Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
I have bad luck with Steam’s Weekend sales. If I buy a game, that game will inevitably go one sale for $10 to $20 off the next weekend.
Here is how this should work:
I purchase Braid for $15. I play it, and enjoy it quite a bit.
But then I notice that Braid has gone on sale for $5.
I hold down the Shift key, and my life reverses. Effect precedes cause, the universe contracts slightly, and when a week has flown by in reverse, time’s arrow flips around again into its natural position. Now armed with knowledge of Steam’s Weekend sale to come, I hold off purchasing Braid. (I also bet heavily on sports.)
Once a week has passed, the sale starts. Braid is now on sale for $5. I purchase it, saving $10.
The conceit behind Braid is simple: you can control time. Anything in Braid, at any point, can be undone. Hold down the Shift key and everything you have done so far in that level happens in reverse. If you die, you can undo it. You are as powerful as Superman as the end of the first Superman movie, flying around the world so fast it makes the Earth spin backwards, and saving Lois from the breaking of the dam. In theory, this means that there are no real stakes for Braid. (Just like, because Superman can change time, there was no real point to Superman. It’s a shitty movie.) To a point, that’s true. If you die, you undo what you just did, and replay it. Braid is, by necessity, more of a puzzle game. Although those skills you’ve earned in a lifetime of playing Mario Bros. will certainly help, you will spend more time playing with the effects of Braid’s actions than you will trying to make the perfect jump onto a ledge.
Each world plays with the ability to reverse time slightly differently. In the first, you can only reverse time. In others, time reverses when you walk left, and flows forward when you walk right. In another, certain items exist outside of time, unable to be reversed. The variations are slight, but have profound effects on the gameplay. Effects which are, for the most part, used very well in the levels. Within each world there is a puzzle, its pieces spread throughout the level. You must get the pieces of the puzzle, and then put the puzzle together.
Actions not included in Braid that are more disgusting backwards than forwards: Eating, spitting, shitting.
Everything in Braid focuses on Tim, who, like most video game heroes, has had girl trouble of some sort. What sort, exactly, is purposefully left vague. He must save the Princess. The chapter prologues offer some hints, as do the completed puzzles, which give small snapshots into Tim’s life before he became a side-scrolling video game hero.
The problem is, at times Braid tries a little too hard.
It is, as I’ve mentioned, great. Incredible art design, clever levels, and many interesting ideas. However, Braid never settles down and actually commits itself to one solid idea. Instead the game tries to be as vague as possible, trying to be artistic without using the one thing all great art needs: specificity. There are moments in which the gameplay and the story connect brilliantly, and complement each other perfectly. In one of the later worlds (SPOILER), you gain the ability to drop your wedding ring on the ground. When you do, time around the ring slows to a crawl. It’s a great idea: Is Tim longing for a princess who has died? Is holding on to his wedding ring the only thing which allows him to function, to move through time? Has Tim himself forced his princess away?
Perhaps. But the other bits of text, and other levels, contradict this, and offer other possibilities. And these other possibilities quickly change from interesting alternate interpretations to deliberate wankery. “You think this is true? Well what about THIS? Ha ha! Anything goes!” The game turns from Season 2 of LOST to Season 5 of the X-Files: there are so many theories up in the air, unexplained, that the truth no longer becomes interesting or worth exploring.
To keep these other interpretations open, the prose is often too purple, too foggy. For instance, take the following quote:
But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.
I hate when my girlfriend circumscribes me with her benevolence, and her maps can’t be reached without achieving comfort mode. We argue about that shit ALL THE TIME.
Braid also contains a series of references to other video games. There is a level based on Donkey Kong called, if I remember correctly, “Jumpman.” At the end of each world is a Barney-like dinosaur there to tell you that your princess is in another castle (aren’t they always?) They’re definitely allusions to other video games…but what purpose do they serve? One early thought I had was the Tim’s princess left him because he played too many video games, and all of Braid was a comment on the destructive power of video games on relationships. I took a quick break from my marathon session of playing Braid and asked my girlfriend about this theory, but she was too busy packing her things and crying. Braid never focuses on these video game references enough to let them reach any sort of interesting point, and so the video game references, like much of Braid, simply exist inside the game, rather than pushing the game forward.
The designer, Jonathan Blow, has said that the main idea of Braid is “something big and subtle [that] resists being looked at directly.” Which is exactly the problem. Art should allow multiple interpretations. It should not FORCE multiple interpretations. Rather than a single braid made up of different threads, the game becomes a disjointed mess of strings, crudely glued together.
But maybe I’m being too hard on Braid, because it is so close to being great. Braid fluctuates back and forth from a piece of art to an interesting side-stroller. It could have been another Shadow of the Colossus, had Jonathan Blow decided what, exactly, he wanted to say. Instead he wrote down 20 interesting things that may be worth saying, and said them all.
That aside, it is a ridiculously cool game. Levels and puzzles that seem insurmountable gradually make sense, as you start to think of how the ability to reverse time will allow you to alter the world. Many of the puzzles are clever without being unconquerable. It feels great to all of a sudden understand how to get that last piece of puzzle you have tried so hard for.
One slight gameplay quibble. Some puzzles must be solved in ways that there is no real training for. You must happen upon a complicated usage of the game’s mechanics and implement it all in one fell swoop. It would be better if you first had to figure out a simple way to do that action, and then use that action in a more complicated puzzle. For instance (SPOILER) you must at one point allow a hedgehog-thing to bounce off the head of shadow-Tim, and then use real Tim to bounce off of that hedgehog-thing. Or something like that. It would be better if there was an introductory puzzle that must be solved by bouncing a hedgehog-thing off of shadow-Tim’s head, so later on you know that is a possibility. Because you must collect EVERY puzzle-piece to get to the final level, the last couple pieces can feel ridiculously unfair. Until, of course, you figure it out (often after many, many frustrating attempts).
Then there is the brilliant final level.
First, frontwards, it works one way.
Backwards everything is different; is everything backwards?
One works it frontwards first.
You should buy Braid. On sale or not. It is worth experiencing.