Number None, Inc. (XBLA, PC)/ Hothead Games (Mac, PS3)
Microsoft Game Studios (XBLA)/ Number None, Inc. (PC, Mac)
Linux, Mac, OnLive, PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Linux: December 14, 2010; Mac: May 20, 2009; PC: April 10, 2009; Playstation 3: November 12, 2009; XBLA: August 6, 2008
How to feel inferior
If Braid was a person it would be the quiet guy at the back of the classroom who would one day become one of the world’s eminent and best-known intellects (think Stephen Hawking): it is deceptively calm, quiet and brilliant and yet it defies convention by having attained a level of popularity usually requiring a huge budget and marketing campaign. Braid is a game built upon the idea of layers, because at its heart is always, so it seems, another heart further within, and just as you think you might be getting to grips with what it is that Braid actually is, you realise that not only were you completely wrong, but so was everyone else. Like Fez since, Braid is a unique and personal journey that defies conventions.
Gameplay-wise Braid is absolutely solid: as a traditional platformer you control an avatar who runs, jumps, opens doors and finds keys. On the way you’ll encounter furry goomba-esque creatures, rabid rabbits, cannons, spikes and fire, with which you deal in various ways. The character, Tim, responds perfectly to control inputs, your own reactions being solely responsible for any deaths he suffers. But it is the time-bending aspects that start to set this game apart, beginning with the simple ability to reverse time at any point and as far back as the beginning of the stage. Death is effectively negated in favour of pausing the game immediately afterwards, allowing for many repeated attempts at a difficult jump. At first this is all the system is used for, but then greenly-glowing objects appear that remain constant despite your time manipulation powers, leading to puzzles that require you to think backwards as well as forwards. For instance, when faced with two locked doors, one glowing, and a single key, you must open the glowing door and then rewind time to have the key returned to you while the first door remains open, so you can then open the regular door. This colour-themed mechanic carries on throughout the game as your time-reversal is supplemented by other fiendish mechanics that allow for ever more taxing puzzles. One of these exists in a single world, where travelling right moves time forwards, and vice versa when running to the left. Though the solutions are sometimes well hidden they are never beyond reach and you’ll always complete puzzles with a sense of gratification.
A lot must be said also for the look, feel and sound of the game, all of which is a masterpiece in its own right. Your adventure plays amongst the backdrop of a colourfully rippling world of pastels depicting rolling green hills, impossibly perfect blue skies and crowded, lush jungles. At times you feel as though you are running through an animated depiction of the inside of Vincent Van Gogh’s head. The sound reflects this with floating melodies accompanying your garden treks and quaint, quirky noises: a cannonball explodes with a childish pop, a defeated enemy disappears with a comical ‘boing’ and a jigsaw piece is collected with a pleasant chime. The animations are smooth and unassuming, lending the game an extra level of charm without being ostentatious.
And underscoring the entire journey is a bizarre, disjointed story whose neither rhyme nor reason are ever quite understood until the final moments of the final secret are revealed. It tells of Tim and a princess whom he must save, but from what it is not clear. There is much regret within the story and internal discussions of a person’s inability to change the way they are or how other people react to them. As the story is slowly sharpened you come to realize that what you are playing reflects what you are reading, and that this young man’s anguish has almost literally been translated into a two-dimensional game. Metaphor and symbolism is rife and, to be fair, it is not for everyone, but it remains unobtrusive enough to allow you to enjoy the game without regarding the story at all. But if you do delve into it then you will be richly rewarded with a shocking work of emotion that surprises in its depth and confidence. The final stage in particular has two massive twists that you will not see coming and which both turn the game on its head completely. The second of these twists is the ultimate goal of the game and requires a lot of patience and expert skill, not to mention a clever mind. It is this multi-layered depth that makes Braid one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time.
And yet, despite its fully-accomplished gameplay and narrative, Braid seems to resent being a game insomuch as when you play you get the feeling that everything in it is designed to mock your assumptions: the gameplay is a ruse, hiding a deeper truth about the futility of playing games purely for fun. The themes are established and then torn away like lavish curtains, revealing the bare and cruelly rigid structure behind them. And it is all purposefully done, an exercise in making the player feel stupid and ignorant. Nothing is as it seems. The entire game is essentially a masterpiece and it laughs at you for thinking that you could ever conquer it. Sure, you’ve found all the jigsaw pieces, uncovered the secret stars and worked out the hidden meaning, but what was it all for? Have you justified your time now that you know that it was all for nothing? At its heart Braid is a cruel beast that rewards your blind obedience with a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a mirror. I am simultaneously infinitely impressed by it and also resentful of it, and in the end I don’t know what to feel. This is Braid’s unique aspect, in that it seems to be the only game ever made that despises the people who play it.
Just when you think you’ve grasped it, Braid taps you on the shoulder and sneaks around behind you before you can see it, and it laughs haughtily all the while. When it comes to a final score it seems stupid to try and quantify the experience because this is not really a game, which is difficult for me to say but I know it’s right: this is more than just jumping around and opening doors to magical worlds. But beneath it all a game still exists, one that is sold and enjoyed for the value of what it is. As a platformer it delivers exactly what conventions demand, and then exactly what they don’t. This subversive nature makes Braid one of the greatest and most important videogames ever made, because it repeatedly refuses to be nailed down. Taking the game as a game it is peerless, but taking it as something beyond an experience it is beautiful and honest.
- Impossibly charming
- Perfectly balanced learning curve
- Goes beyond what a traditional game should deliver
- Unrelentingly dismissive of the player’s achievements
David gave Braid an 100%, a perfect score. He strongly supports his decision and the effect Braid had on him. If any of you played this game, would you agree with the perfect score?