Friday, September 5, 2008

Canon fodder: BRAID

Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade; developed by Jonathan Blow, published by Microsoft
“Braid treats your time and attention as precious.”

“Braid does everything it can to give you a mind-bending experience.”
These quotes from the developer’s website speak volumes about the ambition and commitment lavished on this independent game. Charming, affecting and annoying in turn, it’s a game that can be taken on two levels. You can play it fast straight through, skipping the between-level text, or you can engage with it more deeply and try to penetrate the ambiguous narrative that’s wrapped up with the gameplay.

On the surface Braid is a platform-puzzle game, in which you negotiate your character, Tim, through lush, hand-painted levels, collecting jigsaw puzzle pieces along the way. In many ways it pays homage to Super Mario Bros – in its level design, in interpretations of monsters and scripted in-jokes (see the screenshot below) – and the running and jumping is straightforward for anyone who’s played a platform game before. If on the other hand you’re new to it, you’ll want a bit of practice, but then this is the perfect game to develop those skills, because mistakes are reversible here, thanks to your ability to turn back time. By pressing a button, events rewind along with the music, as the colour fades out, all the way back to the beginning of the level if you like. This allows you to redo any jump you missed.

The manipulation of time is much more than an aid for imperfect gamers, though; quickly becoming central to the gameplay, it’s extended and developed throughout the levels. So while sometimes Tim relies on a shadow version of himself repeating his actions, in other levels moving forward advances time and moving back reverses it. Sometimes a door key remains where you found it; other times it doesn’t. Each change of mechanic brings with it a new mental framework for the challenges to be overcome.

A gaming vocabulary isn’t needed so much then as a head for logic puzzles. Winning each hard-to-reach puzzle piece brings a triumphant rush, but sometimes getting there is difficult enough to be frustrating. If you’re like me, you’ll be tempted sometimes to give up and rush through the door to the next level instead. Just remember that without all the pieces, you don’t see the big picture (in this case, the ending). So it’s worth going back to previous levels, walkthrough in hand, to pick up any you missed.

Eventually inextricable from the gameplay, though, is the narrative, which is conveyed between levels by a handful of pages containing a few lines of text. The archetypal story of boy seeking princess isn’t just for motivation, but represents here the relationship between past and future; it’s about following a dream and examining a failed relationship, about the need to rewind and undo what we’ve done in order to move on, about unreliable memory and regret. Whether the text unerringly hits the right note or not (and I’d say it doesn’t), the sorrow and confusion of someone trying to make sense of the world would be hard to miss.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether you can solve the often frustrating puzzles or not. Nor does it matter if you play in short bursts with dubious success or aim for a perfect finish. It doesn’t even matter whether you “get” it or not. However you approach the challenge of Braid, it’s without doubt a brave, experimental and worthwhile game to play.

Note: Canon fodder is a category covering games not included in the Rough Guide to Videogames' canon. This might be because a game didn’t quite make the grade, or as in this case, it simply didn’t exist at the time at the time of writing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like the look of these levels - you can tell they're hand painted!