Version tested: Xbox 360
This is perhaps the nineteenth time I've started writing this review. If this were a montage in an old movie, this is the point we'd cut to the bin next to my desk, overflowing with crumpled balls of paper, torn in frustration from an imposing, mocking typewriter. Braid has filled my head with so many ideas, so many opinions, so many emotions that wrestling them all into a coherent critique is like trying to strangle a swan made of jelly. Every time I think I've found a mental strand that leads to the natural start of the review, it unravels. I've gone to bed thinking about Braid, and I've woken up thinking about it. From the fragments I remember, I'm pretty sure I've dreamed about it as well.
Braid is that sort of game.
Boiled down to its barest essence, it's a platform game where you must travel through six worlds to find and assemble jigsaws. Control is of the basic left-right-jump variety, and levels are made up of ladders, floating platforms and cannons that spit out whimsical enemies, deadly to the touch unless you jump on their head. The twist is that you now have control over time, and holding down the X button rewinds everything you've done. Time and its manipulation, not jumping, is the overriding gameplay feature.
Even though Braid takes obvious influence from Super Mario Bros, its creative importance reminds me most of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. On one level, it's exactly what it appears to be. For Watchmen, a superhero murder mystery. For Braid, a 2D platform game. But there's more. Much more. Both are works of homage and deconstruction, commentaries on the way we interact with their respective media. The deeper you look, the more you see.
More than that, it's something that could only be done in this medium. Watchmen was written and drawn to explore narrative ideas that could only work in sequential panels and word balloons. Braid does much the same for jumps, moving platforms and perambulating enemies. So many games try to justify their creative ambitions by cribbing from other forms - wannabe movies dressed up as games, relying on our rehearsed responses from non-gaming experience. Braid is a videogame. It could only be a videogame and therein lies its true genius.
At this point, I suspect I'll have lost a lot of you. Understandably wary of artistic pretension in games, and heartily sick of videogame reviewers indulging their frustrated poetic tendencies, you'll see just another low-budget platform game lavished with praise by jaded critics just because of its indie roots. You'll see a clichéd story being praised for its emotional depth. You'll see the time manipulation being praised as an act of remarkable design innovation, and you'll scoff at how Blinx, Prince of Persia and TimeShift all did it first. On all fronts, you'll be wrong.
Other games may have offered rewind mechanisms, but always as a peripheral feature firmly within an otherwise rigid gameworld. Like bullet-time in The Matrix, it was a cool visual effect but with limited impact on the core gameplay beyond saving your life. In Braid, being able to rewind your death and try again is entry-level stuff. That's the basics, the launch pad, the minimum that the concept allows you to do. Here it's more than just a limited second-chance mechanism. Not only can you rewind all the way back to the start of the level, undoing everything you did, but doing so is often essential to progress. You must look back to go forwards.
The game soon introduces magical items - identified by a green glow - which exist independently of your timestream. In other words, when you rewind time, whatever you do to these items is not undone. The most basic example, and the one the game uses to introduce the concept, is that you can drop into an inescapable pit to grab a magical key. You can then rewind time to return yourself back to the moment before you jumped in, except you're still holding the key. Doors, platforms and even enemies can be subject to this effect, and once you get past the ingrained notion that success must come only from linear leaps, and embrace the idea that you can set things up in the future before rewinding to the past for the payoff, it's as if years of gaming blinkers have been ripped away.
And still there's more. The game never plateaus, never stops adding even more wrinkles to its temporal mischief, crafting puzzles that stretch your mind and force you to re-evaluate every assumption you ever held about how games can work. By the time you complete World 3, you'll have solved intricately brilliant puzzles that would be the design highlight of most games, yet each world has its own unique way of handling the flow of time. In World 4 time flows depending on your movements. Move right and time flows forwards. Move left and it flows backwards. There's a level based on Donkey Kong, called Jumpman, which uses this idea quite brilliantly - taking the left-to-right-to-left ascent of the arcade classic and turning it into something entirely mind-boggling.
In World 5, each rewind creates a shadow universe in which your ghost carries out the same actions as before, essentially creating two versions of yourself separated by time. If your brain just snapped you won't be alone. By the time you reach the end of the game, in World 6 and finally World 1 (yes, even the level sequence is off-kilter) it's as if you've just experienced the most charming and entertaining quantum mechanics lesson of all time. Only Portal comes close to the mentally liberating effect of Braid's construction, but even that feels like a half-measure in comparison. Time is fluid. Past, present and future are not destinations in a straight line but resources to be used, if only you can free your brain from its archaic A-to-B trajectory. Sorry Kutaragi-san, but this is 4D gaming and it could only have come from the world of the homebrew developer.
You see, Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow, has more in mind than just shaking up tired old gameplay conventions. He wants to create games that make you think and feel. Braid doesn't have a story, at least not in the traditional linear narrative sense, but there's a lead character, Tim, and his mission is to find a princess. She's not a literal princess though, but a metaphor - the romantic cliché of that perfect soul mate as filtered through popular videogame motifs. The classic Mario line "our princess is in another castle", knowingly reused here, is more than just an ironic wink to gaming history. In the context of Braid's melancholy mood, it becomes a bona fide commentary on the human condition. Our princess is always in another castle.
Each world is preceded by a series of books, which produce text passages as you walk past. They detail fragments of Tim's past - people he left, people who left him, as he searches for this princess. "Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life's achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn" is a typical example. You can sprint past these sections, should you wish, but to do so means missing the point quite spectacularly. Surrender to the game's reflective intentions and it can be quite profound. I have no problem admitting that I found myself thinking about people and places that I'd not considered for years. Relationships that ended too soon. Some that went on far too long. Memories that no longer seem reliable. Others that are still painfully vivid. It's a platform game. It's an emotional journey. Whatever you invest in Braid, it repays many times over.
Given its lofty ambitions, it almost seems mundane to set aside a paragraph to discuss such shallow matters as graphics and sound, but both these elements are expertly woven into Braid's canvas. The hand-painted graphics are truly stunning. They're lovely to look at, but also serve a deeper purpose. The graphical palettes for each world subtly evoke and develop the themes established by the text. Musically too, there's a creative coherence. Gentle folk music soundtracks the optimistic early stages. Music box nursery rhymes play off against levels that explore the friction between childhood and adult freedoms. Even the jigsaw puzzles that you must collect and solve depict enigmatic scenes laden with abstract meaning.
What does it all mean? Whatever you want it to, I suspect. There's not one single correct answer to be found, but a series of reflections. Playing with time isn't just a gameplay element, it's the core of the whole game. What if you could take back mistakes? What if your life could carry on in two different directions at once? What if the world really revolved around you - would that help or hinder your progress?
You could argue that by using the doomed romanticism of an introspective male as its core that the game is treading clichéd creative soil but in a medium as emotionally stunted as videogames it still represents an enormous leap towards realising the potential of the form. Great novelists, filmmakers and painters have cultivated entire careers and acclaimed bodies of work from this sort of thing, so it seems churlish to criticise a games designer for attempting the same.
I almost never give out full marks, generally reserving that honour for retro games that have proven their worth many times over, but Braid has me in its spell. Judged purely as a game, it's cunning, ingenious and endlessly surprising. The puzzles are varied, the level design is revelatory and the whole thing clicks together like clockwork. For those only interested in gameplay, it's simply an excellent puzzler-cum-platformer. But there's so much more here, a desire to create a game experience that is more than mere technical craft. That it succeeds in creating an abstract emotional experience, one where each player can find their own level of meaning and personal context, all within the confines of the 2D platformer, is perhaps the most astonishing achievement of all.
Braid is beautiful, entertaining and inspiring. It stretches both intellect and emotion, and these elements dovetail beautifully rather than chaffing against each other. Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.
10 / 10