Unravelling Braid: When Games Transcend The Medium

Unfortunately, I’m compelled to preface this blog with a warning – if you’re the sort of person that gets upset by spoilers, even ones as inherently transparent and subjective as the ones discussed below, this article might not be for you.  In it, I’m going to dissect the PSN, XBLA and PC title Braid and attempt to cover the game’s true meaning and summise why, as a whole, the game is one of the finest bits of software ever created.

The boy called for the girl to follow him, and he took her hand. He would protect her; they would make their way through this oppressive castle, fighting off the creatures made of smoke and doubt, escaping to a life of freedom.

2. Braid might not be what you think it is. Sure, everyone’s (presumably) aware of the game’s time travelling mechanic and the often floaty, seemingly linear collection of storybooks that pepper each world’s level select screen, but all that’s little more than a means to an end.  A vehicle to give the player some objective focus and a device to unlock the other sections, but to assume that this is the be-all and end-all of Braid, as you go merrily speeding through the levels chasing the princess, is folly.  Braid, more than any other game that I can bring to mind, is about teaching the player that their actions, whilst reversible in the short term, can have devastating and persistent effects in the long.

He worked his ruler and his compass. He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. He was searching for the Princess, and he would not stop until he found her, for he was hungry.

3. Braid isn’t about chasing a princess, at least not in the literal sense. The princess device might suffice to give impetus and a sense of structure but under the fluffy exterior the storyline is actually about Tim building the first atomic bomb, his ‘princess’.  Several in-game objects place Braid in Manhattan during the Second World War (the Twin Towers for one and the Uncle Sam poster later for another) and we can reasonably assume Tim is part of the so-called Manhattan Project. The ‘princess’ being in another castle is purely the bomb not wanting to be discovered, not wanting to be created, and the game takes great delight in changing your perception of this ‘princess’ in the very last level, where you see ‘her’ actually trying to escape you, unless you’ve managed to collect all seven stars in which case the princess, once ‘caught’ (discovered) explodes.

On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World…

4. The entire game is played backwards. I don’t mean the bits where you hold down Square to rewind time, I mean the entire thing.  Let’s start with the easy stuff – the ‘last’ level is the first chronologically, and the one in which Tim’s actions are literally reversed (walking forwards causes time to go backwards).  Consider the doors in the last world (1), too, the final level is actually the first in the row of doors, and you can assume this is then the case for the other worlds.  Regard also the following: the flags are flying the ‘wrong’ way at the end of each world and the text in the books for world one strongly suggests that the people around Tim appear to move in the opposite direction to him, with his actions flowing against those of everyone else.  Of course, Tim is a play on words of Time.

Someone near him said: ‘It worked.’ Someone else said: ‘Now we are all sons of bitches.’

5. There are dozens of hidden metaphors. Casting our thoughts to the game’s princess for a moment, the constellation in the sky above Tim’s house is ultimately revealed to be Andromeda – often used to represent a Greek princess who was bound to a rock in chains.  Staying with the princess, the number on her mailbox at the end of the game is ‘6980’ – the ISO standard 6980 deals with radiation measurement.  And then there’s the infamous L.H.O.O.Q. version of the Mona Lisa in the princess’ art gallery, with Duchamp’s ‘version‘ of the famous painting widely considered a metaphor for making the audience cast aside preconceptions of what they think about something and look at it again with a completely different perspective – something Braid continually challenges the player to do.

“To build a castle of appropriate size, he will need a great many stones. But what he’s got now, feels like an acceptable start…”

1. Regardless of what you think, Braid is a beautiful game. I don’t mean in the subtext or the cleverness of the story, I mean both in terms of the exquisite visuals and the way the game rewards the player with a considerable sense of achievement at every step.  Yes, the graphics are stunning, but the game’s most attractive moments are when it causes you to gasp out loud at its power to evoke certain emotions – take, for example, the split second you realise that the tray in the painting in World 2, once the jigsaws were all place, could act as a platform.  Moments like that don’t happen in most games, and Braid, even without taking in everything discussed elsewhere in this blog, deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.

Braid, then, was designed to be played from any starting point and in any direction, even the credit sequence doesn’t get in the way of the big, overall circle that the game appears to reside in.  Save for the spoiler warning at the top of this blog, you’ll find this article offers the same trick.

Inspiration: GameFAQs (in particular the writing of ‘xg3‘), Braid-Game.com, Xbox World 360 magazine.