Introduction: Bogost, Braid & Procedure

Proceduralists like Ian Bogost argue that systems and procedure can be expressive and persuasive. Critically discuss this argument through close analysis of one videogame.

Ian Bogost, author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, states that videogames are an expressive medium that “represent how real and imagined systems work” (2007: vii). Whether they are mass-marketed, indie, or obscure art games, videogames are embedded with cultural meaning. The way in which these meanings are conveyed and expressed, as argued by Bogost, does not lie in the actual content of the game though, but instead what he describes as the procedural rhetoric. Braid (2008), an indie game developed by Jonathan Blow, is exemplary of this philosophy and hence makes an ideal candidate for examining the case for the effectiveness of procedurality. Conversely, it can be argued the game’s reliance on procedural rhetoric leads to it not always being expressive and persuasive, with emotional and interactive potential being lost due to the flaws in its created system (Sicart 2011). The purpose of this essay blog is to examine the ability of procedures within a system to convey expressive, persuasive rhetoric through a critical analysis of the procedures that define the system constructed within the game Braid, designed by Jonathan Blow. Additionally, this blog will explore how procedural rhetoric alone is not enough to completely convey a meaning that isn’t subjected to broad interpretation, thus requiring additional forms of rhetoric to support the construction of a fully expressive, persuasive game.

Procedurality

Procedurality refers to “a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes, whereas rhetoric is “effective and persuasive expression” (Bogost 2007: 3). Procedural rhetoric can then be described as the practice of using processes persuasively. When applied to a system such as videogames, procedurality refers to the philosophy of building rhetoric that is persuasive and expressive through the interaction of the players with a game. As procedural rhetoric strictly adheres to the procedures of a game, proceduralists believe that the meanings within a game can be expressive and persuasive without having to rely on other forms of rhetoric such as textual and visual rhetoric (Bogost 2007). In Braid, the main procedure is the ability to rewind time. Each World has its own unique time-based game mechanic, with each procedure involving the manipulation of time composing a system designed using procedurality, and therefore function as the primary method of delivering Braid’s rhetoric – time and regret (Bogost 2009).

Braid’s Procedural Rhetoric

In Braid, the procedural rhetoric succeeds in being expressive and persuasive in conveying the themes of time and regret due to the fact that the mechanics of the game are heavily invested in manipulation of time. Bogost and Flanagan claim that a simulated environment designed with procedural rhetoric will construct and express meanings and values by enabling players into thinking critically about ethical, political and other complex messages (Bogost 2007) (Flanagan 2009). This can be seen to occur in Braid through three key aspects – the ability to rewind time, the unique mechanics of each World, and the shocking reveal at the end of World 1.

Through the procedure of rewinding time, character death is completely avoided. In this way, the player can never “fail” in the traditional platformer sense. There is no total number of lives, no game over screen, and no burden of failure, allowing the player to recover from every mistake. This sense of time and regret that is expressed is not explicit, instead subtly offering the player a chance to reflect upon the question “what if I could go back” (Bogost 2011: 16). Building upon this established mechanic, each World in Braid has its own unique twist in terms of the manipulation of time. In World 4 for example, moving right causes time to flow forward, moving left causes time to flow in reverse, and standing still will pause time altogether. In World 5, rewinding time leads to the creation of a shadow copy of Tim which players can interact with – jumping on Shadow Tim to reach a higher platform. These unique mechanics in each World are all concerned with the notion of regret and time, showing how these procedures in the game are designed to encourage players to reflect on the nature of time itself, “the past” and be wiser after the experience (Wills 2011)

This builds into an emotional climax created through a time reverse in World 1, the final level of the game. The level depicts the Princess attempting to escape from the knight, working in sync with Tim to pull levers and surpass obstacles. After Tim successfully climbs the last ladder to reach her house, the game triggers the level to replay itself, but this time in reverse. It shows the Princess running from Tim and evading his attempts to get to her, escaping in the arms of the knight instead. World 1 unveils that the role of Tim and the player is inverted from saviour to the actual “monster” that the Princess is running from.

From this, we can observe how the different procedures of manipulating time are interlinked in their exploration of the themes of time and regret. What makes World 1 so emotionally wrenching for the player – to the point where they feel regret themselves – is the amount of time and investment in learning and perfecting the different procedures of time manipulation throughout the game (Sliva 2012). Braid thus takes on the guise of the seemingly familiar genre of the platformer – in which the objective of the player is to rescue a princess from a monster – and turns it “into an allegorical exploration of the themes of time and regret” (Bogost 2011: 12), delivering the cathartic and horrifying truth that was at the centre of the rhetoric.

The Flaws of Procedural Rhetoric

While Braid’s procedural rhetoric may be successful in being persuasive and expressive in its themes, it can be argued that it only manages to do so to a certain extent. In his article, “Against Procedurality”, Miguel Sicart points out the flaws in the procedural rhetoric: that procedures are not enough to convey the specific intentions and meanings of the game designer, and that in order to understand the rhetoric of a videogame, it must acknowledge the values and opinions of the player. The centrality of this interaction in the realization of expressive, persuasive rhetoric is disregarded in the proceduralist theory, the “mechanics of the procedural discourses”(Sicart 2011).

 Braid’s rhetoric is not wholly constructed through procedurality, particularly because the levels of the game are equipped with books and texts that form the – albeit ambiguous – narrative of Braid. This is most clearly seen through the thematic references to destruction, centring around the game’s parallels with the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is occasionally linked throughout the on-screen text and visuals within Braid. However, it is rarely present in the procedural rhetoric – the only references to the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb would not have been picked up without the textual and visual allusions within Braid.

Textually, the parallels being drawn by Jonathan Blow between Braid and the Manhattan project are found in explicit form in the epilogue of the game, in which one of the books mentions the infamous quote by Kenneth Bainbridge after the test detonation of the first atomic bomb, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Visually, this connection is reinforced through the beginning of Braid, in the scene with the bridge and the backdrop of a city engulfed in flames.

This scene is also the first screen the player sees after completing the game, shortly after the parallels with the Manhattan Project have been made explicit to the player, giving them a new depth of understanding of the rhetoric. Yet this insight is entirely devoid of contribution from any procedures within the game – the text and visual allusions presented are the only way in which the player is able to identify how Braid may be an allegory to the creation and the aftermath of the atomic bomb (Reynolds 2010). The parallel between Braid and the Manhattan Project would not have been identifiable without the use of textual and visual rhetoric.

Secondly, it can be argued that procedurality cannot fully communicate rhetoric in an expressive, persuasive manner due to the lack of interactivity with the player that is symptomatic of procedural design. Sicart states that the intentions of the author or designer cannot be transferred directly to the user purely through procedural rhetoric. Proceduralist games offer very few operations to the players and limits the space of possibility and creativity in which players can create. This aptly applies to Braid, as the puzzles and levels can only be completed in one way – the way they were designed to be completed. Braid can be seen as a dictated story rather than an interactive one that allows player input. Therefore, the designer of the game is essentially playing the player, hindering them in exploring their own ethical and political views (Sicart 2011). Hence, it can be argued that the lack of interactivity in the procedural rhetoric limit how expressive Braid truly is.

Conclusion

Braid is a uniquely procedural game that exemplifies the use of procedurality to convey rhetoric. Through Bogost’s theory of procedural rhetoric, we can observe that the themes of time and regret are successfully expressed through Braid’s procedures. Yet the rhetoric requires more than the procedures themselves in order for it to be fully appreciated – textual and visual rhetorics are necessary in unveiling other messages. Describing Braid, designer Jonathan Blow mentioned there is a specific meaning behind the game, yet everyone has their own ideas and opinions on what the game is actually about (Dahlen 2008). This lack of a clear communication of ideas between designer and audience shows how the game fails to convey the true intention of its design. However, this does not necessarily apply in the specific case of Braid as the game was created in such a deliberate way. As Blow states, his goal was not to have “most of the audience play the game and automatically understand [it]” (Dahlen 2008).

Bibliography

Blow, J. (2008), Braid, PC, San Francisco: Number None Inc.

Bogost, I. (2007), Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bogost, I. (2009), Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style, Gamasutra, California, viewed 16 September 2012, <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132302/persuasive_games_the_.php&gt;

Bogost, I. (2011), How to do things with videogames. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press.

Dahlen, C. (2008), Game Designer Jonathan Blow: What We All Missed About Braid, The A.V. Club, Chicago, viewed 16 September 2012, http://www.avclub.com/articles/game-designer-jonathan-blow-what-we-all-missed-abo,8626/

Flanagan, M. (2009), Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Cambridge: MIT Press

Pound, R., Wilson, R. & Ramsey, N. (1998), Memorial Minute – Kenneth Tompkins Bainbridge, The Harvard University Gazette, Massachusetts, viewed 16 September 2012, <http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/1998/05.07/MemorialMinute-.html&gt;

Reynolds, M. (2010), Braid Ending Explained by Jonathan Blow,Digital Spy,  London, viewed 16 September 2012, <http://www.digitalspy.com.au/gaming/news/a284605/braid-ending-explained-by-jonathan-blow.html&gt;

Sicart, M. (2011), ‘Against Procedurality,’ The International Journal of Computer Game Research, vol. 11, no. 3.

Silva, M (2012), Great Story Ever: Braid, 1UP, California, viewed 16 September 2012, < http://www.1up.com/do/blogEntry?bId=9112099&gt;

Wills, M (2011), Why Braid Is The Most Important Game Ever Made, Wired Controller, viewed 16 September, < http://wiredcontroller.com/exclusive/why-braid-is-the-most-important-game-ever-made&gt;