"I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars." - Jorge Luis Borges
A video game loving writer could write a thousand posts about how certain video games can be considered art but none would put the argument forward as succinctly and as beautifully as Braid. Braid is a puzzle platformer game available via the Xbox Live Arcade and on PC which uses unique mechanics of time manipulation to make some of the best physical puzzle gaming since Portal.
And it is brilliant. It’s postmodern, respectful of the gaming subculture, intelligent, frustrating, satisfying, moving, deep, and significant. I’ve been a big fan of David Hellman’s art style for a long time and that along was enough to sell me the game (despite the apparently excessive £12/$15 price tag).
A while ago Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros which turned out to be a traditional side-scrolling platformer. Braid is a true New ‘Super Mario Bros’: a Mario game for the 21st Century. It acts as homage to Mario games from as early as Donkey Kong as well as offering a modern reinterpretation of them. This is a game that asks about the motivation of the Princess, specifically whether she needs to be rescued or not. It explores the peculiar mental states that lead Mario-like characters to be the ‘knight in shining armour’. It calls the player to ask questions concerning morality of a simple 2D-platformer. It offers a feminist perspective on a traditionally male-centred medium. It smashes the tropes of the video game industry: games no longer need to have a finite amount of lives to punish the player for bad play; they don’t need to have points; Braid does have traditional ‘bosses’ however which is slightly disappointing. In general Braid offers a postmodern deconstruction of these out-dated ideas that still linger around video game development. It proves that players will be happy with the intellectual thrill that comes from solving a challenging but logically reasonable puzzle – much like the thrill of solving the puzzles in Ico or Shadow of the Colossus which non-coincidentally are two of my favourite games.
Yahtzee’s review of the game is of course correct: the story and the gameplay are kept very distant (apart from during a mind-blowing final level) and the game does suffer for that. However the story and the gameplay are so good as individual factors that one scarcely notices the disjunction while playing the game: the gameplay is so much fun and the story, while insanely convoluted and pretentious, is unique and interesting – two characteristics often left out of games nowadays. I thought Yahtzee was being facetious when he quipped as to whether the Princess was the atom bomb but the game can in fact be read as offering a social commentary on the Manhattan Project and the nature of the world post-creation of the atomic bomb. Jonathon Blow (the writer) does a good job of keeping all the text deliberately ambiguous. Admittedly this does come off as slightly pretentious.
Braid is strange but beautiful – much like Hellman’s now-abandoned webcomic. It’s not going to change the video game industry: lamentably Team Ico will be never be quite as popular as Bungie. But it does try to change people’s perception and, for those who appreciate such things, that is a good thing in itself. Braid is a peculiar kind of genius and has all the makings of a future classic. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it will be remembered longer than Spore or Mercenaries 2.