Braid: A second chance at enlightenment


Braid came out almost a year and half ago and really caused a stir in the industry.  It was small, downloadable game that was created entirely by Jonathan Blow, save the graphics, and it was very "arty".  It was also very successful, eventually being ported to the PC and, most recently, to the PS3.  Bring together a 2-D perspective, beautiful hand drawn, and unique and cohesive mechanics and story, Braid proved to many people that games could be art.  It also proved that small projects could get enough attention to provide a serious return on investment.
So why talk about it now?
The first time that I played it was when it came out on the 360 during the Summer of 2008.  I was finishing up school at Texas Tech and was also in the process of moving.  The semester ended the second week in August and my lease was up at the end of July.  See the conflict?  I had to crash on a friends couch for a couple of weeks between the end of my lease and the end of the semester.  My primary environment for playing Braid the first time around was on my friends couch in his living room between studying for finals.  
Not the most optimal of conditions, granted, but I loved the heck out of the game.  The basic mechanics of Braid are these: you can walk, jump on stuff, and rewind time.  The game really goes to town on the whole time thing, though, as every level takes its own special twist on these mechanics, such as objects that are unaffected by the time reversal, or shadows of your former self that spawn when you rewind time.  The puzzle bent, twisted, and then broke my mind at some points and I loved the game for that.  I remember spending something like two hours on a single puzzle with both my friend and I straining our collective consciousness to figure it out. 
The same friend that I stayed with for those weeks recently downloaded Braid for the PS3 (since he does not have a 360) so that he could experience it again and show it to his wife.  That got me to thinking about the game again, so I decided to give it another go too, just to see if I remembered anything about the puzzles.
First interpretations
Almost every puzzle in this game is a eureka moment on some level, which is appropriate when you consider what the creator was going for.  He wanted to make a game that modeled enlightenment.  I believe that he succeeded in this. The puzzles are all completely unique and that can be strangely maddening.  In most games, you are brought along this difficulty curve where the game slowly teaches you every skill that you will every need and incrementally increases the difficulty and complexity of each successive encounter or puzzle.
In Braid, you are shown the basic tool for each level in the opening room and then thrust into intricate puzzle that have no real overlap in their solutions.  There is no "I'll just do what I did last time, plus a little".  There is only the constancy of the things that you have influence over and the structured situations that you are forced to untangle.
You would probably think that that means there is little to no replay value.  If there was nothing else going on here except for the puzzles, you would be right.  There is a deeper level though.  The story at first blush looks pretty standard as far as content, if a little strange in presentation.  You are led to believe throughout that Tim (the main character) is pursuing the princess or possibly trying to save her form a monster.  The ending sequence reveals that Tim actually captured the princess and that she escaped with the help of a big, burly knight.  The game then goes on to throw allusions to Oppenheimer (atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project), Newton, and various others at you in text form.  
My first time through I took this to mean that Tim was once a great scientist who then did something to terrible that he drove his princess away.  Maybe he worked on the atomic bomb, maybe he did something that "broke" time and now he is caught in a strange sort of fugue state where he is forever doomed to repeat his mistakes while always trying to fix them.  I really didn't know, and it seemed intentionally ambiguous, so I just let it be.  
A second chance at enlightenment
My second play through more than a year later was much different.  I didn't specifically know the answers to the puzzles, but they came easily enough.  This allowed me to notice different things this time around.  I focused much more heavily on the text that was presented at the beginning of each chapter and on the artwork of the levels themselves.  I started to notice strands that followed me through, small motifs that showed up every so often.  Newton, the atomic bomb, desired societal roles, social consequences, princesses, pursuit, all of these things share a common thread.  It all geld for me when I saw the Aleph embossed on one of the platforms.  
WARNING: Serious math follows, although it is only very briefly outlined.  This can be skipped with the understanding that the pursuit of an impossible to prove concept basically drove an important Mathematician crazy this one time.  Got that?
The Aleph (represented as \aleph) is an important concept in the study of Mathematics and comes with a bit of an infamous legacy.  Georg Cantor was a Mathematician in the late 19th century who helped to solidify the foundations of Mathematics through the use of set theory.  He also study infinity.
Aleph is the description of the cardinality (or size) of an infinite set and is called a transfinite number.  You see, all infinite sets are not created equally, with some being provably larger than others.  It can be proved, for instance, that the size of the set of all real numbers is equal to 2 raised to the power of the cardinality of the set of natural numbers (\aleph_0), or in other words  2^{\aleph_0} =the cardinality of the real numbers.  
Cantor then tried to prove this the follow statement 2^{\aleph_0}=\aleph_1.  This statement is called the Continuum Hypothesis.  This means that the cardinality of the real numbers is the second largest transfinite cardinal after \aleph_0.  This particular problem caused him so much trouble that it was at least partly responsible for his proclivity for going  in and out of sanatoriums for a large portion of his life.  This theorem, by the way, is neither provable or disprovable under the axioms of set theory that he was working with.  There are many great books on this subject if you want to know more, or you could just punk out and look at the wikipedia entries, which I linked to through out.
But what does it mean?
All of the stories presented have to do with the pursuit of an idea and the personal and social consequences that follow.  The feeling that it presents to me is the personal melancholy an individual can experience during the pursuit of an idea and later proliferation of that idea.  In the four main stories presented in the game (Newton, The Manhattan Project, Cantor, and Tim's own story) you can see how the pursuit of ideas can have different affects.
Newton's ideas about mechanics in his day were considered heretical by many.  Physical mechanics and calculus brought the workings of the world into the realm of human understanding and this frightened the Church.  If you could account for things like motion and gravity without the influence of God, then that leaves very little for him to do.  This provided a philosophical framework for deist (the idea of a "blind watchmaker God") thought and paved the way for other potentially heretical scientific discoveries to be explored.  
The Manhattan Project produced the first atomic weapons out of the equations and theories developed during the first decades of the century.  I think that the phrase that was utter after the detonation of the atomic bomb, "Now we are all sons of bitches," which appears in the game as text, shows the realization of how destructive the application of a revolutionary idea can truly be.  
Cantor provided the foundational framework for modern Mathematics with set theory, but those concepts expressed at their extreme limit led him to ideas that proved too much for him.  His work in this area is seen by some to challenge the uniqueness of the infinity of God.  Needless to saw that rubs some people the wrong way.
In Tim's own story, interpreted as literally as possible, his concept of the princess, which was his perfect ideal of a woman that he wasn't even sure existed, drove all of his pursuits.  He conflicted with women, family, and society in general over this thing that might not even exist.  When he speaks of moving contrary-wise to the inhabitants of the city, he shows his disdain for their way of life and their expectations, instead choosing a different path through life.  This alienates him from everyone else.  He can't fulfill the duties expected of him by society, which are symbolized by the various professional clothing that is seen throughout the game. He speaks to the outsider in all of us.  When he has the girl that he identifies as the princess, he sees her as diminished in a way.  
Even with her apparent diminishment, he is utterly destroyed by her being stolen away.  He has become so addicted to the idea of her that he starts to remember all of the things that he idealized about her, and in doing so, subtly changes his memories of her.  I think that this is key.  To me the entire game takes place in Tim's mind while he remembers his past.  I believe the monster that Tim refers to is his own obsession with his ideal princess.  The ideal princess was this perfect, immutable thing, while the actual princess was a living, vital person, perfect in her own more subtle ways.  The monster of Tim's obsession would not allow him to accept this.  It needed to ideal, not the person.  So he lost her and his personal pursuit continues.
All of these stories are about the dangers and consequences of the pursuit of a powerful idea. Blow has been quoted as saying that the ideas in Braid are "something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly."  When you think of the pursuit of an idea, the consequences of that idea are often not considered.  Those consequences can be societally far reaching, as with Newton or the Manhattan Project,  or extremely personal, as with Cantor or Tim, but there are always consequences.  This idea is not often explored in Western Philosophy, where the free exchange of ideas is held as paramount, and mature individuals feel they have little to no ownership over their ideas.
Ownership of ideas is a tricky subject and I think that Braid points into a very interesting direction.  In trying to posses his ideal princess, Tim sees a diminishment in the thing that he is trying to describe.  Part of that comes from the human mind having a hard time dealing with the continuity of a thing over time.  In the remembering of a thing, the neural pathways that house that memory change very subtly and the human mind perceives the thing in memory as closer to the way that it is now perceived.  So as Tim sees the "imperfections" in the princess, or those things that he does not expect, he cannot see the totality of her person and all of the subtlety that that comes from being a real human.  Holding onto her and trying to make her fit his preconceived notions makes it so that she cannot be the true, flawed perfection that she could be.
Ideas can behave in much the same way.  When an individual expects to own an idea, they diminish that idea's ability to have an impact in the world.  This is something that the Scientific Method is meant to deal with.  It pushes the idea out to as many individuals as possible to get the widest array of perspectives.  If an idea is kept to oneself, it can't take advantage of that and it can't continue to change and flourish in the light of discussion and debate.  An individual has no idea of the impact that any single idea may have, and so being greedy with those ideas is potentially stifling. 
There are however, as discussed previously, always consequences to an idea. An idea like the atomic bomb, or the ideas that led to it rather, could be seen as ultimately destructive.  Keep in mind though that the atomic bomb and all of the technologies built around it are also largely responsible for the modern age.  The goodness of that is open for debate, but it is true.  Newton's ideas may be ultimately responsible for the decline of the Church's influence, and deist philosophies had a significant impact on the framers of the American constitution.  I believe that what Blow is saying is that an idea needs to be free to fulfill its true potential.  That is a very powerful and compelling notion.
Larger Impact
Braid is an interesting case in game based storytelling because it is so obviously philosophically driven.  Till the time when Braid came out, "art" games where hyper-fringe entities, existing only for a handful of devoted individuals.  After Braid came out, you suddenly saw an explosion in the discussion surrounding the deeper implications of storytelling in games and the ethics that these things introduce into out lives.  It was really part of a seismic shift in the industry that won't be fully understood for many years.  The tend toward smaller experiences that respect your time and offer you something that maybe you were not expecting is continuing to shape some of the biggest players in the game industry.  People have less and less time to spend on games, and if games as a medium want to remain vital they need to take this into consideration.  I remember just a few years ago people complaining about games that clocked in at six to ten as being a bad value proposition.  Now even big budget games like Modern Warfare and Uncharted are much smaller and tighter experiences.  With the advent of digital distribution, smaller experiences will start to become the norm and more experimental games like Braid will have a niche akin to that of independent films or music.
So, do I really think that Braid is going to be the future of storytelling in games?  No, not really.  The philosophically driven work can be very important to a medium, showing what it is possible to express in that medium, but they rarely become the norm.  I think that the most powerful and enduring experiences will be those that take you on a journey first and foremost, but in doing so, become a personal and unconscious reflection of the ideas that exist in the creators' mind at the time.  Braid is a good first step to expressing more important things in games than simple excitement and I look forward to more expressive pieces that Braid's success will eventually spawn.