Don’t worry, this blog isn’t about to become some weird fan tribute blog to Braid. It’s more of a case of trying to make sense of the game I’ve just played. There’s really no reason to make sense of The Beatles Rockband. You are one of The Beatles playing music. There’s nothing to “get”. But finishing Braid has left me with more questions than answers. Braid has the potential to leave you frustrated in the same way you may end up frustrated at a particularly dense painting where you see that there is a table of objects, but can’t figure out the significance of the objects. It just looks like a cluttered table until the docent explains that the book with a skull on it represents that man will never understand his world until he dies.
After a bit of sleep, I’ve had some time to consider some more of the thoughts Braid has provoked in my mind. First off, though, I have to mention one other hint Mr Blow drops to point to the possible interpretation of Braid as being about the atomic bomb. The epilogue mentions walking onto the streets of Manhattan. And, of course, the US project to develop the atomic bomb was known as The Manhattan Project.
This game has also made me reconsider the need for character death in video games. It was a very useful mechanic back in the arcade days. If the player never died, he could monopolize the machine with just a quarter or two. But these days when you’re on a console on your own, what is the point of penalizing your inability to time a virtual jump by making you restart a level? Or go back to your last save point – whenever that was. Especially when, as the author complains in ZeroPunctuation’s review of Tomb Raider, depending on where the camera happens to be pointing then you jump, it may be impossible to gauge how well you will do. You may retort that there’s little realism in being able to rewind time and what about consequences of mistakes. But I reply that the ability to turn back time is no more an artificial concept of “lives”. After all, what analogue does real life have to collecting some item (or number of items) that will bring you back to life when you die? As I recently read, if you stop and think about most parts of video games for too long they fall apart. Why should touching a goomba have the same consequences as being hit by a fireball?
And many games have been tackling this for the past ten years or so. (Although it’s still not very common) Super Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy, for example, make it pretty darned hard to die. For the most part, you can get hit around six times before anything dire happens, your life is easy to replenish, and there are 1UPs everywhere. In Mario Galaxy, for example, the hub world has a few 1UP mushrooms that appear every time you come back. And so I quickly racked up 99 lives. And once you get to that kind of cheapness, you start to wonder what’s the point of having lives? If you get them handed out like oxygen, there’s no longer any peril. It’s not a commodity and what’s the point of being careful. At that point, Miyamoto and Co. should have realized that if they’re going to make it so that the only people who fail at Mario Galaxy are those who actively try to fail, they should just do away with lives altogether and come up with a different penalty. I’ve got an easy one – if your health meter runs to 0 you are returned to the hub world. You regain your meter and now have to start that level over. At least that gives a purpose to the meter.
But Braid dispenses with all that crap. Get rid of the meter, just let the user rewind time. And you have to go back far enough that you won’t get hit yet again. Or a new game could keep the meter and then let the gamer decide how far back they want to rewind. But once you can rewind and get back that last point and keep going – you lose all need for the meter. And so it all comes to what type of game you are making. If you want people to explore the world, then just do like Braid. What do you have to gain by frustrating the user by killing him or her? If you want people to have to avoid obstacles and so forth, then I guess dying would be a good incentive, but I don’t see why they can’t just make a mistake, realize what they did and then rewind time and try it again.
Even World of Goo does away with the situation I would find myself with in Lemmings where I was one guy short. By using the time reversal bugs, you can rewind to the point where you think you made the key mistake and try again. Why force you to have to redo the whole level? I remember tons of times where I made a mistake in the middle of a long lemmings level and thought, “SONNOVA —! Now I have to do all these steps AGAIN!”
We’ve had video games for so long now, that it’s about time we had a game based on the deconstruction of video games. And by pointing out all these little things to us, we realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because Nintendo saved the video game industry after the Atari/ET debacle, it doesn’t mean we have to remain true to paradigms from the 1980s.
One more thing, although this is amongst the least important of things that can be said about Braid. Braid’s Steam achievements are earned for achieving things. I know it’s a crazy concept. But there are games now that, according to the podcasts I listen to, give achievements for turning on the game, for playing a multiplayer match or picking up a gun that everyone else will pick up. I think achievements begin to lose their meaning if they are not gained from accomplishing something. The minimal achievement anyone should get is an achievement for completing a level. And, frankly, I prefer when games reserve achievements for wacky, unexpected or difficult tasks. So it’s neat that Portal has an achievement for killing a turret with another or for falling 30,000 feet. Those cover the wacky and unexpected. Also acceptable would be an achievement for playing a certain level 1000 times. Braid gives achievements for completing levels and solving puzzles. (You don’t need to to both to finish a level, so that’s not redundant) There are speed runs in the game so I would imagine that they have achievements for that as well. These are the types of achievements that make it fun on sites like raptr to compare yourself against other players. And good on Braid for not giving patronizingly dumb achievements.