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I Can't Play Your Art


braid artwork

The game opened with beautiful music, painterly graphics, and a sad but modern tale of love lost. I was gently pulled into the private world of a man dealing with profound regret and with the puzzling mysteries of his life. Later on in the game however, as I found myself struggling to jump a character from one moving cloud platform to another by rewinding time to land on the back of a falling sheep-creature, the thought occurred to me, "Do I have the hand-eye coordination to appreciate this art?"

When I first heard about Braid, the indie art video game by auteur/designer Jonathan Blow, I was more than hopeful. I liked everything about what Mr. Blow seemed to be trying to do. I have long thought that a major reason that there aren't more works of art in the medium of video games is that most designers and publishers simply aren't trying to create art in the first place. Blow is one of the exceptions. He was not only trying to produce a work of art with his game Braid, but to use what was unique about his medium to create a piece of art that could only have been created as a video game. It seemed by the reviews that he had succeeded.

When I realized that his game was a platform-puzzler however my enthusiasm faded to a much dimmer "Hmmmn, I guess..." To the non-gamer a platform-puzzler basically means you have to jump a character from one moving "platform" to the next while avoiding obstacles and figuring out real-time puzzles. Not only am I really not very good at platformers, or puzzles for that matter, but I have to admit that I don't enjoy them either. So I held off. As time went on however, and the positive press kept flooding in, I had to find out for myself.

As I moved through the initial levels of the game I enjoyed the art, music, mechanics, and even more, I appreciated the way Braid gently began to mix the controls of the game with the desires of the protagonist in the framing story. The emerging tale of love-lost, regrets, and past mistakes moved paradoxically forward (well, backwards maybe) by the mechanics of time rewinding seemed to promise good things. References to other games triggered emotional flashes from my own past. I could not help but feel a dialog begin between the designer and myself as the details in his puzzles gently nudged me to think of things in new ways. I could see I was in good hands and that there would be emotion, satisfaction, and depth as the game intensified.

braid gameplay

Unfortunately I could also see that I probably wasn't going to make it through the entire game. I did fairly well during the initial "tutorial" stages but as things really began in earnest and the game stopped holding my hand I started struggling. Whatever interest the experience and emotions held for me began to be overwhelmed by tense frustration. Yes, part of the unique joy of games is in their native ability to create active situations that allow the player to experience intense emotion and react in real time, but I suspect that this was not what Blow was intending I should experience. Or maybe he was. Maybe the point of the game was to help me understand that no girl-friend (or objective) could be worth this much jumping and hopping and I should turn off the game and look for a date that isn't living in quite such a precarious location. Maybe I could date someone not surrounded by the deep pits, killer bunnies, and flame throwers of the psyche. I suspect however that I am just weaker at platforming skills than the average gamer.

Of course this isn't Mr. Blow's fault or problem any more than it is James Joyce's that I can't appreciate Finnegans Wake. Ultimately if I want to sample and appreciate the art I will have to put in the work. It's just that never before has "the work" of artistic appreciation had so much to do with hand-eye coordination. When viewing a Van Gough as long as I have my sight I can at least approach it on an even playing field. This does not seem to be the case with even casual video games. Maybe in the future, as I might take a class now to appreciate more deeply the poetry of T.S. Elliot and the modernists, I may engage a gaming coach to help me level-up and complete the final enraptured mob-raid in some future work of ludic art.

Of course I could watch someone else's Let's Play of games that I'll never be able to play but it won't ever be the full experience. It's vicarious, and in no way is it a "game".  It more resembles an unintentional adaptation from one medium to another.  So I'm left with the growing realization that there are just some gaming experiences that I will not be able to fully appreciate. There are emotional and touching moments in many games that I'll never have the skills, or maybe the time, to experience. How many beautiful worlds will I never level-up to see, heart-wrenching moments I will never have the skills to get to, and wise insights will I not be clever enough to uncover?

Gaming unlike any other artistic medium requires the appreciator to perform an active role. Much of my understanding and enjoyment of the art may well come down to my own skills to experience or co-create it. In fact it is one of the reasons some consider games to be incapable of becoming art at all. A game by its nature may be thought of as incomplete until the player performs their part. I'm not sure I agree, or even know just yet.

What I do know is that Mr. Blow's new game The Witness is coming out soon and I hear that there is no jumping involved. I am very excited to play it.