In the early nineties, a man named Jonathan Blow began studying computer science and creative writing at University of California, Berkeley fresh off his high school education. One of his most notable achievements during his tenure there was being president of the Computer Science Undergraduate Association for a semester. Despite this and somewhat ironically, he left the university mere months before he was slated to graduate in 1994.
He then started doing contract jobs, one of which was with Silicon Graphics to port the immensely popular Doom, the game responsible for fully codifying the first-person shooter genre, to a set-top device. Shortly thereafter in 1996, he along with Bernt Habermeier formed Bolt-Action Software, a game design company. Their first project was to be a tank combat game named Wulfram. In an inventive twist, the vehicle was capable of hovering. However, during this time, the medium was in the process of a paradigm shift. In September of 1996, Super Mario 64 was released in North America. Though earlier efforts such as the aforementioned Doom projected the illusion of 3D, Super Mario 64 provided the genuine article. This was the beginning of a revolution that would see 3D gaming fully embraced by the industry to the point where many quality console 2D titles fell by the wayside. This did not bode well for Mr. Blow and his team, and progress slowed to a crawl. These matters were exacerbated further in the wake of the dot-com bubble’s collapse in the early 2000s. With nothing to show for their four years of work, Bolt-Action Software opted to fold in 2000, leaving them $100,000 in debt.
Following this failure, Mr. Blow continued doing contract work for companies such as Ion Storm, and started writing for industry publications – one of them being Game Developer Magazine. He also worked on a project for IBM to create a technology demo similar to his scrapped Wulfram concept. It showcased the capabilities of the cell processor IBM was collaborating on that would become a key component of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Mr. Blow sought funds from Sony and Electronic Arts to turn his demo into a full game, but his proposition fell on deaf ears.
In December of 2004, Mr. Blow took a trip to Thailand when inspiration struck. Upon his return, he created a prototype in a week and sent it to his friends who told him they liked it. With newfound determination to bring this vision into reality, his passion project began in earnest the following April. By the end of the year, the gameplay had been polished to his liking. However, there was a problem: the graphic art consisted mostly of placeholders, lending an amateurish presentation. To resolve this issue, Mr. Blow began looking for graphic artists. He found this to be a daunting task, and has since emphasized the difficulty of “[finding] someone who is talented and willing to sit down and really understand and care about your game, even if you are willing to pay a lot of money”. Eventually, he two people were referred to him: Edmund McMillen and David Hellman, the former of whom would contribute character designs while the latter of was hired by Mr. Blow as the lead artist.
Over the next three years, Mr. Blow put $200,000 of his own money into his game’s development – a majority of it went towards Mr. Hellman’s artwork and living expenses. In 2008, the game was at last finished; all they needed now was an opportunity. Fortunately for them, one presented itself fairly quickly in the form of the Xbox Live Arcade. By this point in gaming history, all of the consoles – the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Wii – had their own download services while PC users had access to Steam, the quintessential digital distribution platform in many players’ eyes. The Xbox in particular started promoting games through its own service with its first annual Summer of Arcade event. Among its titles was Braid, the game Mr. Blow and his team lovingly crafted. On a day after not receiving any money, he was taken aback at the number of zeroes displayed in his bank account – his work had sold more than 55,000 copies in its first week alone. Suddenly, in a year that saw the debut of many big-name, AAA efforts such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, Braid managed to rise to the top in many circles. Long-time enthusiasts rejoiced, as there was another game they could highlight to demonstrate the medium’s artistic merits to a skeptical public. To this day, Braid is heralded as a hallmark of the independent gaming scene and one of its greatest success stories.
Playing the Game
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, there will be unmarked spoilers throughout this review. Proceed with caution if you’re interested in playing it for yourself.
On the surface, Braid would appear to be your average 2D platformer, albeit with a distinctive art style. This is exactly what the experience would entail on the surface. There are plenty of obstacles standing between you and the door leading to the next level. There are moving platforms, enemies that resemble Goombas from the Mario franchise, and the bane of anyone who has played an NES game: pits lined with spikes – though Braid ups the ante by setting them on fire. With the copious amounts of daunting challenges you must face to complete a stage, chances are great that one of them will strike you down. In such an event, the main character, Tim, begins to fall off the screen as one would expect from a game such as this.
This is where the similarities between a typical platformer and Braid cease, for just as he’s about to be plunged into the abyss, the game stops, and you’re given a command prompt. By holding down the appropriate button, you can rewind time to before your fatal miscalculation, and continue on your merry way as though nothing happened. This is what gives Braid its identity; art direction aside, it’s a style of game that wouldn’t feel out of place among the third console generation’s defining classics, yet it’s fundamentally at odds with their conventions. You don’t score points and there is no “Game Over” screen to acknowledge your repeated failures; it’s not even possible to die.
Jonathan Blow’s original concept for Braid involved conceiving several different worlds, each of which would explore a different facet of time, space, and causality. They were to have unique controls and rules. For one of them, he entertained incorporating the rules of quantum mechanics wherein there is no arrow of time. That is to say, whether time goes forward or backward, the same rules are observed. In gameplay terms, you could only make it to the end of a stage if you successfully retraced your steps. As an example, any solution that involved the player character falling from a height greater than he can jump would be deemed unacceptable. Mr. Blow ultimately abandoned the idea, feeling it wasn’t particularly deep. However, as he experimented with the concept, he programmed a rewind function so players could check their answers. Seeing potential for this feature, he decided to make it the central game mechanic.
As long as you hold the action button down, you can press up or down to change the speed or direction of the time’s flow. This means that, like a video player, you can rewind, fast-forward, or stop time as you see fit.
A game where you technically can’t lose may seem pointless, running counter to the entire point of the medium, but there is much more to Braid than what meets the eye. Early in the experience, you’re introduced to objects adorned with a green, sparkling glow. These objects are unaffected by your time manipulations. Here, there are two sets of clouds being shot out of the cannons. Both sets travel left and act as platforms, but the clouds from the lower cannon glow green. By rewinding in short bursts, you can rearrange the clouds so that you can easily reach them, making your way to the right to collect the puzzle piece currently on the edge of the screen.
In a game where death is an impossibility, it would fall on Mr. Blow to give his audience something to strive for, lest Braid turn out like the appalling educational titles from the nineties that somehow managed to obtain the Mario license. As it stands, the enemies aren’t too much of a threat, the platforms are easy to negotiate, and any misstep can be fixed in a matter of seconds. While it’s not terribly difficult to reach the end of a given stage, you haven’t truly completed a world until you’ve solved its puzzle.
Its pieces are scattered throughout each realm, and there are two places in which you can put them together: an area within the world itself and Tim’s house – the game’s central hub. By completing these all of these challenges, a ladder leading to Tim’s attic will be fully assembled, allowing you to access the endgame.
Playing through these various puzzles reveals just how much thought went into their design. The first two worlds you visit are mostly straightforward, slowly prompting players to think outside of the box by becoming progressively more complicated. In the latter three worlds, unique gimmicks are added. In the third world, time flows depending on Tim’s onscreen position. For the fourth world, he can cast a shadow capable of interacting with out-of-reach objects. Finally, the fifth world grants him a ring which projects a field that slows down time for anything within the vicinity.
You’re only given the bare basics of a tutorial, and you’re made to find everything else out on your own; it’s quite a departure from the direction in which mainstream gaming was heading at the time. This is no accident, as Mr. Blow expressed disappointment in the AAA industry’s practices, and decided to create Braid to defy them. Indeed, one of the facets I admire about it is how it dares to challenge the victory/defeat dichotomy most video games are saddled with. It’s wrong to judge this game based on that standard. The only way you can actually lose is to not make it to the end, and just because you can’t die, it doesn’t mean the game isn’t challenging. Indeed, you will have to study the levels closely, and observe the intricacies of every moving part to have any chance of solving each world.
Having established its merits, there are aspects of Braid that could have used some polish. Good puzzle games with a linear progression such as this one tend to build off of themselves, gradually giving you more to work with as you near the end. Therefore, it’s a little disappointing how the later mechanics don’t make an appearance outside of their debut world. They do give their respective worlds an identity, but I feel that a lack of a “final exam” puzzle makes for a somewhat anticlimactic experience.
The more grating problem with the gameplay is that on occasion, Mr. Blow doesn’t seem to fully grasp the minute difference between challenge and annoyance. Many stages rely a little too heavily on trial-and-error as opposed to real ingenuity.
While I appreciate letting players figure the mechanics out of themselves, some of them aren’t explained very well. The starkest example would be the scenario detailed in the above screenshot. You must arrange the puzzle pieces on the board so that the enemy will walk on the ledge depicted in the painting, and then remove it so it will fall to the ground. From there, you wait until it walks to the right where you can bounce off of its head and reach a puzzle piece. There are two problems with this. The first is that even astute players wouldn’t assume the ledge in the painting is a physical platform. The other issue is that if you do figure this out, lining up the platforms is easier said than done. When you manipulate the puzzle pieces, you can’t see its position relative to the ledge the enemy is on. If it’s even slightly off-center, it won’t work. This could trick people into believing that this isn’t the correct course of action.
Lastly, I could tell Mr. Blow went into his project with much more energy than he had when he was designing the later portions. Level designs are reused multiple times, and although you’ll have to use different tactics to complete them, it still strikes me as lazy. With a game as short as Braid, you don’t want to recycle your ideas if you can help it.
The bright side is that these misjudgments are not deal-breakers by any stretch of the imagination, and the rest of the game generally has a sense of fair play. Then again, as inventive as the gameplay is, it’s not the only thing fans of Braid talk about. Discussing the game without delving into its storytelling would be doing it a disservice.
Analyzing the Story
As a work that pays homage to Super Mario Bros. and its contemporaries, it would seem fitting to have Mr. Blow provide his own take on the premise countless vintage games operated on. Tim has taken it upon himself to rescue a princess from an evil monster.
The gameplay sought to deconstruct the notion of 2D platforming, and this ethos leaks into the narrative as well. With his morose visage and dapper apparel, Tim is an antithesis to Mario’s chipper, casually dressed design. Found at the entrance to a given world are books revealing Tim’s relationship with the princess, evoking themes of forgiveness, desire, and frustration.
Similar to the gameplay, the storyline is an openly iconoclastic statement against AAA plots, for which Mr. Blow has expressed his distaste. During this time, the industry began adopting a brand of storytelling that emulated films. In between bouts of gameplay, you would be treated to a cinematic cutscene to convey a plot. As these sequences involve usually no feedback from the player whatsoever, they fly in the face of the medium’s identity. Furthermore, there was a subtle problem with this style that would become apparent in the coming years. They would weave a narrative so detached from the gameplay, the two components told mutually exclusive stories. A character in a typical shooter could be described as benevolent and easygoing during cutscenes, yet in gameplay, they slaughter hundreds of humans without any discernable impact on their psyche.
The takeaway from this is AAA storytelling hit numerous stumbling blocks that resulted from having reinforced a strong divide between story and gameplay. Mr. Blow’s viewpoints, reinforced by his work, are a likely reason why a publication once referred to him as “the kind of righteous rebel video games need”. Therefore, keeping this in mind, it stands to reason that he would pioneer a brand of storytelling more complementary to the medium on which he chose to craft his work. How does it fare in this regard? I feel Braid hits numerous stumbling blocks that resulted from having reinforced a strong divide between story and gameplay.
Mr. Blow believed the medium’s mainstream standard to be on the level of woefully subpar action movies. His point is unapologetically blunt, if not completely inaccurate, yet I don’t think his alternative would be a viable one. The writing, though decent, is rife with flowery, vaguely philosophical prose, which as the late Roger Ebert so aptly put it, “[is] on the level of a wordy fortune cookie”.
More pressingly, the story has almost no bearing on the gameplay. Conversely, the gameplay doesn’t expound upon the prose, and when it does, it’s usually in such an abstract manner, I question why he even bothered in the first place.
The twist at the end is an exception to this disconnect. In the final level, which is actually chronologically first, Tim at last finds the princess. She manages to wrestle from the grasp of a monster wearing the form of a knight, and makes her escape. During this level, she activates switches so that Tim may follow her path, and when they’re united at her abode, the screen flashes. The princess is now sound asleep. Nothing happens until you decide to reverse time. When you do, you learn that the princess was running away from Tim. She was attempting to set up traps so he could not pursue her, and she leapt into the arms of a knight in shining armor who rescued her from her would-be stalker. To put it another way, Tim was the evil monster who attempted to capture the princess all along.
This is the only time Mr. Blow fully grasped the idea of using gameplay to tell his story, and it’s consequently the most powerful moment in his work. Unfortunately, he then takes it a step too far in the epilogue wherein he indulges in strange, misbegotten symbolism. He directly lifts quotes from J. Robert Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge, two physicists who observed the Trinity Test in New Mexico, painting the narrative as an allegory for the atomic bomb’s conception. Under normal circumstances, something like this would be an outlandish fan theory, but seeing it as canonical is jarring to say the least. Mr. Blow made the rookie art student mistake of compiling random snippets of ostensibly thought-provoking symbolism that can get people talking about what it could possibly mean, but rather than coming across as intelligent, it lends itself an air of unfocused pretentiousness. I remember guiding Tim through the epilogue, and observing his lack of a reaction to any of these text walls. It was then I realized that they could have been a mishmash of random letters and it would have made just as much sense.
To be fair, this is not the only way the story can end. Hidden throughout the game are eight secret stars. Once you’ve collected them all, you can revisit the final level and achieve a different ending. When it comes to extra challenges one must complete to achieve a different outcome, the creator has to have a sense of fair play. Specifically, they can’t actively hide the correct path from the audience, nor should they make it possible to lock themselves out of the best ending without a fair warning. Creators should make these challenges noticeably more difficult than the ones needed to achieve the standard ending, but not to the point where a normal person’s patience would wear thin. The reason I mention this is because Braid fails on all of these counts.
Even when you do learn of their existence, the lengths you must go to collect them are hardly reasonable. To give you an idea of what I mean, in this situation, the cloud on top of the screen would appear to be stationary when observing it in gameplay. This isn’t quite true; the cloud is moving at an extremely slow pace to the left. If you wait in the level long enough, you can jump off an enemy’s head to reach it. This is a longer duration than it would take for most people to find all of the puzzle pieces. After all, even a newcomer would have no problems collecting them in less than forty-five minutes. It doesn’t stop there; once you are on the platform, you must then remain on it for two hours before you can procure the star. This already tedious process is worsened if you’re playing on a console whose controller turns off automatically or a computer incapable of remaining activated for such a length of time, as you will need to periodically press a button to prevent the game from freezing. The worst part is that this star is the easiest one to obtain.
In the next world, you must collect two puzzle pieces, then return to Tim’s house, and place them on the board so that it forms a star with a piece of the background. Not only is this incredibly unintuitive, this is impossible to achieve if you’ve already solved the puzzle because the pieces can’t be broken apart. Much like the aforementioned fiasco with the movable ledge, this is a case where a player could be tricked into believing their solution isn’t correct because if they’re not in the exact right spot, the star won’t appear. These are the kinds of decisions one would be hard-pressed to find in a AAA effort, and I feel that’s to their credit. In a way, Braid accidently demonstrates a major downside of having complete creative control over a project – the errors in judgement are thrown into sharp relief with no executives to veto them.
After finding all eight stars, I concluded that they were not worth the hassle. The only thing that changes is Tim can now reach the princess in the final level. When he does, she explodes, decimating all living beings in the level besides him. This reinforces the allegory from before, and when you return to the epilogue area, the books now contain different text if you stand in the right spot. Obnoxiously, you need to solve puzzles to view all of it, which considering the trials you had to complete to reach this spot, could have been done away with entirely. Finally after all of that, it turns out the new text only succeeds at making the narrative even more unintelligible than it already was. One could argue it adds another layer of depth to the proceedings, but it practicably follows Mr. Blow’s pattern from before by tacking on arbitrary, stream-of-consciousness ideas to an experience that wasn’t exactly wanting for more of them.
To summarize, I heard before playing Braid that it’s unbelievably pretentious – an opinion notably echoed by people who genuinely enjoyed the game. Though a work shouldn’t be used to read the author, after seeing all it had to offer, I can confirm that those sentiments are true beyond any reasonable doubt.
Drawing a Conclusion
I can’t help but draw a parallel between Braid and Metal Gear Solid 4, which is ironic given how it’s precisely the type of game Mr. Blow was rebelling against. Other than having been released in the same year, the games are nothing alike, so the bond they share is a decidedly esoteric one. Metal Gear Solid 4 featured interminable cutscenes that popularized the then-rising trend of turning games into films in the AAA industry. Meanwhile, the unique aesthetics and cryptic storytelling of Braid cemented the art game as a genre after the works of Team Ico and Delphine Software defined it. Where they overlap is that I feel both games had a negative impact on their respective scenes largely due to their unanimous critical acclaim. In the coming years, the AAA industry inadvertently uncovered a plethora of problems that arise from when the narrative isn’t properly synchronized with the gameplay while the indie scene’s self-indulgent predilections caused even relatively open-minded people to turn away from it. On the other hand, Braid was of a much higher caliber than almost any other independently produced effort at the time. Its success helped pave the way for many innovative artists, and sold countless people on the idea of video games as not merely childish distractions, but as an art form in their own right.
However, with its legacy having been fully realized by this point, one question remains: is it still worth playing? I honestly find myself a little conflicted when answering that. Braid is considered in some circles to be the best indie game of all time, but I feel it had more to do with its lack of competition back when it was released than anything else. Cave Story and La-Mulana were arguably the only other indie titles that could boast similar levels of quality content by 2008. It would be like naming Super Mario Bros. the greatest 2D platformer ever made. This proclamation would have been nearly impossible to contest in 1985, but even fans of the series are unlikely to agree with it these days when games such as Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country 2 took the formula and improved upon it. Innovators are pivotal for a medium’s growth, but students often surpass the masters.
At the end of the day, although I think Braid is still a decent effort, it’s mostly in spite of its creator’s ethos, and not because of it. Had Mr. Blow focused solely on crafting puzzles rather than weaving a nigh incomprehensible narrative with bizarre, out-of-place symbolism – which has very little bearing on the gameplay – Braid would have been much easier to recommend as a solid puzzle-platformer. As it stands, the experience lacks focus, and it’s ultimately worse for it. If you’re a fan of artistic games, and are looking for a creative puzzler, Braid will certainly deliver on both fronts. Should you find the zeitgeist of the late-2000s indie scene too insufferable to bear or are seeking something fast-paced, feel free skip this one; I can safely say it won’t win you over.
Final Score: 5/10