Pinback 10/11/2008 

Worm says: 'The ZP review is pretty horrible. No, Yahtzee, you are not the new punk rock. Also he doesn't understand why the second door was a red herring, what a laugh. Man, sometimes he's good, but he really needs to refocus these things. Which means, start reviewing bad games again and stop trying to pretend these things are insightful.'

Here we have a game working on three levels. There’s a dual meaning there, in that “working” in this context means both “presenting content”, as well as “successfully delivering the goods” - though this last part is subjective, but that’s the purpose of a review, isn’t it?

Level One is purely a level of gameplay. Stripped of story and aesthetics, here we have a puzzle game with the basic mechanics of your everyday Super Mario platformer, with the additional mechanic of time manipulation. The one constant manipulation available is the ability for your character (”Tim”) to reverse time on a whim. This means death isn’t a threat, since you can just rewind, but this mechanic comes into use in all sorts of other ingenious ways later in the game. Each of the game’s worlds also adds another time-related quirk available to the player, whether it’s the ability to slow time, rewind and have a “shadow” Tim retrace your earlier steps, or to be completely in lockstep with time, so when Tim steps forward, time moves forward, and vice versa.

Essentially this insures that you will be tackling puzzles you’ve never tackled before, and will likely have to reshuffle your brain molecules to think in a totally different way than it’s used to. The level design in this respect ranges from “clever” to “brilliant”. One level in particular is repeated twice, but a different time mechanic is present for each version, so your approach has to be completely different (and very inspired).

So, if you are a fan of puzzlers with a unique, original, mind-bendingly fresh bent to them, Level One on which the game works should be enough to sell you on the game.

Then there’s Level Two, which would be the aesthetic presentation. As anybody who has heard of the game knows from the screenshots, it looks like Super Mario Bros. if SMB was done by an impressionist painter. The delicately drawn characters jump and walk around the levels with a backdrop of stunning artistry, each level presenting something of a “living painting” in the background, as colors shift ever so gently and clouds and other shapes morph and drift about. This becomes very welcome when you have been beating your head against a particular puzzle for what seems like way too long — sometimes just “stopping to smell the roses” and enjoying the scenery can provide just the break to keep you from getting too frustrated and flipping the game off (again, a double meaning). It is as if it has a built-in relaxation device. Coupled with this is the absolutely lush, emotionally evocative score which when played at normal speed lays the perfect blend of melodic sadness and longing (this is a “find the Princess” game, after all), and an ethereal dreamlike quality which just fits in so well with the rest of what’s being presented. But when time speeds up and slows down and reverses, the score follows suit, adding another dimension of otherworldliness and downright unsettling eerieness to the proceedings. Even the opening screen, before the game proper begins, is lush and mesmerizing. In any rating system, Braid definitely gets the highest marks on presentation.

And then there’s Level Three, which is the storyline, and which for better or worse (generally much better, according to most critics) has the potential to turn Braid from an excellent puzzle game into a creation which transcends video games and proves for once and for all that games can, in fact, be art.


The fact is that there is a story here, but it is told by way of written word describing sporadic glimpses into incidents or thoughts in Tim’s (probably?) past, memories of regret and isolation, brief snippets of turning points remembered, leaving the reader a lot of room for interpretation. Without being able to piece the story together with any certainty, through the game, the story seems to just lend an air of sorrow to the proceedings, though you don’t know why. There are only two things you know for sure:

1. You are searching for the Princess, who is being held captive in a castle, by a monster.

2. The game begins on World 2.

Other than that, you are left a little bit in the dark, having to piece together some sort of cohesive picture from intentionally vague (or “aggravatingly pretentious” depending on your take) screens of text at the beginning of each world.

Meanwhile, you do your duty and solve your puzzles, and then arrive at the ending.

Much has been made of the ending, with one breathless reviewer suggesting it might be the most significant, earth-shattering ending in the history of storytelling. While I appreciate the author’s penchant for hyperbole, this may be a bit much? And to suggest that the ending “ties it all together” is also somewhat misleading, as there are still plenty of holes left for the reader/player to fill in — even more so after an even-more opaque, fractured, bewildering epilogue. And to suggest that the ending “makes one rethink all that has come before” is, while factually true, disregarding the fact that most of what has come before is trying to figure out how to get the key, or how to get up to that goddamn platform to get the puzzle piece, not dwelling on the philosophical ramifications of doing so.

So there’s plenty of room for overstatement. That being said, the ending is remarkable. The significance of what goes on before your eyes will not be lost on you, even if the specifics of the narrative are. It is a departure from the rest of the game in form only — it is just as, if not more brilliant and clever, just in a different way.

Whether or not you buy into whatever “message” (if any) you interpret from the game, the fact is that Braid is most remarkable ultimately because 80% of the discussion about it isn’t even about the actual game, but instead about its merit as an artistic medium for exploring the nature of time, love, humanity, whatever other themes the player believes are being explored here. The fact is, it’s difficult not to spend time reflecting on the game and its potentially heartwrenching thematic significance, even if you scoff and roll your eyes at the “artsy” elements, even if you can’t figure out what the game is about.

I don’t think anyone can figure out, with authority, what the game really is about, unless Jonathan Blow comes over to your house and tells you to your face. So in this way, it can be about a lot of things. So everybody wins. Or everybody loses. Depends on your tastes. Worm, for instance, would hate this game.

But regardless, in deciding if (and how) Braid is an artistic success, whichever side of the discussion you wind up on, I think the fact that the discussion exists in the first place means Braid has succeeded.

(And even if you think it has no artistic merit at all, the puzzles are still very, very clever.)