Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Braid Review weiveR diarB

*This review contains some spoilers*

I remember when my dad mentioned Braid about a month ago. Thanks to NPR's occasional video games coverage, my dad can surprise me every now and then with gaming news of some sort. This time, he had heard of a video game that "is supposed to be about life and choices" as he put it. I quickly explained that that Braid wasn't "about life" and that actuality, it was just a puzzle game that has ignited the untrained and ill-equipped artsy/pretentious video game writers to make claims that the game is some bold new step in game design doing things that other games haven't quite done before. I smoothly transitioned the conversation about the art of design and mechanics and how all games can be read making them seem to be about almost anything. Using Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, and Wii Sports (games my father has experience with) I debunked the notion. Then my father asked me if I had played Braid yet. I hadn't.

At that point, I had researched the game only briefly, which I felt was enough to make the comments I did. I wasn't talking about Braid so much as the misguided reception and the state of the video games industry's more scholarly pursuits that restlessly fidget in a state of arrested development. Sill, I hadn't played Braid, a fact I then made a point of correcting. Regardless of what others have said about the game, being a fan of puzzle games, I wanted to experience Braid for myself and maybe even write something about it.

The interesting part of Braid, one might say, is that the game gives the player the mechanic of REWIND TIME without much restraint. All mistakes can be reversed, and all starting points can be revisited. This ability gives the player a certain freedom to experiment freely and in every direction into the world of Braid. Such a mechanic when viewed from the player's perspective as he/she collects memories of their experience playing the game is similar to the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics. The "you" that you think of yourself as, like the Mario in the video, will stretch out like fingers touching the world and gaining knowledge only to come back to where you started.

Putting the question of what Braid is "about" to the side, it's easy to understand what Braid "does." Being a member of the puzzle genre, Braid equips the player with a handful of mechanics and sets up stages or areas that challenge the player to use these mechanics in specific ways. Though many have folded at solving some of Braid's more difficult puzzles, I found the game to be short with a deliciously sweet balance of content. Every puzzle requires a unique use and combination of player mechanics. Better yet, because the vast majority of challenges are so well designed, they are all the easier to solve. The reason for this is because the challenges in a puzzle game designed around the specific use of a mechanic or combination of mechanics, the number of possible ways to solve such a puzzle is reduced to a few solutions. By reverse engineering the end of the puzzle, and being aware of all the ways you can't approach solving the puzzle from the start, the solutions then become obvious, at least for a seasoned puzzle veteran. All in all, the tighter a puzzle game is designed, the easier it is to solve.

Starting with a basic set of platforming mechanics (JUMP, CLIMB, MOVE) Tim (the main character in Braid) can move through the 2D world. All the puzzles in world 2 are designed to get the player accustomed to these mechanics. With each subsequent world, a new mechanic is either added or required for solving the puzzles thus organizing each world by theme. This approach to level variability is similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario Galaxy where each world has a theme with new elements introduced into the levels as needed to accentuate the themes. While this approach worked great for Mario, in some ways, it limited the range of design for Braid's puzzles.

Though Blow has expressed that he intentionally designed each world in Braid to be distinct and separate both in the narrative shorts that precede each world as well as the themes and required mechanics, I was somewhat disappointed that the final stage didn't combine all of the game's previous mechanics and concepts into one final super puzzle. Instead, powers are sort of stripped away covertly between worlds. Fortunately, the last stage is quite genius. Though it's not very challenging compared to some of the game's more difficult puzzles and it's not quite folded level design, time and perspective are used most effectively here. The shocking twist not only takes way Tim's ability to correct mistakes by reversing time, but it also shows how Tim's desire may have clouded his perspective on things.

Examples of the "worst" puzzles in Braid.
  • World 2. manipulating the painting (skip to 8:00). The mechanic of manipulating the painting in the puzzle-piece-assembly mode so that it interacts with the normal game world is unprecedented and functionally hidden. The thought process needed realize this mechanic naturally (without being explicitly told) requires a case where the puzzle pieces exhibit physical properties on the elements in the game world. Also, indicating that the bridge like section on the puzzle piece interacts differently than the other forms/objects depicted in the puzzle pieces would require another case. Furthermore, the issues of this puzzle are made worse due to the obfuscation of the fine details that visually links the bridge puzzle piece to the game world platform on SDTVs. Lastly, this puzzle requires the player to reenter the game world to solve after running through the world and collecting the necessary puzzle pieces.
  • World.3 the last puzzle. (skip to 9:18) To solve this puzzle, players have to leave the "puzzle area" and continue moving into the next area. Doing this reveals the missing element needed to solve the puzzle that was previously hidden off screen. Obscuring important information required for solving the puzzle off screen in this way is functionally like hiding a key in your pocket and telling your friend to keep looking around the room for it. Basically the player must "give up" or resolve that they don't have the ability to solve the puzzle to move on. Ultimately, the criticism raised against this puzzle isn't even that bad, which speaks to the quality design of the rest of the game's puzzles.
Looking at the other side of things, at their finest, the best Braid puzzles (basically every puzzle in world 4,5, and 6) represent a high level of design creating layered challenges through simple mechanics that come together elegantly like a Bach Fugue (skip to 1:30) or Bach Invention. It's counterpoint. It's classical game design. It's wonderful, and I simply can't get enough of it. If you'll listen to either of the classical pieces I linked to, you'll hear that the melody is started in one hand and then repeated with the next. The layering of the same relatively simple melody creates a layered sense of time that is always chasing after and running from itself. Like echoes through time, listening to these pieces carefully reveals moments where the layers comment on each other when heard simultaneously. Some bits of this conversation sound odd. Some out of place. Some pleasant. While others exist in a mood so difficult to place that to hear it merely feels like a transition between the familiar. This quality exists in many Classical piano pieces, and many Classically designed video games, like Braid.

In Braid, like in Super Mario Brothers, contrary motion exist between Tim, the player character, moving through a level ultimately to the right, the enemies generally attacking Tim/moving to the left, and the level with which acts on them both by pulling everything down and occasionally into hazards. But unlike in Super Mario Brothers, the goal in a given Braid level is to solve the challenges and collect the puzzle pieces. Because the challenges are mostly created by manipulating space-time in some way, Tim's contrary motion to the right is almost entirely diminished. Instead, space-time becomes a direction of motion in itself.

Though the enemies don't have much interplay and the platforming isn't much, everything yields to the affects of time. Everything, that is, except those elements in the game that aren't affected by the REWIND TIME mechanic. Functionally, elements that aren't affected by rewinding time are still affected by it through relative motion. In other words, if everything in the world moves to the left but a single platform, then relatively speaking, it's like the platform simply moved to the right. Also functionally speaking, whenever there's an element in a level that isn't affected by time in this way, the REWIND TIME mechanic sort of transforms into a mechanic that manipulates space and not time. I'll just leave that thought at that.

Trying to articulate in words what Braid is about is more complicated than it may seem. It's not because the game is complex or difficult. Puzzles games are naturally focused on mechanics and smoothly guiding the player into understanding how these mechanics layer together. One of the reasons why, I think, we struggle within the video gaming industry to express what a game is about is because our public education system has taught us through writing book reports and the like that coming up with what we think a work is "about" means looking for "hidden meanings." Unfortunately, many of still don't realize that the true meaning in a work isn't really hidden at all. The evidence is right there on the screen, in the film, on the canvas, in the text, and in Braid's case in the mechanics and the form of the game.

Braid is a puzzle game with platforming elements. Alongside the gameplay, Blow has very carefully implemented visual art that resembles classical paintings, music that does the same, and a series of colorful text based vignettes that thematically seek to match the gameplay of each world on a conceptual level. The text, which I feel is a misuse of the video game medium, was part of Blow's original conception of Braid. Though I don't care for the writing style in these texts, and the "next-gen text" was almost too small and blurry for me to read on my SDTV (like in Bionic Commando Rearmed), I found the conceptual parallels enchanting.

Blow wanted these two mediums to sit side by side so that they have the opportunity to mingle in the player's mind, and he succeeded in his attempt (at least for this critical-gamer). But I can't forgive the text. Perhaps Blow should have made each block shorter. Miyamoto has be very careful when designing the text section in the Zelda series. He understands the importance of interactivity in a video game and ensures that each text bock is short so that the action of pressing a button to advance through the text keeps the player somewhat engaged. Better yet for Braid, I feel that the text should have been delivered via a narrative voice that plays as the player moves through each world. This approach would give Braid more of a storybook and keep the player engaged in the core interactive gaming experience while making it easy for the player to experience the information in the text without misusing the medium.

Such is Braid. The discourse that has sprung up around this game reminds me of the Discourse of BioShock. So many people have attempted to say something intelligent and meaningful about the game. So many people have tried to talk art and make defenses for one thing or another using Braid. And I've found that most of these people have missed the mark. The real art that's true to the video game medium is in the gameplay and counterpoint design of Braid. The internal dialog that the player has when solving a puzzle is what the game is about. What may be even more profound is how the concepts of manipulating time and space can so easily related to our everyday lives. Those gamers who look up how to solve a puzzle in Braid are only cheating them selves. Such is the drawback of puzzle games. Once you're told how to solve a puzzle, the internal dialog is stilted, stunted, even truncated. This is one aspect of the game that the REWIND TIME mechanic can't fix.

In my conversation with my father, I couldn't get into specifics about Braid's content. Now that I've played the game, if I could go back to that conversation, I don't think I would change a thing. It's perhaps too difficult and too personal to try and communicate my internal dialog from playing Braid to those who haven't experienced it for themselves. It turns out, like for Tim, there are some things that time can't touch.


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