First Look Review: Braid

That a game like Braid can exist is a statement on where video games are as an art form with a well-established history and canon.  To make a parallel in the paint world:  without a long canon of traditional paintings of tables with fruit and bread, people wouldn’t have really understood the “parody” or “remix” of a Cubist rendition of such a painting.  In the same way, Braid is most enjoyable to those of us who have been playing video games for the past 20 years, growing up with Super Mario Bros. as our first video game experience.  In fact, Braid does indeed make a few callbacks to this classic game which has almost become a scripture to us.  Any game that allows users to design levels (eg Little Big Planet) cannot exist for more than a femptosecond before at least four people have recreated Super Mario Bros. World 1-1.  Braid does nothing so brash and that’s where the game design genius begins to show.  The game designer does not ape Mario, but hints at it here and there.  One can almost see the developer giving you a knowing look and a nudge in the ribs.  “Look here, I’ve made this or that subtle reference.”  I don’t want to ruin it by speaking of it even though this game has been out for ~ a year already.  It would ruin the delight of experiencing it.

Again, Braid stands on the shoulders of games that came before it.  Game mechanics that made no sense (to adults, anyway) in the 80s are now taken for granted.  The fact that if an enemy appears, it can be dispatched by stepping on it is a no-brainer for anyone who has been playing video games since the 1980s.  Even though Braid does tell you that you can stomp on an enemy by way of a graphic printed on the floor of the level, it was the first thing I would have tried.  Braid also has a time-reversal mechanic which is not by itself new to video games.  While no Mario platformer (that I know of) allowed one to reverse time, gamers will have been exposed to it in the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and a few other games.  But don’t get the wrong idea here – Braid isn’t Mario with the ability to undo your death.  It is much more.

I take a break here to discuss how I came to play, and ultimately buy, Braid.  I had heard about it for the past year on the video game podcast 1UP, introduced to me by my brother.  At the time I was in need of more podcast material to listen to as I jogged.  I remember them constantly talking about how amazing Braid was as well as discussing the fact that the game had a very grand feeling to it.  It was debated a few times on the show whether the developer was a bit pretentious in his game design, his description of the game, and the game’s ending.  I have not yet finished the game, so I cannot comment on the ending.  This stuck with me, as it often does in podcasts when the hosts continuously return to a subject.  For the most part this only happens if the subject is truly worth a look.  Time is a commodity and so even though podcasts are free, the hosts are not free to jabber on about the same thing over and over.  Generally anything mentioned more than once is worth at least a cursory look.  (This was also the case with Peggle, but that is a subject for another blog post)

I don’t remember if Braid was originally only available for download for the Playstation 3 or Xbox, but I did not attempt to play the game at that time.  However, this weekend I decided to see if Peggle (I guess we will talk about it a little more on this podcast) had a demo available.  It was another game mentioned as addictive on the podcast, so I had been itching to try it out.  But the name and website didn’t really help me understand what it was about, so I wanted to play a demo.  While looking on Steam, I noticed they were having a 66% off deal on Braid.  On its own this wouldn’t have been enough, but a demo was offered and so I gave it a shot.  As soon as I reached the furthest I could reach in the demo I grabbed my credit card and bought the game.  It had inserted itself into my grey matter like a neural parasite and I couldn’t let myself continue existing without playing the game.  With 20 minutes left until the sale ended, the game was mine.  I then proceeded to play for another thirty minutes.

Another digression here.  Much can be said against digital distribution as represented by Valve’s Steam.  For one thing, it locks games to one’s account.  In the olden days of CD or floppy disk games, one could lend a game to a friend.  Sure, this was against the letter of the law.  Each person should buy their own copy of a game.  But before the internet was widespread enough to offer demos, this was often the only way to sample a game and determine whether to part with one’s money.  So, while some portion of borrowed games never translated into a sale for the game’s publisher, some other portion would never have bought the game without sampling it first.  Of course, this is why demos were one of the most important things embraced by game publishers on the web.  I have purchased quite a few games after playing a demo.

Another change in a digital distribution-based economy is the inability to resell games.  This one fact alone is why I cannot fathom why all video games are not distributed via Steam.  The only answer I can come up with is that they hate that Valve controls the flow of information.  (Blizzard is, for example, coming up with their own Steam alternative)  After all, video games companies have only hated rental companies as much as they hate resale.  Because once you have played a game, you are likely to get rid of it.  This is why games are now chock-filled with achievements.  They are trying to keep you playing so you don’t resell the game.  This can sometimes end up in quite the mediocre gameplay experience when the user must earn his ability to play the game to full functionality (I’m looking at you Warioware for Wii!) in an attempt to keep the gamer in possession of the game.  But with digital distribution, one is no longer able to transfer ownership of a game to another.  And I think this may, in the long run, result in fewer games purchased.  One can spend $60 on a game one is unsure of if certain to be able to recoup at least $30 on resell.

But digital distribution does have its advantages.  For example, since Valve does not have store shelves to stock, they can offer every game for sale for which they have a license to do so.  Also, since there are no physical discs, boxes, or manuals, once the costs of game creation have been recouped, Steam can put games on sale and still make money for the publisher and themselves as distributor.  After all, the losses are the same whether they sell a game at $14, $5, or $1.  It is essentially $0 – just costs for some hard disk space on their servers and some bandwidth to sell you the game.  All that changes is how much profit they can make.  And if they can maximize that by having a weekend sale, they will do that.  The other key advantage (and I’ve heard others speak of this on various video game podcasts) is that digital distribution is better tailored for impulse buys.  If, last night, after playing the Braid demo, I would have had to go to Best Buy to get the game, I would not own it.  For one thing, Best Buy was closed when I was playing the demo.  For another, I’m pretty busy during the week and wouldn’t have gone to Best Buy all week.  I wouldn’t be constantly playing the demo because I had finished it.  So it would be possible that the game would have slipped out of my mind and I would never have bought it.  But combine a deep discount, putting the game at $5, and the immediacy of digital distribution and you have a customer.

And now I return to where I was six paragraphs ago:  the idea that Braid is not just Mario and Ctrl-Z, it is something special.  Braid breaks video gaming convention right from the beginning.  I did not realize at first that I could begin playing.  The title screen had the title of the game and a silhouetted bridge.  The game informed me I could access the menu by pressing escape.  I did so.  A menu item titled “Start a new game” caught my eye.  I selected it and hit enter.  I was back at the same screen.  What had I done wrong?  Once again the game was informing me that I could hit “esc” to access the menu.  I was missing something here.  I blinked and there, I saw a bit of my avatar’s head in the shadows.  I hit the right arrow and he began to walk and so the game began.  Except I suddenly found myself in a house and wondering what kind of game this was.

I entered a door by going to it an pressing up.  As I write this, I don’t remember if something on the screen told me I could go into the door by pressing up.  I just knew.  Mario had been doing this since at least Super Mario World as had countless other games.  I found myself in a room with a series of books which presented the story and gave away the reason for the game’s title.  (Or at least the first meaning if there’s a deeper one later)  The writing was poetic and philosophical.  I’d never seen anything like it in a video game.  I entered a door on the right.  Another subversion, I start in level 2.  Was level one when I entered the house?

As I listened to the celtic-sounding soundtrack, I became aware of yet another subversion of the platformer genre – my character.  He was dressed like an english school boy.  He is wearing a blue blazer, red tie, and school-boy shorts.  He didn’t look like any hero I had ever seen.  To top it off was the contradiction that he was an extraordinary character by virtue of the fact that he was such an ordinary character.  He isn’t an invented character like Earthworm Jim that only works within the fiction of the game.  He isn’t an imaginary creature like Kirby.  He’s just a regular guy.  It’s not the absolutely first time the main character has been an ordinary Joe, but it’s certainly rare.

One of the best things about this game is that by being a platformer, the game doesn’t need to have a tutorial level.  It doesn’t need to interrupt the game to tell you what to do.  You know to jump and walk and go to the right to get to the end.  (At least in the levels I’ve played thus far)  And it just gives you an easy hint about what to do.  The first time my character “died”, the words “shift” appeared.  I held the shift key and rewound my death.  Not far enough and I was hit once again. And so began my mental joy at this game.  Because it is easy to end up in a situation where you need to rewind a lot further than you thought and that’s mind-blowing because you learn the consequences of your actions.  As an example, in one level I bounced off of one bad guy and right into another.  And so I rewound and found that I could not avoid crashing into the second enemy if I jumped on this enemy here.  But I could not find anywhere else to jump without rewinding even further and not ending up cornered that way.  And continuing on subtleties, each level gives you a small graphic (similar to the shorthand in Portal) that gives you a clue about what you need to do to accomplish to finish the level.

If this was all there was to the game, it would have been a coin toss as to whether I would have bought it.  What sold it for me was when I came across a later level that introduced the fact that anything glowing green is immune to time reversal.  The first puzzle I solved with this game mechanic gave me a mind orgasm.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I cannot go into this any further.  Suffice it to say that it requires bending your mind in ways it has never bent before.  Long time readers of my blog will know that I am a spiritual person and that I attended church through all of my formative years and through most of college.  For a student of Judeo-Christian theology, one of the most difficult concepts to attempt to understand is canon that God has always existed.  God never came into being, He simply was.  Lots of people nod and accept this without much effort.  But for a mind such as mine to try and understand this or the concept that the “saved” will be in Heaven for all eternity, is an attempt to get the brain to work in a mode it is not meant to work in.  From the smallest cycle of the day to the larger cycle of a life – all things begin and end.  To fathom something without beginning or end is a tough thing.  Again, this is from a Western upbringing.  Doubtless, believers of certain Eastern religions would not have such a problem, having been exposed to such beliefs from a young age.  At any rate, this new mode of gameplay in braid is like trying to get your mind wrapped around infinity.  Only it’s not quite as impossible.  It’s an intense pleasure.  It’s like stretching your muscles before and after a good workout.  Putting the mind through the workout of these puzzles is such an endorphin-producing event.

And that is why I bought Braid.  Left-brain-wise, I bought it for the same reason I got into Sudoku and play games like Tetris and Crack Attack!  Right-brain-wise, I bought it because it is more than a game.  It is an art form.  It calls back to all these prior experiences I grew up with.  Older people who never played these games or didn’t play them with as much regularity are simply left out of enjoying the game at that level.  Even gamers much younger than I who have been exposed to a dozen ironic tributes to Mario and other early platformers won’t get as much out of this.  This game was made for me, or so it feels.  But it was certainly made by someone with a certain games history for someone with a certain games history.  The same way that Dali cannot shock us like he did those who lived through his artwork, so can the new players not truly experience Braid.

I am not that far through the game.  I am about to enter World 4 and there are probably 8 or 10 worlds.  There may yet be more to gush about.  But right now I cannot wait to play the game.  (I am writing this during my lunch hour – although it will be published to the blog tomorrow at midnight)  Don’t let the above paragraph keep you from playing Braid if you don’t fit my description.  Although we do not interpret art in the same way as those who saw it originally, that does not mean we cannot appreciate it and come away with new interpretations.  If you like games that get into your brain and make you think and solve puzzles, you should buy it or at least try the demo.  Speaking of puzzle pieces.  I have been collecting puzzle pieces as I play each level.  I come across areas in which to assemble the pieces, but I do not yet know what effect this will have on the game.  Just know that Braid has affected me deeply for a video game and so much so that I ended up typing what would be a four page review without any images or screenshots.  It is the kind of review that can only take place on the web for a game that can only exist because the of the web and its ability to foster indie development.

One response to “First Look Review: Braid”

  1. Braid appears to have affected my brain, as I mentioned in the blog post. In the same way that I dreamed of falling tetrominoes after playing hours of Tetris and had dreams, REMs, and finger twitching associated with my 3 hour love-fest with The Beatles Rockband, solving the the puzzles in Braid has me hearing the Braid music in reverse whenever I do something in reverse. So if I lean forward and then lean back, while leaning back I heard the Braid music playing backwards. It’s as though backwards music has an association in my brain with undoing things. Oh, the deep grooves these mental activities make in our brains. Reminds of how, for a while at Cornell, I saw vectors everywhere.