If we learned anything from Portal, it’s how a shorter game can offer as complete and fully realised an experience as a big-budget mainstream title. Perhaps even more so, because it can be tighter and more focused. It can dispense with the need to stretch out its ideas to occupy the 8 – 10 hours considered the mandatory minimum for a full-price game. It can divest itself of any filler and present just its most interesting concepts, allow us to enjoy them only as long as they remain interesting, and then come to a conclusion in its own time, without overstaying its welcome. In Braid, Jonathan Blow has created a game which is the best proponent of this philosophy since Portal itself.
Despite its beautifully painted backgrounds and slick animation, Braid‘s basic interactions could have been taken from any 1980s platform game (and in fact, it contains a few explicit nods to platformers of that era). Your character can move left or right, and jump. Enemies are dispatched by jumping on their heads. Keys and other objects are picked up by walking over them. Some objects, like doors and switches, can be activated by pressing B while standing near them. So far, so unremarkable. The interest lies in one other important ability: at any point, by holding X you can rewind time, undoing every action you’ve taken right back to the start of the level. This mechanic isn’t original to Braid, but never before has it been so tightly interwoven with the core gameplay, or so essential to solving puzzles.
And solving puzzles is what the game is all about: although it has the appearance and basic mechanics of a platformer, Braid is first and foremost a puzzle game. The real goal in each area is not just to reach the exit, but to collect the jigsaw pieces scattered around. The levels are to be solved, not simply traversed; the latter usually being a simple matter, sometimes no more than walking to the other side of the screen, the former anything but simple.
Each of the worlds has a different time-warping property; for example in one world, whenver you rewind time, the actions you just rewound are repeated by a shadowy doppelganger. In another, time advances with every step you take to the right, and rewinds with every step you take to the left. These effects, along with the basic rewinding mechanic, are at the heart of all of Braid‘s puzzles.
Since the puzzles form the main part of the game, it’s fortunate that their design is uniformly excellent (though they are only the second best thing about Braid). They range from merely satisfying to astonishingly clever, and take full advantage of the rewind ability and how it interacts with the individual properties of the various worlds. Many will require you to bend your brain into unfamiliar and uncomfortable positions, but the solutions are always gratifyingly elegant and logical. Each one is different and surprising, never taking the easy option of reusing a previous puzzle idea with minor alterations. The range of ideas on show could easily have sustained a game twice Braid‘s approximately 4 hour length, but probably only at the expense of each challenge’s uniqueness and individuality. The decision to make a shorter but more varied game may seem somewhat controversial in view of the tiresome internet outcry over the game’s pricing, but it’s unquestionably the correct one.
Before the entrance of each of Braid‘s worlds is a chamber made of clouds, containing a number of books on pedestals. The books represent the game’s story, such as it is, each containing a paragraph or so of text, which you can stop and read (or not). These vignettes are written in an impressionistic style, forming no clear narrative. Themes in the writing reflect the unique temporal mechanics of each world, and it’s a little disappointing, therefore, that it’s presented completely separately from the main gameplay. This kind of storytelling won’t be to everyone’s taste; those who prefer an unambiguous plot will be disappointed. More light, perhaps, is shed by the absolutely stunning, inspired ending (the best thing about Braid), and the epilogue. But then again, perhaps not. Even with all the information, the game admits many interpretations.
It doesn’t matter. Even if the story and possible deeper meanings do nothing for you, the beautiful environments and exquisite puzzle design make Braid worth buying all by themselves. If you enjoy the writing and connect with the story on any level, it’s an unforgettable experince. And, of course, that ending. It may last only a few hours, but the memory will stay with you for much longer, and that’s worth 1200 of anyone’s Microsoft Points.