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Game Review: Braid May 18, 2009

Posted by Frank Snow in Criticism and Reviews, Games, Games as Art, Platformers.
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One of the more encouraging things that the relative rise of independent games developers over the last few years has shown is that it is still possible for small teams on a low budget to produce games of startling originality and quality. A particularly good example of these is Braid, a 2D puzzle platform game in which the player controls the protagonist, the philosophical Tim, through a series of lush, beautiful worlds as he searches for the enigmatic Princess.

The key to Braid’s depth and originality is that each of these worlds forms a thought-experiment that asks: “what if the world worked differently?”  Each world has a particular mechanic that drives this question: for example, the first mechanic (which persists throughout the game) is that time can be reversed at any point, without penalty.  Death is no longer a punishment, rather an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.  In another world, time works more like an intricate machine in which if Tim moves to the right, time moves forward, and if he moves to the left it moves backward.

Braid

Part of what is so wonderful about Braid is the delight in discovering how each world works, and how that affects your interaction with it.  All the puzzles are beautifully crafted, requiring careful lateral thinking.  Whilst they may initially seem hard, it’s usually because you haven’t quite got your head around them, and the sheer joy of solving the puzzles, of everything clicking into place, is more than worth the effort.  Several times, I found myself whooping with delight as I latched on to the solution.  All the puzzles are derived directly from the game mechanic, with no arbitrary impositions on the player.  In all but a few cases, there is no penalty for getting the puzzle wrong.  Even then, the penalty is still a function of the game mechanic, although it is frustrating to have to re-start a level when in the rest of the game that that is never necessary.

Complementing the game’s clever, original design are gorgeous artwork and dreamlike music.  The artwork gives the game a lush, painterly style, and makes excellent use of parallax scrolling and particle effects to imbue the worlds of Braid with rich, deep visuals.  The music adds to this to create a wonderful sense of place.  The music that plays in Tim’s house (the hub from which each world is accessed) creates a wonderful sense of the comfort of the home and of dreamlike, slightly melancholy contemplation.

This melancholy is woven throughout the story, told in books that can be read before entering each world.  This takes the form of real-world metaphors for each reality-bending mechanic. It is an interesting idea which is hampered by prose that does not match the high quality of the rest of Braid and a sense of disconnection from the game itself.  Whilst this is good in the sense that players who are just in it for the fantastic gameplay are not burdened by the story, there is still the sense that it could have been woven into the gameplay more fluidly.

There are hints of what this closer connection could be at various moments in Braid; for example, the sudden realisation that being able to control time by moving across the screen means that some things are always out of reach, and some people and interactions will always be left behind, unknown and unexplored. It is in these moments the game suddenly pulls you in, prompting an emotional engagement that drives home the ideas behind it far better than the story.  The best of these is the final sequence, which created a strong emotional response of the kind that I would not previously have thought possible in a platform game.  I don’t want to spoil it by going into to much detail, but I will say that what I felt was surprisingly engaging, and beautifully explored Tim’s character and his quest in ways that the prose just hadn’t managed. When this happens, it raises the game to new heights.  It is a pity that it isn’t more prevalent through out, as it could have smoothed out some of the formality of the game both in terms of the story and its somewhat rigid gameplay structure.

I have a tendency to feel a bit like I’m participating in a cliché when I start banging the “games are art” drum, but with Braid, it’s something that’s hard to ignore.  The way it speaks to the human condition, even in something as basic as its puzzle mechanics, demonstrates new ways that art can be experienced.  While the medium is in many ways still finding its feet, games like Braid show us the beauty it is capable of conveying.

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