Since Braid was recently released on PC, now is a wonderful time to organize the discussion that took place last fall following the game’s initial release on XBLA. Organizing the dispersed conversation and criticism that surrounded Braid will allow those experiencing it for the first time to catch up and add their own thoughts, as well as encourage others to take a second look at the game with the added benefit that, ahem, a bit of critical distance affords.
Braid was initially received with far more aplomb than most other XBLA games. Jonathan Blow, the game’s creator, was already known for his bold claims about the unrealized potential of video games through his lectures on experimental design and the integration of story and mechanics. So Braid was expected, by some, to fulfill those claims and herald a new age in video game storytelling.
Braid’s gorgeous artwork was created by David Hellman and both it and the music (selected specifically by Jon Blow) create a unique presentation for the gameplay. Though the presentation was undoubtedly helpful in gaining the game recognition, it was not to be the focus of the discussion surrounding it.
At first glance, Braid appears to be a platformer, but it is a puzzle game at heart. The puzzles are built around the ability to manipulate time in an ever-changing fashion across five worlds. The game, however, is more than just puzzles.
Iroiquois Pliskin began to explore Braid in a letter to Michael Abbott, describing Blow’s experimentation with narrative as the anti-thesis to the sandbox worlds in a game like Grand Theft Auto 4. Blow used snippets of text between levels “to color the player’s experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles.” Michael, however, sensed a “disconnect between the game’s narrative ambitions and the mechanisms Braid relies on to deliver them.”
Joining the conversation, Corvus Elrod called Braid “a brittle platformer with dreams of being more,” citing the game’s difficulty and single-mindedness as a barrier to the player’s ability to discover the story for themselves. Max from WorldMaker wondered whether Blow’s game was a failed experiment .
At SexyVideogameland, Leigh Alexander’s friend Sean thought along similar lines, “[i]n a puzzle game, failure means, ‘failing to figure out the designer’s thinking,’ which is less fun or interesting than a lack of skill on my part that I can try to improve upon,” and Daniel Golding hated the game because he “became so sick of failing, of the impenetrable – and sometimes, seemingly arbitrary – nature of many of the puzzles. ”
But What Does It Mean?
Those that were able to complete Braid’s sometimes fiendishly difficult puzzles were left with the task of deciphering what it was all supposed to mean. Shawn Elliott saw the game as an attempt at “intertwining form and content.” The gameplay mechanics expressed meaning that was “often at odds with the messages explicit in games’ official stories, such as those told through cutscenes or on-screen text.” Michael Clarkson accounted for Braid’s conflicting elements instead of considering them a flaw, suggesting that the analytical Tim, the game’s main character, cannot find the princess because he is unable to comprehend both the scientific and artistic. Julian Murdoch, however, thought that Blow’s voice obscured the game’s meaning, perhaps intentionally, by trying to “create conversation about the artist and his process, rather than the work itself.”
Holly at Feministe examined Braid through the relationship between Tim and the princess, described through text and the game’s final sequence. Despite being late to the party, L.B. Jeffries still managed to uncover a new angle by focusing on the writing in the game, and by shuffling the order of Braid’s text to distill meaning.
Jonathan Blow was more than willing to add his voice to the discussion by raising concerns about player’s attempts to unravel Braid in a number of comments on blogs and in an interview with Chris Dahlen from the AV Club. Blow’s perceived attempt to control analysis of the game angered many, including Tom Armitage who disagreed with the idea that only the game creator’s exact authorial intention, as yet undiscovered, was valid.
The statements Blow made in the AV Club interview, as well as across the blogosphere, became a popular reason to dislike the developer, so he explained himself in the comments section of Julian Murdoch’s article on Gamers with Jobs (long comment near the bottom), saying that he regretted making some of the statements, but never intended to suggest his interpretation of Braid was definitive.
Some bloggers ignored all the controversy over the meaning of Braid’s narrative, and instead examined the specifics. Erik Hanson looked at Braid’s worlds separately and in exquisite detail to examine how the mechanics of each expressed meaning. Notably, he also transcribed the text of the game, both plain and hidden. Krystian Majewski examined the game’s difficulty by dissecting several of the puzzles and showing how their “pitfalls” create frustration for the player.
In the end . . .
Regardless of the criticism Braid received, players were impressed with what Blow had designed and created, and the game will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the first commercially successful indie games that attempted to redefine how games convey story.