There's a Reason 'Braid' Wasn't a Bullet-Hell Game

by Nick Dinicola

27 March 2015

Disorder might have something profound to say, but it certainly doesn’t know how to say it -- or through what genre.

Braid made it look easy: Take one part platformer, one part puzzler, sprinkle in some “deep thoughts” between the levels, and presto—instant critical and commercial acclaim. But Braid only made it look easy. The puzzle-platformer may have become the indie go-to genre of choice in the wake of Braid‘s success, but that doesn’t mean that those kinds of games are easy to make, especially if they, also like Braid, aspire to be about something greater than their puzzles and platforming.
Disorder fails to find a proper balance between its narrative and its gameplay. It begins well enough with platforming puzzles that are clever if not particularly difficult and inner monologues at each checkpoint to flesh out the game’s protagonist. Over time, however, the difficulty of the platforming increases as obstacles are layered on top of each other: At first you’re just switching between a light and dark work to open up paths, but then you have to factor in platforms, then moving platforms, then hovering spikes, then bouncing on pad monsters, then darkness, then shifting gravity, then bullets, then doing it all upside down. Disorder is so focused on upping its challenge that it eventually changes genre, transforming from a platformer all about jumping and landing to a bullet-hell game all about flying through a tight space dodging projectiles.

Disorder does nothing to prepare or warn the player of its difficulty spike and subsequent genre change. It advertises its atmosphere and narrative above its gameplay: “Intriguing, ambiguous, downright disturbing psychotic atmosphere” it advertises. “An unsettling, humanizing platformer,” it emphasizes. It sells itself as a game about something, a game that wants to make you think deeply about its thematic content, yet playing Disorder feels like playing a game that slowly forgets itself.

At first, the narrative and gameplay of Disorder compliment each other. The floating text that represents your inner thoughts changes as you switch between the worlds, as if each world is a different personality, talking about the same thing in different tones, sometimes almost talking to each other. The two major elements of the game feel in sync.

However, as the difficulty grows, the gameplay grows away from the narrative. The many obstacles that stack on top of each other feel inserted at random. The sparkling spikes have no narrative relevance; the bounce pad monsters have no symbolic importance, let alone the gravity wells and guns. The game itself seems to suffer from conflicting personalities with conflicting purposes, growing apart and eventually splitting until one becomes dominant and takes over.

If this is actually meant to be the thematic point of the game, then it makes the mistake of emphasizing the part of itself that is the least conducive to critical analysis.

There’s a reason that Braid was a puzzle game and not a bullet-hell game. When you get stuck on a puzzle, it means that you stare at a screen trying to piece together the information as it’s presented, and if you can’t figure it out, you can always look up the answer. When you get stuck in a bullet-hell game, since it’s a matter of pure skill (and some luck), it means you’re trying and dying and failing over and over again, and if you still can’t figure out the pattern, you’re just screwed. In games of skill, the only solution to any problem is “play better,” so naturally any consideration of theme has to come second to considerations of control.

It’s a situation that’s not particularly conducive to deep thoughts about life, the universe, and everything else. Disorder might have something profound to say, but it certainly doesn’t know how to say it.

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