I first heard about Braid last year when I attended Free Play 2007, the independent games expo here in Melbourne, in my capacity as Planet Nerd‘s roving reporter. Braid creator Jonathan Blow was the keynote speaker, though I missed his address and only caught him on an excellent panel about game design. The key thing that piqued my interest was repeated mentions of its “rewind” feature; this isn’t really a new idea – it’s been used in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, for example – but for it to be included in a game by an independent developer of Blow’s calibre certainly piqued my interest. Having been thinking about recently, I was doubly interested in the game when it was released this week for Xbox LIVE Arcade.
Once you get past the lovely prose and gorgeous painted visuals (by David Hellman of one of my favourite web comics, A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible) you quickly discover that this game is like an art-rock version of Super Mario Bros. You jump from platform to platform in a series of “Worlds”, jumping on the heads of diminutive enemies (who resemble Grug more than anything else), and trying to collect the pieces of puzzles which illustrate the game’s backstory.
The rewind feature is simple – you hold down a button and can reverse (or speed up) the time that passed before you pressed the button. This makes it one of those rare games where it is impossible to “die”, thus placing Braid in the company of my favourite game of all time, Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island. If you do do something fatal – fall into flames or spikes (or both at once) or touch an enemy – the game pauses so you can press the button and rewind. This “invincibility” shifts the focus firmly on to puzzle solving and lets the player feel free to try dangerous things, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have to start again from scratch. Blow reckoned it broke the platform game rule to not ask a player to make a “leap of faith”, and indeed one of the earliest levels is titled “Leap of Faith” and requires exactly that.
The only thing that stays in the present moment when you rewind is the consciousness of the player (and, it’s implied, that of the protagonist character, Tim). Time is fluid only in the sense that you can travel mentally back to an earlier physical state of the game universe and make different decisions. This changes as the game progresses, however, as some objects – which sport an inviting green glow – are unaffected by your time manipulation, so you can pick up a key from the bottom of a pit and then rewind your jump back up to the top, the glowing green key travelling with you. I believe there are other variations as you continue as well, though as yet I haven’t progressed past World 2.
Time travel in fiction is usually presented badly, and in games the causality is even worse (from a metaphysical point of view – it might not make a lot of strictly logical sense, but Day of the Tentacle is still great fun when controlling characters in different time zones). In physics terms, time travel allows you to break outside of the light cone effect that constrains real world causality – it lets us affect events which could not normally be reached by the speed of light from our current place in spacetime, and that has such huge implications that few people consider how it might actually work, instead preferring the usual sci fi “wisdom” that history “takes time to change” (which, again, is often great from an entertainment point of view – I love Back to the Future, even though logically its nonsense). So to make a game involving “time travel” that fully engages me without destroying my suspension of disbelief…well, it impressed me.
Braid keeps things simple – it’s more like using a DVD player than a TARDIS – and uses magic to explain the time shenanigans. It’s delightful and fun and beautiful – and, as y girlfriend pointed out, Tim dresses a bit like me and has red hair. Check it out!