Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Braid

Number None, Inc.


Controlling a character as he jumps through complicated levels, bounces on his enemies’ heads, and tries to rescue a generically cute princess in a castle is an all-too-familiar trope for gamers. While Braid, released for digital distribution on Xbox Live Arcade and PC a couple of weeks ago, seems to start off retreading this familiar ground, almost every one of seven short worlds you play through adds a new gameplay mechanic, as a complex story unfurls.

Initially, you’ll need to cope with the idea that Tim, your character, can rewind time – all the way back to the start of the level if you want – in order to reattempt particularly difficult jumps or timed sequences. (Think a more difficult Super Mario World with Prince of Persia’s time-based mechanics.) Now, that’s all well and good, and a less involved (and dedicated) developer than Jonathan Blow, who spent five years working on the title, would have stopped there. Once you reach the second major world, though, you’re introduced to the concept of time-immune objects, which manifest as objects whose state takes precedence over their position. For example – you can fall down into a pit to collect a time-immune key, then rewind time to ‘jump’ out of the pit, key (whose state becomes ‘held’ as soon as you touch it) safely in tow.

There are also levels where time runs relative to your horizontal position on screen – instead of rewinding time, all you have to do is move back to the left of the screen. If I’m being honest, while fun, this is one of the cheaper mechanics of the game – your rewind function is reduced to just what it was in the Prince of Persia series; a way to ameliorate the (sometimes extreme) difficulty.

Most difficult to wrap your head around, though, are the levels where your ‘future shadow’ re-enacts the movement and actions just prior to your last rewind. It’s confusing as all hell, but the satisfaction when you deliberately kill your character, rewind, then watch as your shadow dies and you make the most of the resulting position of your enemies is very rewarding (if equally difficult to explain in this medium).

In later levels, as you near the (hidden) denouement, time simply begins to run in reverse, and it takes several attempts to reach the desired end-state. Once you’re there, though, you’ll experience a huge twist in the final level, where the (by then) simple ability to rewind time tells more of the story than any of your character’s actions can.

While gameplay is key to Braid’s success, the art direction of the game also stands out – painted (frame by frame, in the case of the character design) by artist David Hellman (A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible), the distinctive and organic painted backgrounds complement the structured mechanics of the game, and several layers of parallax scrolling really play up the developer’s and designer’s love of classic 2D platformers.

It’s rare that you’ll find a videogame that actively tries to hide its true story from you, or one with such an obviously unreliable narrator. Once you start looking for hidden aspects of the game, though, you’ll be rewarded, albeit with subtle inferences that all is not as it seems. The patterned flags that fall as you cross each level’s finishing lines at the end of each level correspond to nautical symbols for ‘stop’, ‘negative’, and ‘danger’, for example, and even the tomes that tell Tim’s backstory as you progress through the game get insidiously complicated. To add yet more shades of grey, some of these tomes are objectively discussing with Tim’s story, some are very subjective, and some are completely hidden from view, their contents ridiculously indistinct.

One thing is clear – the Princess you’re chasing after represents something more than a person, but the muddled and obscurantist narration confuses the matter somewhat. Shades of the Manhattan Project, theories about time travel, and reflections of love and loss abound, and while you’re likely to be left with more questions than answers after finishing the game, that’s usually the mark of a good piece of art, in any medium.

The idea of a plain old platformer raising questions about time, space, love and death – all at once – hadn’t seemed possible before I’d played Braid. After playing it, I can’t seem to shake the in-game feeling of security at being able to rewind my mistakes, and the real-life feeling of being incredibly unsettled by the game’s unfolding story. Suffice it to say that the game’s a must-play, and even at 1200 Microsoft points ($20), it’s comparable in narrative scope (and in time investment) to an emotionally charged film. Braid’s much like the fan favourite Portal, in that sense. In the same way, though, you’ll end the game wanting much more, and that’s something that just can’t (or won’t) be delivered. Braid is one of the best releases on XBLA this year, and its only shortcoming is its story – like Portal, since it wraps itself up so well at the end (or is that the beginning?) of the game, there’s little chance we’ll see downloadable extra levels or a sequel in the future.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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