Braid: The Next Portal?

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:

braid0

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.

braid2

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.

braid3

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.

braid1

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.

braid5

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.

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32 Responses to Braid: The Next Portal?

  1. J says:

    The next portal? As in the next overhyped game that ultimately was incredibly disappointing? I agree.

  2. RandomRage says:

    I actually just wrote about how Braid wasn’t like Portal at all. Granted, I only played the demo, and your description of the story does make it seem more engaging. The narrative in Portal was much more engrossing. Part of that is due to the nature of the 1st person perspective — you ARE Chell, locked in the “relaxation vault.” Tiny tie-wearing Tim just seemed inaccessable to me during the short time I played the demo. The narrative in Braid is brooding and frustrated, like it was taken from that kid in your high school theater class’s poetry book. The writing in Portal was sharp and funny. Most importantly, Portal was FUN. Valve is very open about their design-by-playtest process that refined Portal’s gameplay to 6-or-so hours of perfection. Braid was one person’s art project, and plays that way.

  3. Mr. Bojangles says:

    Sounds like something required in an art appreciation class.

    Too bad I have a PS3; I might have enjoyed it.

  4. flagg says:

    Are you really sure that Braid is so good? Yes, the art, the music are ok, but com’on Portal is on a higher level, really.
    You can play and replay Portal infinite times and having fun , could you say the same for Braid?
    It’s a good platform with some NO new ideas (nowadays you can find similar time bendings trick even in many flash games), nothing more.

  5. Robert says:

    Dag, look at that influx of haters. Just hatin’.

    Let’s go in order:

    J – Man, to hate on Braid is one thing. I can honestly see how it could be a love it/hate it thing, but to hate on Portal? I just don’t buy it. I consider your life to be rife with lies, brimming with untruths and the sad, crusty leavings of dishonesty.

    Random – Fun is much more subjective a thing than relevance. I don’t think the relevance of Braid can be dismissed, but if you didn’t have fun playing then…what? What’s the argument, there? I can’t tell you to have fun. I had fun with Portal too, and I had a blast with Braid. But then, a short time with the demo isn’t nearly enough to get the scope of the thing anyway.

    Bojangles – Word. There really should be a PC release too. There has to be, it doesn’t make sense if not.

    Flagg – Pretty sure I enjoyed something, even if you did not. See, the internet is a thing made up of a whole lot of other, real life, actual people. I know, I know, I thought it was just a really advanced text game at first myself, and I kept telling people to ‘go east,’ and ‘pick up key’ and ‘fuck dragon,’ but eventually I caught on. Now when I tell you to ‘fuck dragon,’ you know that I mean you, specifically – I want you to fuck dragon. Do it.

  6. Brett says:

    Now I feel weird being the guy after the hater posts who actually enjoyed the game. Granted I was hesitant and really only downloaded it after a friend’s constant pestering but after playing through I found it akin to a very simple very stunning Bioshock of the Xbox Live Market. A twist that left me genuinely surprised and a little bit hurt. The same way I felt after the I was betrayed in Rapture. It’s rare when a game actually makes you feel empathetic for a character and honestly who ever felt anything for Mario beyond wanting an innocent not homo-erotic in anyway mustache ride?

  7. Brett says:

    Also, my favorite part of Braid was the world where the direction you walked reversed or continued the flow of time, not just because it was amazingly fun, but because I kept trying to scratch beats with the music going back and forth.

  8. I read your article up to the point that you said, “do not read any further if you plan on ever playing it.”

    I couldn’t read any further because you had so completely sold me on this game. I downloaded it when I got home.

    I put in some time, and was nearly moved to tears when I heard the music, saw the art, and read the exposition that came from the books on pedastals. My girlfriend (who isn’t even into video games) was right there with me, eyes watering.

    This game is amazing, and would have completely slipped past me if it weren’t for your article. So I thank you.

    Sidenote: As I downloaded it, I noticed that you were the only person in my XBLA loop who appeared in the leaderboards. So thanks for making me the cool guy who introduces all of my friends to this game.

  9. deadlytoque says:

    Yeah, I downloaded it on your recommendation, too, and then my roommate and I lost about 2 hours hopping around and rewinding time. I’m quite enjoying it, though I don’t know that I am -as- engrossed as I was in Portal. I am digging the art, and I am also digging the puzzle-induced headaches.

  10. Dustin says:

    I haven’t actually finished the game myself, but I had played a few levels before my brother finished it and ruined the ending for me. Even still it was outstanding and I have found myself thinking about it a few times since.

  11. Lord Shplane says:

    So in the “Good” ending your psychotic stalker captures the princess, puts her in chains, and probably rapes her repeatedly?

    Yeah, actually sounds pretty artistic to me.

  12. Robert says:

    Brett: It’s true, for whatever reason the little dude fosters a lot of empathy in the player. I think it’s because I know people like that – constantly waxing poetic in journals about girl troubles and, even though you think the writing’s a little trite and way too self-absorbed – you still kind of root for them. Wait, I just described livejournal.

    Justin: I’m glad I could introduce somebody to it, and even more glad that I am now the guy who was on it before it was cool. It was a brief run, though, because now other people know about it, and it is no longer cool. Also, if you loved the art, really check out that comic I linked to, it’s great stuff.

    Toque: Dude, I hope you didn’t read my whole article then, the ending is completely spoilable and would lose a lot of effect if you already knew it. It gets…retroactively fun? I guess those are words. They probably mean something.

    Shplane: Yes, it is artistic. You can tell if something will fly with the artfags by using the “Three R’s Test:” Is it about Rape, Retards, or Regret? If it’s only about one of the three, check carefully to make sure it’s not comedy. Comedy is never art, nor in the least bit important. Laughter is irrelevant.

    If it involves two of the three, you probably have art on your hands. Check to see if it’s in a foreign language – that’s a good tell.

    If it involves all three, it’s definitely art! Nothing encompasses Rape, Retard and Regrets simultaneously that is not artfag gold. Quickly simulate tears and excuse yourself outside to smoke – you’ll be ascot deep in Grad student poon before you can say “Dancer in the Dark.” You’re fuckin’ welcome!

  13. the girlfriend says:

    Where did Robert meet his girlfriend?

    Oh yeah, livejournal.

  14. Robert says:

    I talked about regret and retards, mostly. I’m no fool.

  15. G says:

    Damn you Robert. I really want to play Braid, so I stopped reading when you said so. But I’m also really, REALLY bored at work. So what the hell am I supposed to do now. You’ve left me with a pair metaphysical blue balls. And dammit, I really hate blue balls. I already wanted to go home and play Braid, but I thought, like an asshole, maybe there’s something new and witty on ifightrobots. Maybe Robert can alleviate my soul-crushing boredom with his Douglas-Adams-meets-Warren-Ellis-meets-crazy-homeless-guy-who-shits-in-my-trash-can style humor. But no. You just had to be a funny bone cock tease, and it’s just cruel. I still love ya buddy, but I hope someone opens a car door into your nuts today. Not too hard, because you need to breed that wit of yours, but a nice graze that doesn’t set in for a good 5-count, and then makes you feel like your balls jumped into your stomach and imploded. Just as a reminder.

  16. Paul says:

    I wish I could manipulate time to go back to when you used to update this blog more than once every two weeks.

  17. Robert says:

    Paul,

    I update the site every week – scaled back from twice a week. It’s only temporary, but you know why I did that and what I’m doing instead. I don’t think I’ve ever actually missed a week, and this kind of schedule is pretty standard for sites like this anyway, where it’s not just “omg i totally have a loft! lookit me cook in it! i m in ur courtrooms practicin ur law! hehehe” bullshit, and the posts take a lot more time and effort.

    Oh, and how often does yours update again? Three times a year? Is that because you have a busy life? Awww…poor guy. Well, it’s a good thing you have that loft – you can store all those tears of injustice in it.

    Finally, I know you were probably just being a smartass – leaving dickwad comments just for the hell of it – and I’m only supposed to respond with something snappy like “you keep talking, but all I hear is ‘cocks cocks cocks.”

    But that kind of reply just didn’t feel right in this case… because honestly, all I saw was cocks, cocks, cocks.

    Seriously, every time you speak, dicks fall out. Your mouth opens and it’s like it is filled with little penile Indiana Jones’ traversing the Temple of Spunk.

    I’d suggest you may be sucking on them, but really, there’s no way you have enough room to get any kind of suction with all those dicks in there. It just looks like you’re holding onto them for safekeeping. Like your mouth is just a tiny storage shed filled floor to ceiling with all the cock you had no further use for, but just couldn’t bear to part with.

  18. Robert says:

    G,

    Sorry man, but you’ll be glad you stopped reading when you finish it.

    If it is of any consolation, this week I have ha: My normal job, my college finals, painted an entire house, still have yet to pack my entire current house, move out of it, clean it, and then unpack again to get back to work on Monday.

    I would gladly take a shot in the beanbag every hour on the hour rather than deal with this week as it has been. It’s like by wishing only one shot to the nuts on me, you’re actually wishing me all the best by comparison. So thanks, dude! You too!

  19. Muledriver says:

    “…little penile Indiana Jones’ traversing the Temple of Spunk…”

    Wow.

  20. Seresecros says:

    I second Muledriver’s wow. That was the best use of words ever.

  21. deadlytoque says:

    Robert: I skimmed it, but I stopped as soon as you started referencing things in the late-game. Sadly, at the rate I’ve been playing the game I don’t know if I’m going to finish it any time this year.

  22. Robert says:

    Toque,

    It’s only like five hours long – are you only playing it in fifteen second sessions? If so, might I suggest an adjustment of your meth schedule? Here’s a pro-tip: Space out your use of crystal by taking one ordinary breath in between each hit, you’ll last much longer and SPIDERS EYELIDS SEE EIGHT WAYS. THEY SEE LIKE EIGHT WAYS RIGHT? LIKE, IT’S LIKE EIGHT TIMES MORE REAL THAN YOU OR ME, MAN. FUCK. THIS… FUCK FUCK! FUCK THIS SCENE! I’M GUNNA GET SOME MCDONALDS, ARE YOU DOWN? THIS IS WHAT I NEED TO YOU KNOW FROM YOU: ARE YOU DOWN? DON’T BULLSHIT ME ABOUT MCDONALDS, CUNT, DON’T YOU FUCKING BULLSHIT MY CHICKEN SANDWICH!

  23. Pingback: BREAKING NEWS: Irony fucking sucks. — ifightrobots.com

  24. Irish soberman says:

    I listened to Yahtzee’s review of this game and I guess I am just going to have to play it dammit! 2 bloggers couldnt possibly be wrong! I quit reading about midway through to avoid any spoilers…and because my meth schedule was being interrupted

  25. Robert says:

    I guess I don’t remember the review…I thought his general consensus was that it was just so much pretentious bullshit?

    Is that a recommendation to you? If so, might I suggest watching Science of Sleep and listening to The Arcade Fire? It’s like pretending to know about red wine and artisan cheeses…in media form!

  26. Crowbar says:

    I tip my hat to you, sir. You managed to counteract the overall seriousness and depth of the text by making one of the tags ‘bush masturbation’.

  27. Char says:

    Damn….

    I really wanted to play Braid, I though with all the fuss it should be pretty neat game.
    But then again I knew I wouldn’t be buying a Xbox so I read on. It was great, the game sounded awesome, just the type of story I wanted in a game it seemed.
    Then I went to look for even more information on the game(since I was already spoiled), and what do I find? Braid is getting a PC release in 2009…

    Oh crap. At least I’ll be able to see it for myself. I can only consolate myself with the prospect of reading yours and David Wong’s book next year

  28. Robert says:

    Shit, that really might ruin some things for you. There are very few things that are actually spoiled for me by spoilers, and I think that’d be one of them.

    Also, hate to shit all over your dreams here – but my book will be coming out early 2010. You can hoverboard on down to your local holo-store and pick up a copy then.

  29. Pingback: Braid, motivo? | hilpers

  30. KilroyZTC says:

    I finished the game recently. I agree with your assessment, with one exception. I don’t think the game specifically targets gamers. Rather it is about the consequences of one’s actions in the abstract.

  31. Robert says:

    That’s art, though. The ability to have different interpretations based on the same subject.

    It’s not my fault if mine is awesome and yours is wrong: It is art’s fault.

  32. lil Shu says:

    Message:

    Story about an obsessive stalker? Think again…
    After the last/first level after you get the seven stars…

    the epilogue…

    There is where the true story is described. The books… and the hidden notes.

    *spoiler spoiler spoiler*

    The game turns out to be an analogy, an analogy for searching after a dark, difficult, insidious, and very real and specific secret. The specific secret is one revealed to the world in 1945. The entire game is an analogy of that secret. The books make mention of the bosons, the electromagnetic particles. The blurry city in the background at the beginning is actually the burning remments of a city if you look close with only a bridge left standing. The main character meeting the princess after getting the seven stars.. it’s not just that she disappears, is that the two actually move into eachother, hitting into one spot, and there is a deafening explosion sound and a flash of light.

    If this wasn’t hint enough, the epilogue, in one of the hidden texts is the phrase:

    “We are become death.”

    “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

    These are the fateful spoken at the creation of the atom bomb.

    The story is about the mindset and the madness that went into the creation of the bomb.

    *spoiler spoiler spoiler*

    For the record, Braid and Portal are two of the greatest games in the past decade. You can take your Call of Duty or your Maddan Football and shove it. Those are games for simple minded people who are intent on just having affirmed something they already know.

    Portal and Braid… they challenge you, and make you into something better, if you give them the chance.

    Braid with it’s deep social, science, and historical commentary, Portal with it’s hidden artistic value, and portrayal of a world run by the literally shattered mind that is GladOS. (Delving into that is a completely different piece of wonder)

    I’m not saying Portal or Braid are for any person or even any gamer. Portal and Braid are, to the gaming world, what a five-star restaurant is to the culinary world. Many won’t appreciate what it’s value is and would just rather get more food at the Chinese buffet down the street, but little do they know that the ones that choose to eat at the five-star with small portions and expensive prices truly are getting their money’s worth, and then some.

    It was was separates hardcore gamers out from the true gamer connoisseurs.

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