Braid – the little game that (almost) could

jck   January 5, 2015   Comments Off on Braid – the little game that (almost) could

Before I commence with my thoroughly irrelevant and belated Braid critique, I feel compelled to declare that I absolutely respect and revere the game for what it represents and what it contributes to the medium, and find it imperative that its genius should be declared in any serious discussion of video game masterpieces.

Truth be told, such statements are hardly necessary, given its lofty status as a critical darling since its Xbox Live debut over six years ago, but there is a case for this defensiveness in the face of a commentary on Jonathan Blow’s magnum opus (or so I should hope).

SNES box art of Braid homage to Super Mario.

The Super Mario for a new generation.

Braid is, at heart, a 2D platformer that utilizes the standard controls of horizontal movement and jumping, with the unique addition of an ability to “rewind” time at will and without limit. This time reversal element is understandably crucial to how the game and its puzzle-heavy gameplay eventuate, across perplexing levels distributed across a handful of worlds.

Consequently, every world in Braid is branded with a theme related to a specific concept of time, and integrates that particular notion of time as a form of time-manipulation mechanic within the gameplay. By employing these time-manipulation abilities, the player is tasked to collect jigsaw pieces scattered about the levels to construct the game’s ultimate conclusion.

The first playable world (“World 2”) introduces the core time reversal mechanic, which allows for the player’s actions up to that point to play out in reverse. This fundamental ability is conveyed through relatively trivial levels that prompt a time reversal whenever the player mistimes a jump or fatally runs into an enemy. Nice and simple.

Next, the second world (“World 3”) features certain objects within its levels – enemies, keys, and other elements – that remain unaffected by the aforementioned time manipulation ability, allowing for situations where the character can say, jump into a deep pit to grab a key, and rewind time to reverse his jump, keeping the key with him as he returns to the top. So far, so good.

Subsequently, World 4 offers an interrelation of time and place by linking the character’s horizontal displacement to the passage of time (moving right makes time go forward; moving left reverses it), overlooking any vertical shifts in the avatar’s position.

World 5 establishes that reversing time produces a clone that performs the character’s prior actions, and finally, World 6 features an item that, when set, slows the movement of objects around it to varying degrees based on their proximity to its placement.

While these varying concepts of temporal mischief seem clever and innovative, from World 4 on, the game often seems let down by seemingly poor design choices in that players can easily find themselves stuck in pitfalls due to wrong interpretations of what is expected of them.

That there is almost always only a single solution to the later levels suggests a linearity and arbitrary nature to a game that, incongruously, promotes manipulation of an element that traditionally has remained outside of the player’s sphere of influence.

Players can be said to generally derive fun from games through gradual improvement in the skillset on offer, but Braid contradicts this somewhat by offering clever mechanics that falter in their execution. The challenge put forth comes not from a lack of skill on the player’s part, but from his inability to figure out what Blow wants him to do at any given point.

The frustrating structure of some puzzles is also exacerbated by the imprecise controls. While not altogether inexcusable since Braid is not a pure platformer, several late-game levels are guilty of fussy puzzles whose resolutions often demand that the player possess pixel-perfect timing and positioning, neither of which he is afforded any facilitation in by Braid’s loose controls.

A more succinct, irreverent take on the next few paragraphs.

And what of the promise of the one-of-a-kind wedding of form and content so publicly advocated and championed prior to the game’s release? Blow’s proclamations for Braid were bold and pompous, an extension of the persona he presents at talks, discussions, and his own website. Braid would be “mind-expanding”, and offer players a unique experience they would not get anywhere else, as I recall.

Unfortunately, by opting for the diegetic, conventional (or anachronistic?) delivery of its story in the form of text blurbs explicitly displayed within each world, Braid effectuates an intrinsic (and awkwardly ironic) disconnect between its narrative ambitions and the gameplay mechanic that was purported to have been so smoothly melded to it.

That the texts in question got increasingly overwrought and obscure as the game progressed, to the point of being laughably pretentious by its epilogue, only aggravated this failing. Indeed, with the thematic applications of temporal manipulation within each world painting a subtle, broad tale of regret and redemption, the game could as easily have done without the superfluous text fragments.

In the end, admirable as Blow’s intentions for game narrative here were, the vague-to-the-point-of-incomprehensible snippets of text just came off as poor excuses to wax philosophical with trite metaphorical allusions that felt more at home in the melodramatic comforts of your typical JRPG.
Let’s not even get started on what the whole thing had to do with the Manhattan Project. (Hint: Pretty much nothing, really.)

That said, Blow is without question, supremely gifted at what he does, and deserves every bit of acclaim coming his way. You get the feeling though, that he should let his work do the talking ahead of himself, and not obfuscate what is admittedly a very well-crafted game with unnecessary predilections and indulgences on its author’s part.

Braid was a monumentally grandiose and lofty effort, given its humble indie roots, and one would not be too far wrong to suggest its reach just barely exceeded its grasp.

Braid aside, Blow’s upcoming work, The Witness, does sound promising in its potential, and I am anticipating it more than I ever did Braid. (Well, until I get around to reading more choice quips from Blow again, at least.)

Oh, and a dissimilar aesthetic design would be much appreciated (and highly probable, in any case). Have I mentioned how much I could not take to Braid‘s visual identity?
I realise videogames’ longstanding desire to prove itself worthy as art, but between those painted visuals and the ostentatious scripts, it’s almost like Braid is trying too hard to be what it does not necessarily need to be.

I really, really like its audio though.