By Lewis Denby
We’re all familiar with the cult classics. Unusual, quirky little games, hidden away from the public eye but adored by the select few who stumble upon them; niche releases with a very specific appeal, shunned by those without the necessary mindset. We’re talking about the Pathologics, the Fahrenheits and The Paths. The art games that appeal to a select few, and divide opinion something rotten.
Braid is the art game that appeals to everyone. In a sense, it absolutely screams “cult classic”, but its gameplay is accessible and invigorating enough to transcend such status. The glowing reviews and stratospheric marks for the 360 version, released through Live Arcade last August, surely went some way to popularising this oddball indie adventure. But really, most credit has to go to developer Jonathan Blow, for his astounding aesthetic direction and tight, evolutionary game design.
Braid proves that games don’t have to be inaccessible to make an artistic statement. They don’t have to obstrue their mechanics or stray too far from the beaten path in order to speak to their audience. They can be pure and traditional – albeit with a clever spin – and use that to their advantage. There’s nothing at all abstract about these 2D, side-scrolling planes, or the enemies that plod around their platforms. There’s nothing immediately unfamiliar about the lost princess story that dominates the main bulk of the game. But in Braid’s conventionality lies a compelling subtext, a deeper layer of meaning, and a tragic and haunting story of obsession and regret. Braid is clever.
Certainly, this side of Braid will divide opinion, and has done extensively on the Xbox. The narrative is fragmented and ambiguous, and its refusal to stick to anything like a linear path will be offputting to some. It’s presented primarily via a series of memories between levels, snapshots of lead character Tim’s life prior to the events of the game. And it’s at least heavily implied that these in-game events aren’t real at all, but a fantasy-orientated representation of his blinkered fixation on achieving his goals, without considering the wider implications. It’s not until the closing moments that the story reaches coherency at all, and even then the conclusion is wide open to interpretation. It could be that the PC audience, more traditionally sympathetic to abstract expression in videogames, is more receptive of this than a large portion of its 360 players, but it’s still not for everyone. Which is in no way to say one opinion is more valid than the other. For me, the ethereal beauty of Braid’s story is what lifts it into the dizzy heights of wonderfulness, but do be wary of the mark at the bottom of the page. It’s a 90 for me. It won’t necessarily be for you.
Equally, though, it’s such a high score because there’s something here for even the most traditionalist gamer. Ignoring the plot strands completely still leaves a brilliantly stimulating puzzle-platform game, one that never outstays its welcome and rarely stagnates. Intrinsically linked with the game’s theme of hindsight, its primary mechanic is the manipulation of time, which allows the elaborate environmental puzzles to be solved.
Initially, the sole available ability is rewinding to correct mistakes. You might be forgiven for assuming it’s the same principle as a number of other releases, most notably Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but Braid sports a couple of keen differences. Firstly, the whole game completely revolves around time control, with the platforming being almost incongruous to anything else. Secondly, as Braid progresses through its five main stages, the laws dramatically change. In the second section, time appears to stand still, before you realise moving to the right causes time to move forward, and moving left erases everything you’ve done. In the third, rewinding causes a split in the continuum, releasing a ghostly representation of Tim into the world, resulting in a bizarre teamwork session between actions past and present. Things get progressively stranger until the final level, unlockable by solving all previous puzzles, which completely defies expectation and sets up a remarkable twist in the tale.
This constant re-writing of the rulebook means regularly casting aside everything you’ve learnt so far. Complacency never hits, and the difficulty remains consistent throughout. There’s one section of really, moronically stupid design: a couple of levels involve races against the clock where certain items reject your time-manipulation and continue in motion regardless, and failing to achieve your goals in the meantime means starting the level from scratch. It means you’re often unsuccessful because of your lack of platforming prowess, not your ability to think logically around the problem, which is idiotic in what is essentially a puzzle game. (UPDATE: Since this review went live, I’ve been contacted by a few people – including the developer – who suggest I may not have quite understood this collection of puzzles. While having the mindset explained to me does soften their blow (no pun intended) a little, I maintain that forcing the player to start the level again if he/she makes a mistake is a design choice that leads only to frustration.) But, fortunately, it’s all over quickly enough. The rest is delectably good. It’s always challenging, often completely bizarre, but when you work out what to do things slot beautifully into place.
The one overarching problem with Braid is one that’s only so apparent because the rest is so ferociously good. Though the time mechanics are clearly linked with the narrative statements, the rest of the gameplay is not. That it’s a platformer would be completely irrelevant, if it weren’t for the frequent references to Super Mario Bros. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the story were presented differently, but there’s a part of me that wishes it were all more closely tied in. There’s nothing that suggests Braid wouldn’t work just as well – if not better – poured into a different mould entirely: a mould in which the story could play out within the game, not during its intervals. As it is, it’s the only thing that threatens Braid’s status as a truly remarkable piece of work, a revelatory example of storytelling and design.
There’s something for everyone, and that’s important to remember. Whether you gel with the story or dismiss it as pretentious twaddle is immaterial when the game beneath it is so enjoyable. It’s also slightly cheaper than the price the 360 version emerged at, meaning the admittedly disappointing length doesn’t sting quite so much. At just a few hours, Braid certainly left me aching for more, but perhaps that’s testament to its quality more than anything else. It’s a triumphant achievement for its indie developer, and its PC release will hopefully pave the way for more to come. A shining example of how artistic expression and pure, unabridged entertainment don’t have to be mutually exclusive.