Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Braid: Moving Forward, Looking Backward

Posted by deckard47 on September 16, 2008

So I wrote this a while back, but never got around to putting it up. I think it’s pretty good, but you can decide for yourself.

Jonathan Blow’s Braid is being hailed as a landmark game with the potential to revolutionize its genre, and even the video game industry itself. Mr. Blow is a vocal detractor of video game design in its present state, and Braid reflects this dissatisfaction at micro and macro levels, from its basic mechanics and interface to its story and presentation. Blow is unquestionably on to something, but he gets as much wrong as he does right in his critique and his game. Both are revolutionary, but neither in as dramatic a way as he—or the hype—would have you believe.

Braid is, on first sight a sidescrolling adventure that melds the simple jumping and bouncing of Mario-style games with the time-bending mechanics similar to those introduced by more recent titles. As the player progresses through the game, though, it quickly becomes obvious that something more complicated and unusual is going on. Time is not just a video to be rewound when the player dies: it can be slowed, sped up, left behind, or even duplicated, creating a double world. This in itself would be an impressive accomplishment, but the really innovative thing is the way that Braid ties its novel gameplay mechanic to the game’s story and themes.  As you manipulate time to proceed through the game’s levels, the revelations you uncover about your character and his history start to confuse the very idea of time.  If you can go back in time in the game, can your character do that in his own life?  And what are the consequences, for the story and for the fate of your character himself?

In Braid, your character is a boy named Tim, dressed in a boarding-school style suit jacket and pants. Tim jumps, climbs, and falls through successive levels, but unlike other games, in Braid, time is always a factor. The simplest form of time manipulation is the forward and backward function. At any time, you can move time forward or backward, at different speeds. Any mistake can be rewound, over and over.  Suddenly, “dying” as understood in other games stops being a problem.  If death is reversible, the traditional idea of working as hard as you can to avoid it stops making sense, because you can rewind time to reverse your own death whenever you want.  The challenge has to come from elsewhere, from different kinds of puzzles that require you to manipulate time in counterintuitive ways.

As the game progresses, new ways of interacting with time are introduced, each one accompanied by a new addition to the story. The books describe parts of Tim’s past, his relationship with the Princess, his sense of time and loss, and the ways in which he struggles against these forces. Simultaneously, Tim encounters new obstacles and opportunities. In one world, anything that sparkles green escapes time’s grasp. If you pick up a glowing green key that is at the bottom of an inescapable pit, you can rewind time to when your character was standing at the edge of the pit, and the key will still be in your hand. Doors and platforms, cannons and enemies–any object can fall under this strange green penumbra. It’s your job to figure out how to use this to your advantage. In one of the other gameworlds, time moves forward only when you do, and all actions are reversed when you move backward. When you stand still, so does the world. Those are only the first three stages, and it’s hard enough wrapping your head around that. Within each stage, a multitude of puzzles lie before you, each one exploring a new way of approaching the set rules of time in that particular world.

The impressive thing about these changes in play is that each wrinkle in the laws of time and space is not only an integral part of the gameplay; it is part of the plot. The game you play is an expression, an extension, and a manifestation of the wishes, hopes and intentions that the story is made up of. Your goal, to save an almost allegorical princess, may have been bled dry by Mario and Zelda games, but in Braid the search for the Princess is an expression of the hero’s wish to atone for past mistakes and explore the intricacies of time and memory.

In most games, the action onscreen is supposed to represent the game’s story directly.  The things you do in game are the things that happen in the story.  In Braid, this relation is unclear, because it’s metaphorical.  Who is the Princess “really,” and what does she mean?  Is your character “really” a young boy? The broad-brush implications of a far more adult, erotic story underlying the world of child’s play suggests the regressive, allusive logic of a fantasy or a dream.  The things you do are, thus, uncertain and equivocal.  You don’t quite know what they mean, and part of the impulse to keep playing becomes the desire to find out the meaning of the actions you’ve already taken.  Interpretation replaces plot, or interpretation becomes plot.  You have to make your own story out of the confused events of making your own story.

When Tim recalls a day he spent with the Princess, he does so from the days and years that follow, or from the days and years that preceded it. Tim’s semi-omniscient ruminations on the things that have not happened yet (and are thus hidden by time) but that he knows will happen involve the possibilities of what happens when we distort time, in our minds or in the game world. What happens if we forget that something has happened, if we obscure it from our memory? How do we know that it happened? This idea plays out directly in front of the player in Braid. In a sense, you might say that you only remember one item in the game (a green key, say), and forget the rest. The world reverts to its original position, save for the key in your hand. This is just one example of how Braid’s story and gameplay are in constantly dialogue with each other.

This is exactly what Braid does: it provides the player with challenges and decisions that are natural extensions of the plot of the game, and the intentions of the game’s creator. It’s hard to remember the last time I saw a game that melded its intentions and feelings with its implementation in such a compelling way.

But it would be easy to imagine that because Braid innovates, the framework it innovates in stops being important.  In fact, Braid owes so much to its ancestors that it’s not fair to talk about it as a radical departure.  It’s still the same kind of game. There are enemies to bounce on only because Mario games are like that. The same can be said for the pits of fire, bosses, and other obstacles.  It is within this basically linear, two-dimensional world that Braid opens its new possibilities.  The landscape and rules have not changed, and perhaps the medium hasn’t, quite yet, either.

In interviews Blow has claimed that this kind of game is the only kind of game that would allow his time-based gameplay to succeed. Therein lies the problem with Braid. Even though it creates situations and opportunities that we’ve never dreamed of seeing, it can only do so if it regulates itself to a very specific perspective and design set. The reason the games controls are those of old platformers is because any complicated control set would make Blow’s vision impossible. If the tools cannot do what designers wish them to, we need to innovate the tools, not just our ideas about time and the player’s involvement with the story.

I do not believe that Braid is anywhere near the crystallization of the art form of video games. The story is still strangely removed from the action (as in many games), despite the connections between time-based gameplay and discussions of temporality and memory. The platforming structure upon which it is built drives Braid in directions that are completely at odds with its focused, thematically consistent and compelling format. The ubiquitous enemies, fireballs, and time limits are all holdovers from another era. They may be appropriate to the setting, but they seem at odds with the game’s story and ethos. If Blow or any other developer wishes to truly make gameplay an expression of intent and story, then there is still a long way to go.

In order to be unusual and new, something more than its predecessors, Braid makes this basic language, which still composes the experience of gameplay, into a metaphor.  Braid’s approach is novel, but it’s a new way of reading the game, not a new way of playing it.  Jumping, rewards, pits, and puzzles become an allegory about life and time, but they’re not new ways of thinking about life and time, and experiencing them in a video game. That’s the innovation we’re still waiting for.


One Response to “Braid: Moving Forward, Looking Backward”

  1. Sam said

    You need to write more on your blog.

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