Thursday, May 27, 2010



I realize I'm late to the party regarding Braid, but I figured if I was vain enough to brattle on about something that I thought was clever about my own game, the least I could do is point out something that I particularly liked about someone else's. This is marked as a review, but it's really more just an excuse to talk about the way the game is put together. And since part of the enjoyment of the game is making these discoveries, well, you should probably play it first.

(Also, a friend of mine bought Braid for me now that I can get a Steam account on my Mac. My ridiculous plan to stop buying games continues!)

First of all, Braid is just really clever as a game. I've never seen a game with time manipulation puzzles, and at first I thought I would never actually finish the game because it's just so unusual. But with a little poking around, you start to get the hang of how the game works, and then it's just extraordinarily satisfying to play. A great deal of that has to do with how meticulously the levels have been put together. Everything serves a purpose, everything works logically, and every element, right down to the timing of the enemies, is there for a reason. That would be enough to make it an awesome game, but that's just the beginning.

Secondly, there's the story. If you read between the lines of the between-level text and in the epilogue, you sort of piece together the idea that Tim's quest to rescue the princess is a metaphor for the creation of the atomic bomb. And that's fine, I guess. My only real issue is that this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the gameplay. If you had skipped all of the text and just played the game bits of it, it'd seem like a pretty normal sort of platform game. Maybe the bit about the princess running away from you would sort of throw you for a loop, but it's not like the text really prepares you for that either.

Anyway, yeah. To look at Tim's side of the story, you don't realize he's the villain until the very end. Cool twist, but it's still not the thing that intrigues me about Braid.

What intrigues me is the stars.

Video games usually state their objective for the player in some way. Braid has a very basic set of instructions -- jump on enemies and collect puzzle pieces. This is what you have to do to win the game. Braid was made for XBox Live and Steam, and so it also features achievements. Five for traversing the first five worlds, five for getting all of the puzzle pieces, one for finishing the last world, and one for completing a speed run. The game delineates, very clearly, what it expects the player to do.

But at the start of the game, there's a rather obvious constellation hanging in the sky. It seems to be significant, but there's nothing in the game to suggest what it is. This is the only clue the game gives you that there are eight bonus stars hidden somewhere throughout the game. Compared to the rest of the puzzles in the game, the stars are ridiculously difficult to locate, let alone collect, and it's very easy to make it all the way to the ending without even knowing they exist. It wouldn't surprise me if the only way anyone found out about them was through an external source of some kind.

The nature of these stars seems very significant to me. First, because of the dedication required to reach them. For instance, one star can't be reached after you've already finished the game; a player who only found out about it after winning the game would have to start over from the beginning to get it. Another star requires you to ride on a moving cloud that takes two hours to reach its destination. These are ridiculous, unappealing challenges that most people wouldn't enjoy taking on. Second, the game never tells you to collect these things. They are completely unnecessary to reaching the end of the game and the epilogue, and there isn't even an achievement to earn. They only exist as a bonus, something to do for their own sake. The only reason to collect the stars is because they're there and you like to collect things.

Video games, especially in recent years, have trained players to try and get everything in the game, 100% completion. Sometimes there's a reward for doing so -- achievements, alternate endings, bonus levels, and so on -- and sometimes it's just something to do because you're bored. The star challenge in Braid appeals to that gamer consciousness, that obsessive desire to completely conquer the game. And what do you get if you do this?

First, it's possible to create an alternate ending where Tim reaches the princess. This seems to cause a time paradox, which causes the princess to explode. (This is my own interpretation, based on the idea that Tim has gone somewhere that he shouldn't be when the scene is running in the correct direction.) Second, you reach the final star, and all of the stars you collected fill in the constellation showing a woman in chains, representative of how Tim has finally captured his princess, which itself is representative of Tim creating the atomic bomb. It comes across as odd and discomforting because, as players, we expect to get "the good ending" if we do everything in the game, but here, our only reward seems empty and terrible.

Long story short, the player has become Tim.

The epilogue describes Tim's toils to create something that can destroy the world. He feels justified in his own mind -- he's trying to reach what he believes will be a positive outcome. In reality, all of his work just leads to something terrible and violent. Likewise, the player has performed amazing feats of cunning and dexterity to reach whatever reward he thinks there will be only to find something disturbing is waiting at the end. The game never tells you, "This must be done." It requires the player to realize that they exist and then to devote the time to reaching them, maybe even knowing what waits for him at the end. Perhaps the player would then brag afterwards, "Yes, I completed Braid 100%."

Just as Tim takes satisfaction in capturing his princess, the player feels satisfied with the terrible outcome he has earned. In pursuing his obsession, he's become a monster.

That's a really odd and interesting sort of idea to take away from a game. And that's why I like Braid.


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