BRAID / Number None, Inc. / PC


So, I go to college in the SF Bay Area. Various flavors of postmodernist academia are basically the capital-E Establishment here in the colleges of the humanities, which is where I spend my time. Postmodern academia gives me a massive, massive headache. And you know what? I feel that exact same headache coming on every time I fire up or even look at Braid.

I'm trying to stay out of the whole "Games As Fart" thing, even though Braid has been one of the titles most vigorously championed for the cause. I'm sticking to a more basic, nuts-and-bolts approach to reviewing here - my question is simply, is this game worth spending time and money on?

On first impression, the game is quite charming and involving. We're introduced to Tim, a financial-district-looking sort of chap who we are told has to rescue a Princess from a Monster. To do so he goes through levels of Mario-style platforming, complete with Goomba clones (though inexplicably covered in poo), pipes with voracious plants in them, cannons and lots of precision jumping.

Though the animated characters look pretty cheap and clip-art-esque, the backgrounds are a lovely sort of impressionist painting style with nice light effects. And while the game didn't have a formal soundtrack composed for it, creator Johnathan Blow selected and licensed seven or eight pieces of nice independent music, very string-heavy and ranging from folksy and Celtic to moody and ambient.


The atmosphere is nice, and the fundamental platforming gameplay is solid. Tim moves around the game world like a less-athletic Mario Mario, but his average-guyness is counterbalanced with the ability to manipulate time in various ways. The game is divided into six different "worlds", and in each world you are able to manipulate time in a different way. The first world gets off to an easy start by simply giving you a "time rewind" skill akin to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. This continues into the second world, which also adds the ability to fast-forward time, though I only recall fast-forwarding being needed for one puzzle. It also introduces the concept of objects that aren't affected by Tim's powers, which are outlined in a green glow, and manipulating them in tandem with your time skillz is key to solving a number of puzzles.

I felt like the game hit the wall with the fourth through sixth worlds, however, which basically consitute the second half of the game. The first major problem is that each new world introduces a more complex time mechanic, yet none of these are ever explained to you by the game. You only discover them through trial-and-error, which wouldn't be so bad since there's only two action buttons, but ways that the environment responds to your actions also have to be discovered entirely via trial-and-error on top of it. This leads to a game where 75-80% of it seems to just be trying random things until you brute-force a solution that sticks, as opposed to having enough information to reason your way through a situation. Also, any commercial publisher would be strung up by the nuts by the gaming public for not including any kind of manual or in-game instructions that covered all the player's abilities ... so why is "Im sorry, but I'm Indie and this is Art and instructions don't fit with my Vision" an acceptable excuse here, especially when retail for the game is a rather pricey $15 (considering there's less than ten hours of gameplay on hand here) ?

There's a fine line between enjoyable challenge and frustrating difficulty just for the sake of being frustrating, and I don't think Blow entirely gets this in his level design. Around the fourth or fifth world, the game really just starts feeling like more of a irritating series of chores and hoops to jump through than an enjoyable, engaging experience. So what's there to keep you going? The much-ballyhooed story seems to be what most people dig on above all else, and in that sense it's a very similar phenomenon to Shadow of the Colossus - if the game engages the player on an emotional level, they're willing to overlook significant flaws in the actual design, gameplay and mechanics. This is fundamentally a very subjective thing, and nearly impossible to approach from a critical perspective. All I can say is this - strip out the story and whatever "deeper meaning" there might be, leave behind just the gameplay and the puzzles, and what do you have left? That's the approach I'm taking in reviewing this game, and I feel like *as a game* it has as much tedium and non-enjoyability to it as it does enjoyable qualities, thus the Meh Face rating.

Now of course, you can say, "But the story and the deeper meaning are fundamental to the experience!" But see, here's the problem with that - like just about all postmodern work, in the end, the only thing it's really about is not being about anything in particular. The author himself says it's more about an "indescribable impression" than anything you can quantify, so if you can't say exactly what the meaning is, then how can you say the meaning is universally valuable? Again, it's fundamentally subjective - you're writing in whatever you want the experience to be. Since that's literally going to vary from person to person, the only fair way to evaluate the thing is to separate that element and look at what's left.

What's left is a fixed series of steps that one simply has to decode, making the game conceptually almost more like a Myst game than the Mario-style platformer it bases itself off of. In an interview I found while reading about this game, Blow criticized coin-collecting in Mario as being unethical and based on a sort of behavioralist "Skinnerian rewards model." Legit argument ... but how is what he's doing here all that different? The "reward", in this case, is uncovering more of the mystery of what Tim and the Princess are all about ... except that in the end you get nothing except an abstract kick in the grapes, and maybe an opportunity to go post a wall-of-text "personal interpretation" on a forum somewhere. And in the meantime, you're going through a series of trials that are just as often tedious and annoying as they are engaging and worthwhile in and of themselves. If the trials themselves are the point, and the reward is simply feeling clever because you deciphered them ... again, how is this any better?

Oh well. At least the money I spent on it went to charity.

Oh, almost forgot! I'll tack this little bit onto the end here since there's no other good space for it. There's no native support for a USB gamepad! You can get by with Joy2Key and such, but still - unacceptable for a platformer game.


Links :

* Braid soundtrack
* I'm guessing this is a big part of why people think this guy is a douche
* Games As Fart, srsly. (Spoilers)
* Good discussion (Pretty sure no spoilers)
* Rage-fueled discussion (Not sure about spoilers)
* Good article (Spoilers)

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
* Braid ending explained!
* Zero Punctuation review
* WOOOOOOOOP
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