“Each moment has its sickle, emulous
Of Time’s enormous scythe, whose ample sweep
Strikes empires from the root.”
The princess is gone… taken away into a castle in a far away land. Tim needs her, longs for her… he cannot fathom life without her. Thus, he embarks on a journey to find her, delving into this mystical land, drafted out of memories and dreams, hand painted with the colors of a man’s life, desperately in search of his lost princess, through time and space. To try and describe “Braid” any further would be a mistake, no, a bitter insult to its author and his work. Yes, because unlike many in the industry, and pardon the cliché, Jonathan Blow, the designer, actually created a work of art that brims with ambiguity and meaning. As Dieubussy once told me – to accurately describe it, one must be a poet, something which I clearly am not (my English prose being as bad as it is, you can imagine my poetry). “Braid” feels like Art, plays like Art, and bloody hell IS Art. And it attains that statute in a way far more evolved than most videogames that attempt the same feat (as the recent “Bioshock”, for example), as for once, gameplay is also a meaningful part of the game’s conceptual themes, motifs and story.
Curiously enough, though it remains an artsy fare, on an interaction level, the game admittedly draws inspiration on other videogames, most notably “Super Mario Bros.”, from where it derives the basic mechanics of platforming, and to some extent, the game’s structure (split into “worlds”), level design (each scene is shaped as 2d sidescrolling panel, much like in Mario) and even some of its quirks (the obvious one being the placement of a castle at the end of each world, where every single time, a dinosaur informs you that the princess isn’t there after all). But there’s a twist, and therein lies “Braid’s” uniqueness. As in “Sands of Time” or “Blinx”, you can spin time backwards, but in “Braid”, each game world makes the time disrupting behave in a different way. For instance, in World 4, after rewinding, Tim leaves a shadow that carries out his actions from the previous time line, thus allowing him to be, literally, in two places at the same time. These powerful new time mechanics are the core of the gameplay, much more so than the platforming roots the game shows at first glance. And fortunately, level design feeds on this factor for intellectual purposes, and instead of turning “Braid” into a “Super Mario Bros.” with time mechanics (which isn’t too far off from “Sands of Time”), it turns “Braid” into the new Time-Bending “Portal”. Yes, that’s right, expect the game’s focus to be centered around tortuous mind bending puzzles that will make your head ache every single time. But even “Portal” can pale in comparison, as “Braid” goes much further in its intellectual stimuli, its puzzles being challenging to the point of making you think all the time about their solution. For example, one of the later puzzles had a solution I only envisioned while reading a book, hours after playing, because in the back of my mind, I was still trying to fit its logic into perspective. But don’t fret; though hard, these puzzles transpire elegance, their logic so perfect and sublime, that you’ll feel an enormous sense of compensation when you actually crack them. And very rarely will you feel frustrated, because the solution is always there, staring at you in the face, and when you finally do find it, you’ll understand that the puzzle wasn’t a cheap trick the developer pulled of his hat; it had a clever solution that relied on a rationally coherent deduction, which will make you think “How did I miss that?!” It’s extremely hard to find such care given to level design, and you’ll never stop admiring the designer’s creativity and sheer genius in the concoction of these brilliant pieces of intellectual madness.
Not only do these work as valid and thought-provoking pieces of gameplay, but these puzzles are also interesting allegories that translate the inner journey of its main character. Blow has placed a number of iconic images and simple phrases that resonate with the gameplay mechanics and levels, adding them another layer of interpretation that transcends their face-value, expressing abstract and symbolic meanings, otherwise inaccessible to the player. This use of gameplay as a meaningful metaphor for the authors’ statements is becoming increasingly common in indie games and Jonathan Blow has himself referenced the works of Jason Rohrer and Rod Humble in his presentations. They’re obvious influences; that he now incorporates their spirit into a commercial game is not only welcome, as it is provocative… almost visionary. Not that I feel this is the first time it is done, quite on the contrary, for since the genesis of games that creators have imposed meaning to the player’s actions, most of which aren’t as obvious as would otherwise seem, but, as Blow also states, the new paradigm in videogaming rarely accepts this notion, opting instead for deriving meaning from non-interactive elements, such as cinematic cutscenes, leaving interactions as straightforward mappings of simple, real-life actions (shoot, punch, jump, etc). Blow believes that breaking away this dogmatic philosophy is essential for games to move forward towards their “Golden Age” and he’s doing his part, and in my opinion, he deserves applause for it.
To flesh out the allegorical nuances present in the gameplay, each world has a number of books the player can read. These provide a more solid, less abstract narrative medium, that fits perfectly with the hazy imagery. Though I can agree that the writing is not as “poetic” or “evocative” as it could be (
And not only is Jonathan Blow aware of this more powerful semiotic language, that takes into account all of videogame’s disciplines to translate a vision, as he does this with an added sense of beauty. The game’s art, by David Hellman (author of the webcomic “A lesson is learned but the Damage is Irreversible“), has a picturesque, hand painted quality, of expressionist influence, that further enhances the dreamlike qualities of “Braid’s” universe. Each landscape is crafted out of numerous layers of delicate images, fused together in a constant motion, giving the illusion of time, perspective and depth of field to what is an otherwise bidimensional background. These resonate perfectly with the score (which you can explore here), a balanced and astonishingly coherent selection of string compositions by Jami Sieber, Shira Kammen, Swan and Cheryl Ann Fulton. The game opens up with in a dark street, dimly lit in yellowish tones [title image], “Maenam”, by Jami Sieber caressing your hears, the perfect overture: a slow, steady crescendo of cellos in a mellow tone, coming into full force with a sad harmony that delivers Tim’s anguish perfectly – you can almost hear the cellos sing that he longs for the Princess to be with him. Following it, as you delve in the first game world, a place of bright colors and lush flora [see above], you’re greeted with “Downstream”, by Shira Kammen, a light bucolic fantasy piece for violin, of mild Celtic inspiration, that can almost make you soar high as in a dream due to its upbeat tempo and gentle, happy melody. And these are just the first few minutes of the game, the remaining also continue this perfect blend of musical harmony and visual style, effectively connecting on an emotional level with the player. Not only is “Braid” thoughtful and inspiring, it’s also touching on an sentimental level, a perfect piece of art in its purest, more emotional state.
What more can one say about “Braid”? It’s intelligent, inspiring, beautiful and touching. I simply lack the adjectives that could make the game justice (I wonder if they exist, really…). Is it perfect? Nothing is: minor flaws abide. But do they matter in the grand scheme of the game? No, not by a mile. I still think there’s a lot of work to be done in order to further develop videogame’s true language, and specially, the way in which interactions can become meaningful metaphors; “Braid” is simply one step forward in the long road that lies ahead. Surely, this is the best game to come out since “Shadow of the Colossus”. That I even dare and place in the same sentence, both this simple, downloadable game and one of Ueda’s glorious masterpieces (that I believe uphold Jonathan’s Blows core philosophy, and to some extent, even further it) is in itself a statement on how big an achievement “Braid” really is. The future of gaming lies here.