What if we could reverse the clock so that our mistakes never happened? This simple idea becomes the premise for Jonathan Blow’s Braid and transforms a simple 2D platformer into one of the most popular and enigmatic indie titles of all time. Released for Windows in 2009 and boasting some of the most brilliantly complex ideas ever implemented in a video game, it’s been applauded for pushing the limits of what is possible – even conceivable – for the video game medium.. But experiencing the genius it offers requires you to masochistically plough your way through hours of hideously difficult and frustrating gameplay. Is it worth it? Absolutely, but be warned: it’s not for the faint of heart.
Throughout your Braid journey you play as Tim, a red-haired Mario substitute depicted as a sprite wearing a business suit. Tim’s quest? To rescue the princess, naturally, because he ‘made a mistake’. The similarities with Mario are consistent and intentional, from the side-scrolling gameplay to the seemingly innocuous creatures that you defeat by bouncing on their heads. But don’t be fooled; this isn’t just another generic platformer. The clichés are there only so that your every expectation can be turned on its head. In addition to running and jumping you’re afforded a ‘rewind’ key which allows you to reverse everything that’s occurred so far in a level. Missed that jump? No problem, just rewind and try again. Killed by an enemy? Hold down Shift and it never happened. Such a simple mechanic, but it throws the doors wide open to puzzles and solutions that you’d never even dreamed of.
The game’s lobby is Tim’s Manhattan apartment which opens into six different worlds. While making your way through each world you’ll need to collect puzzle pieces and assemble them into a picture representative of that world’s theme. In addition, each world introduces a new mechanic to further complicate the time-bending gameplay. In one world moving to the right of screen will make time progress as normal, while moving left will make it reverse. In another, certain platforms and enemies will be unaffected by your time reversals. You realise very quickly that your brain isn’t used to thinking in terms of four dimensions and it can be a very humbling experience.
Video game difficulty can usually be separated into two categories – it’s either hard figuring out what you have to do, or it’s hard to actually do it. Braid presents both in spades. Apparently having unlimited continues means that a lot more can be expected of the player. I won’t lie, I needed a walkthrough to collect a good half of the game’s puzzle pieces and even then I had a frustrating time. I can’t even fathom how people managed to figure out some of them in the first place (doors that open without touching them? Come again?). Jumps need to be timed to perfection, angles accurate down to the degree. Some puzzles can only be completed after solving later ones. What could have been an entertaining mechanic becomes a chore. So what could possibly be worth plodding through several painstaking hours of backwards and forwards?
As it turns out, a lot. The beautiful watercolour graphics seem to leap off the screen, from the blazing Manhattan sunset to the rolling fields of the various worlds. The sky looks like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, particularly when you hit rewind and see the clouds swirling above you. In addition to a unique mechanic, each world is also typified by its own music containing a single dominant instrument. The soundtrack isn’t as good as some diehard fans would have you believe, particularly considering that you spend a considerable amount of time listening to it in reverse. It’s impressive at first when the music rewinds along with Tim but it becomes grating and gimmicky, and I’d have preferred it to just play constantly. Still, the final level’s music is suitably epic and the first level’s violin pieces are agonisingly beautiful. It’s one of the few video game soundtracks I’ve strongly considered forking over the extra cash for.
Braid’s real triumphs, however, are its experimental approach to narrative and astonishing level of symbolism. Not a pixel has been wasted; everything is precisely where and how it’s supposed to be, and nothing is included for the mere sake of it. This is a LOST-like level of imagery where everything is a metaphor for something. But trying to unravel Braid’s meaning is perhaps even more challenging than the gameplay. Before beginning a new world you are granted a few narrative segments to put that which you’re about to play into context, but it’s extremely threadbare and artistic. Who is Tim? Who – or what – is the Princess, and why is Tim searching for her? What was this mistake that caused her to leave him? Good luck trying to piece it together. Imagine what it would be like trying to deduce the plot of Inception from a dozen screenplay fragments presented in random order. You’re probably not far off the mark.
It’s enormously ambitious in this sense, and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever played, but I’m not convinced it pulls it off as well as it hopes. The final level in particular is one of those jaw-dropping moments of video gaming transcendence that absolutely every gamer needs to play before they die. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to bring yourself to the brink of slitting your wrists in frustration to get there. Once you’ve finished you’re quite sure you’ve just witnessed something momentous, but you’re not altogether sure why. It’s a bit like Donnie Darko; unless you’re a quantum physics major or on precisely the same level as the developer you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of figuring out what it’s on about from the game itself. I’ve read through countless theories and there’s a general consensus which I find satisfying, even if I wouldn’t have gotten it in a million years. Does it deserve the accolades, then? On the one hand I don’t think you can praise a game highly if you’re relying on other people to interpret it for you. But on the other, isn’t all art ambiguous? Isn’t that the beauty of it? Jonathan Blow’s been called pretentious by Braid critics but I honestly think his mad genius is the real deal. It’s ok to be a bit overwhelmed. You’re supposed to find your own meaning.
Conclusion: I’ve heard Braid called the greatest game of all time. Scoffing into my brandy I have to say that it’s not, but when you’re deliberately moving into uncharted gaming territory you can only expect the final product to be a bit hit-and-miss. It’s one of those games any gamer worth their salt should play even if it’s not what you’d call particularly fun. The ideas are brilliant, the challenge undeniable, and the final level is one of the greatest achievements of the modern gaming era. It’s a pity that they couldn’t have been housed in equally astounding gameplay, but this isn’t a masterpiece: it’s a trail-blazer. It’s worth struggling through the arduous several hours for the greater good, because in the years to come when video games are recognised as legitimate art forms we’ll point at games like Braid and say this, this is where it all began.
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