Bissell, Braid, and the Use of Words

A colleague recently loaned me Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

I knew it existed, but wasn’t planning to buy it immediately. Since I’ve been freelancing in the field, I’ve been focusing on books specifically about writing for games, rather than broader criticism.

This is a stodgy process, requiring self-discipline. There’s much I feel I need to know, but it’s often sandwiched in between things I consider too obvious to be worth saying and things I consider insanely wrongheaded.

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark.

The prose is breezily good-natured and would not tax the vocabulary of a fourth-grader, but it gets through its material slowly, with many explanations per concept, so that it becomes boring in aggregate. It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni. I don’t feel respected by this book, though it is probably fairest to say I am not its intended audience. If I were, I might find it a thorough, not-too-hard introduction to many of the core concepts of the craft.

Bissell’s book, therefore, was refreshing. For one thing, it’s very well-written, in the sense that individual sentences give pleasure. After reading a bit, I find my own writing turning into half-conscious, third-rate Bissell pastiche. This is annoying, but also a sure indicator of prose whose rhythm has got into my head like a hooky song.

Extra Lives is observant. It reads like the kind of travel narrative that is as much about the traveler’s inward journey as his outward one. It captures many of the things I find compelling about games as an expressive medium, and also identifies many of the aspects that are hard to defend. If you’re reading my blog because you’re interested in the problems of narrative/mechanic interface I often write about, then Extra Lives might well appeal to you.

It is pyrotechnic in its wording—I said it was well-written, not that it is modest, and I was not surprised by Amazon reviewers who said they had come to personally dislike the author on the basis of his narrative voice. That wasn’t my own reaction, but I can see where it comes from.

Anyway, here is a guy who turns such phrases as “ozonically scorched” to describe the atmosphere of a room after a disturbing presentation; “thermonuclear charisma” for a personality; “Bachelor Futurist” for a decor style. It is characteristic of Bissell to take an idea that would take most of us a prepositional phrase or a whole clause to express, and condense it to one adverb. If he has to invent that adverb himself, so much the better. Sharp observations in small spaces, that’s Bissell.

It is probably for this reason that Bissell’s chapter on Braid struck me so forcefully.

He writes:

I asked Blow what he thought about the question [of whether games should be respected as art]. “It’s a prerequisite,” he said, “that to be respected as somebody who is saying important things, you have important things to say. We’re not really trying to have important things to say right now. Or even interesting things to say.” (102)

This is a key passage in a much lengthier discussion that left me with increased respect for Braid and for the other things its creator was trying to say. Blow’s ideas, elicited and then elaborated by Bissell, made more sense to me than Blow in his own words.

And all at once there crystallized for me what I find problematic about Braid.

There emerges from the end level of Braid, and from pieces of the prose, a message about relationships, about clinging to and idealizing them and refusing to see what the other person thinks is going on. This is extremely powerful. I acknowledge the genius of this. It is an interesting and important thing to say.

The problem is, it’s not the only thing Braid seems to be trying to say. The text passages hint at further meanings, but they are messy and confused, and do not seem to relate clearly to the play of the game. Is this about relationships or about the bomb, or about something else or more? Is Tim really a psychopath? What? Huh?

And the presence of these clues that I can neither resolve into meaning nor ignore diminishes, rather than heightening, the impact of what Braid does say clearly.

For this I largely blame the words themselves. I find the prose passages of Braid painful. They are vague, they are overwrought, they are not good writing. They portend something, but even when you have played through to the end of the game, it’s not clear exactly what. They stand out as amateurish when everything else—art, music, design—is so very polished, so exactly right.

Roger Ebert was wrong to write off games without being willing to try any, but I certainly sympathize with his unimpressed reaction to the Braid text.

The Braid book passages feel bad to me in a way that I have come to see almost as a genre characteristic of indie art games. Many samples come to mind, most much worse than Braid‘s. It merely feels harsher to pick on those by name, since Braid was both a commercial success and (despite its textual stolidity) a masterpiece.

Throughout the movement, there’s a lot of writing by people who want to express something deep, but who are experienced game designers, not experienced writers.

In saying this, I do not simply mean to reiterate the familiar complaint that game designers should develop more respect for writing as a craft.

I mean something narrower. This ghastly indie-art-game prose: it’s writing that tries to communicate ideas in the same way that game mechanics communicate ideas. Such writing offers allusions and suggestions, hints for the player to assemble, but it shies away from specifics or a through-line plot. Characters often go unnamed, or are named something thuddingly symbolic, or are Everyman. Theme is presented heavy-handedly (you wouldn’t want players to miss it!) and via the most cliché images. Expect frequent references to light and dark, cold and loneliness, broken hearts and shattered dreams. Memories may get a look in. Also death. It’s like reading a collage of the manuscripts sent to a high school poetry contest right after one of the students got in a fatal crash.

In games, there are reasons for all these methods. Assembling clues to the past is a kind of puzzle that fits well in game environments. Protagonists are created with a gap in which the player can insert himself; they are not fully determined. And as for thematic clues, a level saturated with chill blue light evokes a mood. If this is also the narrative point where the protagonist is most alone, that metaphor may enter the player’s perception gradually and without being in the least heavy-handed.

You cannot cast the same effect into text by talking about how the protagonist was cold, so cold, without his teammates. People will snicker. They will be right to do so.

You also cannot do clue-assembly meaning in text solely via references to “bad memories” or “loneliness.” There’s little here for the reader’s mind to lock onto, too little to imagine in response to the words.

The fault is not in the choice of concepts. Many of our important and interesting ideas will inevitably be about love, loss, human connection, mortality, freedom, constraint.

There are still ways to talk about these things, to make them lucid and memorable to the reader in prose form. Not every writer is Tom Bissell, expert saucier, rendering gallons of stock thought down to a piquant drizzle. Not every sentence needs to startle and amaze. But an idea that is going to appear in written form often needs to be refined in different ways than an idea destined to inform a level design or a lighting choice, if it is not to seem banal, confusing, or vague.

That’s where the writing craft comes in.

40 thoughts on “Bissell, Braid, and the Use of Words”

  1. “Theme is presented heavy-handedly (you wouldn’t want players to miss it!) and via the most cliché images. Expect frequent references to light and dark, cold and loneliness, broken hearts and shattered dreams. Memories may get a look in. Also death. It’s like reading a collage of manuscripts sent to a high school poetry contest right after one of the students got in a fatal crash.”

    I would venture to say that this problem is endemic in the industry, not just the indie scene. It’s one of the problems, I believe, that contributes to the collective failure of most video game-to-movie adaptations. The writing in most games is terrible, even in games where the “story” is the most celebrated aspect.

    Metal Gear Solid (especially later installments), for instance, has cutscenes, dialog, and written text that takes up hours and hours of time. Every time I came across them I got so crushingly bored. To say so little in so much time is just stunning.

    Jonathan Blow does seem to have a lot of interesting things to say about video games, even if he’s not particularly adept at following it himself. There’s a TED speech (I think) where he implies that the declining quality of writing in video games is self perpetuating:

    “Casual games are okay, right? Power fantasies [in video games] are okay. When it’s the only thing that we ever make, that becomes poisonous. Because what happens is, you cultivate an entire audience that only knows how to care about things that make them feel good, which is not […] a mode of existence that is particularly recommendable.”

    This sounds like a great book, though. I’ll have to pick it up.

  2. Ironically, I think Braid was burdened by a need for meaning — that Tim, the princess, even the dinosaur at the end of the levels needed a specific meaning to be provided by the game. It was like, “Well, you’ve made it to the last level. You’ve earned your secret decoder ring.” You could view it as a reaction to the formless/characterless plots you mention in this post… except it goes way too far in the opposite direction, I felt.

    I agree with you completely that Braid’s strength was what it said about relationships and irrevocability — concepts which were introduced by the text but mainly came from the gameplay itself. (The most interesting to me being that it’s a ring that freezes time, something I don’t think the text comments on at all.) It’s an interesting question to me, what the right mix of exposition and gameplay is. It’s tempting to simply say “the more gameplay, the better,” but I think it’s more nuanced than that.

  3. re: Metal Gear Solid, I think the writing is somewhat the fault of Japanese culture in general. Note how many opening songs to anime series follow this exactly:

    Expect frequent references to light and dark, cold and loneliness, broken hearts and shattered dreams.

    I want to say this vagueness is “different” rather than “bad” (I’ve read an essay discussing this) but at the least I feel like it just doesn’t work that well in English.

    Given the strong influence Japanese games have had in general, I think they’re partly responsible for the indie-game vagueness as well.

  4. I think the word for the problem in Braid’s writing is “pretentious.” It is full of the same thing you see in any freshman creative writing classes, especially in poetry. Lots of big concepts, heavy words thrown vaguely around just short of coherence, relying on the reader assuming the writer has something deep to say that they just didn’t get.

    I’d also argue that what Braid does say clearly about relationships, is not really particularly interesting or in the least subtle. It stands out for being miles above the simplistic action-movie treatment of relationships in most games, but were it to be in a book rather than a game, it would be mediocre at best. I suspect Blow was aware of this on some level and this helped motivate all the twists, obfuscation, and hints at other big ideas. It like he’s saying, “Wait wait, that’s not all, I’ve really got something deeper to say!” but alas he doesn’t.

    As to the problems in most game prose that you address at the end of this post: this comes down to an age-old piece creating writing class advice: “show us, don’t tell us.” The difficulty in games is that there are all these non-writing elements that are more effective, or at least more obvious, for showing than writing is. Telling is the one thing for which the most effective element is writing. There is an inherent conflict here.

    1. I see where you’re going here, but I disagree with almost all of this. I’ve argued elsewhere about why “pretentious” is a useless term in criticism. A work may do what you describe as “pretentious” (and Braid mostly does) without deserving the extra stigma of being somehow in bad faith, which “pretentious” seems to say.

      what Braid does say clearly about relationships, is not really particularly interesting…. I think it is, if one bears in mind that what he says is not just a statement along the lines of “don’t cling to people who don’t love you!” or “make sure you’re on the same page with your beloved before turning into a creepy stalker!” If that were all, then I agree, you’d get the same information faster by reading through a few Human Relations questions on ask.metafilter.

      But Blow says something more than this, something that could only be expressed interactively, about how it feels to pursue something relentlessly, and how it feels to have that pursuit turn out to be based on willful misinterpretation of events.

      or in the least subtle. Well. No. But you just shifted the goalposts there. The desire for works to be subtle is at least partly an aesthetic preference, not universally shared.

      Telling is the one thing for which the most effective element is writing. I’d say writing is also the most effective medium for communicating private thoughts and inner monologue, and for quickly juxtaposing complex images or concepts. There’s a lot of possible mileage in text.

      1. But Blow says something more than this, something that could only be expressed interactively, about how it feels to pursue something relentlessly, and how it feels to have that pursuit turn out to be based on willful misinterpretation of events.

        But that is where it failed for me. Because it left me unsure if this pursuit was based on willful misinterpretation of events, or something even more tricky, or allegorical, or muddled. It did not just leave me distrusting Tim, it left me distrusting the game’s narrative. In the end I was left only with the sneaking suspicion that there really was no way to fit it all together coherently and that the author of the game was just messing with me.

        Pretentiousness is rarely due to blatant, conscious bad faith. It is usually a more innocent failing, though with some element of dishonesty in it. In the end the author of the game chose to hide the weaknesses of his writing with obfuscation, rather than playing it straight with his audience (or with himself). There is a mild element of disrespect in that.

        I don’t mean to be too harsh. It’s a common mistake in young writers, and certainly not a heinous crime. It was a brillaint game in many ways, but in the end that aspect of it left a bad taste in my mouth.

      2. In the end the author of the game chose to hide the weaknesses of his writing with obfuscation

        …how do you know? Maybe the effect was obfuscation, but do you know what he was thinking?

        (I’m also not sure I’d call Jonathan Blow a “young author”, exactly.)

      3. Well, we can’t know anything for sure, of course, but can only judge based on our experiences and the best available evidence.

        I’m going to cite a quote of a quote here (from Wikipedia, unfortunately the referenced source is not available), but apparently he said

        he “would not be capable” of explaining the whole story of the game, and said that the central idea is “something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly.”

        So it’s at least clear he knew he was being obscure. He seems to be making the excuse that the obscurity was unavoidable. A matter of some inherent ineffability of the (big! subtle!) idea. I find this to be a load of crap. He may well believe it himself, but even if so, I still regard that as a choice, and a form of dishonesty. Of course there’s fodder for lots of philosophical and psycological dispute in that judgement, and I don’t expect my positions there to be universally shared.

      4. Weeell. Okay. I’m still not crazy about “pretentious” as a term for this, but I’ll stop holding out for the possibility he had a clearer plan in his head.

  5. Really fascinating article.

    Interestingly, one indie art-game in which the writing did captivate me was Dear Esther, where the author has been quoted as saying outright that his goal with the writing of the voice-over was to reflect the way games tell stories. It was designed to be elliptical and puzzle-like, to be pieced together by the player. In fact, the writing fits almost everything you describe: the past related through hints and allusions, the focus on loneliness and memory – but somehow it works. Maybe it is the strength of the production backing up the writing, with great music and a quality voice actor, or maybe the way that it fits into the game and the great level design, or maybe it is just done by a person who has the skill with words required to take those possibly awful things and make them good.

    Also a quick note Re: Jason Dyer’s comment: I don’t think it’s fair to generalize Japanese culture based on the theme songs of anime shows. Watch some movies by Ozu or Kurosawa or take a look at their wider culture and literature outside of Otaku-targeted stuff before dismissing the entire nation based on kids television.

    1. It seems to me that at least part of what made the writing in Dear Esther work as well as it did is that, despite being very elliptical, it was also very concrete. It was clear that the narrator (believes that he) is talking about specific people and events, not airy metaphors. If you understand him incompletely, and you have to snatch at fragments to put together the story, it’s not because he’s being deliberately obfuscatory. It’s because his words are addressed to Esther, who he has a considerable shared history with and therefore doesn’t need everything explained.

      To bring another example in: I always found the character of Yeesha in Myst 5 and Uru kind of annoying, because she’s vague and elliptical while specifically addressing the player.

  6. Emily, do you have an example of a game (indie or otherwise) that you feel really transcends this problem? One that isn’t IF or otherwise primarily experienced through its writing, but in which the writing is just there to support the gameplay? I’m following you but at the same time I’m wishing I could contrast your description with a concrete example of good stuff.

    1. Might-be-cheating answer: “Digital: A Love Story”. Partly works because it puts the more emo bits in the mouth of an emo character. Also, I guess you could argue that it is “primarily experienced through its writing” even though the interface is a very important part of the experience.

      So, onward:

      “Miss Management.” It’s got a ton of dialogue, but the dialogue is only part of a larger gameplay system. This dialogue characterizes well, and it hints at specific issues for the main character. The message there is more about standing up for yourself and establishing boundaries than about Mortality. But it’s still good stuff.

      The writing in Telltale’s Monkey Island games is pretty consistently awesome.

      Now, if you further narrow that to “game that isn’t IF or primarily experienced through writing, and that expresses an important, interesting idea on a weighty theme”, it gets trickier.

      “Emerald City Confidential” and “Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble” stick out in my head as games whose writing escaped these flaws. They aren’t perfect in all respects, but they don’t feel like rewarmed poetry. In different ways, both were pretty stylized. DHSGiT overdoes its 1920s schtick at the beginning and takes a while to find its voice, while ECC’s mechanics mean that some scenes are repeated verbatim when that is seriously detrimental to the effectiveness of a scene.

      However! They do both largely work, and the issues they’re investigating—the exploitation of women, betrayal and corruption on the part of people you thought you loved and trusted, the evolution of personality—are not lightweight issues.

      I didn’t get that far in Planescape: Torment, but I believe it may fit this description as well. (ETA: then again, maybe not, given the comment below.)

      I don’t think it’s coincidental that these games have prominent characters with definite personal stories.

      When I try to think of games that might fall into this category and are also abstract, I instead come up with works that are essentially digital poetry, and I can’t claim that the writing is “just there to support the gameplay”.

      Maybe I’m missing something obvious, though.

      1. I think the best examples are the games that are largely absent of dialogue or on-screen text and yet still seem to have stories that resonate long after they’re done.

        While it won’t win any awards for complexity of concept or plot, I always think about Half-Life. There is very, very little to read or listen to, and yet the game has a narrative. When you do talk to people, the exchanges are brief, and expose the next bit of the story which the gameplay itself elaborates on.

        But the story isn’t saying anything meaningful, which is the issue. Maybe games like System Shock 2 and Bioshock fare better. The writing in both is above average (for video game) and both express the complexities of different forms of existence.

        Bioshock in particular, with this statement about free will, is generally considered noteworthy. Then again, it’s not at all subtle about it, just patient. The confrontation with Ryan itself hammers you over the head with it with a 9-iron.

        I don’t know. I thought I had better examples but now that I think about them they don’t stack up.

      2. To qualify what I said about Planescape:Torment : it is mostly decent. Because the volume of writing in it is so huge, there’s inevitably some stuff that is quite awful and some stuff that is excellent. But to a great degree the whole thing feels like an epic, doomed struggle to overcome or utilise the limitations of its (very genre-bound, very constrictive) medium. At times it’s visibly frustrated with those constraints — the Modron Cube dungeon is sort of a snarky cry for help — and at times it does quite clever things that play on the themes that are forced upon it. But it’s still strong evidence that you can’t transcend a fixed system’s limitations just by using the existing narrative tools on a really big scale.

    2. The Last Express? A huge chunk of the dialogue is optional, and much of it is only window-dressing, but it all goes to support the experience and to my mind it’s the best written game out there.

      It’s a shame that the gameplay it supports can be so frustrating, with some really annoying unclued pixel-hunting.

  7. I’m replaying Planescape:Torment at the moment and I’m being struck by the same dog-on-hind-legs issue with the (much-celebrated) writing: things like theme and character development are not done well, but one is pleasantly surprised to see them done at all.

  8. You said:

    “You cannot cast the same effect into text by talking about how the protagonist was cold, so cold, without his teammates. People will snicker. They will be right to do so.

    You also cannot do clue-assembly meaning in text solely via references to “bad memories” or “loneliness.” There’s little here for the reader’s mind to lock onto, too little to imagine in response to the words. ”

    But I digress, because this asseverations of the game using text, is supported by the paintings (they show some errors made by the Tim), and some context and scenery… for example, he is the prince, maybe the ruler, but he traverse the city where he lives, alone,

    So, without entering in the quality of the text (I have not played the game yet, only the demo) I think that the books support the game, and the design support the books.

    However, maybe I just misunderstood your words, because my lack in English. Great article.

    1. ah! Some words of mine are missing… The house is quite empty, it shows the personality, the loneliness, and the cold heart of the protagonist, it shows the absence of the lover, and the progressive decadence of the house.

    1. Yeah (and a couple of blogs). I mean to post on this separately later.

      For that matter, Sheldon might be a reasonable thing for some readers. So much of it is “here is what a story looks like” or “here are some standard game genres” that I don’t feel I’m learning much per chapter myself, but for someone else it might be a useful place to start.

      1. Thanks. I’ll wait patiently.

        One other thing. You’ve mentioned twice now good sentence construction. (Echo Bazaar being the other, IIRC.) Any book (etc.) recommendations on good sentence construction? I realize that isn’t actually game-specific, just my intended purpose. I presume I can import that unmodified to game writing, unlike characterizing the protagonist, for instance. Unfortunately I’ve been having a hard time finding sources to teach me such.

        I’m halfway through Bissell’s book, and while his sentences sometimes do seem “crisper” to me, I could be imagining it. I had read your above review first. You’d mentioned getting his voice stuck in your head, but I’m not getting any of that. Not with Bissell in particular, anyway.

      2. Well, what I was referring to in both cases was not grammar, but style — a notoriously difficult place to provide clear rules.

        One of the better starting points for this is Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It presents itself as a guide to writing nonfiction, and there is a lot there that is not pertinent to fiction. All the same, he has some excellent advice about stripping away unnecessary adjectives and creating punchier prose.

        There are also some good style exercises here: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. These exercises are pitched more to writers of fiction.

        With high school students, I’ve sometimes used The New Oxford Guide to Writing. This covers a lot of topics, including organization and essay-writing skills as well as style.

        Beyond that kind of advice, developing style is more about practice than about reading a how-to book, in my experience. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I did:

        First, read lots of material, in lots of genres.

        Second, emulation exercises. I did a lot of these as a teenager: take a passage of about a half page from a writer who has a strong style. Copy this out verbatim by hand. Do not type it. Then compose a similar length of text on a different subject but with the same rhythm. Pay attention to sentence length, the placement and length of dependent clauses, use of parallelism, choice of adverbs and adjectives. Have someone critique the results, or come back and reread a day or two later.

        Finally, write a lot of your own material. Have it rigorously critiqued. Read it aloud to yourself sometimes: that helps reveal lumpy spots in the prose.

  9. Have you tried Mirror Stage by increpare (Stephen Lavelle)? It’s the artiest of art games — I don’t think anyone would play it for its gameplay, and the tutorial is chapter 3 — but it won’t take very long at all to play through the first three chapters and a bit, which is when the gameplay starts to test your reflexes (and I can’t beat the levels, or at least haven’t yet).

    Anyway, it has text before each level, like Braid, and the game very much works atmospherically, as you described indie games doing, but the prose mostly avoids your pitfalls I think. For one thing, it’s shorter.

    It is surprisingly hard to think of free indie games with good prose. “The Majesty of Colors” is one, and the prose in “Cave Story” is generally good I think — though probably the least strong element. But a lot of the other time I have to suspend disbelief about the writing, as in Possession where you have to pretend that the poetry is great.

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