For something to be considered a work of an art, you have to be able to dissect it – to look at it carefully from every angle, and come up with something to say about it that is both fairly pretentious and a little queer. Braid is a work of art, and I am, let’s face it, fairly pretentious and a little queer. So let’s get this shit done:
Braid is, at first brush, a pretty simple platformer. It’s cute, clean, and has a novel little gimmick, but most truly great games are uncomplicated. They are short, straight-forward, and uncluttered. Take Portal, for instance. There was no long backstory – no lead-up, no expository mess as you segued into the game-world – you were just there. You stood up and you went. You had a unique, necessary ability, a need to get from one place to another, and that was it. It was brilliantly written, minimalist, and twisted. It topped out at six hours, it left you wanting more, and it never got old.
In literally every single one of those ways, Braid is the next Portal.
The concept of time manipulation in games is nothing new – from Prince of Persia to Max Payne, every asshole and his grandma can alter time to cheat death, reverse mistakes, or hell, maybe just find the lost remote control – but Braid’s time reversal mechanics are to these games what Transformers are to Go-bots: Yes, they’re essentially the same thing, but one carries the material off with grace and power and the other is a fucking Go-bot.
Braid is so completely inundated with its time mechanics that they actually function like another plane. Braid is 3-D, if you want to be literal about it – it’s just that instead of depth, that third dimension is time. The mechanics are never just another device or ability; they’re completely inherent to the game. The music is simple but integral, and the art is jaw-dropping with surrealistic landscapes and sharp, simple character art by David Hellman from A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible (one of my favorite comics from back in the day.) The story is simple and relatively sweet: You’re just looking for your princess – why, you’re just not the same without her…but you’re so lost that you’re not sure who she is anymore, or where she’s gone. The entire game is just a quest to retrieve her. But that’s not really it. No, Braid possesses quite possibly the best narrative twist of any medium in recent years, and do not read any further if you plan on ever playing it.
Because, like all former English majors, I’m going to have to dissect the story and, in the process, probably ruin the holy shit out of this thing for you. I’m sorry, we really can’t help it. It is our only revenge for four years worth of wasted time and a life of scornfully waiting tables.
You open onto an underworld/overworld split screen as a hulking knight descends holding the princess. She jumps out of his arms, screams for help, and the two of you take off running together – the princess keeping pace just behind you on the world above. She throws switches for you that open doors just in time for you to dart through, and you do the same for her. As you pass through the level, the background seems to grow more realistic. You move from abstract paint blobs to majestic mountains to more mundane scenery – a car, a mailbox, a stairwell – eventually terminating in a modern home. She runs to the backdoor as you climb the lattice to meet her, and that’s when everything stops.
At this point nothing moves. The only thing you can do is reverse time. But as you do, you see what’s really happening: She sees you outside of her house, looking in. She turns to run, and you follow. She frantically throws switches to slam doors on you, but you’re always just ahead of them. You, in turn, throw switches to trap her, all the while the scenery transforming from mundane to surreal as you run away from reality and into delusion. At the end, she screams for help and the knight appears. She jumps into his arms and climbs away, leaving you, the sinister stalker, behind. You get a little background info on your character in the epilogue that explains his obsessive childhood, his compulsive adulthood, his tendency towards violence and delusion, and when you finally leave, you find yourself at the beginning of the game.
That was the first level, you see, and the rest of Braid – the stuff that you just played through – is your character’s flight into delusion. His love for the princess is obsession. His time reversal is a way of never taking accountability for mistakes. The trite, angsty teenage narrative is his deluded, psychotic ramblings.
But if you’re unhappy with this bad ending, there is more to pursue. Hidden throughout Braid are seven stars, so obscure and difficultly placed that it could take hours to get even one. If you’re the type of person that absolutely has to complete the whole game – that cannot leave it at this end – then you can unlock an alternate one… where your character catches up to the princess and she disappears. When you leave this time, you can look up to the constellation your collected stars form, and see the princess in chains. But you only see it if you’re dedicated enough, if you can’t just leave well enough alone, if you have to have everything…because your character is only as obsessive as you are.
This analogy between gaming and obsession really drives the point home about Tim, your character, as well as gives a very refined and subtle, but nonetheless clear middle finger to the more addicted gamers. Braid couldn’t simulate the creepiness of stalking any better if you could press A to leave spy-cams in the girl’s bathroom and the last level was just masturbating in the bushes outside of an apartment building. This is storytelling so effective that it actually affects you, sticks in your head, and takes Braid beyond the level of mere distraction and into art.
But ultimately, it is only about five hours long, and it’s not laden with expensive special-effects or multi-player modes. As such, it has given rise to a barrage of complaints about it being too expensive, and it really comes down to what you’re considering valuable. For twenty bucks, you could buy a good meal at a decent restaurant, or you could buy three tubs of chicken at KFC. The “value” of the latter is that it cheaply serves its function: Sustenance. And what sustenance is to food, so entertainment is to games. It’s true, you could get “a lot more” for your money – you could buy dozens of hours of explosions for twenty bucks these days – or you can get “a lot more” for your money, by finding an experience in gaming that actually can function as art; one that will stick with you, fuck you in the brain, and maybe still call you the next day.
Maybe call you a lot.
Maybe meet you outside of work. Maybe call your friends and ask where you are. Maybe in the bushes outside of your apartment it will…well, let’s just say it’ll stay with you.