You go back, Jack, do it again

If you pay attention to “gaming news” at all, you probably already know about Braid.[1]  And, if you’ve heard about Braid, you’ve also heard this:

Braid is a very important game, and everyone should be playing it.

I’m not sure what that means[2], but here’s what I do know.  I started playing Braid with my wife – I handled the gameplay, and we brainstormed over the puzzles – and it was really cool.  I even had a dream that featured one of the more mind-bending time effects.  Then, as family and friends converged onto our couch for a weekend celebration, I showed it off to them, and instead of dismissing it as a shiny toy, most of them jumped in and joined the brainstorm.

So, I guess it’s a party game for brainiacs?  As long as you have one platform-enabled thumbster among you?  Could be.  $15 isn’t much to spend to entertain a room full of people.  ($20, if you add in the cost of a bottle of Advil for the ones that get a migraine.)

If you care for an overview of what makes Braid work so well, I’ve described some of what I noticed after the break.  Spoiler danger: low.

The Visuals: There is far more detail in the backgrounds and characters than necessary for a 2D platforming game.  The overall impression is that the game looks like a painting.  This has very little mechanical effect on the game, but it does make inhabiting its levels more pleasant.  This is handy, as players may have to spend some serious time contemplating and experimenting with each puzzle.

The Audio: Especially in the early worlds, peaceful ensemble pieces (think: classical music) make for a low-pressure gaming experience.  The music was probably also chosen for a more unusual reason – it sounds good backwards as well as forward.  Enemies use a believable sound effect pallette, groaning or crying out as they are dispatched, instead of emitting an unidentifiable, iconic sound.

The Gameplay: Besides solid platforming, Braid is famous for its time-manipulation gameplay.  I can’t go into this too much without risking a spoiler, but I will say that each world introduces or adds a new tool or rule for manipulating time.  Because of this, you may confront what seems like a repeated puzzle, but need to find a new solution.  Or, you will find a new puzzle, but have to choose carefully which tools to use or combine to solve it.

One tool you always have is the ability to move time backwards and forwards at will.  By holding down the X button, you can enter “-1X” time, and by tapping the LB and RB[3], you can enter -8, -4, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 4, and 8X time, much as with a DVD player.  The obvious effect of this is the elimination of a “limited lives” scheme, since you can merely rewind time when you make a fatal error.  A less obvious – but much cooler, to my mind – effect is that you instantly become a Platform Gaming Rockstar.  If you need to jump on an enemy who’s flying through the air, or thread-the-needle between deadly obstacles[4] during a fall, or avoid an off-screen enemy who’s just about to plummet into your face and kill you, you can rewind time to try over until you get it right.[5]  So, don’t be discouraged just because your solution to a puzzle requires lightning-fast reflexes and lots of practice.  You have time.

The Level Design: Just as important as the time-manipulation is the level design, and this is really outstanding.

Firstly, the levels are simple and economical.  Getting from one end of each world to the other – one set of achievements[6]- is really pretty easy, and all it takes to unlock subsequent worlds.  Also, collecting each puzzle piece – the second set of achievements, and necessary to unlocking the end of the game – is relatively straightforward.  You will know what obstacles, paths, enemies and tools are available to you in order to reach each puzzle piece almost immediately, which makes solving the puzzles more an excercise in managing these factors than flailing around in the level, hoping to find the necessary components.

Secondly, the levels are familiar.  They are almost derivative, but I think it’s safe to say that they are in fact homage.  The obvious and intentional parallels with the Super Mario series of games are unescapable, as well as nods to Donkey Kong, Megaman, to name a few other Ye Olde Platformeres.

Thirdly, the levels are clever.  To cite an earlier example, Braid is not ashamed to put you in front of the same puzzle twice, so that you go about your business solving it until – whoops! – you’ve been fooled, because the rules have changed, and the old solution no longer applies.

The Story: This is where my opinion falters a bit.  The story seems to be vaguely emotional, but also pretty abstract, at least as told through the textual narrative you encounter. [7]  This story takes on more depth as the game progresses, but it’s hard to say whether or not it resolves.  At one point, the story seems to be resolved, or at least clarified, but then additional text narrative is provided that once again makes everything abstract.  Then again, maybe it just hasn’t clicked for me yet, or I need to see it in light of…

The Backstory: And I’ll admit, I haven’t spent much time looking into this yet.  However, in the most recent Giant Bomb Podcast, Jeff Gerstmann made some references to how much Jonathan Blow committed to this game during its development, even going so far as to forego a salary while he was making it.  Maybe some of that story will show itself in the metaphor of Braid’s story as I look deeper into it?  Who knows, for now.

I will say this:  Do you remember Pulp Fiction?  Do you remember debating what – exactly – was going on in that film?  What was in the briefcase?  I have little doubt that the debate rages on in Internet forums at this exact moment.  Don’t go looking for yourself, unless you have already completed the Epilogue, because there will be spoilers – but there are similar debates going on right now about what Braid’s story actually means.  I don’t put much stock into the quality or scholarly rigor of the debates, but it is impressive to me that anyone cares about the events in the lives of two nearly-anonymous characters (”Tim” and “The Princess”) that exist only in the four-page long narrative and gameplay of a week-old game.

I guess that means Braid is pretty important, after all.

  1. I won’t get into a lot of detail about it for that very reason, but you can check out Giant Bomb’s video review (WARNING: The “S” word is used) if you need some background. []
  2. Especially since it’s only out on XBLA right now!  PC to come later, though. []
  3. Until I got my own Xbox 360, I wondered what LB and RB are, so if you also wonder, know this!  These are the “bumpers”.  Instead of having two analog buttons by each trigger finger (as with the Playstation 2 controller), the Xbox 360 controller has a pair of triggers with a relatively long throw, and a pair of digital “bumper” buttons. []
  4. B and I noted that all of the deadly obstacles are “spikes, which are also on fire” just in case you thought you might survive them. []
  5. ”That’s why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait.” []
  6. For non-Xbox-ers, “Achievements” are the point-bearing goals that each game sets for you, either in line with or outside of its regular goals.  For instance, Braid has achievements for traversing each world, which you must do to win the game, anyway.  It also has an achievement for completing a speed-run of the game, which is by no means necessary to win the game. []
  7. Although the concepts can be pretty cool when you can see them.  For instance, World 2 seems to me to indicate a platform game about forgiveness. []

1 Responses to “Braid”

  • We’ve only played the trial version, but it was quite a bit of fun. I remember being stumped on how to get the last two pieces in World 2 for a while, and then Ryan shifted the completed puzzle pieces enough that we were able to land on the part of it that was a platform. “OH!”

    Zach is especially fond of the rewind feature, because he can repeatedly bounce off the same enemy ad infinitum, or similarly kill himself on the fiery spikes over and over again. Alex loves puzzles, so that was his favorite part.

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