Braid: Postmodern? Does it matter?

Is it ever possible to approach a new piece of media or content without applying prior context and experiences to it? Is that a viable and fulfilling concept upon which to base creation? A Postmodernist would argue no, and then yes, that all art exists within a set of very specific sociocultural contexts and it’s success is contingent upon its placement within those contexts. Thus, the postmodern piece of creation necessarily contains traces of these surroundings and can use these surroundings to its advantage. The first and most significant aspect of Braid that struck me was its Postmodern treatment of reference. As a platform game, it’s already limited in the scope of its execution, narrative, and variety (compared to something like an MMORPG). By now, the vast majority of these possibilities have been largely exploited in platform games, so creators are potentially faced with a dilemma: do we let the genre of the platformer die out, or do we seek alternatives? Braid, it seems, has chosen to use the fact that the realm of possibility of the run-and-jump game has been fully explored to its advantage. Braid is rife with references to the king of all platform games: Mario, the one game almost everyone is sure to know. From piranha plants, pipes, and the structure of a number of the levels (one of which is an almost explicit transfer from Donkey Kong), Braid plays like a generic platformer with an almost tongue-in-cheek atmosphere in that there are so many explicit references to Mario. Even the narrative is almost exactly that of Mario, to save a princess from a number of castles in which she turns out not to be once you get there. It’s impossible, as anyone who’s lived and played a game in the 20th and 21st centuries, not to think of Mario when playing Braid, bringing into it a brutal self-awareness characteristic of Postmodernism. Perhaps it is this idea that gives Braid is uniqueness and its appeal to some, but it calls into question how sustainable and fulfilling this technique of game creation really is. Can we use reference and self-awareness more than once to fuel new creation? Is this kind of pastiche really a fulfilling direction to take one of the most limitless and profound forms of media to-date?

One thought on “Braid: Postmodern? Does it matter?”

  1. You make an intriguing and relevant point! The question is—to what extent is the self-aware or ironic pastiche a useful style of game? Particularly, you ask whether it can be used more than once.

    Just yesterday, I had to write an essay analyzing a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney for a poetry class. By the late sixteenth century, the metaphors of love poetry that were so skillfully crafted by Petrarch had already grown somewhat stale. In his sonnet, Sidney is aware of this, using those themes in a self-referential way, possibly to critique the overused phrases that his fellow poets were employing. In this early example of meta-irony, Sidney is successful in creating something new—not a new form of love poetry, but a new perspective on the genre itself. But could another poet have come, some five years later, and made the same observation with success? I would think not.

    Your question hits the nail right on the head. There’s a sort of natural arc of popularity in any cultural or artistic trend, be it the platform game or the love sonnet or the sitcom. (This trope, that genre-defining works tend to seem dull in retrospect, is in fact referred to as “Seinfeld is Unfunny.”) I believe there’s a point on the downward trend—one might call it the inflection point—where someone has the opportunity to notice the overused-ness of a theme and profit off it. But the key is that it can only be done once. (At least, it can only be done once per cycle.) There is nothing interesting at all about being the second person to make a mockery of an overused theme, so as to explore its deeper implications. It simply wouldn’t work.

    So to your original question—how valid of a technique is this, then? I would almost think of it as a natural part of the arc of popularity itself. It cannot be a bandwagon itself to be hopped onto; when people get too ironic, it’s just annoying. So as long as it is only an instance and not a direction, per se, I see it as a valid one, if done right.

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