36 - Braid: The Game, The Myth, The Legend

[Please enjoy my video review of Braid. *Naughty Language Warning*]

Just kidding about that.

I am proud to say that I have played through the entirety of Braid in just over four hours and enjoyed it very much. Although, you can see how my schedule works based on the fact that my last post was dated 20th of November while this one is over a week later. In the mean time, I have been doing the same old same old with a break to celebrate Thanksgiving in this far away land. Even though it was in an Italian restaurant located in Tsuen Wan, it was still enjoyable for the food and the company. Maybe next year I can make it back for a full family gathering in America.

Anyway, this post will be more of a discussion about the mechanics and my experience with the game while the following will be about what it means to me thematically. I will go ahead and tip my hand by saying that I have enjoyed the game play very much while the integration of story and mechanics has been quite disappointing. This is absolutely no problem for me as a huge amount of control and agency is given to the player within the structure of the game with the story being established as a secondary thought.

My perception of games as a spectrum running between Mechanics and Story still holds up.

NOTE: There will be spoilers contained in videos. Watch at your own discretion.

What’s the deal with Braid?

If you have been living under a rock (like me) and haven’t heard much about Braid, I will put it in simple terms. Braid is an independently developed platformer that focuses around the manipulation of time. That is to say there are three major controls: moving left and right, jumping and reversing time like a tape recording. These simple concepts are put together to design devious puzzles that will twist your brain and challenge your concept of linear thinking. As more world-specific rules are introduced, these challenges only become more complex. The goal is to use these powers and limitations to collect jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered around the world to form a complete picture at the end of the level. These pictures are then displayed in the world select screen which is represented as a house with several rooms. As each puzzle is solved, a ladder is constructed allowing the player to move into the attic for the final act.

Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, meant the game to be a “critique of contemporary trends in game development” which seems a little broad to me. Besides the beautifully drawn worlds and music, the only analytic part I have found are elliptical passages at the beginning of each world. These tell a story about Tim (presumably the main character) who is seeking a princess that has been captured by a monster. I am not sure if this is related to the jigsaw puzzle pictures or the house, but it is something neat to think about. I will discuss these in the next post.

 Purely Gameplay.

It is rare that I feel psychically drained after playing a game, but Braid certainly makes me feel this way. Time travel is a strange beast to contend with in any context, and the fact that it is ubiquitous in Braid makes it even harder to parse. The player is allowed to rewind at ANY time during the game. This experience may be affected by other special rules at play in the level, but, for the most part, your character and every other element on the playing field will retrace their steps to where they were. The first world (labeled World 2) is very easy and simply introduces the rewinding mechanics. This allows for simple puzzles such as retrying missed jumps or falling down a large pit with spiked obstacles, seeing the position of these traps, rewinding, and falling down safely. Even though it is easily completed, there is one tricky puzzle involving the jigsaw puzzle itself that I felt was a little unfair since this mechanic will never be touched again in the game.

As Tim moves into the other worlds, stranger and more difficult permutations begin to appear. World 3 features elements and monsters that sparkle green and are immune to all time reversal. My favorite use of this is a puzzle piece hidden behind three locked doors. Each door requires one key which will break after usage. There are two keys in the level which is obviously not enough for three doors… unless time is not a factor. The trick is one key is sparkling (immune to time) and will remain broken when rewinding while the other unsparkling key CAN be unbroken through time manipulation. Combined with the fact that one of the doors is sparkling, the solution is evident: use the sparkling key to open the first door, pick up the regular key to open the sparkling door, rewind time, and the use it again on the last door to collect the puzzle piece. If that seems confusing, here is a video of what I mean:

[Puzzle at 5:40.] 

As you can see, a large degree of spatial thinking is required and I spent a lot of my time simply looking at the screen and trying to figure out what to do. Things were to become even MORE complex in World 4.

World 4 takes a very literal interpretation of time in that every time the character moves towards the right side of the screen time moves forward at the speed he is walking. When the character walks back toward the left, time is reversed and all the elements of the level return to their original positions. Enemies that have been killed come back to life, platforms move back into place, and even the soundtrack rewinds to the beginning of the song. This makes for a very solid set of puzzles that are pretty easy since all of the elements are gauged to be at certain areas depending on your position to block your progress. I had no trouble with this one.

World 5 introduces a shadow that literally repeats the past. When running through each level, the player can reverse time for up to thirty seconds or so and watch as a shadow of Tim’s former self repeats every action that was just taken. (For better or for worse.) This allows the player to be in two places at once. For example, if Tim needs to ride an elevator up to get a puzzle piece but the switch is behind a wall, the player can stand on the elevator platform, run to the switch, operate the switch, and rewind back to the point Tim was on the elevator in the first place. The shadow will then run to the switch and operate it allowing real Tim to ride up and get the piece. I know it sounds confusing, and it is, but experimentation makes it very interesting and fun to work with.

 [All the puzzle are interesting, particularly at 2:00. Just give the key to yourself!]

The last numbered world, World 6, introduces a magical disc that Tim can drop on any platform that acts as a time vortex. Any object or character that approaches the center of the disc gradually slows until movement is reduced to a snail’s pace, after which it increases while moving away from the center. I know it is a little difficult to explain, so here is another video:

[The time disc of World 6.]

The puzzles of this world are mostly about manipulating time in certain areas while others progress normally to adjust the timing of objects and monsters. This format also guarded the piece I had the most trouble getting which is featured in the video at 7:00 minutes. I thought I had reached the end of the game but was faced with one last world named simply “1”.

1 is played entirely in reverse. Enemies walk backward, the music plays backward, the only thing not backward is Tim. The puzzles are simple since the first two levels are just finding ways to bounce to a high platform by bouncing on a monster repeatedly. The monster cannot die because it is constantly going back in time which is interesting. What is even more interesting is the final level in which Tim tries to help the princes escape a wall of flame as she helps him progress toward the right side of the level using what seems to be teamwork. Here is a video of that level:

[The "boss" of Braid.]

The entire second half of the level is running the entire process in reverse time where the meaning is completely changed. Instead of the princess helping Tim progress, she is actually blocking his return to the house and she is ultimately rescued by an armored prince carries her into the sky. After this sequence, the player is allowed to enter a room titled “Epilogue” in which more cryptic passages describe the rest of the story.

As for what I think…

I will stop here because I do not want to touch story and meaning yet, but, as you can see, there is quite a lot to discuss about the game. The mechanics of gameplay are extremely innovative and make for a very compelling puzzle platformer. Each level contains what has become the gold standard for puzzles games: What first looks like an impossible situation is gradually sussed out by the player who, after ultimately solving the puzzle, feels like a freaking genius. Every time I solved a difficult puzzle I felt so proud of myself. Putting the last jigsaw piece into the puzzle is satisfying every time and makes a 100% enjoyable game. I would compare the feeling to Portal 1 and 2 in terms of puzzle construction and ingenuity. It is a masterpiece of gameplay.

What did I not enjoy: the story of the game. What could have been a very personal and interesting story just went off the deep end AND jumped the shark for me. I will discuss this next time by covering what I thought the story would mean and why I was excited versus what really happened. So hold on to your spoilery butts, I’m going to blow the lid off of Braid and out myself as a philistine who does not love what has become the darling of indie gaming!

I still like it though.

--Backlog Killer

p.s. I would like to thank MorroJ who's YouTube videos I linked to. Maybe he can get some more hits on his channel from it.