[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.
This month's issue of Official Xbox Magazine (with Fable 2 on the cover) contains a lovely little write-up of 2K Marin (including a team photo where you can see my smilin' mug.) Like the cover says, meet the minds behind BioShock 2! Nice being in print. On newsstands now.
Edit: I just noticed that every single game mentioned on that cover is a sequel.