With the amount of hype surrounding its development and release in independent game circles, Braid has a lot to live up to. There have already been previous independent successes as far as downloadable titles for current consoles (Alien Hominid and N+ come to mind), but conceptually, Braid may be the most ambitious and high-minded yet. It’s a fairly risky proposition, particularly at Braid’s price point. But Braid succeeds at being enjoyable from a variety of different perspectives, and as such, it would seem that the challenges it faces have much more to do with mainstream awareness than quality, something that has faced many critically acclaimed games before.
On the surface, Braid is a simple, two-dimensional platform game. It becomes clear fairly quickly, however, that there is quite a bit more to it than that. The very basic platforming abilities and mechanics are there, but it is not possible to run and jump as fast or far as is common for most platforming protagonists. This is because Braid is a puzzle game in platform clothing, akin to the Game Boy Advance’s Klonoa titles or The Lost Vikings. To give the player too many traditional platforming abilities would be to distract from the core of the puzzles themselves. It may not be the most original idea in the world anymore, to be able to manipulate time in the course of a game, but Braid’s use of such mechanics remains unique throughout, mostly because each world has an ability that is distinct from all the rest. Since these abilities are only available in the worlds in which they are introduced, there is no character progression, and hence the order in which to play the game is largely up to the player.
In any given world, the player may focus on whichever of the 12 puzzle pieces they prefer. This is notable because there are no hubs within the individual worlds. The barriers from getting from one part of the world to another are virtually nonexistent, if the puzzle pieces are ignored. So even though a world is laid out linearly, the player may choose to approach it however they see fit. Further, it is possible to exit the current world at any time and move to any of the other unlocked ones. Such organic, malleable gameplay is refreshing in the context of a game that superficially looks to be a platformer. But given the importance of the notion of time to the overall narrative, it wouldn’t make sense for Braid to be overly linear.
Throughout Braid there are references to other games in the platforming genre in general, and the Mario series in particular, from the most obvious of Braid’s themes to its level structures. It is ironic, then, given the shallow narratives so often associated with platform romps, that Braid‘s melancholy meditations on regret and redemption are so heady, and that they function on so many different levels. For those that prefer to simply enjoy Braid as a puzzle game, the story is completely avoidable. Told through books the player encounters at the beginning of each world, there are no cutscenes to watch and no buttons to press to advance dialog. Braid puts very few limitations on how it should be enjoyed or played.
What is striking, then, about Braid is how difficult it is to pick any one aspect of the game as the best part. This is an example of a piece of media where all elements seem perfectly attuned to one another. Though the music is licensed from Magnatune, it’s almost difficult to believe it existed before, or independent of, the game. The artwork of David Hellman is even more affecting than that of the well regarded webcomic he illustrates, A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible. The canvas is both surreal and pastoral, likely something of an homage to the worlds presented by classic 2D platform games. Clearly a labor of love, the aeshetic elements are all finely honed to interact with one another, the narrative, and the gameplay.
As time has passed since the game was released, there have been discussions raging on internet message boards as to the nature of the plot. There is some intentional ambiguity throughout that allows for personal interpretation. As such, it seems not only unfair from a spoiler perspective, but moreover completely impractical to discuss the plot at all. That said, the moderate backlash the title has received with perspective to its melancholy tone (Ryan Davis of Giant Bomb wrote, “There’s a navel-gazing quality to the writing that can make it intermittently insufferable”) is notable. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with subjectively finding Braid’s narrative style to be irritating, though I do not. Further, as mentioned, the game is certainly enjoyable without paying attention to the story. But to either ignore or dismiss it is to necessarily miss out on the overall richness of the experience.
Braid is one of the most unique and enjoyable gaming experiences in recent memory, and the fact that it is only currently available as downloadable content for a console makes that even more notable. To focus on any one aspect of Braid outside the context of the whole may be to miss the point entirely, and it may not even be possible to have a fully formed opinion of the game unless you’ve completed it. But for a game so concerned with self-awareness and time, that is not all that surprising.