Thursday, August 4, 2011

Oh, what tangled Braids we weave

So we've talked about Braid before, but now that I've beaten it, I felt it deserved its own post. As a quick recap, Braid is a pretty standard indie puzzle platformer with time manipulation as its special gimmick. Each world introduces a new way that Tim's time reversal can interact with the game.
Tim puts together puzzles while a city burns

First off, aesthetics: Braid does a fantastic job of this. The worlds each look like they were lovingly crafted by an artist's brush. The paint strokes move and swirl, bringing life to this painted fantasy world. I love the way Tim's tie flies over his shoulder as he runs and how his hair bounces. The strange sheep enemies even seem at home. It presents a beautiful and clear world to progress through - I never wondered whether I could stand on something or not. The music, which the designer licensed, adds to this feeling. It's a haunting mix of cello, harp, and piano music, ranging from a song reminiscent of Brahm's lullaby to an upbeat fiddle tune, that I've practically had on repeat or the past couple days. I love string music, and the tracks in the game have been well chosen, using the many voices they are capable of to match the emotion of the story. The music is even bent with the time manipulation - slowing down or playing backwards with the objects in the game. Click play on the player below to hear the music through the site they were licensed from (Downstream is my favorite - the second track):

Music from Braid by Sieber, Kammen and Fulton

The gameplay in Braid is very simple - you can move left and right, jump, and go backwards in time. Bouncing on enemies lets you jump higher. Some objects behave differently when you go backwards in time. These are the tools you use to solve Braid's often mind-bending puzzles. The puzzles are definitely one of the game's strong points - they use the time manipulation very creatively. Often, I was not sure what to do at all. Only a few were difficult to execute once I'd figured them out (Fickle Companion and Impassable Foliage come to mind...). It was often difficult not to give up and turn to a guide or friend for help, but when I pushed through and figured them out on my own, it was extremely rewarding.
Books in videogames? What is this - elementary school?
I can talk about the story to Braid in its own paragraph because it is almost entirely unrelated to the gameplay. Before entering each world, passing in front of a few books gives you small glimpses into Tim's life, helping you piece together feelings though events that are only loosely strung together. However, in the end everything ties together into a strange and beautiful twist. I knew I had no idea what was going on - okay, I thought I had some idea. (I'm a writer. I pride myself in figuring these things out.) But I certainly didn't expect that. Anyways, I'm trying to avoid spoilers, so I'll stop babbling cryptically about the end. The vagueness of the story made me want to get to the end to figure out what was going on, though I would have liked it to be more integrated. It's an interesting story of mistakes, regret, and forgiveness - all difficult emotions to deal with, and rarely seen in video games. At the end, it's very human, and that's part of what makes it compelling.

I have read that there is an alternate ending to the story, which I'm interested to see. However, this requires gathering 8 hidden stars. I only know this because Jeremy told me. There is nothing in the game that I've seen to suggest that there's more to be found, which really bothers me. (Well, almost nothing - one place I can't seem to get... but nothing to suggest how I get there. And that doesn't make me think that there are eight stars to find) I'm refusing to look at a guide for how to find them, but I know that they're ridiculously tricky and I have no idea where to start looking. I'm all for things in video games, especially hidden stars, to be well, hidden and difficult to find, but I think this is a little extreme.
In case you were wondering, that's one of the trivial puzzle pieces.
In conclusion, Braid is a solid 2D platformer with a beautiful aesthetic and amazing music. It offers some creative puzzles, but often leaves the player with less information rather than more. The story, while it doesn't tie into the gameplay well, is confusing up until the end, when you see everything with astonishing, horrifying clarity. It is certainly one of the most polished indie games that I've seen, and it's definitely been making a name for itself.

But did I enjoy it? That's actually a really hard question for me to answer. There were some puzzles I thought were brilliant, the occasional that was trivial, and a few that were downright obtuse. The nebulous story didn't coalesce until the end of the game, and my brain's still mulling over it, trying to pull it all together. I will say that I didn't like the disconnect between story and game. Particularly because Braid has such an interesting concept to the story, I would have liked to have interacted with it more, felt like it was a part of the game. Though I can see where that might make the end reveal harder to pull off, I think it would have more impact if I felt more connection between the puzzles and figuring out the story. It's a lovely work of art in each respect (story, music, art, gameplay), but the pieces don't always seem to fit together for me.
Let me guess - another castle?
I would recommend this game to people who like creatively-done puzzles or want to see an example of video games as art. I think it was definitely worth the $2.50 I got it for, though I don't think I'd pay much more for it. I'm going to be going back to re-examine the story knowing the end, but I'm not sure if I care enough to complete the 45 minute speed run anytime soon.

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