Playing Braid the past couple days, I did what I normally do when prepping a review, a process I describe to my girlfriend as “composting”: I mull over observations about a game for a few days until the mysterious Darwinian system that exists in my brain weeds out the weak ideas and leaves me with something worth saying. Or something I really want to say, anyway.
Up until last evening, I expected it’d probably be about Braid’s gameplay, which – sorry for the unintended pun – is as precise and intricately designed as a Swiss watch. I also thought about allowing myself a self-indulgent rant on the lesser elements of the gaming community – the “not worth it” brigade – who’ve labeled the $15 game “too expensive”… yet undoubtedly find a way to scrape together $60 several times a year for the annual sports roster updates from EA or yet another offensively unimaginative first-person shooter because it has “good deathmatch”.
But then I finished the game, and now all I want to talk about is its ending.
I won’t, of course, since it’s something – like the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film – that shouldn’t be spoiled; something that’s only properly experienced as a blindside. If you love well-designed gameplay, if you’re a nut for puzzles, and you’re interested in the potential of games as a storytelling medium, do yourself a favor: just go buy it. And then swear off the Internet until you’ve finished the game all on your own without help. Trust me on this.
Developer: Number None, Inc. / ESRB Rating: E / Price: $15
Braid's a tough game to give someone a clear picture of. No explanation of the gameplay I’ve read sufficiently expresses how complex a game where your mistakes can always be undone can actually be. (Similarly, no screenshot or dingy downloaded video can possibly capture the game’s visuals, which look like a painting in the process of being touched up, almost everything on screen in subtle, shimmering motion as if an indecisive, omnipotent artist is obsessively adding and then subtracting minute details from the world as you play.)
Shorthanding it for JD alum Chris Ward, I dubbed it “Super Mario Sands of Time”, trying to express that it’s a “sorta platformer, sorta puzzler” with an ability to play with time. Unlike Prince of Persia, though, Braid’s protagonist Tim can reverse time as often as he likes and as far back as he wants, even if he’s killed.
This does make Braid effectively impossible to “lose” in a typical gaming sense; lives don’t run out and you’re never booted to the title screen against your will. Thus, the platforming is essentially rote; the real game lies in figuring out how to overcome obstacles using Tim’s unique abilities.
The mind-bending logic of the game – and the emphasis on environmental puzzles – invites comparisons to Portal. But where Portal forces you to change the way you think spatially, Braid forces you to rethink how things behave temporally – a reeducation my brain stubbornly resisted. Though abstract in a way, Portal is plainly logical; Braid on the other hand is almost exactly opposite, forcing players to reverse well-trodden intellectual paths in their brains like cause leading to effect. Tim has a host of considerations when approaching obstacles: he can reverse time at will, but certain objects (and even creatures) can be immune to this, and later he gains new powers like the ability to create localized distortions where time slows to a crawl, or paradoxes where alternate paths can be explored by a sort of “parallel reality Tim”. Trying to achieve a result by layering all these together can often leave you staring blankly at the screen feeling utterly stupid and out of ideas (the same feeling I had from time to time with Professor Layton and the Curious Village), which makes it all the more satisfying when the solution – something that was there all along – strikes like inspiration and works like a charm.
At the beginning of each level there’re books lying around, each revealing a bit of the game’s story. They can be carefully read or totally ignored on your way to the next map, but ultimately you’ll want to read them, especially once the trick to making sense of the vignettes is revealed at game’s end. While not extraordinarily well-written, Braid’s story – like its gameplay – is extraordinarily designed. Braid might be the first game ever to so ingeniously create exact parallels between what you do and what it’s about: the actual play mechanics an expression of the metaphor, the story a harmony that accompanies the action. While some writers – myself included – tout Portal and BioShock (where narrative is embedded seamlessly amidst the play) as the future of interactive storytelling, Braid blithely skips ahead of both by blurring the lines between narrative and play completely.
Like I said earlier, I won’t spoil the game by revealing plot specifics (and if you haven’t played the game yet you might want to skip this paragraph just to be safe), but speaking generally: imagine how differently things might look to someone like Tim, who can experience time in any direction – future to past as easily as past to future. Money taken could be money given. A person pushed into a pond could be saved from drowning. And a house burned to the ground could be magically born from fire like a phoenix. Likewise, think of how the actor in all those scenarios switches from hero to villain, depending on which direction time is flowing. Braid explores this strange ground.
Braid’s conclusion is like a gut punch, but I’d suggest it’s not so much the words; it’s the slightly subliminal realization that, like the game’s collected puzzle pieces or the discovery gameplay itself, the story was lying around in pieces and in plain sight the whole time, a seemingly incoherent mess… until the astonishing last few minutes when the game’s established rules are used to make an unexpected and disturbing revelation. The final piece falls into place, and everything coalesces in your mind at once. Like the puzzles that were once mystifying, you suddenly get it – a feeling you might find in movies like Memento or Sixth Sense, but never a damn videogame.
Those who open themselves to the utterly unique experience of Braid and see it through to the end can expect to find themselves dumbstruck.
5 out of 5 Blue Pig Ganons