Braid is the most ingenious, thoughtful, fulfilling game I’ve played since Ico. It debuted on X-Box Live Arcade on Wednesday, after several years in development, and in a matter of days has taken the gaming world by storm. Hyperbole? When you read the game’s description, you might think so:
Braid is a puzzle-platformer, drawn in a painterly style, where the player manipulates the flow of time in strange and unusual ways. From a house in the city, journey to a series of worlds and solve puzzles to rescue an abducted princess. In each world, you have a different power to affect the way time behaves, and it is time's strangeness that creates the puzzles. The time behaviors include: the ability to rewind, objects that are immune to being rewound, time that is tied to space, parallel realities, time dilation, and perhaps more. Braid treats your time and attention as precious; there is no filler in this game. Every puzzle shows you something new and interesting about the game world.
Nothing much original there, you might imagine. Portal was all the puzzle game I need, thanks, and we’ve all seen time go backwards, or haven’t you played Prince of Persia? And anyway - 2D? HDTV might be the source of a sprite renaissance, but no-one who’s serious about games is going to give it a second look.
You may assume that because this is a 2D platformer, downloadable content hosted by X-Box Live Arcade, it’s in some way a less than legitimate game. That if it hasn’t had $100 million spent on development, PR and marketing, it’s no more than a simple product for the casual gaming crowd. But to call Braid a casual game is to miss the point as spectacularly as those who would call Watchmen a comic for people who don’t read comics. It draws from the entire history of a medium to tell a story that can only be told effectively using the tools of the medium, in a way that uses the medium’s conventions to comment upon itself, its audience and the world. Like life, it provides no instructions; you learn the rules by observing the world around you, and its interactions, and then you break them. Braid goes so much further in the way it uses time as a gameplay mechanic than anything that came before it that it’s almost a quantum leap. When you first create a parallel version of yourself to solve a puzzle, I promise you, your mind will be blown.
Because listen, this not just a game that uses time to forestall death, a la Prince of Persia; this is a game about time. About growth, and development, and regret for the things you can’t take back. It’s a game whose design, with its two-dimensional environment, created beautifully in bold watercolour strokes that look glorious on an HDTV, and whose soundtrack, classical and subdued, together generate an atmosphere that transports you to other places, other times, and totally complement the game’s metaphorical and allegorical storyline.
This is not just a game about time, but a game about history. It’s a game that looks back though the medium’s past and synthesises influences to create something wonderful; not merely nostalgia for an eight bit past, but a love letter to the “princess.” WIth an art style that evokes Yoshi’s Island, and levels inspired by Donkey Kong, Braid is an outright paean to gaming’s development.
It’s a game that shows us, through little more than fiendish level design, that we’re always changing, but rarely recognise it. That you have to look back to go forwards. That sometimes, you don’t know how far you’ve come until you return to the start, or that you can be minding your own business when suddenly, something - the scent of perfume, a snatch of music, a bird’s ascent - throws you back in time. Most of all, it reaffirms that the present doesn’t make sense, is a chaotic place, and only coalesces, if we’re lucky, into a narrative based around ourselves when we can look back at it from a point outside time, outside our own lives and experience. Generally, we can’t do that while we’re alive, so we use art to look at the lives of others. We inhabit, temporarily, the worlds of constructs, and seek to extract from them knowledge that can enrich and explain our existence. The very best of these worlds can change the way you look at your own.
Braid holds that honour. You really should experience it for yourself.