Once in a while, a game comes along that makes you remember why we love this interactive medium. A game that pushes at the boundaries of what video-gaming can achieve. A game that is such a self-contained vision, that it takes you on a journey which transcends the controller in your hands.
‘Small but perfectly-formed’ is a phrase that would well describe several gaming masterpieces such as Portal and Ico. Just like Valve’s darkly comedic tale and Fumito Ueda’s atmospheric journey, Jonathan Blow’s Braid is a game that inspires and provokes emotional responses that seem out-of-reach for most other titles.
Superficially, Braid took the guise of a platformer and played much homage to the ‘grandfather’ of the genre – Super Mario Bros. In reality however, Braid is a puzzler wearing Platform shoes, and the classic line ‘The princess is in another castle’ is transformed here into something incredibly more poignant.
The princess in question is the sole object and desire of Braid’s only player-controlled character, Tim. He possesses the extraordinary power of time-manipulation; specifically his primary power is that he’s able to rewind time, making death an irrelevance.
Although Braid is certainly not the first game to include this feature, other titles have incorporated this as something of a standalone gimmick to ease the frustration of restarting, whereas in Braid this feature is central to the gameplay.
The gameplay itself sees the protagonist collecting a total of 60 puzzle pieces over five different worlds, eventually assembling a picture relating to the ‘story’. Each world introduces its own spin on the central theme of temporal distortion, including time-immune objects, ‘parallel worlds’, time-dilation and a world where space and time are intrinsically linked.
The conundrums which the player must solve are all unique and logical, there’s no repetition or filler to be found here. Once you stop thinking of Braid as a platformer and start thinking of the possibilities of time-control, the ‘Eureka!’ moments will soon follow. This humble little Xbox Live Arcade game features some of the most satisfying and well-designed puzzling seen in years.
Controls are simple and intuitive, as you might expect from a game that doesn’t give you much more than a jump button and a rewind button. Learning the rules of how time flows in each world, and using these to your advantage is the fun part. You may find a childish grin spreading across your face as Braid forces you to look at the world in new way.
The time-bending mechanics aren’t just important for the gameplay, they’re inextricably linked to Braid’s narrative. Each world is prefaced by several optional short prose passages that don’t so much tell a story, but rather beautifully describe moments in a life.
Even if you ignore that fact that Braid is really one big allegorical tale containing profound life-lessons, you can’t help but notice the obvious metaphorical gameplay elements – the most simple and obvious example being the desire to turn back time, to erase past mistakes and make different choices.
You can really read into Braid’s cautionary tale as much or as little as you’d like, as there are no cut-scenes to be skipped and the narrative is never forced upon the player. However, to ignore it would be the equivalent of only watching The Godfather trilogy for the parts where someone gets shot.
Braid not only provides nourishment for the brain, but is a visual and aural delight as well. Artist David Hellman has created a vibrant world, jam-packed with colour and incidental details. Backgrounds are drawn in a wonderful hand-painted style that simultaneously holds the eye, whilst never distracting from the gameplay.
The soundtrack is hauntingly evocative at times, and the sound effects are consistent with the feel of the game. Wonderfully, the audio is distorted when time is being manipulated, resulting in surreal noises and reversed music. Similarly, the colour palette becomes muted when time is being rewound and more vivid when time is being sped up. These effects help to tie together the different elements of game design into one superb consistent whole.
Each completed puzzle adds another section to a ladder on the level select screen, which can eventually be ascended to a short finale which will leave you speechless (in a good way). Braid is a game about the difficulty of relationships, about opportunities missed, about obsession, about wrong decisions, about unattainable goals, about overlooking what is right front of your face, about our perceptions of reality, about looking too much towards the past or future, about devotion, about expectations.
As much of the game is open to interpretation, Braid can be all of these things or none of them. If you like, it can simply treat it as a ruddy good puzzle-platformer.
The only criticism that could potentially be levelled at Braid is in regards to its length. Speed Runs and secret stars aside, depending on your logical capabilities the main game will probably take between 3-5 hours to complete.
The fact is, Braid is art. There, I said it. Not only can it be appreciated aesthetically, but it was clearly created with the intention of the finished product being a work of art. If we are to truly view games as art, then they must be evaluated on a proper critical basis. In this context, talking about how a long a game takes to complete is as irrelevant as a literary critic complaining a book had not enough pages. If the finished article is successful in its purpose of making those who experience it think and feel new emotions then that’s all that matters.
Braid should be an inspiration to developers, managing to be a better example of the interactive medium than products with hundreds of times the budget and manpower.