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Developer: Number None
Release date: Available now
Review by: Ed Humphries
Braid is the single most important game released this year.
Ever since technology caught up with our hobby and evolved it from simple beeps and blips and tests of hand-eye coordination into a medium capable of spinning a decent yarn and taking players away to awe-inspiring worlds of wonder, the argument that games are art has gathered strength.
In the past year, the debate has raged, with film critic Roger Ebert famously battling author Clive Barker over the topic. Ebert declared that no game could be considered art since the creator hands over control to the user to craft the experience. Barker countered that exact point — that art is defined by the experience we take from our own individual encounters with someone else’s creative endeavor. Ebert’s assertions seem rooted in the past; the Neolithic 8-bit era and earlier (yes, gaming lacks a Cave Art period). Many of Ebert’s readers tossed Shadow of the Colossus into the mix as proof that this medium can inspire and stir the soul. The jury is still out on whether he agrees.
If the argument for games as art needed more support, designer Jonathan Blow just delivered the Sistine Chapel with the release of his masterpiece, Braid.
Braid is an easy title to describe but difficult to define. On the surface, it’s a 2D platform puzzler that places you in familiar territory — before pulling the rug out from under your feet. In the game, you control Tim, who lost his princess to a monster when he made a dire mistake. That’s the set-up for Tim’s journey through an escalating series of surrealistic dreamscapes as he seeks to set right the things that went so horribly wrong by encountering and besting a number of level specific brain games.
The controls are wonderfully simple, harkening back to the 8-bit joys that inspired this title. The A button controls your jumps, and the game design accommodates tight, pixel perfect leaps which can be key to some of the trickier puzzles encountered late in the game. The X button controls time, using a similar mechanic seen in the recent Prince of Persia titles, allowing you to rewind your actions in order to cheat death or solve the latest conundrum.
Each world is separated into different levels that contain anywhere from one to four puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces are easy to spot, but the trick to obtaining them usually involves solving an environmental puzzle using a combination of your jumping and time manipulation skills as well as the particular logic laid out in each world. For instance, on some levels, your actual movements will work to control time. When you move right, time moves forward; when you move left, time reverses. Proper manipulation of this logic, timed with your own temporal abilities, is the key to scoring that elusive puzzle piece.
While you can easily race from one end of a level to the other without picking up a puzzle piece, doing so ruins the point of playing. Braid is all about the journey. As you solve the individual puzzles, you’re rewarded with puzzle pieces that can be snapped into a picture frame. The completed pictures then become part of the overall narrative tapestry, with every image and sound doing its part to tell the story. Tim’s strange plight is eventually revealed through a masterful combination of the completed portraits, snippets of journals and, ultimately, through your actions as revealed in the game’s stunning (and emotionally shattering) conclusion.
Braid begins innocently enough. After exiting the dark city that heralds the game’s hub world, the player is thrust into a familiar environ. Tim find himself traversing two-dimensional levels from left to right against a scenic, pastoral backdrop, bouncing off the heads of single-minded creatures before ultimately reaching a castle perched at the end of the world, where a kindly creature offers our hero a dire statement: “We’re sorry, but the princess is in another castle.”
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