A novel, like any work of art, is a self-contained yet indirect, incomplete statement that doesn’t require validation with the external world. The novel is nothing if it doesn’t ring true with us on some level, and yet the novel need not be truthful at all. The overall experience of a novel, when reduced in scale and power, feels quite similar to one’s experience of, say, a heart-to-heart meeting with a friend who, perhaps, needs to get something off his chest, who needs to sort out the recent troubling experiences of his life. After all, Willa Cather supposedly said, “What was any art but a mold to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” These are the same elements we discuss during intimate conversations, whether or not these conversations are founded on truth. Some people consider these elements to be “soul food.” Indeed, the same observations are true for any art form. One can even make art about making art, self-referentially and possibly ad infinitum.
The video game designer, Jonathan Blow, used to write short stories but found that he could better convey verifiable truth through the video game medium. He became more interested in logical systems that are internally consistent than in writing, because writing could be false; a piece of writing is not necessarily a system, but a video game must obey certain laws.
The result was Braid, a critically-acclaimed, almost canonical puzzle adventure video game devoid of “filler” or dead time (which, in the world of video games, could mean wasting time just wandering around the game world in search of, say, enough tokens to be able to move on to the next stage, or some other such activity in which the mind is not fully engaged and stimulated). He took some of the best elements of puzzle adventure games, heightened them tremendously, added some novel mechanics, and wove it all into a puzzle adventure game with minimal filler.
I played Braid from beginning to end and happily solved all of the brilliant puzzles (that sometimes referenced prior classic video games), but, in the end, found it interesting primarily as a gigantic, brilliantly designed, internally consistent puzzle. It wasn’t very different, say, from a clever mathematical exposition. Braid is an admirable work of mathematical artistry; it’s a technical masterpiece. In this sense, it truly is a work of art, and one that makes good use of the unique strengths of the video game medium.
Blow has argued that many people have not understood the work, that it has a higher artistic meaning conveyed by the video game medium that has been lost on them. Some have interpreted Braid as an allegory about the atom bomb. Others have interpreted it as the progressive alienation of one who relentlessly pursues knowledge. Ironically, Braid then reduces to art no different from the artistry of a novel, film, piece of music, or painting. In other words, Braid’s overall artistic statement may be false–like a novel, it might express no truth, or have no validity, external to itself.
In the end, any work of art is in the same genus as the internally relevant, yet possibly externally irrelevant, fever dream.