Time and The Island

So I recently finished the last couple of Jonathan Blow video games, so curious was I about this developer’s work given the interest in it by people I respect. As Phil predicted, The Witness was a bit more up my alley than it was his. Phil is often right.

Not that I didn’t like Braid. Indeed, the basic mechanic itself in that game is both fascinating and relevant to the game’s overall points about regret and nostalgia, which are entwined with the impetus to “save the princess.” The actual puzzles I found very entertaining. Indeed, stripped down to just its mechanics, Braid has a wonderful, enchanting structure. Each section is basically an exploration of what happens when the mechanic of going back is contradicted or expanded in some novel way. Even more so, the way the various levels unfold remind me of certain musical compositions.

Take, for example, the rather well-known Canon in D Major, by Johann Pachelbel, or Ravel’s Bolero. Certain passages repeat, over and over, but with different tones and expressions as they are played by different instruments and with slight variations. This is the sense I get of Braid’s structure, from the repetition of The Pit as the first level in a new world (to explore a newly introduced mechanic) to Tim’s constant failure to find the princess at the end of each sequence.

Likewise, I found the art of Braid to be terribly enchanting. The palette of colors, the impressionistic brush strokes, coupled with the background music, it’s a game that’s pleasurable just to get immersed in. There is an element of pleasure for the sake of pleasure that I find very appealing, though obviously that’s not all that’s going on with Braid.

Which brings me to what really didn’t work for me, which is the story. Some of this displeasure is undoubtedly rooted in having just played Undertale. In Undertale, the avatar for the player is decidedly ambiguous – a figure who could be any sex, and who could come from all kinds of different cultural backgrounds. Which makes it very easy to project one’s self into the story. But Undertale goes further, in that there’s an element of co-creation to the story, for indeed the point of Undertale is explore what sort of role you want to play in a game in the first place. You don’t have to kill monsters, you can make friends. Or you can be a terribly fearsome fighter. The outcome of the story is a reflection of your choices.

The actual mechanics of Undertale, in the meantime, are relatively trivial. You wander around various environments, solve some puzzles, and occasionally play mini-video games that are mostly about dodging or capturing certain sprites. But, as I said, the point of Undertale isn’t the mechanics, it’s the story, which unfolds through the exploration of the world and interacting with its characters. If anything, then, the central mechanic is choosing what you’re going to say next.…

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