We’ve all got our baggage of decisions that we regret, stupidly and ridiculously hoping that we could somehow rewind time and correct our mistakes. The topic’s been turned around on all facets in sci-fi literature and media, from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy – and the consequences of such an experiment are formulated in hypotheses and principles like the grandfather paradox or the Novikov self-consistency principle.
But the possibility of time manipulation can spawn a lot of fascinating things, beyond the unanswered questions in universal literature. It’s been proven in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which used it as a game mechanic and central narrative element. And the paradoxes in the second title of the series, Warrior Within, were a fresh firecracker (although somewhat clumsily applied) in the Prince’s epic struggle to change his fate.
It’s just that a guy going by the name of Jonathan Blow was quite unhappy with how Ubisoft (and others) used the time manipulation mechanic, firmly stating that its potential goes beyond a few-seconds rewind or a slowdown that lets you get past a door that’s closing too fast. So he did what anyone with sufficient inspiration to make something interesting and ambition not to abandon the idea just because he doesn’t have a treasury backing him up would do.
The result of his efforts is Braid, a 2D puzzle-platformer that’s apparently simplistic. Yet a watercolor world, a protagonist who doesn’t share much more than his name – Tim – and a design deeply rooted in the first Mario Bros. manage to build up an artistic tour de force that’s incredibly convincing.
On the surface, the story is simple. The princess got kidnapped by a monster, and you, her ex-boyfriend, have to save her. Or at least that’s how it seems. Because no matter how much I’d like to rant on about Braid’s symbolism, smart metaphors and obscure remarks, believe me when I say that I would be committing a grave crime if I were to limit you with my own prism of thinking, because the concept has a lot of facets and interpretations.
However, even without knowing the story you need to understand a clear fact about the texts and references in the game: they’re so damn obscure that they’d make David Lynch stutter. When you think you’ve “decrypted” the metaphor and reached a plausible conclusion, you’ll get shoved in a whole different direction, clinging desperately to that “if” as if you’re going insane.
It’s outright frustrating, unless you’ve got the patience and predisposition of letting yourself get dragged in a whirlwind of ideas which are tied together in a very frail and uncertain manner. But the interpretations you’ll add to the game will pump volume and consistency, something that the linearity and the clichés of most contemporary titles can’t even hope to attain.
“I want to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own.” H.G. Wells
Braid is structured on multiple worlds, and each of them introduces a distinct mechanic that is needed to solve all the puzzles. What makes it truly shine is that anyone can play Braid – the rules are simple, the platforming part is only a slim facade, and the game’s real weight relies in the mechanic’s appeal to the user’s ingenuity – not in reflexes or complicated systems of rules and postulates.
If the first world only skims the rewind system, the second introduces objects which defy the “common sense” rules of space and time, and the “conventions” start to flow, more and more interesting and complex. You’ll get to see levels in which time passes normally when you move forward and rewinds if you go back. You’ll get to see levels in which every action leaves behind a “shadow” which, after the rewind, does the same action you did previously. Things which I can use as solid arguments when stating that Jonathan Blow’s been sniveling around the time cookie jar and left no loose crumbles. It simply rubs shoulders with genius.
It’s possible that some might have an evil giggle when hearing that two of the levels are present in multiple worlds, but the solutions you can come up with in fixing the same puzzle are radically different when you’ve got different powers at your disposal. I consider that the respective levels are very tongue-in-cheek towards mainstream producers – just about how many different and interesting approaches there can be to the same frame, as long as the tools you have are different.
The rewind itself is not sloppy or annoying when used repeatedly – which gives a consistent boost to the tendency of trying all kinds of demented solutions you can think of. Especially since Tim can’t die. If this feature ruined the challenge in Prince of Persia, the possibility of rewinding at any time after going toe-to-toe with some frowning monster lets you focus on the really important parts: solving puzzles.
The objective in every world is collecting a few jigsaw pieces and rebuilding a picture out of them. The reconstruction itself is a lot easier than collecting the pieces, but it does offer a certain state of reward after the migraines you get trying to get a piece that’s just far enough for you to scratch your head devising clever ways to get to it.
Which is why I think Braid’s release is a breath of well-earned fresh air for the gaming community. And the fact that a game utterly excludes the so-called “challenges” represented by clichés like Simon Says or combo mashing and allows total freedom when it comes to trial and error, without compromising the complex nature of the trials we’re getting dragged through, is a serious reason to support independent developers.
The watercolor graphics also contribute to the casual, easygoing nature. The background is pleasant without being generic, the colors work together frightfully well, and David Hellman’s art doesn’t need any bloom or HDR to shine. It’s for the first time in the last five years when I’ve showed a game to a few people who aren’t into gaming and I got an unanimous confirmation that I’m looking at an animated canvas which unveils itself naturally, with no graphical steroids or cheap parlor tricks.
And the sounds complete this canvas very well. The pleasant music which emphasizes the rewind feeling by playing itself backwards doesn’t irritate the ear at any point, doesn’t stumble upon any mishaps or editing screw-ups. I even had to be told that the music is licensed, because otherwise I could have sworn it was composed specifically for the Braid phenomenon.
“Now we’re all Sons O’ Bitches.”- Kenneth Bainbridge
Gentlemen, I think we’re looking at a masterpiece, in the same sense in which Portal is one too. A cerebral and pleasant experience, never frustrating without proper reward, never dull or monotonous.
It’s been said that the game’s length is a problem, which also goes for its lack of replay value. True, Braid is a one-way pill which melts pretty fast in your mouth, although it does leave behind an exquisite fragrance, but the level editor Jonathan Blow recently released has the potential of producing an entire bottle of such pills.
Furthermore, if someone’s not smart enough to put the relatively short duration in the context of an amazing experience, I seriously doubt that that someone could finish the game in under 30 hours. Which is a paradox in itself, considering that the stated problem itself disappears.
And now, if you can, rewind time and, instead of reading this review, go buy Braid without any second thoughts. Every minute will be better spent experiencing it firsthand.