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August 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»braid

Now We Are All Sons of Bitches

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: "I didn't mean what I just said," and she would say: "It's okay, I understand," and she would not turn away and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience. Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.

There are going to be a lot of claims as to what Braid is really about, how its snippets of text and bizarre time-shifting translate into a story. It's about recovering from self-delusion, as far as I can tell, which is pretty impressive from a game that initially looks and acts like a Super Mario World clone.

Braid is, as its first level intro text explains, a game about a man named Tim who is looking for a princess (probably not a real princess, but whatever she is, Tim pursues her using that metaphor). He lost the princess because he made a great number of mistakes. Eventually she couldn't forgive any more and she left, "her braid lashing him with contempt." But Tim muses, in the text above, if time were so malleable that he could take things back entirely then she wouldn't have to forgive him.

If this seems a bit petulant, that's because it is. Tim begins Braid (begins being a relative term, since the narrative is clearly nonlinear) as someone who is unable to face his mistakes, and would prefer to daydream about a world in which they're instantly forgivable. In turn, the first level (World 2) introduces the rewind mechanic, where all the player's mistakes can be undone simply by rewinding time.

Each of the levels is loosely-linked to its introduction in a similar way. Tim considers a ring as a "warning" that changes his interactions with other people, and forces him to negotiate them with caution. Even so, the game says, "it doesn't get him what he needs. Tim begins to hide the ring in his pocket." What does the ring symbolize--commitment, marriage, empathy? Whatever it is, in the corresponding world the ring serves as a temporal anchor, slowing down time in its immediate surroundings. In physics, heavy objects distort gravity, causing time dilation. Perhaps the ring is also somehow heavy--with what, we have to decide for ourselves.

Or take World 4, "Time and Place." During its intro, Tim returns to several landmarks of his past: his parent's house, his university, his home. Walking to each, he thinks about how these locations are also points in his own personal timeline--the spatial and the temporal are emotionally linked. And so, in the levels of World 4, Tim's movements determine the flow of time. Moving to the left rewinds events, moving to the right advances them. By staying still, nothing changes.

These are, again, very loose metaphors, but they are leading somewhere. Gradually, if not literally, Tim is coming to grasp with his past--how did he get here? Why did the princess leave? Why is she always in another castle? Each level is a kind of fever-dream interpretation of his struggle to piece together his fractured personal narrative in a way that's free of self-deception. Tim's learning not to lie to himself, culminating in the big reveal at the end of World 1--I won't spoil it, but it's a profoundly unsettling transition. The epilogue, as described in this insightful Feministe post (spoilers!), then takes that reveal and carries it forward to a hopeful, if not happy, ending.

I enjoyed the puzzles in Braid--they're smart, layered, and playful. I liked its references, both in the narrative and in the level design, to other games--there are links to Ico, Donkey Kong, Elevator Action, Super Mario World, Prince of Persia, and others. It also incorporates images from science (the quote in the title of this post is taken from the first test of the atomic bomb) and art (each level includes as macguffin a watercolored jigsaw puzzle that must be assembled, forming an ambiguous--and often ominous--image linked to the level's narrative).

But ultimately, what made this game worth the $15 for me was the way that all of this is tied together. We've seen some truly impressive storytelling lately in gaming, with Portal's tragic portrait of GLaDOS and Bioshock's rich characterization and redefinition of game logic. Braid stands up to both of those, which is no small achievement. It takes Tim's internal character development and moves it outside into the players reach through both narrative and gameplay, without resorting to blatant exposition. If you're looking for art in gaming, I'd say that certainly qualifies.

Future - Present - Past