Indie games have gone from a fringe movement to a massive commercial force, in the process transforming what and how we play. Our Game Could Be Your Life is a look back at the phenomenon through its most important games.
If you haven’t played Braid before, here’s what happens when you turn it on: It looks like Mario, but something is wrong. You’re a red-headed guy wearing a suit, for one, and the music is not the old Mario song; it is, in fact, quite sad. You run to the right, just like Mario would, hopping on enemies and over man-eating plants popping out of pipes. At the end of each level, there’s a flag, a castle, a dinosaur. But at some point, you will inevitably die, which is when the game springs its core provocation: One pull of the right trigger lets you rewind time as much as you want, right back to the beginning of the level, if you choose.
So, okay, you say, perhaps the language of death and lives—so central to games—isn’t what it seemed, at least not here. You start finding puzzles, but the temporal trickery continues, introducing worlds where time moves only when you do or in which each rewind creates a ghostly image of your dour protagonist, with whom you must collaborate to solve the game’s increasingly vexing puzzles. In between each level are passages of writing that seem to map the dissolution of a relationship to the structure of the game; at the end of each level, a dinosaur emerges to tell you that the princess is in another castle, with increasingly fractured melancholy. In the final level, you run to the right, working with the princess to escape a massive wall of flame, but on the precipice of being reunited, you’re forced to replay the level in reverse, revealing, with a start, that it was you she was attempting to escape the entire time.
This progression, from weird Mario thing to Borgesian labyrinth of interpretation, led Braid to become one of the most successful indie games ever made, and, to go by the inexact but telling metric of Metacritic scores, also one of the most highly regarded. But when I asked its famously auteurist creator, Jonathan Blow, if he was proud of it, he balked. “This is one of those human psychology things I don’t understand,” he said. “Am I ‘proud’ of the game? I don’t know what that means. There’s something very egotistical about being proud of something. ‘Proud’ sort of implies that you believe that it reinforces your intrinsic value as a person.” Eventually, he relented. “It was time well spent, and I’m glad that people enjoy the game.”
This is a bit of an understatement. It was an immediate sensation upon its release in August, 2008, earning dazzled plaudits from both the enthusiast press and the more high-minded video gaming intelligentsia that was, at the time, still coalescing. 1up.com called the game “truly divine”; Eurogamer declared it “art.” It also sold like crazy. “I opened up my Web browser and [thought], ‘Holy fuck, I’m rich now,’” Blow told The Atlantic. In the years since then, writers have bent over backward to properly lionize the game, comparing it, alternately, to Pet Sounds, Easy Rider, Finnegans Wake, Sex, Lies, And Videotape, Watchmen, Citizen Kane, multiple Thomas Pynchon novels, and any other imposingly complex, medium-redefining works you can pull out of a hat.
None of these examples have a ton in common; the point is, the game was new, produced and designed in a manner unlike anything else out there, and it turned Blow into an avatar for a burgeoning “indie game” movement. While independent creators have tinkered away in various communities since the dawn of games, none of them ever felt like a cohesive movement in the way that indie rock and indie film had in decades previous—a countervailing artistic wind that might overturn the stodgy, conservative conventions of the medium. In the early ’00s, though, handfuls of game designers clustered in San Francisco and online game-jams, gradually developing a canon of scrappy, experimental, often abrasively lo-fi games. Blow was a fixture of this scene, helping run the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at the Game Developers Conference and writing a column for Game Developer magazine.
Blow used these platforms to assert a central criticism: That games do not strive often enough to be art, to make meaningful experiences that will impact people on the level that film and literature and music have. This has earned him a reputation as an iconoclast over the years. He has called Farmville and other social games “evil,” compared the design of massively popular MMOs like World Of Warcraft to cigarettes, and compared games at large to pornography. He laments the inability of games to take influences outside of “shitty action movies,” and has taken aim at sacred cows like Uncharted and Red Dead Redemption, teasing out the way their stories and mechanics are in fundamental conflict with each other. We’re supposed to feel bad for these mass murderers? Underlying all of these musings is a central concern: Is this all that games can do?
Braid was Blow’s first major stab at making something that lived up to his own internal metric of quality. As he told me, “There were several prongs to the idea. One was just to make a game that was unabashedly an art game. There was a certain idea of how a game had to be glossy that precluded much in the way of personal expression at that time. [The other prong was to] do something new with gameplay. That’s where the rewind idea came in.”
The concept came while he was on vacation in Thailand, and, once struck with it, he was able to produce a working version of the game while still on vacation, over the course of a week or so. He then spent some three and a half years iterating and polishing before finally releasing Braid on the Xbox Live Marketplace, then a forum mostly for low-stakes, low-budget downloadable games. This was a new innovation in the world of console games, which were mostly released in the traditional $60 shrink-wrapped format at the time. Microsoft named Braid part of the inaugural Summer Of Arcade promotional push, along with fellow early-indie breakthrough Castle Crashers, a setting that normalized Blow’s “unabashed art game.” Its exterior proved just recognizable enough to draw the attention of less-adventurous players, who were quickly enveloped, not just by its obstinate puzzles but also its literary depths.
With massive success came massive scrutiny. People fixated on the breakup narrative, thinking the game was merely the work of a dejected lover, or even a feminist examination of toxic masculinity; others in the burgeoning video game intelligentsia criticized Blow’s prose, or the way the game’s writing and its puzzle-solving seemed strictly bifurcated. Others pored over a series of texts in the game’s epilogue, where the characters seem to shake and reassemble in new ways and in which a subtle thread about the detonation of the first atomic bomb seems to cast the meaning of the entire game in a new light.
Blow rejects all of these. “Most people who want to talk about games don’t really know what they’re talking about,” he told me. “That goes for when they’re saying negative things and when they’re saying positive things.” In the months after Braid’s release, he developed a reputation for popping into the comments section on articles about his game to debate its meaning with players. In one, he lamented these misinterpretations, saying, “Maybe the story of Braid is too subtle or obscure” and that its meaning is “very, very complicated—so complicated that there is not much hope of anyone else ever having the same reading of the story.” In the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, as if to illustrate the horrors of having your personal work torn apart by an uncaring public, melancholy music plays over footage of the rapper Soulja Boy cackling at the game. He’s out of his mind with delight, laughing that you never run out of “going back in time potion.”
“You release the game,” Blow told me, “and the people that want to talk most loudly about it see almost none of that stuff that you worked so hard on. Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing—that stuff is definitely there and makes the game what it is.”
Indeed, the fact that the game is so complicated may be its most lingering quality, a decade later. It’s a game of layers: What looks like a watercolor recreation of Mario becomes a story of a breakup; what looks like a story about a breakup becomes a parable for the detonation of the atomic bomb; what looks like a story about Oppenheimer becomes a meditation on memory and time; what looks like a philosophical treatise becomes, in the end, a story about a game designer relentlessly pursuing beauty as he defines it. This design is meticulous. Everything is deliberate, with no red herrings to complicate the puzzles and not a word out of place; to play the game is to weigh our frail human relationships against our limited understanding of time and space. When people fixate on any one of these elements, thinking they’ve finally unlocked the secret of the game, they miss the larger point, which is all of them operating in conjunction. What it communicates through its puzzles on a nonverbal level isn’t merely reflected by the text that leads into them but is challenged and enriched. They bounce off each other, begging analysis, like the fragmented lines of a poem or the soft fade of a filmic montage.
Braid’s massive success is often credited as the catalyst for the indie boom of the following years, which saw unambiguously arty games made by small teams, like Limbo, Journey, and Super Meat Boy, turn into critical and commercial sensations. But Blow doesn’t see it that way.
“If Braid had been erased from reality, I don’t know that we’d be in a tremendously different place than we are,” he told me. It’s true that the market forces that led to Braid’s success—like the popularization of the Xbox Live Arcade and the public’s willingness to experiment with cheaper, downloadable games—were already in place and had led to breakthroughs for earlier games like N+ and that the Independent Games Festival and the scene it fostered would’ve continued apace. But the very nature of Braid, Blow will admit, may have provided a helpful spark for the ensuing indie phenomenon. “Nobody would’ve really been surprised if someone made some weird art game and no one bought it,” he said. “But the fact that someone made an art game and people bought it and it was respected critically and all that—that was a little bit of a causal thing.” It told people that they could make something equally personal and that there may be an audience out there for it.
And people have tried. Nobody cloned Braid outright, to Blow’s surprise, but plenty made puzzle-filled platformers that grapple with weighty ideas and complex emotions. The best of these, like The Swapper or the games of Playdead, create puzzles and moments just as profoundly suggestive as those of Braid. Others ran with its most superficial qualities—“Mario, but sad”—and created a whole cottage industry of weepy “emotional” games, defined by gotcha gut-punch endings and lacking the mechanical complexity of Blow’s game, not to mention its literary richness.
All of these taken together formed just one thread of the broader “indie game” scene that bloomed in Braid’s wake. With a few other successful early-indie developers, Blow helped create the Indie Fund, which continues to help new designers make games. As it calcified into a cohesive—and commercially lucrative—scene, Blow started to have mixed feelings about it. “Around 2010, ’11, ’12, ‘indie’ came to mean some kind of like inbred community of people who were congratulating themselves for being in a club they invited themselves into,” he told me. “It became all about, ‘There’s an indie scene and if you’re in the indie scene you’re part of the future! Things are great and everyone’s happy and all you have to do is decide you’re an indie!’” Definitions started to shift; indie became a marketing term, a shorthand for certain sentiments, art styles, publications, and stances. “I didn’t fit into that at all,” Blow said, “because my critical faculties were still turned on.”
Today, he says, that’s all been smelted out; a few massive games may dominate the conversation for any given period of time, but for the most part, players are open to whatever seems interesting, regardless of label. “We’re back to a more ill-defined time when people just kind of make games and then they go on the internet,” he said.
In January 2016, Blow finally released Braid’s follow-up, The Witness, a project into which he poured all of his Braid earnings and then some. Massively ambitious, it stripped away many of the things that had become indie signifiers over the intervening years: No melancholy music, no story, no immediately apparent references to older games, just broad philosophical ideas and unyielding puzzles. Blow says he came up with the game in the time between Braid’s completion and its release, but it’s hard not to see it, in some ways, as a reaction to the reaction to Braid, to the way people fixated on its most easily graspable elements and failed to see its more nuanced ideas. With The Witness, there was no foothold to fixate on. It still asks big questions about the nature of art and existence, but the layering that made Braid so approachable and controversial is gone. It’s a fascinating game, just as textually dense and in many ways better than its predecessor, but one misses the raw edges and bleeding heart of the original. That deep sense of individuality is part of what made Braid Braid. And it’s part of what inspired so many others to attempt to make their own Braid, too.
There is not a single thing in Braid that isn’t supposed to be there. Jonathan Blow has said this explicitly: “Everything has a purpose, not just in the levels, but in every word.” It’s all there for a reason, all part of the puzzles you solve to complete the game or the puzzles you solve to understand it.
But right at the very end, there’s this cloud that’s just sitting there. You can reach it easily, and it seems to point toward nothing at all. For the people who scoured every last secret in the game, the cloud remained a source of lingering confusion, until, in a candid moment, Blow explained it as a sort of personal indulgence. “I just wanted to be in a position where I could look down on the text,” he said. “I wanted to be high up looking down. Just when I build a castle like this, or added a rampart, it just didn’t feel the same. So again, it’s a pattern break, it’s like everything in the game means something except for this.” He built into his game a place to enjoy his own creation.
Spend much time looking at Blow’s interviews and lectures and writings, and you’ll come to see his eyes are always on some glittering place far off on the horizon, where video games achieve their potential as an expressive medium. Like any great critic, he is an optimist. And, also like any great critic, he thinks no one gets something correctly, not quite the way he does, and so of course he wasn’t happy with critical responses to his own work. The most impassioned I heard him get wasn’t when we were talking about Braid, or The Witness, or games at all—but rather Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain. “I watched it two or three times in a week,” he told me at one point. “I went on the internet to read everything I could find about it, and almost all of it was people who didn’t understand the movie at all at a basic level. Most of the things that I read about it were people saying, ‘Boy, it’s such a confused and disjointed movie. It needed an editor.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about!’”
The difference between Blow and so many other critics is that he has, twice now, put his theories about art and the possibilities of games into practice. There is a rich tradition of the critic as artist, particularly in film, where auteurs like Paul Schrader, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut made their first impact through critical writing. Played today, Braid remains a singular experience, in part because of how much it speaks to the character of Blow himself, the way it calls other games to task through its very being. That is precisely how revolutions begin.
Next time: The randomly generated adventures of Spelunky prove just how complex a game made by one person can be.