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Review – Braid

posted on August 19th, 2008 by christian
Now Playing: Prince of Persia: Two Thrones

We can spend a lot of time talking about Braid, trying to interpret it and stamp out a definitive idea on what it is and what it says. There isn’t much of a point in it though. Braid, for all its flaws, is literature, something that has meaning. Anything I say about its message or its power may be quite different from what you would see on a playthrough. What we can do is look at it as a game.

Braid is a puzzle platformer. Some have called it “just a puzzle game with platforming elements.” We saw it with Portal, where people called it a puzzle game and forgot is was also in the first person. I’m not sure why that happened; Portal’s puzzles often thrive on how the player moves and positions himself, so the perspective (and the controls inherited from it) cannot be ignored.

The same is the case with Braid. Like any platformer it has laws of physics that govern the protagonist’s movement. For example, you can jump higher by landing on the heads of multiple enemies, or by hitting one from a great height. These rules are crucial to solving some of the puzzles, so we cannot separate them from the game’s nature.

This leads to Braid’s main issue. Determining its laws of physics is not always easy, and failure to do so is punished. A select few puzzles, particularly within World 5, rely on knowledge of the game’s collision detection, and the fact that the rules of jumping apply to both you and enemies. Unless you had a previous experience that demonstrated these rules – and there is no chance you will – these puzzles may prove baffling.

Moreover, I read an astute observation that Braid lacks the momentum we are used to in something like Mario Bros. which makes it difficult to gauge whether a jump will be cleared. This makes some puzzles entirely solvable, but also a matter of trial and error. Since many feel that this is a deconstruction of the platformer genre, it is possible the physics quirks are deliberate, but I cannot agree that they are all useful.

The game’s official walkthrough claims there is no room for trial and error, and that the solutions flow naturally from the rules of the world. I would disagree on the former, and claim that the latter isn’t so helpful when the rules are so cryptic.

On the other hand, there is Braid’s central concept of time manipulation. In every World you have the standard ability to rewind time and then fast forward up until the present. In addition, each World introduces a new law of time which may or may not be exclusive to that area. Together these abilities must be used to solve each puzzle, which reward you with the puzzle pieces needed to complete each World.

Like the platforming, the controls for time manipulation are introduced somewhat cryptically, and some simply have to be found for yourself. The pre-World story snippets give some clues as to how time will behave, but are insufficient. This isn’t much of a problem, as the normal act of rewinding is often clue enough as to the environment’s behavior, and part of the fun comes from not only learning but then mastering the laws of time. The rewind ability also lessens the sting of Braid’s platforming gaffes, as a failed jump can often be corrected in a matter of seconds.

The fact of the matter is the aforementioned problems can only put a small dent in what is a wonderfully fun and challenging platformer. Braid is far more clever than it may appear. Screenshots that seem to display a ho-hum layout of enemies conceal a devilish puzzle once you throw in the laws of time. Some solutions may take you mere minutes, and others an entire night’s worth of pondering, but once you figure them out you will feel like a million bucks.

The questions about Braid’s time for completion is one of the saddest commentaries on the modern gaming community, as this is the kind of game that will last some a very long time, so long as they attempt each puzzle without help. The only way the “5-6 hour length” comes into play is if you are dammed good or (more likely) you use a walkthrough on the major brain twisters.

Braid has been called pretentious, which in the world of gamers and internet culture in general is a massive slice of hypocrisy. It simply isn’t true however. As advertised, the game is incredibly respectful of your time, allowing you to tackle any and all puzzles in any order you want. There is no way to get “stuck” in a certain section, unless you have reached the end and haven’t a clue about the puzzles you have left. The story is told via optional books filled with prose. This isn’t a game that wants you to rush through it, nor does it try to shove anything down your throat. The visuals are stunning watercolor filled with nods to Nintendo classics, and the music is soothing and melancholy classical fare pulled from the Public Domain.

I will accept (though thoroughly disagree) that some people may dislike the optional content, but if they somehow think that Braid looks and sounds pretentious, might I suggest you get your head out of your ass and quit pushing your own agenda. For such a mentally stressful game, Braid manages to inject some calm into the proceedings, which I feel is a deliberate and necessary choice that is much appreciated.

Braid’s story makes up a great portion of the discussion about the game, and indeed much can be said about it. The text might be too flowery. It may or may not be integrated well in the game. It could mean any number of things to different players. I choose to say little. As often happens with literature, I saw it, didn’t quite understand it, and then came back to try to understand it better. I still don’t, but I know this isn’t the last time I take a look at it, be it on the ‘net or in the game itself. It is there, and it is making people think, and that is pretty damn good for any game.

I didn’t play Braid in order to stay on top of the scene, and I didn’t finish it for the sake of a review. I played and completed it because I wanted to. I did find help for a few puzzles, but I don’t feel cheated by it. After all, I was allowed to play as I wanted to. In fact, so long as I abided by the rules of the game, I could play it however the hell I wanted to, and never did it make me feel like it was a bad choice. These are feelings that I often try in vain to squeeze out of so many contemporary games.

On a deeper level, the game serves, for me, as a deconstruction of gamer culture. This is a game that I can talk about, right here, and know someone will disagree. For all I know, Johnathan Blow will come here and tell me I’m flat out wrong. Right or wrong, good or bad, everything about Braid feels personal, not only for its creator but for those he has shared it with. Whatever happens, it wants you to have a good experience, and like it or not, it believes in you. Contrast this to Portal, a game that enjoys talking down to the player, and makes them think they like it through use of pandering humor. That right there is a cold, calculated and unfulfilling game, one that bothers me more the further away from it I get. One of these games is put on a throne. The other is fighting for it every step of the way.

If Mr. Blow has done anything for me, he has shown just how little our hobby does in the realm of actual thinking, how anti-intellectual it really is. It spells out a lot, and I think now I can be at peace in my constant struggle with “the industry” at large.

It may not be the perfect game, but nothing is. Highest recommendation.

8 Comments

  1. pat said on August 19, 2008:

    im embarrassed to admit it, but i havent gotten my 360 online. its atop my list of things to do once i move into my new place this week. once i do, this is atop the list of games to download.

  2. DeeMer said on August 20, 2008:

    I finished Braid the night I got it. I did have my brother playing “over the shoulder” a bit, but I cleared the whole thing (Save for the stars).
    I did enjoy playing the game, it was quite fun and I’ve no complaints there. My issue is that Braid partially subscribes to the “True art is incomprehensible” school. I assume that most people first took the princess story literally, as I did. In this sense the final stage makes sense on some levels. But then the Epilogue challenges that. I then thought that the whole princess thing was in Tim’s head, somehow. Then there’s the hidden ‘red’ books, the whole atomic metaphor, and the ‘collect the stars’ thing. It just fogs the whole thing up. I don’t know. I’ve not been one good with symbolism.

  3. Christian said on August 20, 2008:

    The story is wacked out, and if I never really “get it”, that can perhaps be a criticism. The good thing is that if you just look at it as a fine puzzle game, it still succeeds.

    On the other hand, I still feel as if the story is taken literally, it still works. Its tough to tell how much of even the red books are real, or just thoughts in Tim’s mind.

  4. DeeMer said on August 20, 2008:

    Fortunately, that is my only criticism, and it has no real bearing on actually playing the game.

    Actually, I have another complaint. I believe I’ve heard you say that no game should assume that the player has nothing better to do than play the game. If trying to collect the super-secret stars, two of them break this rule in a MAJOR way. Far worse than I’ve ever seen another game do.

    But that’s it.

  5. Christian said on August 20, 2008:

    The stars definitely do, but I’m not sure what the deal is with them. I know what happens when you collect them all, and I want to say its the game’s way of scolding you for doing it.

    I probably should have discussed it in the review, but the game is so carefree about the stars that I never had any intention of collection them.

  6. pat said on September 22, 2008:

    i finally got the 360 online over the weekend and bought this. i am really enjoying it so far (i have traversed the first three worlds and completed the first 2). the puzzles are clever and do encourage moments of insight and the art and music are beautiful. the good news (according to his blog) is that blow thinks the game will sell enough to enable him to make another game that he has kicking around.

    are the screenshots in this review from an early build or something? a lot of that art isnt what the game actually looks like (cannons and enemies). unless things change at a point i havent gotten to yet.

  7. Christian said on September 22, 2008:

    They are from an early build, before David Hellman stepped in and redid them.

  8. TrueTallus said on September 23, 2008:

    I was curious about the discrepancies in the screenshots as well. Thanks for the answer Christian. Now I just have to figure out what you mean by this secret star collection nonsense :) Could I really have missed an entire hidden game feature?

    I’m also a bit bothered by the idea that the entire game experience was anything more than a big metaphor. Are you saying that the red books indicate some kind of actual reality in the Tim character’s experience? I has just assumed all that talk of chopping up rats was a clever allusion to something in Tim’s otherwise completely normal modern day life. Am I now to understand that the little character in the game actually does jump around little worlds and turned into some twisted inventor who disturbed the fabric of reality? Somehow that seems a lot more disappointingly humdrum than a more confessional piece of media focused on the failures and discoveries of a normal (if dreamy and over thinking) young man who’s trying to figure out why his relationships keep coming up wrong and eventually finding out (maybe not for the first time?) who’s fault it is…

    As you pointed out of course, any amount of frustration with what the game means doesn’t amount to much in the face of how great it is both to play and go through as an earnestly crafted experience. It’s a wonderfully rewarding thing to play through a game that really has both qualities. Going through the new Alone in the Dark demo and getting a big grin on my face when I see there’s button for blinking my eyes doesn’t quite get me through the parts when I fight with the controls and get stuck on the scenery at an inopportune moment for the dozenth time without a muttered curse or two. Playing Braid feels like proof that passion and new ideas can be successfully married up with excellent gameplay if the designers are given enough time, liberty and focus.

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