A pretty but pointless exercise in frustration
Braid is one of the most celebrated “art games” in recent memory. The game and its designer, Jonathan Blow, have become symbols of the art and indie game movements. As a fan of indie developers and of games as art, and after hearing so much about the smart puzzles and moving narrative, I was looking forward to experiencing what Braid had to offer. I saw myself as the target audience for this type of thing, and I was ready to be wowed. Now, after making it through the game, I find myself underwhelmed and disappointed. The visual art and music are undeniably gorgeous, and some of the puzzles were clever enough, but the harsh difficulty and surprisingly thin narrative completely torpedoed any value this game might have had for me.
Let’s get the story aspect out of the way first. Braid does not have an explicit, defined narrative. This is not a mark against it - I love games (and other artforms) that allow the audience to pull their own meaning out of the work. But for me, this game just did not give me enough to work with. The game’s story is told exclusively through snippets of text found at the beginning of each of 6 “worlds.” The developer (and others) have argued that narrative is also delivered through the gameplay, but I didn’t find that to be the case. It was these little between-world text dumps (and the epilogue) that provided the context for the game.
If someone were to ask me what Braid was about, I would answer “regret,” because that is a fairly strong element in the story, and the emotion I thought the game got across most successfully. I thought the first world, in particular, had pretty strong writing in this regard. After that, however, the story was all over the place. For each new world, the story would shift focus and tone, never really approaching anything close to coherence. While some of the individual snippets worked well in drawing an emotional response, the story as a whole was incomprehensible. As I said, I don’t mind putting in the effort and extracting my own narrative at times, but the game didn’t make me care enough, and didn’t give me the materials with which to do so.
Braid is a puzzle platformer, and as such needs to nail two things: puzzles and platforming. I thought this game largely failed on both accounts. The most basic element, the jumping, never felt right to me, even by the end. I found I never quite landed where I thought I would, and died from touching enemies a lot more often than I should have. I played on PC/Mac, so I don’t know if the Xbox 360 controller handled things any better, but this game did not pass the important but elusive “feel test.”
The puzzle gameplay fared better, but only a little. The game revolves around the manipulation of time. The central mechanic is a time-rewind feature that can be used any time, for any amount of time. Initially, it is useful to reverse mistakes and deaths (a la the Sands of Time trilogy), but its uses become more complex and varied with each new world visited. There are some objects that are immune to the rewind ability. In some worlds, you can slow time in a limited space. In other worlds, reversing time will allow you to perform certain actions while a past version of you performs others. In some worlds, you can move time forwards and backwards simply by moving right or left on the screen, respectively.
Many of these are unique concepts or mechanics, and on their own they worked well enough. But having different rules and abilities for each world made the game seem less like a coherent whole and more like a collection of minigames. There was no in-game reason given why abilities worked in some levels and not in others. This is not the only game to mix and match rules like this, and I never like it. It feels arbitrary. Most traditional games (those with goals and win/lose states, let’s say) give you some mechanics and ask that you master them. They may give you new abilities and new rules along the way, but they are typically cumulative, and add to the feeling of progress or accomplishment. When games switch up rules and abilities, seemingly at random, that important sense of mastery over the mechanics is lost, and so is a lot of the motivation for playing.
Actually, motivation was a real problem for me throughout. Despite the intention of the developer, I saw almost no connection between the gameplay and the story. There would be a small snippet of a story about the main character visiting his parents, and then I would be jumping on goombas and dodging fireballs, with no reason for any of it. I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing, and eventually I found that I didn’t care.
The difficulty in the game has to be addressed. I have heard many people describe the puzzles in Braid as less “figure out how to get from A to B” and more “read the developer’s mind.” Sadly, I think this is pretty accurate. Most of the puzzles have exactly one solution. You need to stand in exactly one place and perform exactly one series of actions to progress, and trying to find that magical place was extremely frustrating. The first few tries at any challenge was usually fun. I could eliminate certain choices, and try others out. The time reversal mechanic made multiple tries painless. But after dozens, even hundreds of tries, there was no fun left to squeeze out of the game. I eventually had to use walkthroughs to get through many of the challenges, and when I looked them up, I had very few reactions that went “of course that’s the solution” and many more that went “but that’s what I was already doing” or “how was anyone suppose to figure that out?”
Luckily, when you’re trying a screen for the thousandth time, you have something pretty to look at and listen to. The artwork in this game is beautiful. The screenshots in this review do not do the game justice. All of those watercolor brushstrokes you see in the background move and undulate the entire time, creating a unique look that is really nice to look at. The sprites and animations look nice, and the foreground objects like platforms are serviceable, but it is the backgrounds that captivated me. Likewise, the music is very good. It is mostly violin-based with some piano as well, and it does a good job of setting and complimenting the mood (or, at least, the mood I took from the first few bits of text). There is no doubt that this game is gorgeous, and for me, that is its lone redeeming quality.
I wanted to like Braid, and I assumed that I would, and so I was deeply disappointed by the experience I had with it. I found it to be sloppy, frustrating, narratively shallow, and ultimately pointless. I was able to get this game cheap during the last Humble Indie Bundle, but had I paid the original asking price on XBLA, I would be more than a little upset. I appreciate all of the things Jon Blow said he wanted to do with this title; I just wish he would done them more successfully.