a review of Braid
a videogame developed by number none
and published by microsoft
for linux, Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox live arcade and the sony playstation network
with art by david hellman
text by tim rogers
How do you go about reviewing a videogame in which the main character is named after yourself, a videogame made by someone you’ve met and had dinner with, someone you’ve watched drink Chartreuse and conversed long with about videogame design? It’s a difficult encounter. How do you go about reviewing a game designed by someone who is a confessed devoted fan of your writing? Well, you start by giving the fucking thing four stars, and then you continue by “disclosing” what we in the “games industry” call a “conflict of interest”, preferably in the least-boring way possible. Then you move on, and beat the shit out of the thing.I consider Braid‘s game designer Jonathon Blow a colleague, and not just for the reasons I’m not willing to discuss. He’s a person who seems generally intent on presenting the segment of the Human Population who Occasionally Touches Videogames with an alternative viewpoint, a viewpoint equally focused on celebrating the grand traditions of games and exposing the inanity of some of those traditions. Braid is a game; it is also a game about a man deprived of a girl, a man who wishes he could turn back time, a man who can turn back time, and moreover, must turn back time in order to survive. The game features two buttons: jump, and turn back time. (Eventually there’s a third button, which lets you slow down time in a specified radius of space.) That’s a statement, right there. Since you can turn back time, there is no “death”; fall onto some spikes, and you press the turnbacktime button to turn back time. Rewind a split second, and you’re alive again. Rewind half a second, and you’re just falling off the edge of that ledge. Rewind a full second, and you’re standing on the ledge again. Soon enough, you won’t even be dead before you’re correcting your deaths by turning back time. You’ll start rewinding time before you die. This raises several interesting questions, none of which happen to actually end in question marks.
On paper, the concept has near-limitless appeal. In execution, it has more than near-limitless appeal. You might have heard of this concept in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, or in Blinx: The Time-Sweeper. However, you mustn’t confuse Braid with those games. Those games were, first and foremost, blockbuster-aspiring genre titles; they used time manipulation as a gimmick, a key to open the supplied lock. You reach a certain place, you see the writing on the wall (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) and you say, “Okay, it’s time to use the time-rewinding ability”.
Again, in Braid, you use two buttons: one jumps, and one rewinds time. You can rewind time as much as you like, as often as you like, wherever you like. Again: any time a game places a limit on the only ability performable with a certain face button on the controller, it’s probably not a very well-thought-out idea. Braid doesn’t place any limit on its rewind ability; therefore:
Braid‘s idea is very well thought-out. Rewinding time isn’t just for preventing death, at any rate. It’s for subtly manipulating things that feel like luck (though never actually are luck), for bending the flow of a moment to just such a point that you’re able to surmount the current obstacle. The first few puzzles have a snappy crackle to them, just as in the other great puzzle-platformers (Portal, Lost Vikings). You complete them, and you feel accomplished: you’ve just figured out everything you can do in the game. Then it starts subtly introducing those parts that feel like luck, though most certainly aren’t luck. The first time you figure out that you have to stand still for several seconds on a certain spot and then rewind time, part of your brain collapses. In Portal, something similar had happened at the first two-portal puzzle, with a door across a massive ravine. The solution is to shoot an entry portal on the wall next to you, and then shoot an exit portal on the wall next to the door. Portal imploded the concept of the “platform” game, which holds that the gaps themselves, not merely the act of crossing them — are the point, the life of the game. In Braid, none of the first few magic-trick-like puzzles can be explained nearly as simply. The only thing sayable is that there exist objects, enemies, keys and doors in Braid that are not affected by your time-rewinding ability.
Like the greats of its sparsely populated genre (again, Portal and Lost Vikings), Braid does not end until it has made you do everything it is possible to do with its limited yet ocean-deep ability set. Even this, however, is not enough for Braid: eventually, by the third stage, it has injected a huge, overarching flow-related quirk, wherein time moves forward as you move to the right and backward when you flow to the left, meaning that you can stomp and enemy while moving backward and he won’t die, or that you can’t unlock a door from the left. The fourth stage introduces what players call “shadow rewind” (crucial: the game itself doesn’t “call” anything anything): immediately after you finish rewinding something, a shadowy ghost emerges from your end location and proceeds to perform the actions you performed leading up to the instant you began rewinding. The mind boggles. The fifth stage (“World 6”) gives the player a ring, activated with the Y button, which slows down time drastically for any objects, enemies, projectiles, platforms, or player characters as they approach it. Add all of this up, with the rewind ability as the rock-hard core of the game mechanics, and you have more than a lot of videogame. The last thing we’d do is complain that the game reuses some level layouts repeatedly. Some players craved downloadable content, complaining that the game doesn’t explore its ability set enough. These people who see fit to complain that the game developers didn’t do enough work are often so busy that they absolutely must wear rollerskates at all times, and always abbreviate “downloadable content” as “DLC”. They probably do this because their Microsoft Word spell check filter is set to treat anything typed in all capital letters as spelled correctly.
We won’t complain about Braid‘s straightness, or about its lack of “mission packs”, or even its lack of a level editor and “user-generated content”. To be honest, we’re not even sure how we’d start making our own levels. Back during our first play-through of Portal, when the game introduced the momentum mechanic, we envisioned a puzzle where you have to cross a gap by shooting two portals onto a floor far beneath and then plunging into either one of them. We felt really smart when the game actually presented us with such a puzzle-fragment. The test of a puzzle-platform game is whether or not it answers all of the player’s expectations by the end of the experience. Lost Vikings gives us a moderately beefy set of Things We Can Do, which allows a ton of wiggle-room in the actual level design. Lost Vikings is immaculate game design, equal parts “puzzle” and “action”. Braid definitely leans more toward the “puzzle” genre, using the “platform” genre only as a presentation tool. The level design itself becomes something of a medium for an ethereal narrative (to be clear: by “narrative”, we are not talking about the “plot”).
Entire continents of the planet earth burst into flames in the name of “revolution” when Braid was released. Words like “zeitgeist” were thrown, limp-wristedly, at brick walls every color of the rainbow. Really — and this is the kindest compliment we can manage — Braid‘s genius lies in its immediately recognizable, archetypal format. If it weren’t for the very obvious Super Mario-riffing presentation, Braid‘s single-button conceptuality would come off about as commercially viable as Space Giraffe (no, we’re not about to diss Space Giraffe): that is to say, it would appear at first (and last) glance to be an undulating, wobbling, screaming, eye-burning, psychedelic display of number-crunching. It’d look vaguely like what computers must download prior to running the routine masturbation protocol.
What we’re saying is, you don’t want a Braid level editor. It’d only make the majority of humans who download it feel kind of ridiculous. As talented a computer programmer as Jonathon Blow must be, we dare to hypothesize that dreaming up and programming Braid‘s engine wasn’t nearly as complicated as actually making stages wherein said play mechanics both “work” and “feel like ‘something'”. The singular tragic fact that nearly defeats the idea of making a game about turning back time is that if you can turn back time and that’s all you can do, then ultimately nothing can ever happen. Here we could tentatively talk about theories like Gambler’s Ruin, how the only possible fate of a gambler should he keep gambling is that, some day, he will lose everything, though that would force us to mention Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, which was the sequel to Jurassic Park, and then we’d be thinking about dinosaurs again, which distracts us from our job more than enough already — we don’t need daydreams of dinosaurs infecting our hobbies as well. Oh shit, now the can of worms is open. What do we do?! Steer this back on topic: sometimes there are dinosaurs in Braid, and they talk. Yes!
So yes: turning back time isn’t enough. We need time-proof items and locations. Begin thinking about making stages with this, and you’ll find that, tragically, the only way to make anything “feel like something” is to force the player to continually believe he is breaking the game against its will, like that magical first two-portal puzzle in Portal, where everything you know about any games remotely resembling this one crashes out the penthouse window in flames, seeking sweet pavement.If you or we were to try to make a Braid level, we probably wouldn’t do much better than the opening stages of Braid — you know, the part where Jonathon Blow runs down the checklist of “really obvious things” with great speed and then starts dogpiling them on top of one another. “Time” is the dominant element of Braid; the more complicated you make a stage, the more time-centered set-pieces you string end-to-end, the longer a stage gets, the more diluted the experience would become. Braid‘s stages do not present us with every possible permutation of its brand of time-based platform puzzle for a deathly good reason. It’s hard to put that reason into precise words. Suffice it to say, you’d feel exhausted if Braid showed you too much. It’s like — Eiji Aonuma, producer of the Zelda games, says that any given puzzle in a Zelda game should, when solved, make the player feel as though he is “smart”. In other words, it should fool the player into thinking he’s outsmarted the game. Jonathon Blow, Game Designer, comes from a different and wholly more respectful place when it comes to puzzle-plotting: each challenge in Braid simply and sincerely and politely asks that you become actually smart enough to overcome them. Each puzzle mechanic (rewind, direction-influenced time flow, shadow rewind, time ring) possesses a certain theoretical boiling point, a manner of use that, when figured out all by yourself in the naked dark of your living room, renders you invincible to any succeeding hypothetical discussion of that particular mechanic. Once you finish the final puzzle on World 6 — where you have to guide two or three time-proof monsters past a series of hyper-fast-moving meat-eating plants — what else could the game possibly do to stump you? We don’t need to be able to make our own stages and share them with friends. One gets the sense that, in Braid, the play mechanics and the level design grew up right next door to one another.
Meanwhile, a game like Portal shows us what we can do, igniting our imaginations. We dream up challenges and concepts as we play. Eventually, the game answers our questions. Eventually, we get “good” at the game. Portal encourages us to think of our own situations. It’s a carefree little game. Braid, however, with its much simpler-to-state (“you can rewind time”), harder-to-present concept, faces a darker path. In Portal, the game progression’s “story arc” was icing on the cake; in Braid, due to the hard-science-like nature of the inner workings of the level design, the “plot” is an absolute necessity.
The only other way to make this game with no “plot” would be to make it a one-screen-at-a-time Bubble Bobble kind of thing. We already know that Jonathon Blow sacrificed $180,000 of opportunity cost to make this game, and the Wikipedia articles’ lengths tell us that Super Mario Bros. is more famous than Bubble Bobble, so there you have it. If you want to make a game and you want to make big money, if you want to impress people, you have to tell a story of some sort. Hey, we’re no more happy about this than you are.
To reiterate: Portal‘s core mechanic was amazing enough on paper alone (granted it was worded well enough to capture the reader’s attention for the length of a full paragraph) to sell the game no matter what it looked like, no matter what its story was. Braid‘s concept, which may actually be cooler than Portal‘s (we literally can’t decide), doesn’t sound like nearly as much. “You can rewind time”. If you’re a game designer, maybe it sounds like something. You might be able to fill a whole white board with ideas, suck down a couple cups of coffee, and feel like you’re getting somewhere.
Also, Portal is 3D and “next-gen”, and Braid is 2D with hand-drawn backgrounds. 3D sells itself. In order for 2D to sell, it has to be “sophisticated”. We’ve been over this before. (Actually, maybe we haven’t.)
The thing is, how do you put a story into a neo-Bubble-Bobble type of game without flipping off the player? Games like Bubble Bobble‘s stories were confined to the first two pages of the instruction manual, and usually involved ridiculous, shat-out plots involving little kids who wandered away from their parents during a trip to the department store, touched The Wrong Lollipop, and got transformed into soap-bubble-blowing dinosaurs and confined in a prison tower in an alternate dimension (warning: that’s the Actual Plot of the recent-ish Bubble Bobble remake for PSP). Maybe it’s because the graphical look was set in stone from the conceptual phases; maybe it’s because they were dead set from the beginning on using what we swear is the exact same music they play all year round at Muji (Wikipedia proves us correct): Braid‘s plot chooses to be text, and “sophisticated”.
The text is wholly ignorable, presented in dumps before the beginning of each “world”. Perhaps the text is something of a throwback to the days when Mario’s burning need to rescue the princess was told of only in an instruction manual. Braid could, possibly, be interpreted as a confrontation with that ancient notion that a game’s plot doesn’t need to be visible; chances are, however, that its intentions are (sweetly, sincerely) duller than that. The end of the game sees the entire experience tumbling into a freak-out crescendo that’ll probably remind you of Nabokov, though only if you’re one of those creepy geeks who would mention Metal Gear Solid and Haruki Murakami in the same sentence, or write some jack-off novella about your love of Super Mario Bros. 3, and how you played it in a hotel with a Full Grown Woman one night, on your birthday. We aren’t going to criticize any element of the eventual story crescendo, however, because we have it on pretty good faith that Mister Blow actually read our jack-off novella about how we played Super Mario Bros. 3 in a hotel room with a Full Grown Woman one night, on our birthday. We will, however, point out that no one has any right to be “disappointed” or even “annoyed” at the “narrative” presented in Braid.
Anyone can enjoy Braid as a game. “I’m not good at videogames” or “I’ve never played a videogame” is not an excuse for not playing Braid. (It’s a much more valid excuse, however, for not playing Portal: some people just can’t deal with using the right analog stick to look.) Braid‘s presentation heralds back to the old games, the gateway drugs, the ones “anyone” could pick up and play. Its mechanics are, if everything else, honest. Its learning curve is such that the seasoned hardcore gamer and the absolute newcomer are on level ground from start to finish.
The same can be said for the “story” — it is another puzzle for the player to solve, should he choose. The “closure” the game offers is available only to players able to collect every puzzle piece, meaning that you will only be permitted to approach any semblance of understanding the plot if you have proven yourself intelligent enough — evolved enough, prepared enough — to overcome every challenge in the game. As a piece of work, as a “work of significance”, the very feeling of Braid‘s literesque arc is feelable from the very start, in that the first stage of the game is called “World 2”, and the second is “World 3”. Stepping into the entrance of the first stage and seeing the words “World 2” presents us with a simple, palm-sized, ethereal mental puzzle, and jumping to the conclusion that, somehow, “World 1” is going to be the end of the game is a kind of closure in and of itself. You need only have soaked in the atmosphere of the title screen, the way the player character disappears into the shadows outside the house, the flicking sound of the lights coming on in the first room, and the awed silence of the clouds before World 2 before acquiring more than enough understanding of what the game is about. The actual ending offers near-endless degrees of reinterpretation, with one message, barely expressible in words, painfully clear as the player views (“plays”) the final moments of the final stage. It’s probably safe to say that the sharpened point of the ending was the reason this game got made — maybe it was conceived over a drink or five, and remained the next morning as one of those things a Creative Person must Never Let Go. There’s a high probability that the “revelations” in the epilogue are randomly generated and intended solely to blur the “facts” of the story or distract the player from any kind of definite “understanding”, though there’s an equally high probability that the purpose of the epilogue is to make a “definite understanding” seem unattainable. If it weren’t for the epilogue, people would probably want a definite understanding. If you’ve taken the time to solve all of the puzzles without using a walkthrough, you’ll be a jumble of jittering nerves by the final stage, and the way that final stage ends would terrify you if the game didn’t present some tidbits for thought, however vague they may be.
Back to the “World 2” thing, then: our first time through the game, our first impression upon seeing that the first stage was called “World 2” was that of an obsessive platform game aficionado who played Super Mario Bros. 3 in a hotel with a Full Grown Woman on his 25th birthday, and also that of a man who had been recommended this game by its creator, asked to write a review so that he could use our words and the name of this website to drum up hype nearly a year before the game’s release. We didn’t give the hype because the words “Action Button Dot Net Says” on the banner ads probably would have resulted in Microsoft canceling the game and mailing Jonathon Blow an envelope that looked like it contained a check, which, when opened, only actually contained a dot-matrix printout of an ASCII art image of a fist flipping a middle finger. When we started this game and saw that stage one was called “World 2”, as obsessive, borderline-kleptomaniac platform game connoisseurs, we took that to mean that “World 1” represented “The Absolute ‘Done'”, and that any attempt on the game’s part to circle back around to World 1 would be, first and foremost, a game-design realization of the fact that people, occasionally, think about the past and wish everything (sometimes called “something”) had been maybe a different way. It was a sad realization to have right before starting a game. Maybe we’re being hypersensitive — that’s a distinct possibility — though it blew our minds halfway and we couldn’t be bothered to actually start playing the game for several weeks. Eventually, we would see puzzles figurative and literal, and paintings, and hear the music that they played at MUJI that day years ago when we helped a friend pick a sofa, and eventually we’d put the game back on the “shelf” (such a weird term to use in this age of digital distribution) because we didn’t want to be bothered with thinking anymore; we’d forget the game when it came time to go back to living our life, and we’d only remember it moments before we started playing, and we’d solve each challenge with a kind of relaxed, reluctant determinism that would ultimately end in two straight hours alone in the dark, free-falling at the terrifying conclusion. On that first night, however, the game stabbed hypersensitive us with a frozen remorse: we saw the words “World 2”, immediately deleted our data file, restarted, and then, just as the game began, we held the rewind button down. We clicked the left bumper, speeding the rewind up to “8x”. The hero stood there oblivious. We held that god-damned, god-forsaken button down for three straight minutes, in the dark. Those three minutes added up to twenty-four minutes in the world of the game. We sighed. We had been trying to think outside the box, on the level of the newcomer who questions all of the silliest conventions of games. We begin Braid in the shoes of someone with his back turned to something that cannot be undone. Whatever happened in “World 1” is irreversible. Maybe we were outsmarting the game, or maybe the game was outsmarting us. There’s no telling; we’d be disappointed either way, and that’s brilliant, that’s terrifying. What a terrifying, brilliant way to start a piece of entertainment.
Is Braid “art”? A Rubik’s Cube is art.
Is Braid a Rubik’s Cube?
Yes, and no.
Braid is a Rubik’s Cube on a pedestal in a white room. How many people have owned Rubik’s Cubes and never solved them? You may never actually get everything there is to get out of Braid. You may never even want to. Though much as a child can touch and hold a Rubik’s Cube and find pleasure in the snick of its plastic, a (lovable) idiot can find pleasure in the friction of Braid. Lofty as its artistic conscience might be, being that nearly everything that lies beneath its surface is up for interpretation, Braid succeeds mostly because it looks beautiful, that it is a good videogame, and that its mechanics seem intended to prick needles along the brain-surfaces of its players for years to come: oh how repeatedly tapping the rewind button while tilting the analog stick to the right comes to feel like a juicy, frictive reimagining of the disgusting feeling of repeatedly attempting and failing to climb a steep hill in Super Mario 64. Braid is an “old” game not seconds after you begin playing it; upon completing it, a fraction of your being wants to forget it as quickly as humanly possible. It’s a corner of a dream; it’s a weird little thing. It’s an Arabian Night written in some unknown language, untranslatable into any other. It requires some knowledge of the customs and practices of ancient videogame culture in order to be optimally depressed and crushed and terrified by it, though anyone within eyeshot should succumb to a little tremble regardless of their opinion of Rocket Knight Adventures and Ranger X. From Braid, you get what you give, until you give too much, and then everything falls apart and you feel horrible. It’s a fresh catharsis in the world of bone-dry mass-produced game development, and much as the press are quick to scream “genius” or the naysayers are quick to scream “pretentious” (seriously, let’s all sit down and try to finally learn what that word means, some time), Braid is really neither. We should have been expecting games of Braid‘s magnitude at least once a year for over a decade now. We need more like this; when it comes right down to it, Braid‘s greatest triumph may be as a call to action, beckoning game designers to get more intimately connected with game mechanics and eschew filler, to never let stories “connect” into “conclusions” because games are things we touch and control, unlike books or movies, and that atmosphere is more than more than enough to impress an experiencer with an imagined world. Braid‘s marriage of content and atmosphere to the conventions of the games it cautiously adores is what, ultimately, keeps it — like Portal or Call of Duty 4 — from being the Greatest Game Ever, though as what it is, it is the best game of 2008, and the one game released in 2008 that stands to teach game developers more about everything than anything else.
(perhaps tangentially) related games:
space invaders extreme (the other game of the year 2008)
gears of war 2 (game of the year 2008, second place)
bangai-o spirits (game of the year 2008, third place)
portal (game of the year 2007)
out of this world (the best game of all-time)
bioshock (an example of a game that needs to learn)
call of duty to the fourth power: modern warface (an example of a game that nearly gets everything) thing we couldn’t find cause to mention during the review:the ESRB’s rating of this game as “E 10+” perhaps indicates that the assessors were too unintelligent to play all the way through the game and witness the word “bitches” in the epilogue. Or maybe it’s evidence that they assumed anyone able to complete the arduous and puzzling challenges located within this game is mathematically mature enough to endure a little profanity. (This presumption makes the ESRB out to be much more progressive than they probably are.)