Low-Concept Blues

Medium commentary, originally published June 9th, 2013

Let’s consider the two running definitions of the word “nonplussed”:

  1. (of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.

  2. (of a person) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

Pretty strange, eh? The former is nonplussed’s original definition. The latter is an aberration, born of a popular misreading of the word’s negative-sounding “non” prefix. But because the second definition just seemsinherently more suitable, it has evolved from an error into a truth. And just like that, nonplussed joins the exclusive club of words that are their own antonym.

I’ve always been interested in embattled words like nonplussed. Words that—through changes of context or suitability—suffer an identity crisis. They’re called contronyms (or more evocatively, “Janus words”). “High-concept” is another one. There’s some debate to be had over its exact meaning, but what’s certain is that it’s a far cry from its popular usage as a synonym for “high-minded”. The term seems to have origins in the film industry, where it was used to describe pithy film pitches. Concepts that are instantly understandable and that, presumably, come with a prepackaged appeal. As in “It’s like Hansel and Gretel, but with guns.”

I tend to err toward the traditional definitions of mutated contronyms, either out of preservationist sentiment or a fondness for haughtily correcting people. But not so with high-concept. There’s something that’s just fundamentally wrong with attributing all the positive connotations of the word “high” to an idea that is, essentially, safe, obvious, and simple. Our brains know this when we hear the term - it just shouldn’t refer to “a quick, easy sell”. And so our collective subconscious has begun flipping its meaning.

The video game industry often feels like the living embodiment of high-concept’s old guard. You see its line of logic everywhere: in reviews, on the back of game cases, in Kickstarter pitches and discussions between gamers. “Uncharted is basically Indiana Jones: The Game.” “Borderlands is like a shooter with Diablo’s loot system.” “Call of Duty: Ghosts is more Call of Duty.”

It’s easy to sum up what these games are about in a sentence or two. They proclaim their intentions loudly, from the minute that they’re first introduced to us. Take the new, gritty Tomb Raider reboot. By the time it rolled around, I’d already seen months of trailers and interviews reiterating how this time, protagonist Lara would evolve from reluctant everywoman into the pistol-toting ass-kicker of our yesteryears. I heard the high-concept pitch, ran it through my mental game-building machine, and instantly grasped its vision of spoken-out-loud character development and vaguely-sexual grunts of struggle.

Now, there’s nothing innately wrong with such games. I enjoy a lot of them, myself. But the best experiences that I’ve had with artistic media are the ones that defy such easy summarization. The ones that pick at nebulous concepts, rather than make singular pronouncements. The ambiguities of morality in Shadow of the Colossus. The hidden systems of Dark Souls that have to be stumbled upon through processes that verge on alchemy. Games like these, with intentions that reveal themselves slowly are valuable, in part, because they’re so hard to come by. But a game that cannot enumerate its intentions is an even rarer treasure.

That’s the reason that I’m so enamored with Jonathan Blow’s Braid. The time-bending platformer has long vexed audiences eager to hear the unifying explanation for its assemblage of vague, disconnected text and symbolism. Is it about a jilted lover? Or maybe the atomic bomb? Maybe it’s simply open to interpretation? On the last guess, Blow had this to say:

“I never know how to answer this. The reason I don’t really talk about the story very often, and I’m not going to talk about it much here, is that the reason I make video games, or one of the many reasons, is that I want to do some art things - I’ll say art, right - and what I want to do is communicate certain feelings, situations.
“Those things for me are very hard to verbalize. The sort of thing that I guide myself into thinking about, doesn't succumb itself into linear language, or at least I don’t know how to do it. Even though there are text bits in the game, I think about the game as the whole thing, that it’s some kind of envelope that I’m trying to express, or points at it in different places and in different directions.
“What the game is about is that space in the middle, that you could maybe get to by contemplating all these things. Maybe not get to, right?

That middle space that Blow refers to is, I think, a state of mind. A sort of grasping of the various elements at play in Braid, not for the overpowering significance of any one piece, or for some singular truth that they combine to reveal. Just as an exercise in seeing, of opening oneself to the emotions that the game attempts to hit at. Playing Braid, I felt predisposed to accepting these things. It felt like a kindred spirit.

Braid’s text is the linchpin of my enjoyment of the game. It’s presented adjacent to the game’s vignette level structure, in a set of disconnected anecdotes and thoughts. I can appreciate how its schizophrenic nature leads to frustration for some. But Braid’s structure reflects the way that I think: in hazy, fleeting clouds of emotions and half-memories. So it seems to go for Braid’s protagonist, as well. He remembers only a few poignant scenes from his past, captured in his mind with little details:

Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced
wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.

I love that particular bit of text. It’s just the type of memory that would stick with me: a jarring fall back into reality for a wandering mind. I’m the forgetful type, you see, and prone to moments of detachment from my surroundings. It’s tough being that way, sometimes—even when everything’s going right, you can’t shake the vague feeling that it’s an illusion, that it all seems great only because you’re forgetting something very, very important. It makes it difficult to be confident in one’s circumstances. Everything always feels like it’s on the verge of disintegrating in your hands.

He cannot say he understood all of this. Possibly he’s more confused now than ever. But all these moments he’s contemplated—something has occurred. The moments feel substantial in his mind, like stones. Kneeling, reaching down toward the closest one, running his hand across it, he finds it smooth, and slightly cold.

Braid’s narration captures a lot of that vague feeling of uncertainty, and it has a stacking effect with the meta-uncertainty of the game’s larger message. Those looking for an all-encompassing explanation that weaves the various threads together —Who is the Princess? What is the significance of time?—are doomed to be disappointed. There are no answers here.

But me? I love that. The world is full of brash games confidently asserting themselves, of games where collecting all of a certain item unlocks the code to the “good ending”. They want to be forthcoming, even about their secrets. But it’s a game like Braid, that’s content to come forward, palms up, and say “This is what’s on my mind; no more.” that really speaks to me. I understand the swirling emotions of doubt, regret, and confusion. The symbolism and imagery trigger foggy flashbacks—here, a description of a couple’s argument rings familiar, there, a plush dinosaur character brings the pang of a painful childhood memory.

Say you could take the sum experiences of my life, and plot them on trace paper. A cartographer’s nightmare of thoughts, emotions, and worries laid out as points and vectors. The Elder Scroll of Nick, if you will. Then do the same for Braid, with all its images and symbols. Lay one transparent sheet over the other, and I’d wager you’d be struck by the similarities, by the curious interplay between the two. But it wouldn't unveil some hidden code, like a Da Vinci Code cryptex that lays bare its message as some simple truth. It would just be evocative; a bit of abstract artwork about which a few friends might share their impressions. I think that’s interesting enough.

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