If the past year has seen the critical gaming community boom, there seem to be two games that best represent that explosion: Braid and BioShock. A great deal has been written about the two titles and their themes have been explored. Likewise, both were very well-reviewed and have sold extremely well. They're both interesting from a critical perspective and extremely enjoyable. Their richness makes them appealing for gamers interested in critical discourse, but their popularity and thematic accessibility make those discourses accessible to nearly everyone. Neither title was the first to offer thematic depths, but they seem to have come along at the right moment.
It's interesting, then, that a great deal of the critical community has reacted somewhat negatively to Braid's themes. There have been several negative readings of the title. While it's not surprising to find some dissenters when presented with a title as highly praised as Braid, I think the so-called dissenters deserve better than an outright dismissal. I adore Braid, and I consider it a masterpiece, but I find myself in nearly complete agreement with many of its harshest criticisms.
Of all the negative pieces written about the title, it is Corvus' piece at Man Bytes Blog that has stuck with me the most. While I disagree with his conclusion that Braid is "a brittle platformer with dreams of being much more," he nails the title's biggest flaw squarely on the head: "Braid promises a lot." Braid was immensely hyped before release and that, coupled with creator Jonathan Blow's over-enthusiasm, set the game up for some level of thematic failure.
Braid came sweeping into the gaming community promising a level of narrative/gameplay integration as-yet unseen. Blow offered himself up as a kindred spirit, someone who understood what those interested in more thematically resonant games were looking for. I don't think that's a misrepresentation of Blow, however much he has become caught up in his title's supposedly cleverness. Unfortunately, his positioning of Braid as The Next Big Thing, coupled with his very popular lectures, placed the title in an unreasonable light.
BioShock, on the other hand, also experienced massive hype. But while the game was positioned as something deeper than usual, it wasn't until reviewers and players were able to experience the title and its final act that a consensus seemed to be reached that this was something special. BioShock had potential and, for most gamers, it delivered. Braid had promises and, on many levels, it failed to deliver.
The promises Braid and Blow made were fairly straightforward, the main one being powerful themes through narrative/gameplay integration. The reason the game fails on that level, or seems to, is that the story is rather anemic and obvious. For all of its supposed complexity, Braid can be summed at its most basic as: However much our minds distort it, time is what it is. This fairly basic theme is neither fresh nor insightful. Anyone going into Braid expecting a complex, challenging theme is likely to be disappointed.
To give Blow his due, however, Braid's gameplay is the perfect embodiment of that theme. It may not be complex, but the title does make its point without any difficulty. When, after a few hours spent manipulating time, the goal is unattainable, the point is made with a great deal of power. Whatever the title's flaws, World 1 is a monument to ingenious game design. Whether or not it is complex, the title does work on that level.
Unfortunately the further you drift from the core gameplay and the final world, the less satisfying the title becomes. The introductory text placed at the start of each level is every bit as obvious as it first appears. Yes, it seems nonsensical and requires closer reading, but by and large, it is instantly recognizable as either a gameplay description or ephemeral and irrelevant back-story. We can see Blow's guiding principle of narrative/gameplay explicitly manifest itself here, but the dense wording and borderline emo writing confuse the perfect synthesis of Tim's intent and the upcoming world's gameplay. By time we arrive at the epilogue and its mind-numbing vagueness, elements of the narrative have overstepped themselves, and we're left with the choice to be disappointed with them or to simply ignore them.
If we take the narrative even further and pursue Braid's alternate ending, we are presented with some kind of nuclear-bomb-as-metaphor hypothesis. Suddenly an off-handed quote from the epilogue becomes an indication of a parallel meaning that, beyond the final ten minutes, is in no way supported by the game's narrative or gameplay. This alternate ending takes our very clearly realized theme—however much our minds distort it, time is what it is—and tries to horseshoe an alternate realization into it. Suddenly it becomes less about how we remember and more about how actions are final and we cannot undo what we've done. Certainly the two meanings are close, but the original reading is far more challenging in its willingness to allow a person to remember as they want to remember. The nuclear bomb theory blatantly turns the game into an attempt to undo versus an attempt to understand.
Why, then, do I insist that Braid is a masterpiece? Surely that's a far too glorious title for something both thematically shallow and deeply flawed. Of course, I absolutely enjoy Braid as a gameplay experience. I'm a huge platform fan and a sucker for logic puzzles, so on the most basic of levels I enjoy Braid tremendously. I really enjoy playing it, and I like coming back to it after a couple months, when the solutions have slipped my mind, and working my way through the entire thing again. Enjoyment does not, however, equal a higher standard, and it does not, in and of itself, make a masterpiece.
And yet, the game is a masterpiece. Not because it delivers on the promises Blow made, but because of the incredible accuracy with which it deconstructs the platforming genre. Braid is probably the most successful critical gaming analysis to ever take the form of a game. As much as Blow failed to offer a particularly challenging theme, his deep understanding of game and narrative mechanics shines through. The closest analogy I can think of is Mulholland Drive, which is difficult and confusing on a narrative level but one of the most rewarding looks at film narrative ever mounted. Likewise, Braid's narrative is about remembering and time, but its ultimate result is a complete understanding of what makes Super Mario Bros. tick and our relationship with that title (and others like it).
On the most basic level, Braid is working as an explicit homage to Mario. The game's artwork consistently echoes a dream-like interpretation of the Mushroom Kingdom. Tim's colouring is instantly recognizable as Mario-esque, and the game is littered with enemies that function as (and slightly resemble) goombas, koopas and several other Mario villains. One of the most amusing things about Braid is its ability to take a classic format, such as the Donkey Kong girders, and make them completely unfamiliar just by the addition of time manipulation. Likewise, the story is quite earnest in its parallels. The central conceit is to save the princess. The characters tell you to look in another castle. The game is, without question, a love letter to Miyamoto. But those are merely artistic elements and have little to do with Braid's greater relevance.
So let's go back for a moment to the 2D platformer, particularly of the NES/SNES eras. At its most basic level, the platformer is based on a very simple concept: you have a series of platforms upon which you can safely walk, and using those, you must navigate from one side of the screen to the other. The most simplistic of this model is the non-back-scrolling title (Super Mario Bros.) but there are more complex forms that offer hidden passages and the possibility for some exploration (Donkey Kong Country). There are more extreme exceptions, like Metroid and current-Castlevania, but they fall into a decidedly unique sub-genre. What the traditional platformer does is force the player into a trial-and-error scenario. If you die, you try again.
In a title where the entire premise is to go from point A to point B, the central motivation needs to be nothing more than an end-objective. "Save the princess!" works so well because it is instantly understandable. As soon as we're given the objective we instantly understand it. No questions asked. Indeed, if you look at Mario you find the original title offers this motivation in its instruction manual and not as integrated gameplay. We need a reason to motivate ourselves when platforming, but that's where our demand for narrative ends.
That's not to say the narrative doesn't have some responsibility in the middle of the game. One of the more clever elements of Super Mario Bros. is its world divisions. Though they have since become more useful in establishing unique scenery, world divisions also offer a progress meter. There is no narrative value to "The Princess is in another castle!" but it works to keep us engaged, merely by its acknowledgment of progress. In the post-arcade industry, the finite experience had to be acknowledged. The goal became to satisfy the player and then have them move on by buying your next game. There was no need to milk quarters with a seemingly unending experience. Narrative in the platformer is, essentially, an acknowledgment that there is an ending up ahead. You can save the Princess.
The actual platformer gameplay uses a similar technique. Trial and error has been examined in closer detail than I will delve into here, but the main hook boils down to the near-miss. You work your way through a level, stomping goombas and barely making it over pits. Just as the flag is in sight, you hit the button a moment too soon and fall to your death. You are then forced to work your way through the entire level until you reach the same point again and, likely with a slight pause to make sure you've collected your wits, you jump again. The challenge of platform design is to balance the success and failure rate so that players feel challenged but not frustrated. Failure is often the hardest thing to get right.
These basic conventions have, with some exceptions, defined the platformer. Even 3D titles, most of which offer some form of health meter, maintain pits and hazards that instantly end gameplay. It really wasn't until last year that we saw a game make failure nearly irrelevant and the results were somewhat mixed. Enter, then, Braid. It is 2D, it is familiar, and it offers trial and error. If you saw only screenshots you'd expect it to be a Mario clone. But Braid changes one thing, and it makes all the difference: It lets you undo your mistakes.
World 2, Braid's first, is straightforward. You don't need time manipulation until you're nearly at the end. Even then, the manipulation is simple. You can go back or you can go forward. You can erase and try again. It's an amusing level the first time, but is also Braid's most simplistic and least interesting. It is a direct manifestation of the simplest wish every platform player has: Just rewind it three seconds, and let me try again!
Then, things get interesting. World 3 adds another twist: elements that cannot be rewound. The puzzles are slightly more difficult and require some forethought. While World 2 can be played like a traditional platformer by charging ahead and reacting quickly, World 3 stops the player short, and suddenly, you're playing a puzzle game. That transformation becomes more complete the further into the game a player progresses. By time World 6 is reached, and time can be manipulated in multiple ways, the game is painfully difficult. The very simplistic platformer, a form Braid's level design remains true to, has become a labyrinth of complexity. There is no more almost; you either solve the puzzle or you don't.
While the platformer is being transformed, Braid is presenting a warped version of Mario's narrative. We have the most basic concept - save the Princess - but it has become confused and often unintelligible. At the same moment as we are struggling to solve a puzzle, we are being told Tim isn't even sure who the Princess is or if she exists. The in-gameplay narrative, which is nothing more than the directly stated "Princess is in another castle," is completely undermined by the text before each level. Braid is, almost mercilessly, mocking us. We're so willing to blindly accept motivation that, even when the game is quite loudly broadcasting its eventual ending, we continue to assume we can win.
This is why Braid's narration, for all its silliness, is completely successful. It's meant to baffle; it is meant to be rather inane. Why? Because so is the narrative we're normally so willing to accept. The Princess has to be the least-developed, least-interesting of all the traditional gaming narratives. It's so thin, it's become a cultural cliché. Tim's confusion over the Princess is outright profound compared to our blind acceptance of "Save the princess!" as some sort of narrative. Because it's not narrative. It's simply justification for action.
Braid's point in mocking our acceptance of the narrative, however, is not mean spirited. It doesn't look down on us for accepting blindly. It merely wants to reveal to us what we're doing. We're playing something because it's fun, and the journey, not the motivation, is very much the point. The only possible way to rectify something like narrative-free Tetris and narrative-focused BioShock as being of the same medium is to accept that the experience trumps all else. The time spent playing is the purpose, not the plot or the ending. BioShock uses its experience to offer insight, and I think it's a more satisfying experience for that, but it is still all about experience.
The experience of Braid is so unfamiliar in its familiarity that it's often hard to see it at anything but face value. We know what Braid is, or what it's supposed to be, and yet it constantly tells us it's something different. Save the princess! There is no princess! Take your mistake back! Regret it! Is there anyone who, by time they reach World 6, doesn't slightly long for the simplicity of Super Mario Bros.? In the moments of greatest frustration there is nothing more appealing than the prospect of just running and jumping without having to think about consequences.
It is at this point, when the game seems to be on the verge of being too complex, that we reach World 1. In one of the smartest design decisions ever, Blow gives us exactly what we want: simplicity. Much like World 2, World 1 is exactly what we thought a time manipulation platformer would be: you make a mistake, you undo it and you continue on. It's not the easiest level, by platform standards, but it's reasonable. You work your way through it one obstacle at a time and then, at long last, you reach the goal. There really was a Princess after all.
Only not. In the past twenty years of platform gaming there have been downer endings. None, however, are the complete brick wall that is Braid's final scene. It doesn't just make you the villain, it stops you in your tracks and tells you, simply, no. You may not win. You may not save the princess. It's impossible. It cannot be done. And what if you're patient and work your way towards the alternate ending? Boom. The princess explodes. There is no saving her. You have to lose.
There's no doubt how resonant Braid's ending is. It will be remembered as one of gaming's most organically shocking moments ever. But the gut punch it delivers has nothing to do with narrative. Tim's failure is profound, but is there really anyone who identified with him? He's less defined than Mario and, if the narrative text is supposed to be his inner-monologue, he's somewhat insufferable. The story in Braid is not powerful. The ending definitely is. It speaks to the gamer; Tim is merely the conduit. It takes everything we thought we knew about playing a platformer, and it sheds light on it. The gameplay doesn't work out like we thought, and that implicit narrative contract we thought we had with the game is bogus. It makes us aim for something and then denies it to us.
So after the Princess has been saved, by someone else, and you pass into the epilogue, Tim becomes this kind of dreamy wisp. He builds a house in the city, and all the people are around, and there are voices, and yadda yadda yadda. Who cares? The game ended the minute you realized you can never save the princess. This perfunctory epilogue, every bit as confusing as the rest of the narrative, completes the story. That we don't care about the story isn't surprising. That we're left thinking about a difficult game with a stupid story long after we stop playing most definitely is.
The reason it works is because while Braid's narrative is about Tim and the Princess and its theme is about relationships, remembrance and the past, the point of the game is to show us the clockwork underneath the platformer and, especially, our relationship with narrative in a genre where gameplay is everything. Our experience, our frustration and the eventual shock ending all make their point about time manipulation. It's not simple. Changing the past is messy, difficult and probably not worth it.
In the same way, the need for boundaries in a platformer is paramount. If you mess with the basic facets of a video game, you make it far more complicated and difficult. If you try to add character or narrative you need to be aware of its real role. However powerful it may be, narrative is not the point, nor is gameplay. Experience is the point. Games are experiences, and their themes are best communicated when they are the very fabric of what you see and do. The ending hits us hard because it affects us, the player, directly. Tim is entirely irrelevant.
As much as Braid reveals how we communicate with the platformer, it also proves Jonathan Blow's original point: Thematic depth is most effectively achieved when narrative and gameplay are unified. Braid's narrative is asinine, its gameplay difficult, but the two elements continually work to reveal each other's strengths and weaknesses. I had no problem pinpointing what doesn't work about the title, but the impact of those final moments is undeniable. The lasting memory remains because the game uses our natural tendencies as a player to make its point. It makes the story about us. Gameplay is the narrative in Braid; their integration is total.
Ultimately Braid works because it isn't Jonathan Blow's example of what his thesis for narrative/gameplay integration can deliver. Braid is his thesis. The game is a conversation with us about the ways in which narrative and gameplay interact in both platformers and games in general. We can use that understanding to further our appreciation of games and also to create more thematically satisfying ones. Braid helps us to understand what unified narrative and gameplay look like.
The Princess herself is in another castle.
Next time: Passive narrative and the Final Fantasy series.
Logan Crowell has a degree in film from York University. He is a lifelong gamer who has written for both print and online media.