Braid – PC
Developer: Number None, Inc.
Publisher: Number None, Inc.
Release Date: April 10th, 2009
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
In the Summer of 2008, Braid, a low-budget indie game, hit the Xbox Arcade, taking the world by storm. Its runaway success effectively put indie games on the map as a viable and profitable genre, changing the way the world thought about low-budget, non AAA titles. In fact, Microsoft shifted the Xbox Arcade’s focus toward more indie titles as a result of Braid‘s success, creating a celebrity out of creator Jonathan Blow, who has since gone on to design and produce The Witness. But what made Braid so popular? What did an indie game like Braid bring to the table that made it stand out so much? It’s time to take a closer look at this indie titan to see if we can’t find out what exactly makes it tick.
Braid is, simply put, a puzzle–platformer. Taking control of the charmingly eccentric and sartorial character known only as Tim, the player makes their way through series of platforming levels where they defeat enemies and pick up collectibles, solving puzzles along the way, which are necessary for progression. Pretty standard so far. So where does Braid stand out?Every good game has some sort of feature that helps it stand out among its peers. Stagnation is boring. While it’s okay to work within a recognizable framework, it’s also extremely important that game designers bring something fresh to the table for gamers to enjoy. Take Portal, for instance, a puzzle game where the player manipulates space through the use of, well, portals. Or take Donkey Kong, the iconic platformer that redefined the entire genre by giving the player the deceptively simple ability to jump. We remember these games due in no small part to their innovations in game mechanics, which help installations in existing genres stand out while adding to the larger conversation on genre, itself.
In the case of Braid, the main standout game mechanic is time manipulation. From the very start, the player learns that they can reverse time at will, with no limit to how far back they are allowed to go. The time control has a very good feel to it, and its rules are consistent. As the player moves on to new areas, the way in which they and the environment can interact with time slowly pile on to each other and become modified. In one world, time might be controlled with the simple press of a button, while in another world time around the player will either move forward or backward, depending on the player’s horizontal movement. In some areas, items are affected by time manipulation, while others are immune to it. Change-ups like these are extremely welcome, helping the player think in new ways while keeping the experience fresh. There are a lot of ideas packed into Braid‘s overarching theme of time control, and it feels like a lot of time was spent toying with the mechanics in order to explore every possible implication. Overall, the time control mechanics feel very fleshed out. This shows in the level design, as well; every single puzzle in Braid utilizes the time control mechanics in some way, which is very impressive. While some games that feature time travel, like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, treated time manipulation as an afterthought, Braid offers a breath of fresh air by giving this mechanic its full attention.
The puzzles, in turn, are complex and well designed, each crafted to complement the time control mechanics. All of the collectibles in Braid, which come in the form of puzzle pieces, are hidden behind doors or around corners that are not immediately accessible. Through the use of simple platforming and experimenting with the time control mechanics, the player slowly learns how to obtain these puzzle pieces. This is one of the beautiful things about Braid, which has a unique way of teaching the player how to play through the use of non linguistic cues and puzzles that are just out of the player’s immediate reach, yet completable with a little critical thinking and effort. Braid‘s built-in instructions are extremely minimal, only telling the player which buttons do what. Aside from that, Braid doesn’t come with any sort of hint or how-to menu, but the puzzles are always structured in a way that the player can teach themselves what they need to know. This philosophy of game design isn’t seen very often these days, and Braid‘s execution is nothing short of magnificent.
There are, of course, a few issues with the difficulty in Braid. For one, Braid is a downright tough game. The puzzles scale up in difficulty relatively well at the beginning, but the hardest puzzles begin right around the midpoint, and the game stays at that difficulty for the rest of the experience, with very little puzzles of medium difficulty. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a high difficulty level, this can be a frustrating experience for players, since every single collectible puzzle piece is required to complete the game, meaning no puzzle is optional. Solving puzzles can sometimes feel great, but it can also feel exasperating, especially when the puzzles are so difficult that a single one can take 30 minutes or more. The only moments Braid gives the player a moment to breathe are during the jigsaw sections, and that’s about it. More moments like these would have been welcome. Besides that, there are also moments where solutions to puzzles feel janky, almost as if the player is expected to glitch out the time mechanics. While it’s interesting that Jonathan Blow encourages players to play with the game mechanics so much that they essentially accomplish things due to a seeming error, it kind of slaps the player in the face with the fact that they’re playing a game, hurting their ability to become immersed in the world of Braid.
Speaking of immersion, the sound direction in Braid goes a long way toward crafting a truly memorable world that keeps the player engaged for hours at a time. While the sound effects are good and well-mixed (if a little cartoonish), the MVP, in my opinion, is the soundtrack. Here’s a song from it. Comprised of licensed instrumental lullabies, the music in Braid is soothing and inviting, which provides a good contrast from the game’s sometimes brutal difficulty, helping to keep the player immersed. What’s more, the songs will play backwards when time is reversing, and they all sound really good when played that way. This nice little touch is a testament to how much time was probably spent choosing these songs, and as far as licensed soundtracks go, Braid does a stellar job.
The visual art style is such a good complement to the soundtrack, I’m not entirely sure which one came first. The colors are soft, yet bright, making each level feel alive and picturesque. The backgrounds in each stage depict landscapes and natural scenery, with the colors blending together like an impressionist painting. The main enemy in the game, resembling the goomba from the Super Mario series, is unique and memorable without being intrusive, which is as good a sign as any that it has a good design. Tim, the main character, is also well designed. His face is very expressive and optimistic, making him easy to relate to and enjoyable as a protagonist.
One issue with a lot of platformers is that they can often feel disconnected from reality, with simply-textured, non contextual platforms floating all over. Not so with Braid. While most platforms in this game do float, they are designed to look like they might belong in the world depicted in the background, usually consisting of wooden scaffolds, rock walls, moldy ladders, and rope fences that give Braid a sort of Baroque-era rural feel. All in all, the visual art is pleasing to look at and combines well with the soundtrack to help keep the player immersed.While the in-game instructions to Braid are non linguistic, the story is certainly not. Braid‘s story, which describes a troubled relationship between Tim and his significant other, is told almost entirely through blocks of text that the player picks up over the course of the game. I’m not entirely adverse to stories in platformers, but in Braid‘s case, it isn’t integrated particularly well. It would have been interesting if Jonathan Blow could have found a way to make his point through the gameplay, itself (which the ending does accomplish in an excellent fashion), but the short story format it’s written in doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what goes on in the game, which severely diminished my interest in what the game had to say during my playthrough. In-game, it is apparent that Tim is chasing his lost love across the various levels, and in all honesty, this is as much story as the game really needs. All the other stuff feels unnecessarily meditative. As mentioned, the ending does provide a satisfying culmination where key story elements are conveyed wonderfully through the gameplay. It’s a shame that Braid couldn’t have accomplished more of these moments.
At the end of the day, Braid is a well-crafted game deserving of its place as an icon of the indie genre. The puzzles are carefully designed and organized in an amazing way so that players can teach themselves a slew of hidden rules and tricks along the way. This excellence in puzzle gaming owes a lot to the game’s central mechanic, time manipulation, which is never abandoned, with each individual puzzle requiring the player to use this mechanic in new and creative ways. The sound and art design are upbeat and inviting, which helps to mitigate the frustration caused by Braid‘s high level of difficulty. The atmosphere is tight and consistent, creating a memorable experience like no other. Overall, Braid succeeds as a fun and challenging game that brings a nice handful of innovations to the platformer and puzzle genres, respectively. Reading back over this review, I noticed that I spent a lot of time pointing out the flaws with the game, glossing over a few of its more successful moments. It’s easy while writing reviews to become too wrapped up in the negatives. In all truth, Braid is a fantastic puzzle game, and its successes far outweigh its failures. While Braid is not without its flaws, it is definitely worth a try.
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