Saturday, August 23, 2008


Other than a ranting, and in retrospect slightly hypocritical, diversion about Grand Theft Auto IV and the media circus that surrounded that game's launch, I've steered clear of any real gaming discussions or reviews on Rivers. Though I'm a rather enthusiastic gamer, I've always thought that gaming doesn't deserve much critical attention or serious thought. For the most part, gaming is diversionary -- it's entertaining but it's hardly what I'd call art. Braid, however, demanded my full attention. It even demanding that I rethink my position on games as art.

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.
Braid is about the sorrow of lost love, about time travel and bittersweet forgiveness, and it's about the inescapable conclusions towards which most of us hurtle along. Deeply personal, surprisingly metaphysical, steeped in a keen sense of lose, and capable of evoking previously unknown levels of intimacy for a game, independent developer Jonathan Blow's first major release trumps years of big-budget game development in a single, unexpected burst of creativity. Like last year's Portal, Braid proves that the truly important developments in gaming are coming from the small releases, from unexpected places, in unexpected forms. While high-profile studios such as Bungie, Blizzard and Rockstar are constantly looking for ways to milk every last dollar from their respective franchises, Jonathan Blow has released a game with more emotion, more innovation and more genuine artistry than most of last year's releases combined.

Braid is a unassuming little game. In an obvious homage to Super Mario Bros, our protagonist, Tim, is searching for the Princess. However, this Princess is not the helpless damsel in distress and Tim is not the stalwart hero we probably expect him to be. Tim has made mistakes. Big ones. It's his fault that he lost the Princess. He lost her not because he made a deal with the wrong people, not because he had enemies, not because he was involved in some diabolical scheme, and not because it's convenient to the game's plot; in fact, it's not because of any of the usually tropes and narrative conventions that get recycled game after game in an industry even more creatively stagnated than Hollywood. Tim lost the Princess because he walked out at the wrong moment. Braid is the story of Tim, an average man, trying to say sorry to his girlfriend. Or at least, that's what the story appears to be about. The game starts as one thing and ends up as another, however; or rather, the game does end where it starts but picks up and develops several other overlapping narratives that could be the same story from another perspective or could simply be thematically guided excursions into related territory. Braid's themes and plots begins to overlap, conflict and eventually collapse in upon itself in a type of narrative singularity. It's a bit dizzying. You might expect this sort of literary maturity in a novel or a particularly good film but you probably would not expect it from a video game. Braid tells us that we should expect it from now on.

At it's core, Braid is a platform puzzle game. Like any good platform protagonist, Tim can run, jump, drop down on enemies, bounce off them, grab keys, unlock doors, all the platforming usuals we've come to expect. Braid's distinguishing gameplay mechanic, however, is that Tim can manipulate time. If he falls to his death, fails to solve a puzzle, or sets up his strategy poorly, he can simply rewind time, go back to the beginning, and start anew. Different objects in the game's worlds react differently, however; some will obey Tim's temporal dictates, others will not. Knowing what object will do what at a given moment and under a given condition is crucial to solving these puzzles. However, as interesting a gameplay mechanic as this is (and believe me, it's pretty damn interesting... and fun), it is not Braid's true genius. It's true genius is the meta levels upon which it operates. The game is not what it appears to be. Here, in Braid, gaming grows up.

rethinks the medium entirely and manipulates it in ways that are, as far as I can tell, wholly new. It is possible, I suppose, to see it only as a simple platformer and dismiss it as nothing more than an interesting excursion into an almost antiquated gaming formula. It is likewise possible to think of Hamlet only as a play or The Starry Night only as a painting. Braid's deceptively simple appearance overlays a deeply self-aware and reflective game experience. Braid's gameplay itself is, in fact, a metaphor. The entire game is a type of dream, a digital manifestation of Tim's psychic quest to undo the damage he has done. All the game's major elements reflect this interior focus. The tripped and Monet-esque dripping wet-paint art direction as an image of dream quest or of a desire for an altered reality; the platformer puzzles as a representation of an underlying assumption that every problem -- even emotional and relational ones -- is a riddle easily solved by manipulating its elements; the core mechanic, the ability to rewind time to effect a more desirable outcome, as a expression of the fundamental wish of the guilty to go back and do things right: the game is operating on all these levels and it's operating on all of them beautifully, with a subtle hand and a quiet affirmation. Braid is as transcendent a gaming experience as is perhaps possible on the medium.

In the last little while, we've seen glimpses of what gaming could be. Games like Ken Levine's Bioshock, which combined a deeply satisfying FPS experience with a 1940s art deco sensibility and a surprisingly thoughtful philosophical mediation, and Valve's Portal, which is one of the only truly original and innovative games to come out in years, have elevated the medium beyond it's simple escapist heritage to something approaching art. Braid is another of these elevating games. It is as important a game as we're likely to see for a long time. Though the medium, or perhaps the nature of the industry controlling much of the medium, is not normally predisposed to the creation of art -- and by art I generally mean a product of imagination that offers anything from a full interpretation to a small comment on the human condition -- it seems as if truly artistic efforts can succeed on the medium after all.

Braid is available on the Xbox Live Arcade. I believe it is right now exclusive to that platform but as far as I'm concerned this game should be released on every platform possible. It deserves to be played.


Nevis said...

I would like to say a lot of things, but mostly I want to stick my tongue out at you and say...I TOLD YOU SO! :P

dcornelius said...

Yes, I admit, that when I first played the demo I failed to see what Braid was really doing. I saw it only as a platformer. I wasn't expecting, or prepared, to find true greatness in an XBLA release. But when I played the demo a second time and focused more on the art direction, story and the conceptual elements of the game, I knew I'd found something special. You were right.

Nevis said...

*basking in the lovely glory of being correct*