Unhappy Ending: Art Isn’t Always Fun

During our discussion in class today about Braid, one student made the astute observation that, while the game is sometimes so difficult it isn’t even fun, perhaps that’s the point. As the class delved into Jonathan Blow’s opinions on video games, I thought back to another game in which I had experienced this sort of “harsh art” and thought that perhaps this is yet another sign that video games are truly maturing as an art form.

One of the first games I played on my PS4 was a short, narrative-driven walking simulator (a term which is often used pejoratively, though I’ve taken to reappropriating it for ambient aesthetes of all media) called Firewatch. This gorgeously rendered, slow-paced, and emotionally sapping game is without a doubt a piece of art; indeed, it is so narratively focused that I almost wouldn’t call it a video game at all but rather an immersive movie.

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Firewatch places you in the eyes of a lonely man whose wife has begun to suffer from early onset dementia. As she begins to forget who he is, he takes to the woods to escape depression, applying for a summer position as wildfire lookout for the US Forest Service. Throughout the game, the player is forced to choose between suboptimal and morally questionable paradoxes. You are never allowed, in other words, to be completely happy with your decisions, as there is no best option.

I of course won’t spoil Firewatch‘s wonderful story (and if any of my classmates would like to play it, they are free to do so on my console, as it’s only a 2-4 hour game). All I will say is that the ending was, for me, quite disappointing. Indeed, it was an intentional letdown.

So back to Braid‘s at times frustratingly difficult puzzles. If Jonathan Blow was seeking to make some sort of commentary on video games, in their predictably satisfactory endings and linear progression, I believe he succeeded. In the same vein, Firewatch‘s creators gave us an antihero whose climactic ending is but a quiet disappointment.

So why would we play games that are, in some respect, unenjoyable? Because in all seriousness—in terms of giving me pleasure, both Braid and Firewatch would be considered failures. But this is precisely why I feel that video games are coming to a certain level of maturity, that they might have the ability to deliver unto players something other than dopamine. Reading Lolita isn’t fun at all; neither is listening to Schoenberg’s expressionist music or reading Ginsberg’s bleak poetry. What these works do give us is a taste of some real or hyperreal fantasy in which feelings we all recognize but shudder to behold are thrust out, into our faces. And in looking at them in the light, perhaps we gain some consolation in knowing that at least, we are not alone in fearing them.

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I Feel For You Tim: Emotional Attachment in Braid

In the introduction to Half Real, Jesper Juul argues that “emotional attachment” is an essential component of video game construction. However, many critics argue that emotional attachment is largely missing from today’s popular games (Call of Duty, Halo etc.).  But emotional connection is  front-and-center in Braid. What’s more, the game offers multiple ways for the player to feel connected to the game. The world of Braid is visually stunning, musically compelling, and puzzling in the obstacles, mechanics and story; this makes space for any player to form an attachment with the game.

The story hooked me. We get snippets about Tim’s path at the beginning of each new level–his past romances, his parents, his own self-reflection–and we care about him just as we might the protagonist in a great novel. But the narrative is particularly compelling because it leaves so many questions unanswered–What big mistake did Tim make? Who is the monster? These questions can only be answered by playing and beating the game (or looking it up on Wikipedia, as I did). The story creates so much anticipation, and I enjoyed playing largely because I wanted to solve the mystery of Tim and his Princess. I was rooting for Tim. Learning the ending made me sad, made me reflect on the game, made me consider Tim and the Princess as a legitimate relationship that might exist outside of a video game. Deeply personal and delicate, this story touched on much larger themes than I would have expected from a game.

Game mechanics-wise, I echo others’ posts with my admiration. The rewind/re-do function extremely helpful for me as a new game player, and made the theme of multiple realities more concrete. Plus, players have the advantage of seeing other possible outcomes; if you don’t like where a certain path of play takes you, you can quite literally alter your own course. There is also a tension at play between fate and free will. The narrative is pre-set, obviously, and so although we can choose and re-do our path, all means lead to the same end. This element creates an even stronger bond between the player and the characters. Tim’s final loss made me question if anything he/I accomplished in the game was worth it. The game boasts time travel, magic and do-overs, but ultimately, Tim cannot win the princess back.  In fact,  one could argue that Tim’s use of all these technological advancements turned him into the monster that the Princess sees him as.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game because of how close I felt to the characters. Creator Jonathan Blow has spoken out about the importance of forming emotional and artistic attachment in video games, and I think he nailed it in Braid. I look forward to his next release!

Emma Baker