Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Praise of Braid

After replaying the classic puzzle game Braid this weekend, I realized I've barely even mentioned it here! Clearly this must be rectified. Even more than similar works like Portal, Braid sublimely demonstrates how games can be more than mere diversions. Instead, it is a work of art.

The easy first bit of the game.
Braid is a platformer puzzle game with mechanics similar to those of the classic Mario franchise. You run around two-dimensional worlds, climb ladders, stomp enemies, solve puzzles, and occasionally fight a boss. What distinguishes it is the time travel. Your avatar, Tim, possesses the ability to rewind time. Instead of relying on a store of lives to get him through danger, when killed he is obliged to simply rewind time to before his death and try again. The time mechanic is the core of Braid's fascinating, puzzle-based gameplay.

Sometimes the Mario homages are more blatant.
In the first world, the time mechanic simply allows Tim to complete some challenges and puzzles that would be infuriatingly difficult without it, like a blind leap into a pit with strategically-placed spikes. But in subsequent worlds, things get more interesting as more mechanics are added. Objects and characters that glow with green magic are unaffected by Tim's temporal meddling, moving normally as he is freezing or rewinding time. In one world Tim gains a shadow that repeats whatever actions Tim just rewound, allowing you to partner with yourself to solve some puzzles. In a particularly memorable world, the passage of time is directly tied to Tim's position; moving forward advances time, moving backward rewinds it.

One of the more action-packed levels.
Hopefully you can imagine the kind of brilliant, elegant, and diabolical puzzles this allows for. Beyond that, the gameplay is very simple: collect puzzle pieces and rescue the princess. But the time mechanic is so engrossing, so well-executed that the game doesn't need to consist of much else. Pictured below is my favorite puzzle: it took me around half an hour to figure out the simple solution for the first time.

One key, two locked is Tim going to get this puzzle piece?
Beyond the basic gameplay, there is plenty more to enjoy about Braid. The plot is minimal and unobstrusive, but surprisingly well thought-out. Books at the start of each world tell the nonlinear story somewhat cryptically, tying it in with whatever time mechanic is being introduced in that world. Other clues are filled in by the puzzle you assemble from each world's collectible pieces. As you progress, it draws you deeper, leading you to the possibility that the "princess" is more than just a literal damsel-in-distress... I won't spoil the ending, but it is a brilliant twist made possible only by the time mechanic, exemplifying the deep intertwining of gameplay and plot that Braid demonstrates (to say nothing of the secret ending...).

It gets much deeper from here.
The more artistic parts of Braid are what really complete it as an aesthetically fulfilling game. The game's licensed soundtrack is soft, beautiful, and pensive. As you rewind, freeze, or fast-forward time, the music stops or changes its speed accordingly, giving you satisfying audible feedback for your actions; there are also similar visual cues. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous, as the previous screenshots have shown; the game is vibrantly illustrated like a storybook brought to life, and each world has a distinctive visual theme. Mechanics, plot, and eye/ear candy all fit together incredibly well to create a game that is surprisingly emotive and immersive for being so short and two-dimensional.

The screen you are treated to at startup. A burning city never looked more beautiful...
Braid is only $10 on Steam, barring any sales.

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