Thursday, 9 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #2 - Braid

Yeah, I decided I'd continue this series because it's fun, plus I've been getting some interesting feedback and comments on these blogs from both friends and casual readers.

[On that note - feel free to comment with your opinions on these blogs, especially if you have a different view on things - I won't bite. I'm a young uni student with a passion for learning about game design, I'm not trying to write these as some know-it-all god of creating games. I'll let you be the judge of that once I actually put out a game of my own. For now, though, any feedback is appreciated, especially thought provoking comments and questions that don't just agree with everything I have to say.]

Anyway, enough of that. Today I'm going to be talking about a little game known as Braid, designed by independent developer Jonathan Blow. I've mentioned Braid several times in this blog already and it's one of my favourite games, so I guess it just made sense to me that I'd write about it in a little more detail.

Braid's interactive title screen


Braid is a downloadable puzzle-platformer revolving around time manipulation. It only spans about six hours, maybe less if you're really smart (or if you happen to cheat with GameFAQs, I guess). It's available to download on the PC, Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, and I'd strongly recommend you to pick it up as soon as possible if you haven't already. You should probably download before reading further anyway, since there may be significant plot details revealed below.






In terms of storytelling, Braid is one of those games where the story is entirely optional. Before each level you'll find a series of books laid out in a row, in some unknown location above the clouds. These books give you a bit of background about the player character Tim and his story, and just why the manipulation of time is so important to him.

Back when I talked about Bioshock's story I mentioned how games should try to show, not tell. I said that while reading was fine for books and viewing was fine for films, in games the focus should be on engaging the player and making them feel like an active part of the story. While I still retain this belief in some form, looking back on past games it can really depend on the story and how many layers there are to the narrative being told.

Designer Ian Schreiber talks about this in one of his blogs - specifically the separation of so called "flavour text" from gameplay relevant text in games. The harsh reality is that only a portion of players truly care about your deeply woven narrative or the detailed history of the world you've created. Give them the story they want, but make sure that the rest of the game's players don't need to wade through a bunch of text they don't care about in order to get the information they need.

An early example of Braid's "flavour text"


In Bioshock, this flavour text came in the form of collectible audio logs. Braid's flavour text is the books placed before each world - you can treat Braid as a simple puzzle game and just run through each world collecting the jigsaw pieces if you wish, but reading these books will put an extra bit of meaning behind Tim's actions and the gameplay mechanics.

If you did decide to read through this flavour text in Braid, you would find a very metaphorical, layered story which, most importantly, was supported by the actions of your player. I feel it's of utmost importance that game writers recognise the possible actions and abilities of a player character and write their stories accordingly so that the two go hand in hand, rather than creating some weird contrast between the character the player is playing and the character the game is trying to portray.

Supergiant Games' creative director and writer Greg Kasavin uses Red Dead Redemption as an example. In Red Dead, the player character of John Marston is portrayed as good natured, but the game allows you as the player to take him out on killing sprees and commit all sorts of offenses which are a complete contrast to the personality the game is portraying in its cutscenes.

What were we talking about again? Oh right, Braid. For those who don't know, Braid's story is revealed to actually be about a bomb, specifically the Manhattan Project. While I found it a bit weird to discover that the princess had been a metaphor for a bomb of all things the whole time, I'm also glad that Blow explained his intentions for Braid's narrative properly and didn't leave everything up to interpretation.

This isn't a problem with most retail releases today, more a pet peeve I have with some independent developers lately. Writing a game to be vague on purpose and leaving everything up to interpretation is not deep, thought provoking storytelling - it's fucking lazy and pretentious. There's this shared perception of independent developers going around online gaming communities, that we're nothing but pretentious assholes who tell anyone who doesn't like our games that they "just don't get it". Games like these don't help that perception. Whereas these are held up by an ambiguous story alone, games like Braid are different - the story and meaning are secondary to a foundation of good gameplay and design.

Could Braid's story have been told in a better way than the books before each world? Perhaps. I tried thinking about how an in-game narrator may have worked by revealing a bit of plot at the start of each level in a way similar to Bastion, but it's really hard to tell how intrusive this would have been without seeing in demoed in the game itself.

I don't really have much more to say about Braid without deconstructing its plot - and that's not what this blog is meant to be about. To sum up for today:
  • flavour text should be separated from gameplay relevant text sometimes for those who don't care for the story
  • the character you construct in the story should match up with the possible player actions

My last point about stories needing direction and less vague metaphors is really subjective, though, so I won't focus on it too much. It's more pet peeve with a group of developers than good design practice. Otherwise I'll just wrap this up and say that Braid is one of my favourite examples of storytelling in games, particularly the way the game mechanics and the story itself go hand in hand. I'd love to see more games which follow this idea in the (hopefully near) future.

1 comment:

  1. Hello again, I personally have not played Braid for some odd reason so I cannot speak on how I found the story-telling for this game. The one thing that I can comment on is the ambiguity of a story and leaving things left for interpretation. I think that used in the correct way and in specific stories that leaving the main idea of the story up to interpretation can be quite powerful, great for creating psychological thrillers if used in that manner. That said, it is rare to see a game that has used it in a way that actually had a positive effect on the story rather than being deleterious. I appreciate that the writers want to have their players to have these deep and intellectual thoughts regarding their game, but in reality many individuals simply want to play and not have to enter some philosophical realm.

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