Discussion Review: Braid

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The hallmark of a great ‘casual’ game is that it takes elements from existing game types, wraps them around a new or innovative gameplay twist, and turns it all into something that feels fresh. It is how games like Plants vs. Zombies and Puzzle Quest take the existing gameplay from the Tower Defense and Match 3 genres respectively and turn them into engaging and addictive games that feel completely original. Matt and I look at another game that looks to join ranks with those by taking a fresh approach to another well-worn genre: platform games.

Mike: Braid originally came out for XBOX Live Arcade in August of last year, and was released for the PC in mid-April and the Mac in late May. The occasion of the Mac release gave us an opportunity to do a discussion review, with Matt finally able to get around to playing the XBLA version while I played the Mac version.

Braid is labeled as a ‘puzzle platformer’ and that roughly fits the description of what you do but comes nowhere close to describing why this is such an excellent game and why you’ll become totally addicted to solving all of the puzzles and making it through to the end of the story. The game is the brainchild of Jonathon Blow, and features only one other person on the development team – artist David Hellman. It is amazing to think that any game is made pretty much by a single person in this era of major games always having more than a hundred people working on them, and it is even more amazing when it is a game that features both solid game mechanics and an innovative feature. In fact that feature is key enough to the entire experience that I’ll forgo talking about the story and platforming elements and technical stuff to start right there.

The innovative feature here is the ability to hit a key (or button) to reverse the flow of time.

It sounds pretty simple, but the way it is woven into the gameplay is simply amazing. It is not simply about undoing mistakes as it was in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It is an integral part of playing the game, as introduced at the very beginning. It allows you to get to places you could not otherwise, to do things that would otherwise be impossible, and to shortcut difficult puzzle sequences. It is something that evolves along with the game as you progress from level to level and from world to world. Too much more I cannot say without ruining the fun.

At this point I’ll pass the baton to Matt. How does this play on the XBOX360? How did you find the time-warping feature to work with?

Matt: Braid was the indie darling of last year on XBLA, and I’m really glad to see it reach a larger audience with PC and Mac releases this year (hopefully PSN will be next!) because it really is a masterpiece of a game.

Bundling Braid in as a casual game does it a bit of a disservice, I think. It’s a pretty simple platform puzzler to complete if you just rush through it, but I’d put it at the more hardcore end of the platform genre because a lot of the puzzles are incredibly tricky and much of the story is buried away in secrets I’m not sure how anyone ever figured out.

As you say, the entire game is built around the ability to control the flow of time, and I appreciate your choice of contrast to the Prince of Persia games because in Braid the mechanic goes so much further and continues to evolve with each new world. Early on you simply rewind and fast-forward time to undo mistakes, but as the game progresses new twists are introduced. In one world, for example, all of your rewinds produce a shadowy doppelganger of your character that repeats your previous actions. And in another the movement of the enemies and obstacles in the world is directly tied to the movement of your character — run forward and the world plays out like normal, but turn around and run backwards and everything runs in reverse.

Completing each world really isn’t that challenging if you play it like a Mario game and just run through from point A to point B, but within each stage are hidden jigsaw puzzles pieces that must all be collected and pieced together to complete the game in its entirety, and to access these puzzle pieces you really have to use every ounce of brain power you have to figure out how to properly manipulate time to your advantage. It’s one of those games that you’ll go into a level, initially curse at the game for being impossible, then smack yourself on the forehead and curse yourself for not figuring out what was an obvious solution sooner. This game is full of those “Aha!” moments that are so important to a game of this type — you’ll sit there wracking your brain and trying out different rewind techniques for 15-20 minutes and then all of a sudden the solution hits you. It’s an extremely rewarding process to go through, and makes collecting all the puzzle pieces a true labor of love.

Mike: I agree with your observation that simply calling Braid ‘casual’ is a disservice. I think that the moment that Bejeweled became Puzzle Quest, a bridge between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ was formed that has opened up gamers to the possibilities of games like Braid and Plants vs. Zombies and The Path. The great thing about these games is that they are inexpensive enough to allow folks to just grab them for cheap and try them out, which can open them up to an audience not ready to part with $60 so quickly. The other great thing is that they allow even infrequent gamers the opportunity to have a fun and challenging experience without feeling the need to dedicate their life to finishing it quickly.

In some ways I feel that non-hardcore gamers are better suited to deal with the gameplay in some of these games – I found myself being very goal-oriented when starting both The Path and this game, and needing to take a deep breath and just relax in order to really get into them. My kids, however, just took their time and played along and let stuff unfold as it happened. And that is really what you need to do – enjoy what the game is offering without trying to force it to meet your expectations.

I mentioned The Path specifically, as each game has a pretty obvious ability to get from point A to point B. And similar to The Path, that really isn’t the point of things in Braid. Because underneath the absolutely glorious side-scrolling platform game that you just described there is a pretty interesting story that unfolds – there are nuanced bits of symbolism that you start to see from the earliest areas that carry forward and become more coherent as you proceed. So while you are solving the puzzles – and I agree that they aren’t too tough but can hang you up quite a bit from time to time – you are also slowly learning the story of the game. It is a wonderful way of wrapping the gameplay and story together and is completely successful in its’ implementation.

We’ve skimmed over the technical stuff, and quite frankly there isn’t a lot to discuss. The game plays out as a 2D side-scrolling platformer, and has a distinctive art style that permeates all of the different worlds you encounter. There is plenty of detail, and the hand drawn visions put forth are proof that a unique style isn’t dependent on pushing tons of pixels. The music is fairly minimal, but works well to create an engaging ambiance.

My only complaint is a bit ironic – while the ‘end to end’ game isn’t that long, getting to the true end and seeing how it all comes together requires solving all of the puzzles. I got the feeling you feel the same way, which is what has slowed down our progress in what seems like it should have been a quick game. For me it was all worthwhile, but I am willing to bet that the majority of gamers will never see the end, which is a shame.

So what are your thoughts about the story and style? Are you as struck as I was that this is largely the work of two guys – Jonathon Blow and David Hellman?

Matt: Yes, I have similar feelings about the story as you. On the surface, the game is simply about a character named Tim trying to rescue the “princess,” and by just playing through the game the story is incredibly vague, verging on incoherent. Each world symbolizes a different theme, and unless you complete all of the jigsaw puzzles you really don’t get to see how all of the themes ultimately weave together. But if you do invest the necessary time and effort, you’ll be rewarded with an incredibly deep and moving bit of storytelling that seems to have an infinite number of different metaphorical interpretations — I believe Blow himself has said that it would be impossible for even him to explain the true meaning of the story.

Locking so much of the story away behind so many tough puzzles and other secrets (apparently there are these star collectibles that unlock a secret ending, but without following a guide they are damn near impossible to find — they are so tough I haven’t even gone after them yet) does put a limit on the number of gamers who will be able and willing to see the experience to its fullest. But at the same time that’s also part of what makes the game so fulfilling. That’s the beauty of the game — you can play through it without a lot of effort and still have a great time with it as a simple puzzle platformer, or you can lose yourself in the game world, hunt down all the puzzle pieces and secrets, and really ponder the deeper meanings of the narrative.

As far as indie games go, I think Braid is superb in the audiovisual department. As you say, the game was lovingly crafted by only two guys, and every second you play you can just feel the passion they put into making the game. Majestic is the best word I can come up with to describe how the game looks and sounds. David Hellman’s hand drawn artwork has such an elegant storybook style to it, and the soundtrack, while indeed subtle, really ties the experience together in a moving way.

Needless to say, I love Braid. It encompasses everything that I love about indie games, and despite the limited resources that come with a two-man dev team it’s an experience I found every bit as deep and compelling as any big budget retail game.

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Mike: I also really love Braid, and could conclude by saying just that: I love this game and think it is something every gamer should play, and it is priced so low that cost is not a barrier (and for those who pirate these inexpensive one or two person efforts, there is a special place in hell for you!). But I still have some thoughts.

I think we have really seen a renaissance in indie game design and acceptance recently. I have always been a fan of Spiderweb games, where you get 100+ hour ‘old school’ RPG games with moral choices, branching dialog and loads of replayability … but late 90’s era graphics and minimal audio that drives off many gamers. It is all about finding a target audience and making the design choices that work best for your vision. Braid chooses a pretty standard game type, and layers on some subtle plot and artistic elements and a nice gameplay innovation, and comes out with a wonderfully compelling experience – though one that isn’t overly long and has little inherent replayability (not to say that the coolness of the game itself isn’t reason to replay, just that it is the exact same experience over again).

Matt and I completely agree – this is a tremendous game that everyone should play. The story is somewhat obscure and difficult to uncover, but what you will experience even if you only play for a few hours will be well worthwhile. Remember that this is truly one of those ‘two guys in a garage’ games, where it is all about someone bringing a vision to life. You have the chance not only to experience a great game, but also to directly support a great developer and also the concept of visionary games over massive corporate efforts formed by focus groups. Not that there needs to be only one or the other, but as more small shops fold or get bought up, it is nice to see such a singular vision be so successful.

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Pros:
+ Wonderfully artistic graphics
+ Simple yet deep gameplay
+ Deep metaphorical story
+ Challenging to uncover everything
+ Budget Price
+ Excellent soundtrack

Cons:
– Most gamers will never see the end

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Mac and Xbox Live Arcade, also on PC
Publisher: Number None Inc.
Developer: Number None Inc.
Release Date: XBLA – 8/6/08, PC – 4/10/09, Mac – 5/20/09
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1

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About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!