“Braid” is a beautiful game. The art style is so vibrant, and I especially love the contrast between the impressionist oil paintings of the background and the sharp, outlined figures and terrain in the foreground. The distinctly defined black outlines around the characters stand out incredibly well in front of the soft, blotched landscapes that create the settings for the different worlds you traverse.
The music is also spectacular! Each track matches so well with the feel of each level. If there is a puzzle piece to collect in a certain amount of time, the music is dark and biting, hastening you on to solve the puzzle as efficiently as possible before the reward is locked out for good. If the stage is more laid back and allows you to view all angles and possibilities without interference from enemies, then the song is usually more relaxed and pleasant. Even if you don’t ever play the game, you should still check out the soundtrack.
The game has a great pace to it, adding in a new mechanic or unique element in each world. The game starts off simple with just the ability to run, jump, and rewind time. The next world adds in objects and enemies that are not affected by time shifts, so you now must plan and time your rewinds to match up with your objective (obtaining a key, jumping from a moving platform that is affected by time shifts to one that isn’t, etc.). After that is a series of levels in which the movement of the main character changes the flow of time – if you move from left to right, time moves forwards; but if you move right to left, time moves backwards. The following world has a shadow world behind it that can be used to manipulate the real world. A shadow version of Tim can be created by rewinding time, and the shadow will then run through the rewound actions in forward motion alongside of the real Tim. The final world gives you a ring that can be dropped to slow down time in the area immediately around it. There are also platforms scattered throughout the levels that Tim can stand on to make himself immune to time shifts for a short while. Most of these elements do not overlap between the worlds, which gives each world its own flavor and different style of problem-solving to overcome the puzzles.
The most difficult part of the game is not any specific puzzle or enemy or really anything that has to do with the actual gameplay. No, the most difficult part is wrapping my head around the story. The narrative of the game is created with texts that appear before the levels in each world. They tell the story of Tim, who is off on an adventure to rescue a princess from a hideous monster (sounds familiar, don’t it?). Apparently Tim and the princess were close companions, but Tim did something that shook that friendship and made the princess upset with him. He left the princess many years ago because he felt he needed more independence, but is now searching for her again to apologize. It is the text at the beginning of World 4 that makes what was so far a rather straightforward story become hazy, confusing, and abstruse:
“This improvement, day by day, takes him ever-closer to finding the Princess. If she exists – she must! – she will transform him, and everyone. […] So couldn’t he find the Princess now, tonight, just by wandering from place to place and noticing how he feels?”
So is the princess a real person, or an idea that has escaped Tim’s brain, or a feeling that he had at one point in his life that he is trying to recreate, or is Tim hallucinating, or… what? This is the point in the texts where the meaning and the story become ambiguous. I mean, the plot displayed through the gameplay is pretty straightforward and creates a nice twist in the final level (no spoiler here – go elsewhere to find that, or experience it for yourself… but mostly the latter option), but the texts throughout the worlds and during the epilogue are just… odd. There are allusions to the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in New Mexico; memories of a boy in Manhattan begging to go into a candy store; talk of a scientist tinkering with experiments and dissecting animals; and finally the boy at the candy store again, creating a castle in his mind using memories as the stones for the fortress.
It all seems so very… snooty.
The story is trying to do and say so many things in such an incomprehensible manner that – to me – it just trips over itself and winds up saying and meaning nothing at all. Have you ever viewed any modern, post-modern, or abstract art that looks as though it was drawn by a child, or one of the thousands upon thousands of pieces that looks like a jumbled mess of unrelated images under the pretentious title of “untitled”? Some of these works are simply art for the sake of art – creating images in a specific fashion because the artist wants it to look that way, but has no inherent meaning attached to it. Others are artists’ attempts at delving into their subconscious or unconscious, or perhaps a visual depiction of an emotion or other abstract idea. However, some of these paintings, sculptures, and the like are just bonkers, and the artist or critic tries to tie some deep spiritual meaning it that doesn’t make any sense. Someone will create or view one of these works and come to a comclusion about its meaning that probably required a laaaaaarge amount of mind-altering substances. Or perhaps it’s an everyday item that is called something else and is justified with a long string of philosophical b******t-babble.
This game’s narrative feels like one of those later examples – it’s just trying to be odd. Yes, the story and gameplay primarily deal with altering the flow and rhythm of time, so the tale of Tim’s quest for what he believes is an actual princess could be fragmented beyond comprehension or even delusional. So how much of the gameplay are we supposed to take as literal in the context of the story? Does Tim actually have the powers to reverse time? If so, what does that do to his mind? If we are to believe this universe contains a being that can control time for himself and everyone around him, does it stand to reason that other fantastical elements (such as a princess needing rescue from an evil monster) also exist in the narrative’s world? Or is Tim imagining that he has time control, and this belief is altering his perception of reality, thereby ruining his relationships with his family and the woman he leaves in order to search for the princess? Perhaps he is creating characters and scenarios for him to interact with as a means of escape from the pressures of his adult life.
I don’t know the answer, and I feel that the creator molded the game so that it could be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps it was made to spark a debate about the tired trope in video games and other fantasy story-telling where a hero must save a helpless princess from a foul beast, or perhaps it means more to him or someone else than a commentary on the story’s medium.
Whatever the case may be, I find it also completely possible to simply enjoy the game for the game itself – the time-changing elements, the platforming, the puzzles – everything that makes it an active experience rather than a passive story. So whether you care at all about the story or what it means to you or what it means at all in general, you should check this game out for the awesome visuals, the stunning music, and the unique and challenging gameplay that it has to offer.