(Many videogame enthusiasts have probably heard of Jonathan Blow, Braid’s outspoken creator. Now, I believe Braid first and foremost deserves love because of the inventive, brilliant puzzles on display, and secondly for its bold aspirations, so whatever the creator has or has not said [personally, he comes across as a genuinely passionate guy in interviews, but plenty of people seem to think he’s a pompous ass for some reason] doesn’t factor into my love of the game. Being a metal fan, I learned to separate the artist from the art a long time ago, so if you’re going to let something like that bother you than you’re probably not smart enough to play Braid anyway. The end.)
Braid is, at its core, about thinking. This is obvious on the most shallow level; after all, it’s a 2D puzzle platformer, and what kind of puzzle game doesn’t require thinking? Control is easy enough, of course: you (usually) move from right to left, and press a button to jump at the appropriate times, but things are much trickier than that. Each world has a different wrinkle in the formula, and the crux of the gameplay revolves around understanding and manipulating these wrinkles. The first world allows you to rewind time at will – standard enough – but by the third world you’ll be causing time to flow forward when the player moves right, and flow backwards when the player moves left. Still sound simple?
There are no tutorials, and no hints will ever crop up – you’re entirely left to your own devices. There’s barely handholding with each world’s new twist, either, before you’re thrown into the thick of it. The game is kind enough to allow you to move on past any puzzle you can’t parse, though, only requiring you to solve them all if you want to see the ending. (And you do.) So how do you progress in that case, exactly? Use your noggin, of course. Braid follows the Super Metroid philosophy of game design, for which I believe the technical term is “assume our players are not, in fact, mentally handicapped.” The game is never unfriendly – rather, it’s confident that you, the player, can overcome its challenges if you put your mind to it. You just need to think about it.
Braid was clearly built with the belief that the single best reward a game has to offer is that wave of endorphins washing over your brain when you’ve cracked a puzzle on your own. It shoots for the same “Aha!” sensation the very best Zelda puzzles produce, and often exceeds them. And, while shooting for a difficulty above what pretty much any Zelda puzzle has to offer, Braid perfectly grasps that same underlying concept of making a puzzle difficult without straying into the obtuse. You can play the whole game secure in the knowledge that there’s no cheap or poorly designed puzzles. The game never flat-out changes the rules on you (each world’s “theme” notwithstanding), and the answers are all right there on your screen, silently urging you to find them.
My love of Braid stems from my love of puzzle solving. There’s no hyperbole whatsoever when I say it has some of the most inventive, clever puzzles I’ve ever played. For many people, that’s enough. Hell, that alone would earn it a spot on my all-time favorites list, but Braid is much more daring – much more important – than that.
I began this write up saying that Braid is “about thinking”. The biggest point of contention among players, strangely enough, comes down to the type of thinking Braid is about. It isn’t the puzzles that are the “problem”, it’s Braid’s ambition, its drive to be about more than beating the next room. By the time the credits roll, the subtle themes that pervade throughout the experience have come to the forefront, themes that actually try to say something. Some call it pretentious, others brilliant. Braid tries to impart something to its audience in a way a corporate title would be mortified to attempt, and it’s amusing to see so many gamers resistant to a game beckoning them to stop and think. It’s almost as if the audience has been shoveled pulp for so long that they don’t know what to do with something genuinely insightful. Hm.
Don’t take it to mean Blow is dismissive of videogames, though. Critical, yes, but the man probably has more faith in the medium’s potential than anyone else out there. Look no further than Braid’s ending, which culminates in a fusion of gameplay and story with in a way few others have. The player’s immersion is elegantly heightened with the touch of a button; think the ending to Metal Gear Solid 3 or Shadow of the Colossus and you’re on the right track. Simply put, it’s a message that’s made poignant in a way that cannot be done in any other medium. That is why there’s a dig at Donkey Kong, why there are collectables that go to Desert Bus levels of tedium, and above all, why Jonathan Blow is so adamant about completing the game on your own.
He wants you to think.
- System: PC
- Released: 2008
- Developer: Number None, Inc. (Jonathan Blow)
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Number None, Inc.
- Try the demo, or buy it for $10 on Steam