Easy to play, hard to get
Thinking about the moments I played Braid
, mostly late at night, it brings back the range of emotions that went through me. In the dimly lit room, the game took me on a grand voyage of surprise, frustration, victory and sadness. It was a sensation I can only compare to some of the best titles I have played, such as Shadow of the Colossus
, the first Monkey Island
. A large part of my enjoyment of those is because they arrived at the right moment in my life and fit the way past games shaped me as a gamer and my expectations for new experiences. Braid
is different however, as it has many layers you need to peel away at first. It is a game with many disguises and your enjoyment will depend on plunging through the different surfaces.
To understand why this game is so different, you need to know more about the author, Jonathan Blow
. The past few years, he has been very vocal
about the industry and trends, loathing design choices of heralded games such as Half-Life 2
and calling World of Warcraft
a treadmill of tedium, a drug, the junk food of gaming. He labels the game "unethical", saying it provides simple rewards for a suffering scheme to keep players in front of their computers. Much as why I am drawn to indie games, he longs for the sense of wonder that pulled him in as a kid. But growing up, expectations change and he feels too few games manage to grow along with a maturing audience.
Secondly, he says games have to find their own voice, in the way music captures through sound, books through words and imagination, and movies through images. Too often games mimic tried concepts of other media. For games, this has to be the game mechanic itself, something inherent to the idea of a game. Blow also loathes cut-scenes as a way to tell a story, it should stem from the gameplay. In that way, Braid
is not a game to attract a new audience, it's a gamers' game. While I expected a game such as Heavy Rain
to take storytelling one step further, Blow does it through the age-old concept of a platformer. Yes, Braid
is just a regular platform game, no different from Super Mario Bros.
and nothing in the game design is particularly new. That means that with no instructions available, anyone knows instinctively how to play. You walk, you jump, that's all there is. While exploring the worlds however, accessed through the protagonist's house, further game mechanics are discovered rather accidentally with small hints. You find out you can rewind time, retracing every step you have taken in a level and back as far as you want. Each world uses a variant of time manipulation. The way time is manipulated does not become increasingly complex and difficult. In some worlds you reverse time (and as such you can never die), in others time changes according to your movement, you collaborate with a past version of yourself in a parallel reality or slow down time in a specific area. The platforming is eventually a false sense of familiarity, as Blow uses it as a vehicle to tell his story, twisting the genre into unexplored paths. It does not even matter if you like platformers.
Time manipulation is the only mechanic you need to learn and you use it solve puzzles. Certain objects and items are affected differently through time and you need to distort reality to turn it to your advantage. Almost all worlds can be travelled right away. There are no enemies you absolutely need to kill, you can just walk straight through a world and decide to finish it later, a very meditative experience. Each world holds a number of puzzle pieces that need to be collected and arranged into a frame to reveal a photo. The story about Tim's seemingly simple quest for a princess is carefully mixed into the gameplay, even though Tim never speaks and does not meet anyone directly relevant to the story. He is also very out of place, a tiny man in a suit with his hair neatly brushed in a fantasy world, but this is for the player to discover. The way time is manipulated and puzzles are solved is a part of the storyline itself. Before attempting to grab a puzzle piece, you need to examine the behaviour of enemies and items, imagine how your time manipulation can affect them and devise a strategy. Mostly, you will be solving puzzles by devising a pattern in your mind before even trying. If it does not work, you rewind time, look where you went wrong and adapt your strategy. The puzzle pieces that form pictures resemble Tim pondering his past, trying to fit the pieces. Final clues to the story are provided through a few sentences at the beginning of a world. Very little is revealed and the search for the princess soon becomes a metaphorical quest for something completely different. Like a poem, with so little details, it is profound and deeply moving, yet largely implicit and asks the player to work it out himself. Even more, you can easily ignore the entire story as there are no sequences where you are forced to read or interpret, it is entirely optional. But when you do get to the final world however, the mixed and reversed storytelling leads to a tremendously powerful ending where everything you thought you knew is brought into a very surprising perspective you could not possibly imagine.
The gaming roots also show. The end of a level, “The princess is in another castle”, a sentence burned into the collective gaming history, is given an entirely different meaning in this game. The cheerful graphics will deceive the player how much of a melancholic reminiscing about regret it is, though it is open for interpretation.
The quiet atmosphere is enhanced through fitting music and beautifully drawn graphics. They complement and dearly need each other. The way rewinding time is reflected in visuals and music is stunning. There is also no filler. All puzzles and scenery have a meaning in the game. Even though it can be considered quite short, none of the gameplay seems abundant or meaningless, everything is moulded together with mathematical precision. After finishing the first five worlds, a ladder can be constructed to the attic in the house where a final world brings closure to the story. It is not told in a linear way however. Each sequence reconstructs another memory and your insight into the events constantly needs to be adjusted. Many of the puzzles seem very difficult at first, but there is always a logical solution. They are hardly ever the same and the ingenuity of some will leave you baffled. When you finally figure it out, you feel a great and deserved sense of accomplishment.
It is not a game for everyone. If you cling to a certain genre Braid
can be disappointing. There is no action without meaning, no dying, and no enemies to defeat without a purpose. You can finish a level without any action at all. Without the background story, as faint as it may seem, this game would not make sense. If you don't grasp all the elements that make up the game world, it doesn't work. On paper it seems poor game design, but Blow is incredibly clever in his presentation. You grow along with the game and it is hard not to be impressed by the maturity carefully crafted into the game design when it fully reveals itself. This game is however a must for anyone who has been playing for many years, as a mosaic that brings together some of the best elements from gaming history (hence the title) with fresh ideas.
The Bottom LineBraid
is a one-of-a-kind experience, a game stronger than anything else released before, because it is not ashamed of being a simple game at the surface. It acknowledges everything that precedes it, but refuses to be influenced by other types of culture. As Blow once said, there will eventually be games you cannot explain or compare. You simply need to have played them to know what they are. Through the humble, yet familiar game mechanics, Braid
tells a story that puts almost everything on this site to shame. When it finally comes to full bloom in the end, it stands tall as a masterpiece that mocks every revolution the game industry has been preaching. As such it deserves my humble praise and a hearty recommendation.