which you have to rescue a princess who always seems to be in another castle). Tim, the character in the game, also seems to correspond to Tim in his primary world. If we think of the game (the one we play in as Tim) as a secondary world, then the primary world would be TIm’s world in which his girlfriend and family exist. In this world, it seems he is struggling with issues such as stressful parents and an increasingly fraught relationship, but in the game he escapes into a world where only a princess exists. I found it difficult to separate these two worlds, however, because we are told that he tells his girlfriend that he must go and rescue the princess, and this obviously upsets her. Is Tim going off to play a game existing in a secondary world or is he going on a real adventure in his primary world? Did the princess exist in his world? Is Tim’s girlfriend just mad at him for playing a game because the princess do not really exist? I think that, like time in this game, it’s more than a little fuzzy.

I have played for a few hours, and I’ve only gotten through six worlds (I’m really trying to get all of the pieces before moving on), so there could be a lot more that I am missing out on that better players have already seen.

Time and Chronology’s Impact on Narrative Perspective; Gameplay as Subtext

(Spoilers Ahoy)

Before writing this post I was prepared to discuss how the narrative provided by the books before each level was divorced from Braid’s game play; that is there the player/reader experiences little or no narrative development through the act of actual play. Reflecting on the whole narrative I no longer hold this position. The opposite is true, and in fact gameplay is an integral part of the narrative.

The text at the beginning of each world/room/what-have-you is exposition. Gameplay, specifically the time manipulation mechanic, is subtext. As the player progresses linearly, we are first at led to believe that Tim is a protagonist when the opposite is true. Prior to the game we learn through the expository text that Tim has already used time manipulation to change things about his relationship with the princess. Through play the player comes to rely on this mechanic to progress Tim came to rely on it to define his relationship with the princess.  This leads to a skewed prospective on the part of both the player and Tim the character. Right up until the final moments of the game, the player is led to believe they are working to save the princess, when in reality they are inadvertently thwarting the Princesses attempts to escape the game’s true antagonist, Tim. Braid‘s central gameplay mechanic has distorted the narrative, and what delivers the narrative’s conclusion.

Only a two lines of dialogue are given during Braid‘s climax; the rest of the narrative is furthered by watching events happening in reverse, then in proper chronological order. The player is left figure out for themselves what is happening instead of having it described to them through exposition. The simple difference in what occurs when drastically impacts how the narrative is perceived. When the final level beings, it seems that the Princess is asking for help from the knight’s demands for her to “come down here!”. But in simply changing the order these two lines of dialogue are given the context of the situation is greatly changed. Instead the princess is soliciting the help of the knight who then provides it. And in reversing the chronology, the princess efforts to aid Tim and the player become attempts to hinder them.

This reminds me of our class discussions of the difference between narrative and plot. Perhaps the gameplay is divorced from Braid’s plot – that is it doesn’t affect the situations described by the various expository books littered throughout the game. But it is inextricable from the games narrative, as discussed above. Braid is probably not the first work to play with the idea of presenting the plot in a certain chronological order to shape the audiences perception of narrative, but it is certainly a great example of how to do it successfully.

What’s different in Braid.

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.


Playing Braid

After playing  braid a few times, I can see a clear narrative at the same time that immerses me into interacting with the quest of the main character. Because this is one my first experiences with video games, I know I was slower to figure out what kind of things I should try in order to move forward with the game. I am sure more experienced players can instinctively see clues that I missed over and over, e.g. if I press shift longer I can make things go back in time. For a while I only pressed shift to bring Tim back from the hole.

The game is designed to involve the players in several goals at once. On the one hand we want to help Tim get to the Princess, we want to reach to the next level, and we want to collect the pieces of the paintings and put them together. On the other hand, we have to pay attention to how the story evolves and what we are contributing to.

I also noticed that while the game goes around a story that seems simple, the characters are complex. From the first moment we become acquainted with Tim’s dilemma, we can see he is not simply a good guy, a perfect hero that will always be right. I was skeptical from the beginning of his motivations and the real appreciation he had for the princess and their relationship. I, however, could not say why I was being skeptical and that duality carried through my involvement in his quest.

One characteristic of the game is that has several layers and therefore more than one issue to solve but not all of them necessarily have to be finished in order to move to another world.  For example, I found that even if I didn’t collect the piece of painting, or got the key and opened the locked box, I still could pass to the next level or world. This reminded me the database versus narrative discourse where the story is not told in a sequence, but the player can take some now and then come back to it later, and kind of create a different experience each time.  However my brain is too well programed to do things in sequences so even when I could jump to another world I felt that I had to go back and finish before moving on or else I would be cheating.

Speaking of cheating, I looked for clues online about how to get out of the pit in world 3 because I still had not discovered how to move back on time. After this first clue I felt more confident to experiment possibilities on my own and wished I was more experience player to beat this thing. Whenever I was able to figure out something on my own I felt like a winner and inventive. My biggest frustration with it was my inability to think and move quickly to not get killed. While I can’t compare this game to another because I never played before, I understand now what is that engage people to stay playing for hours.

I agree with my classmates about certain themes throughout the game such as manipulation, returning back in time, redoing things so that they work better for you, correcting mistakes. I think these are engaging elements because they deal with creating a new reality. In this game we are capable of overcoming things that are irremediable in the real world. In other games I understand that when you get killed you must start over again, but here you just hit a button and you can go back to the moment when you failed. In the real world we find ourselves saying many times: “if only I knew then what I know now,” well here once you learn what you were supposed to learn from your failure you can go back and do it again. If only were like that in real life.

I have not finished the game. I am still fighting the pink bunnies and the shooting cannons, but what I still can’t figure out is the issue of collecting pieces. For once, at some point I could get the key to open the box and got to the box alive but then still couldn’t open the box to get the piece of painting. In some occasions, I moved to the next level without collecting the pieces because they seem to be related to different obstacles, or they were placed in areas that Tim had not access to. This is an example of the game evolving in different layers at once. Even when I got the pieces to collect I wasn’t sure if I was putting them in the right way inside the canvas.

I associate the collectible pieces with the idea of a prize that surrounds the relationship between Tim and the Princess. I don’t know for sure how much really Tim has learned from his mistakes despite that the game is basically all about second chances and correcting mistakes. It appears that his quest is very much about earning and collecting prizes and getting things to work his way. But whether this idea is correct or not I will only know when I finish figuring out the entire game which I must say I am looking forward to it.

Creating a universe beyond the text

Braid challenges the player to figure out how to play, and why.  A friend of mine, who is much more of a gamer than I’ve ever been, reacted to his first hour playing Braid by saying, “The game seems interesting, but I found it very frustrating due to the lack of explanations.  The instructions are incomplete; commands such as Shift + arrow key combinations are not explained, and I don’t understand why not everything is affected by turning back time. I think the game creators were trying too hard to be clever, and took too many shortcuts; this is laziness disguised as creativity.”  In his defense, I must point out that my friend is not an English major, and I asked him to judge Braid simply in comparison to the games he normally plays.

I explained to my friend that you must read the text carefully, and think about it, in order to understand why the game works the way it does.  For example, the player reads the theory of turning back time at the beginning of World 2: “What if our world worked differently? … We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.”  In terms of the game play, we can undo the damage caused by colliding with a cannonball, yet still hold onto the golden key we had just grasped when the cannonball hit us.  The cannonball still moves toward us when we resume normal time, however, so we must learn to evade it.

I believe this concept of being able to acquire wisdom through experience while undoing damage provides a thoughtful foundation for a work of fiction.  It could be applied to a host of other works, from fairy tales to historical dramas.  It is interesting to ask whether Jonathan Blow could have told this story as effectively using another technology, rather than a video game.  While it is possible to play with time in traditional writing and film, it is difficult to imagine doing what Blow does with time in Braid quite as coherently using any other format.  The author doesn’t just tell a story; he also creates a universe.

According to an interview with Jonathan Blow by Chris Dahlen, posted on The A.V. Club Blog in 2008, the creator of Braid stated, “You know, in college, I never got either degree, but I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.”

Judging by the comments on that web page below the interview, many English majors felt a need to defend their discipline from Blow’s characterization.  He was speaking in the context of his reaction to attempts to interpret the meaning of his game in ways other than he intended.  Based on Blow’s comments, the interviewer states that “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation.”  That is certainly Jonathan Blow’s position, but one could imagine our old friend Roland Barthes responding with, “the birth of the reader (or player) must be at the cost of the death of the Author,” to quote the final words of his famous essay.  Blow has created a universe worth exploring, but each player will come away with their own interpretation, regardless of the author’s wishes.