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300 Word Review – Braid

Hes only happy when hes running

Braid is a puzzle game.

The game’s central mechanic is the ability to reverse time, at any point, as far back as you would like (functionally). Any mistakes, from carelessly running into an enemy to falling onto spikes, can be quickly undone, allowing endless refinement of individual actions.

Additionally, each world in Braid has its own time-based quirk. My personal favorite is the world where moving forward causes time in the entire level to move forward, while backtracking sends everything backwards chronologically. However, the different twists on time manipulation are confined to just a single world each, which limits some nice possibilities for lateral thinking.

This lost opportunity is indicative of what is most disappointing about Braid: its linearity.

Instead of attacking them from different angles, conquering puzzles in Braid is almost always simply a process of guessing exactly what the creator, Jonathan Blow, wants you to do in any given moment. The challenges presented to the player are often very clever, but there is almost always one answer and one answer only. For a game with such fun tools, there’s very little tinkering to be done. Even the ability to refine your movements is mostly useless as virtuosity goes mostly unrewarded.

Braid’s narrative, about regret, acceptance, and maybe (spoilers!) alcoholism, is aided by David Hellman’s art and resonates with its mechanics, creating a game that is about reminiscence rather than literal time travel. To Blow’s credit, the story takes some unpacking and is ripe for interpretation. Unfortunately, it’s communicated primarily through text blocks that can sometimes be uncomfortably maudlin.

Braid is lop-sided. Heavy on the atmosphere and allusions, its gameplay turns out to be surprisingly shallow. While full of sparks of innovation, it only fulfills its narrative potential, leaving the game design anemic and under thought.

7 Comments

  1. Marijn wrote:

    Hey Charles,

    got here from Leigh’s site.

    I think it’s possible to approach Braid from at least two sides, and that’s (part of) why we disagree. I’m going to make some assumptions here, so don’t be offended if I get some of it wrong.

    My professional background is in theatre. When I play a game, I look for many of the same things I look for in a book, play, film or tv series: to be moved in some way, to get a different perspective, besides being entertained.

    From what I’ve read of Jonathan Blow’s design philosophy, he is first and foremost interested in “speaking to the human condition”, in, for instance, “making games about how something feels” (sorry, these aren’t exact quotes). Thus, when you say that Braid “[...] only fulfill’s (sic) its narrative potential [...]“, you might be missing the point: the narrative, or rather, the emotional structure of the game is all that matters (which makes your criticism about Blow’s awful prose all the more valid, BTW).

    However, looked at from your angle, you’re absolutely right in all your criticisms. Looked at as a game, pure and simple, Braid is not much of a success for all the reasons you already listed. I understand your disappointment while still completely disagreeing with it.

    It’s kind of disturbing to me to hear you say that most designers you’ve spoken to seem to agree with you. It makes me think that most designers have too much of a traditional mindset. Although the ideal is to combine game mechanics and narrative seamlessly, we need more game designers willing to make the game mechanics subservient to the themes they’re trying to communicate, not the other way around.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hey Marijn!

    I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head as far as our discussion goes. It’s easy to see how neither of us is really wrong, but we still don’t agree in the final analysis. Which is actually high praise for Braid in my opinion!

    To clarify, my disappointment with Braid and the disappoint of those I’ve spoken to doesn’t stem from a disagreement with Jonathan Blow’s rhetoric. The fact is that I wholeheartedly agree with him! My disappoint comes from the fact that I don’t think Braid is the best example of his rhetoric in action. Or, at least, I wish the embodiment of his rhetoric was applied in a more interesting way game design-wise.

    The truth is that game designers think about a game’s themes when designing more often than they’d probably like to admit.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  3. Darius K. wrote:

    It’s really in the epilogue where I think the text portion shines. [Spoilers ahoy!] There are places you can stand in the epilogue level that change the text from positive descriptions of you to much more negative descriptions of you. It’s not as tied in to the core mechanics as it could be, but it’s a good example of the sort of fuzziness and self-selection of memory that Braid is trying to comment on.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Marijn wrote:

    Thanks Darius, I didn’t know that! I agree that the text in the epilogue that I did read worked a lot better than the rest of it. I guess, if you were feeling charitable, you could suspect Blow of intentionally making the rest of the script such self-absorbed rubbish, because it does fit the character. It still makes Tim a lot more annoying than he needs to be to get Blow’s points across, though, and I think the game works better if you’re sympathetic to his plight.

    @Charles:
    “The truth is that game designers think about a game’s themes when designing more often than they’d probably like to admit.”

    That’s good to hear! I hope that more designers take questions like these as seriously as you do.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles Joseph wrote:

    @Darius K:
    That’s one of the interesting parts of Braid’s narrative. Who is ‘Tim’? I think that most people assume it’s the player, but when I played it I assumed it was the guy in the paintings, who doesn’t look like your avatar (different hair color, different suit). So if the text blocks aren’t talking about you, and you’re not the guy in the paintings, who is your avatar? Maybe just a cypher, like Mario, for the player themselves?

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  6. Frank wrote:

    If Braid is overpraised it is because people’s opinions have an expressive, not just informative, function. People are saying “more like this”. People want more games that are intelligent, thoughtful, sophisticated in style and approach, want that more than another childish fantasy busybox, no matter how perfectly executed, and who can blame them?

    I’m of the opinion that the great parts of Braid are the mind-bending parts, the tesseraction adventure parts, where you get a glimpse of what it might be like to think interdimensionally. I think I would love the game approximately the same amount without the literary stuff. But I also think the game wouldn’t exist without that stuff.

    On a side note, Charles, you told your friends over on Sexy Videogameland that:

    “…it will still (maybe) take another 750 years to solve Go.”

    Does that mean I should start shopping for my new board and stones now?

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmm, I guess I’m definitely in the minority here in thinking that, aside from the text blocks, the (seeming) literary goals of the game were interesting and I think somewhat successful. The game design had a lot of potential but for the most part didn’t hold my attention.

    So yeah, the game deserves credit for potential, but isn’t it then by definition a disappointment?

    Also, Frank, you can shop as much as you want between now and 2057!

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

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