The Inexpressible Found in Games

I linked this interview with Braid creator Jonathan Blow in my response to Maia’s post about the narratives presented by games. In it, he addresses the question of interpretations of the narrative by saying that the narrative represents a part but not the whole of what he is attempting to express through the game. He wants the game to be an art form, something that goes beyond experiences of fun or narrative. He expresses similar views on video games as art as Jason Rohrer in the Critical Inquiry interview, in that games should be used to communicate certain feelings and situations. 

We talked about genres in video games today, and in this interview with Blow, he touches upon the fact that video game genres are characterized by their mechanics in contrast to literary or art genres, which are characterized more by the experiences that they attempt to convey:

I also found interesting the emphasis that Blow places on “discovery,” of figuring things out. Playing a puzzle game like Braid, there is only one correct way to figure out the levels, and any solution concepts that fall outside the intention of the creator result in frustration on the part of the player. While Blow expresses his disdain for Japanese games handholding the player, his game also restricts the player to one predetermined path. I noticed when playing Braid that in the menu, there is a speed run option, where a timer starts and measures how long it takes for someone to beat the game. Blow clearly recognizes that the game will be played in that fashion. Performing speed runs well requires perfect knowledge of the levels and is more a challenge of hand-eye coordination and timing perfection, and it completely neglects the discovery of puzzle solving that is central to the game. Speed running passes over the intended and specific art nature of the game in favor of a different experience that could be almost zen-like of inputting commands perfectly. So I was wondering if there was a reason that Blow decided to include a speed run mode beyond the recognition that there were players who preferred to engage with his work in that manner.

Returning to the views of video games as art, in these interviews there is a theme of attempting to touch upon something that is difficult to verbalize, something that the game creators find inexpressible or something that they are not sufficiently able to articulate. Are these things that are specific to them as artists? That is, are these inexpressible ideas things that they themselves could not express in another medium, but someone else could, or are they able to get to something that could not be captured through other forms and media? Some people write poetry and other people write novels, and yet others produce TV shows. This is somewhat related to my question two weeks back about whether In Treatment could have been told anywhere but on a TV screen. Certainly what is unique about video games as a form is the interactivity. As Ranjodhd mentions, the players could be thought of as performers, being led through specific motions, and this relates well to the Critical Inquiry piece, in which Rohrer talks about how games express ideas through “mechanical metaphors.” However, are these mechanical metaphors necessary? Are there ideas and feelings that can only be expressed through mechanical metaphor? Another aspect that comes out of interactivity is ownership. While the players might have an idea of what the creator is intending it is ultimately up to them to make the choices. But this sense of ownership or agency seems challenging when we consider the fact that Braid’s puzzles only really have one solution, or that in Dys4ia, it doesn’t really matter what you do, you’ll ultimately end up going through the motions that creator Anna Anthropy has set out for you.

Is there some other aspect of video games as a medium that makes them uniquely appropriate for some ideas? So I pose a question similar to my In Treatment post: why choose video games as a medium or form?

3 thoughts on “The Inexpressible Found in Games

  1. Riffing off of what you said about the speed challenge, I think video games as a medium offer you a chance to experience them again without it being repetitive. You could probably watch weeks one and two of In Treatment again and get a little more insight out of it from the knowledge you have of later sessions, but it’s unlike video games in that the different ways to play the game and its hidden achievements are much more numerous. If you played Braid through once, you could play through again for the speed achievement, or again after that to unlock the stars. Unlocking the stars also unlocks the ability to grab the chandelier in the final level and explode the princess, which ties back into the narrative and furthers the atom bomb comparison. Playing a video game over and over again to unlock every little achievement forces you to reconsider the game and its narrative, as well as the smaller details you might have glanced over on the first time through.

  2. I also am intrigued by the idea of a speed run as part of Braid. I didn’t even notice that was an option. I think what you said about Blow recognizing the different kinds of players must be the reason, but I feel like the very concept of a speed run undermines the point of Braid. I feel like part of the message, especially if you interpret finding the princess as discovering the atom bomb has to do with the medium-specific obsessive desire to finish we talked about in class. The first time you play through the game and get to the epilogue, realizing the ways the game has played on assumptions about gameplay and how they effect the way we can interpret the ending– that seems so striking, and part of the point, I feel, is to reexamine the way we play games. But to be able to do a run of Braid as quickly as possible, as you said, would mean you knew exactly what to do, and had probably played the game many times already, but were just testing or challenging yourself. But if you know the end of the game, and what it says about ludology, then playing it in this way seems to be totally ignoring the message of the game. Does that mean that the message is just not that effective, or that it’s less important than the experience of the game?

  3. This idea of Blow’s that you’ve picked up on—that the story is a part of the point of Braid but not THE point—seems particularly important for understanding the purpose of having such a complex and confusing narrative. I’m reminded of an idea by Bill Nichols that I recently encountered for another class (some in this class will also recognize it): “Narrative is like a black hole, drawing everything that comes within its ambit inward, organizing everything from décor to clothing to dialogue and action to serve a story. […] Excess is that which escapes the grasp of narrative and exposition. It stands outside the web of significance spun to capture it.”

    As I was playing Braid, after hearing that it was artful and thoughtful and academically significant, I was trying to pin down the atomic story or the relationship story or the mother-son story so that I could leave feeling like I knew what it was “about.” Perhaps, instead, comprehending the narrative can’t teach us what Braid is about—it’s one piece among many excesses (visuals, mechanics, music, etc.) that combine to form a larger meaning outside of the story. This isn’t an idea reserved for videogames (Nichols was writing about documentary film), but the medium might be particularly suited for this kind of extra-narrative meaning.

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