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Is Braid pretentious? Creator Jonathan Blow answers his critics

For a pretty little puzzler that costs less than $15, Braid is shockingly divisive. While many love the time-twisting gameplay, ethereal music and deeply philosophical story, a vocal group of gamers dismiss indie developer Jonathan Blow’s claim to fame as “pretentious.”

Why? Every title has haters, of course, but why has that one word become so strongly associated with criticism of Braid? I recently sat down with Jonathan Blow (interview here) to play his new game The Witness (preview here) and discuss his design philosophy. When asked if Braid was pretentious, here’s how he responded:

I disagree with the use of that word. I don’t think any of my games are “pretentious” because I’m not pretending. I legitimately mean everything that I put into the game. Whether that comes across or not, I don’t know… But what it really comes down to is that some people think, “Games do this sort of thing. They don’t do this sort of thing.” And I think games can do any kind of thing that we want them to do.

One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about Braid is “Oh, I didn’t understand the story, and so the author failed.” Well, let’s look at another genre that people take seriously, like the novel. Very few people on the planet Earth could tell you that they understand Finnegans Wake, but it’s considered to be one of the great novels. Something like Gravity’s Rainbow is a very well respected, very complicated book that very few people understand, but that is part of the value of the medium. There’s so much to it that it’s not all there the first time you glance at it. If you’re interested, you dig into it and you understand more and more. I think that that’s a very valuable thing and I think that if we can do more of that in games, it would be nice.

Any time you do something that’s different, some people will like it and some people won’t. Some people don’t like Braid and some people will not like this game. Although The Witness is probably harder to call pretentious because it’s got a very different mood. But people will find something to call it, right?

Jonathan Blow’s next game, The Witness, will release sometime in 2012. For more thoughts and impressions, read our hands-on preview now or our full interview with Blow later today.

Aug 9, 2011

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26 comments

  • Spybreak8 - August 11, 2011 2:43 a.m.

    Yeah it sounds to me that Blow needs to go back to college logic, that comparison doesn't work. Also I now know why some people thought Mass Effect 2 was pretentious, they were fed up with the hype, not the actual game itself.
  • AngryScotsman - August 10, 2011 4:53 p.m.

    It's pretentious not because of its story, but because of the way it is presented. Dumping the whole story, which is almost entirely irrelevant to the mechanics of the game, in text walls before each level is not a good way to present a story that could have been interesting. I'm fine with what it had to say, I liked the game's ending in the last level, but I could not care any less for the "text"'s ending. And yes, he may mean everything he puts into it, but that doesn't mean it needs to be in there. A major disregard for "show, don't tell", and the story felt disjointed and lazily told because of it. I enjoyed the game, the puzzles were extremely clever and very difficult, but I really do not like the story, or rather its presentation. I understood it, but I didn't like it. Decent enough story, but it's told so horrendously that I had no investment whatsoever, but I absolutely adored the final level and the story that it told. That is how Braid's story should have been told, through the levels and interaction with the environment, through the *gameplay*, not through a wall of text. Make a blog post for that, write a book. In short: game story was good, novella story was poorly told and tried too hard to be emotional and was written in that style of a student who has found a thesaurus.
  • sirdippingsauce - November 8, 2012 8:41 p.m.

    I realize this is a year old comment, but I was just writing a video review about this exact subject, and I came across this article while researching and found your comment. You have spoken every word that was in my mind, sir.
  • joe-hendrey - April 4, 2014 2:01 a.m.

    I realise this is over a year old comment (but if you can do it, so can I ;) ), I just happened to stumble across this as I'm considering writing a piece on Braid for an assignment. I think you both missed the point of the books/story. Which is fine, but I think it's unusual for AngryScotsman to say "I understood it, but I didn't like it." The reason I believe you missed the point (at least to some degree) is because of the assertion that "the whole story ...is almost entirely irrelevant to the mechanics of the game..." is off. Actually, the story ties in fundamentally with the game mechanics. The first world introduces reversing time - the story talks about undoing past mistakes. This type of connection is established for each new worlds set of rules. That's just one layer. The reason the story is presented as being about searching for the princess is likely a commentary on games like Mario which have very basic 'stories' and this was just a neat way to tie it in with that aspect of the game. What the story is actually about is less clear, but it's absolutely not about a search for a literal princess, and I'd be shocked if it's even a literal girl. So there's this multi-layered narrative going on, and reading it as a verbose version of the literal Mario story...
  • Zerxont - August 10, 2011 8:48 a.m.

    Is Braid pretentious? No, but gamesrader is.
  • ReasonableFanboy - August 10, 2011 5:17 a.m.

    No, Mr. Blow. I don't dislike Braid because I don't get it or don't believe that games can be a higher art or do something different. I dislike Braid because it plays like shit. I like the story, I very much adore the final moments, but it simply fails in terms of gameplay. Blow's efforts would have been better spent in film.
  • RebornKusabi - August 10, 2011 3:10 a.m.

    I understood Braid just fine and got the message as well as the general theme that it was going for. I still think its pretentious dreck because as has been mentioned in the comments, you can be intelligent and thought-provoking without relying on soliloquy and prose.
  • GamesRadarPaulRyan - August 10, 2011 2:56 a.m.

    I understand Braid's story
  • TurkeyOnRye - August 9, 2011 10:22 p.m.

    Braid is one of the rare games that my wife has sat beside me and was engrossed with a game (L.A. Noire is the most recent one). You know what? If you don't like the atom bomb part of the story, ignore it! It still works as a game about a guy trying to rescue a girl (or, well... you all know the twist ending). It was made to work on both levels.
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - August 9, 2011 9:46 p.m.

    I loved Braid and what he did with it. The only thing that I thought was bad about the writing was the actual prose of it all. The overarching concepts/story and the ways they were infused into the level design were fantastic. The actual bits of text though were completely hamfisted. He just needs to be more subtle with his writing and let the actual ideas shine.
  • lovinmyps3 - August 9, 2011 9 p.m.

    I love Braid. It's my favorite indie game.
  • 510BrotherPanda - August 9, 2011 8:57 p.m.

    I find it interesting that PooPSock commented directly after ChrisCultista's comment on pooping. I've never played Braid, but I still like that dinosaur thingy.
  • woarber - August 9, 2011 8:37 p.m.

    That's complete bullshit. He's comparing his game to a work of art with no real links between them besides the fact it's, "complex" Braid fails on many levels. The time aspect was interesting for a few minutes, but after, I just couldn't make myself play. It wasn't particularly investing. Another aspect wayyyyy overrated was the story, or lack thereof. I understand he was trying to make a point, or whatever modern day "artists" claim to do. But there is no emotional investment, you don't care about your characters plight, struggle, or victory. There isn't any character development to be found here. You can't claim that because it's an Arcade game it's not reasonable to expect basic video game archetypes, because, despite that handicap, it manages to find time to hit you over the head with it's message. It withholds the real story for people who complete 100%. Even considering the ending, it contains no real precedent. It's not totally unexpected, what with the whole theme of mistakes and the concept you can go back and fix them, but there is zero buildup. It just happens. I wasn't a fan of the controls either. It just didn't feel that responsive.
  • reson8er - August 9, 2011 7:58 p.m.

    Played Braid, did not care for it at all. I usually have a high threshold of acceptance for games that are trying something different, but Braid never clicked with me. I have nothing against JB, just didn't care for his game.
  • Gene - August 9, 2011 6:20 p.m.

    @FOZ I thought that line was rather beautiful. And on a general note: if Braid is pretentious, I want more games to be pretentious.
  • bread_or_decide - August 9, 2011 6:04 p.m.

    To me the best thing about Braid is that you can enjoy it without getting all of it. If you just go with the idea that the hero is really the villain well that's damn good enough. The non-text ending is pretty awesome when they play it backwards. Truly there was genius at work before any of the over bearing text appears.
  • bread_or_decide - August 9, 2011 6:02 p.m.

    People who use the word pretentious to put down anything usually are showing a lack of intelligence by not being able to really point out what they don't like about it so they just throw a blanket statement like "it's pretentious" on it and call it a day. Pretentious means "self important." Technically anything ever made is pretentious because it meant something to the person who made it.
  • PooPSock - August 9, 2011 5:50 p.m.

    A minor criticisms, but novels are not a "genre". And clear storytelling is an element of entertainment. Not all novels are meant to be entertaining, and perhaps not all games are meant to be entertaining as well, but if you are looking to create character immersion, it is done better when the player can comprehend what his actions mean. In spite of all that, Braid is a great game and an entertaining one at that, and it's important to have storytelling in games mature as a whole. Not by becoming more contrived but by handling story in a more mature and engrossing manner. His game was plenty understandable and it's a shame that it's sold to an audience that can not always immerse themselves in a narrative that can be taken many a different way. In short, haters gonna hate.
  • ChrisCultista - August 9, 2011 5:36 p.m.

    Not understanding something doesn't make it a deep engrossing story, Mister Blow. I could shit on the pages of a book, and no one could understand it. But they could get deeper and deeper into my layers of different shit, but that wouldn't make it deep.
  • FOZ - August 9, 2011 5:21 p.m.

    I don't think half the lines used were necessary. "Pretentious" doesn't always have to mean "useless, pompous bullshit," but I think the writing could be toned down. You don't need to use flowery words and commas to be eloquent. Would anyone actually use the sentence "Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness?"

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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