8.17.2008

Quick Critique: Braid


[Note that this is a critique of the full game, and contains plot spoilers.]

I am not much of a platformer guy. Except for Mario Galaxy, I haven't really engaged with one in years. Nor am I, since the mid-90's, much of an adventure/puzzle guy, aside from indulging in a few of Telltale's Sam & Max episodes, and of course Portal. Hell I'm not even much of an indie games guy, as something is lost on me in that more abstract realm. But Braid, the new indie puzzle platformer by Jon Blow, grabbed my attention and spoke to me despite my lack of usual interest in the bounds it occupies.

What's most interesting to me about Braid is how it takes familiar mechanics, considers their implications, and then twists them into an effective metaphor expressed through the play itself. Video games it's based off of such as Super Mario Bros. have always pointed towards a cartoon representation of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics: each of the player's "lives" represent one possible set of decisions Mario might have made; dying and trying again presents a vision of an alternate reality where Mario made a different decision at some crucial point. The one reality that finally leads to the completion of the game is made up only of the lives with which the player made progress past at least one save point, building towards a whole.

Braid takes this interpretive aspect of an existing game format and makes it integral to the overall experience. The player may rewind time at will, throwing the sheer number of alternate realities onscreen into sharp relief. The narrative of the game is expressed through interstitial text relating the story of a man's struggles between maintaining a romantic relationship and pursuing some other, obsessive goal. The seeming regret and misgivings of the protagonist "Tim" in these passages highlights the difference between the endless revision possible in a video game, and the inability to take back permanent life decisions in the real world. The play and the narrative come together to portray the longing and impotence of a man wishing to undo the past. The way the mechanics of the game reinforce this aesthetic theme is wonderfully subtle and fully realized.

The place that this dichotomy falls down is when Blow's reach surpasses his grasp in the epilogue of the game. Mechanical play is well-suited to supporting universal and personal themes such as the ones noted above, and to this end the protagonist's story of love and loss retains meaning when told as a parable. But at the end of the game the narrative content becomes overly weighty and specific, calling out the creation of the atomic bomb and other major scientific and intellectual conundrums by name-- conceptual territory of a fidelity and gravity that the play of Braid can't support. I don't begrudge Blow an attempt at addressing important issues, but the weight of the atomic age seems too much to satisfy with a few lines of text that feel incongruous with the rest of the production. If this aspect of the narrative were going to be present at all, I wanted it reinforced by the gameplay, as the rest of the framing story was; instead, I came away thinking, "Wait, was that supposed to be about the atomic bomb somehow?" This overextension of narrative ambition without satisfactory justification did a disservice to all of the game's other highly successful elements.

As a puzzle game, Braid is nearly flawless. On top of reversability, time works differently in each of the game's worlds, and in each these new mechanics are fully explored. It's a joy to be learning new things along every step of the game. But like most puzzle games, it's a tightly authored experience, with only one solution to any given room: while all the puzzles are set up in extremely clever ways and are largely discoverable to the attentive player on first pass, the puzzles definitely tend away from making the player feel smart for deciphering them and more towards making the player feel like Jon Blow was smart for coming up with them.

To be playable at all, the rules of a game's world must be internally consistent at all times, and Braid is no different. So, the only places that the play of Braid falls down are where Blow breaks his own rules. For instance, it's understood that every puzzle room of Braid is solvable first time through, on its own as a distinct unit. So, when the player must leave a room in World 2 without collecting all the puzzle pieces, then come back later to grab them, it's frustrating and unfair since it's the only place that this rule of Braid's structure isn't upheld. Elsewhere, puzzle solutions require an understanding of the world's properties that haven't been demonstrated up to that point. How am I to know that elements of a completed puzzle can become interactive pieces of the gameworld? Or that an enemy bounces up into the air when it lands on my head? Additional training simply to introduce all the pertinent game dynamics would have reduced the 'unfair' challenge of the game without reducing the fair challenge of figuring out how all those elements fit together to solve a given puzzle. In the end though, these are small quibbles directed towards an outstandingly unique and satisfying puzzle game.

Braid is a brilliant exploration of a principle that Blow has addressed in his prolific conference talks: certain game genres have been prematurely left by the wayside, victims of the ongoing march of technology. There are many formats ripe for reexamination outside the existing assumptions built before they fell out of favor. What if progress in a platformer weren't gated by having to replay segments whenever the player died? What if the challenge weren't in outright manual dexterity and memorization but in mental dexterity and logical deduction? What if the many-worlds quantum aspect of retrying platformer segments were embraced, wound into the play, and made meaningful to the player on multiple levels? What if we went back and picked up design threads that we'd dropped along the way, and found that they still had plenty more slack to explore? It's a way of stepping out of the technological jetstream and embracing a sustainable sort of design that's conscious of more than the medium's here-and-now. One might say it's a method of exploring an alternate path that one branch of game design might have taken, if only we could go back in time and try again.

8 comments:

Mitu said...

A wonderful review, and, given that it perfectly reflects most of my own thoughts on the game far more eloquently than I could (and have) put it, I have no need to quibble with any of it at all.

It's interesting to me however that even in positive reviews such as this one (though mainly, in others), the main point of criticsm with Braid appears to be that the gameplay can be, at times, somewhat too "fussy"; a heavy handed exercise in platforming precision. Whilst I do, to an extent, agree with this, I also think it provides a certain barrier to entry which serves to strengthen it's reason for being.

By no means am I saying that Braid belongs to a more hardcore gaming demographic and should be inaccessible to anyone else. But, together with the humorous allusions to classic platform favourites, I wonder if Braid is meant to speak to, or rather, best speaks to a smaller subset of skilled and seasoned gamers; it is, after all, as you mention, about reimagining and even subverting well known mechanics.

As you say though, it's a small quibble nonetheless. :)

Again, excellent critique, enjoyed reading.

Nelsormensch said...

Instead, I came away thinking, "Wait, was that supposed to be about the atomic bomb somehow?

That was the reaction I had too, and I didn't even really get it until I played the Epilogue twice in a row. I was thinking, "That can't possibly mean what I think it means." Heh, I still wasn't completely sure until I read you thought so too. (Just finished it 30 minutes ago and have been avoiding any articles)

You definitely right in that Braid walks outside the lines a little much. But the rub is all those times, things make enough sense in retrospect that you don't feel quite cheated (at least I didn't). The ledge in the puzzle does look exactly like the ledges in the game; if jumping on enemies makes you bounce, it make sense they'd bounce off you too. Even the atomic bomb bit somewhat makes sense if you think about almost quantum physics is weaved throughout the entire game. It's still unexpected, but not so unexpected that you feel taken advantage of by Blow.

Despite its quirks, Braid is extremely ambitious and as you said, where it succeeds, it succeeds masterfully. An excellent read Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi Steve,

I enjoyed this critique, I thought it really captured the flavor of the gameplay and raised some justified critiques of the game's design (I thought the "crossing the gap" puzzle, which you mentioned, was the sort of thing you could only solve by accident.)

I wanted to just make a comment about your critique of the narrative in the epilogue. I did not take the final portions as an indication that Tim was literally a nuclear scientist. My own take is that the narrative is a sort of parable about the ethically ambiguous nature of play. Hear me out on this one:

The game mechanics of Braid are all about learning rules and using them to master the world, achieve the objectives posed by the environment. This attitude to the world is relevantly like scientific inquiry (which I think is the point of several text passages in the epilogue). But the text passages also indicate that the assumption of this inherently manipulative and singleminded attitude towards the world also has a dark side: it alienates "Tim" from his loved ones, and there is also an inherently destructive aspect to this effort to control the world. (I took this to be the point of the robert Oppenheimer reference in the epilogue. Oppenheimer's biography is a story of the conflict between high ethical values and the horrific consequences of his desire for scientific knowledge, which culminated in the bomb.

Anyhow, I think there is no one valid interpretation of the story (the whole thing is intentionally allusive rather than explicit) but I thought it was interesting how the game sought to explicitly reflect on the nature of gameplay itself.

Nelsormensch said...

Also, did you find and read all the hidden text in the epilogue? The candy store one still has me a little perplexed. After World 1, I get the feeling a lot of people think Tim is "the bad guy," but I'm not sure it's quite that simple. The epilogue, if you read all the text, seems to indicate it's more complicated than that.

Steve gaynor said...

I did read all the alternate text during the epilogue, which is what made me come to the conclusion about Tim's identity. "The princess" Tim pursues seems to be the creation of the atomic bomb as far as I interpreted, but of course there is the possibility that this was simply a train of thought running parallel to Tim's story, as opposed to actually being one in the same. Enough of the epilogue text was semi stream of consciousness that I didn't get one coherent read from it. Even if Tim doesn't literally represent an atomic physicist, I thought the inclusion of that content at all was too much of a stretch to fit with the rest of the experience.

Steve gaynor said...

Actually, going back through the epilogue just now and re-reading all the text, I can formulate an interpretation that makes the "he" of the text a symbol of humanity in its endless pursuit of knowledge, and "she" a representation of the universe itself. Humanity, like a child, always wants the tantalizing knowledge that seems just beyond its fingertips, while the universe looks on bemused as man struggles to decipher it. In that case, atomic theory is only one concrete example of knowledge so far attained by humanity, along with ethical calculus and other concepts mentioned. It still seems that the text is exploring space that the game itself fails to even point toward, which is unfortunate for a game the most notable aspect of which is unity between play and meaning.

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

I think your last comment is spot-on, Steve. The reading that makes sense (that the princess is the eternal quest-object) implies that the game is reaching for something that exceeds its grasp.

Thanks for synthesizing so beautifully so much of what's going on in "Braid." The game makes me very hopeful, in that it seems like the failures of the most ambitious games are becoming nobler and nobler.

Brent said...

Steve,

A wonderful review, and very thoughtful.

I agree that the discussion of the atomic bomb is a little bit clunky in the game, but it is not without meaning or place.

One of the beautiful themes of the game is the dichotomy between the game, where you can manipulate time and remake certain decisions, and reality. I think that the focus of the game is on the relationship between Tim and his wife, with the princess playing the part of the quest-object. It’s these relationships, and the permanence that past decisions have had on these relationships, that take center stage, and the identity of Tim’s quest-object does not matter so much.

However, the game does leave clues as to what Tim’s princess really is (the bomb), but only as an add-on to the game. You really only pick up on the discussion after reading the alternate text in the epilogue. This placement of the most direct text, in my mind, again highlights the importance of the major themes, with the permanence of human knowledge left as an additional sub-plot, albeit one that is outside of the themes reflected in the game-play.

However, could you argue this sub-plot helps fold Braid into Blow’s larger discussion of video games? His criticism of the use of quest-objects in certain games to manipulate gamers seems to be very pertinent to the essence of Braid. In Braid, could Blow potentially be hinting at the fact that real world quest-objects are not necessarily any more noble than those in the virtual world.

Who is worse off, the Tim that devoted his life to a chilling scientific discovery at the expense of the relationships and experiences in his life, or the poor shclub who has devoted his life saving princesses and killing ogres on the couch, at the expense of the relationships and experiences in his life?

Then again, maybe I am just a guilty gamer and work-a-holic who is trying to read more into the narrative than is actually there.

But, at any rate, these discussions should be incremental to the central themes and design of the game, which were masterfully done.