Last year the video gaming community was abuzz over Braid, an Xbox title that has been described as “Super Mario set in the future.” It wasn’t like most popular games: it was short (it could be beat in a day), its graphics were pretty but far from state of the art, and it was designed in unrevolutionary 2-D. It had also been made independently, not by a large commercial game company but mostly by one man. Its developer, Jonathan Blow, spent most of his life savings on the game and when he put it up for download on the Xbox’s online server he didn’t think it would cause much of a stir (he was dead wrong). Braid — whose protagonist is a young man named Tim who has the ability to pause and rewind time — started outscoring commercial Xbox games that had cost tens of thousands of dollars to make. But more importantly, it left players rethinking what video games are all about.
Although the two games may look similar, Braid is anything but a Super Mario Bros. clone. Tim’s apparent goal is to find his “princess” and he travels through several lucid dreamlike worlds to do so. Each world is characterized by a different quirk in its time function. In World 3 for example, time moves forward if Tim moves forward, but it moves backwards if he moves backwards. In World 4 Tim can create a duplicate of himself that reenacts his last actions. The gamer needs to take advantage of such quirks to solve puzzles and collect jigsaw pieces.
There is no “title screen” or “introduction.” Instead game play starts abruptly without an explanation. There is no concept of death because the player can rewind time. The level designs are playful and painterly, designed by web comic artist David Hellman. Each level looks like a vivid breathing CÃ©zanne painting and the dreamy sound track is good enough to listen to by itself. And there is no clear story line. The initial princess-search plot eventually turns dark, symbolic, and open to interpretation. But most importantly, Braid makes no assumptions about its player. If anything, Braid is a statement against Super Mario.
“I’ve been playing video games for a large part of my life and at some point it’s just the same damn game as it was before with minor changes,” says Blow, who has a calm, monkish appearance: he’s mostly bald with a band of shaved hair running down the center of his head. He came up with the idea for Braid while he was vacationing in Thailand and then spent most of his trip seated, compelled to starting programming it. He is known in the gaming industry for his prodigious programming abilities and for his impassioned criticisms and views on the industry, both of which manifest themselves in his games.
“If I’m playing a new shooter and my guy has different looking armor than he did in the last shooter, I don’t care. So the question is once we get used to games, what do they have to offer us inside that structure that’s being repeated again and again?” he says. “Is there anything to take away from that to keep us interested? Or is it just trying to pump the addiction meter and not really give us anything? That’s a question I think the gaming industry has yet answered successfully.”
Eric-Jon Waugh says Braid is an answer to that question. Waugh is former writer for Gamastura.com and was one of the first to see the game. “The whole principle behind Braid is very deconstructionist,” he says. “It serves to question the assumption about what makes a video game a video game and what video games serve to express. Game design has been extremely vertical over the last 25 years. There have been no challenges to the original assumptions of them – of how they can be used to express concepts. If you take the best games of today: Gears of War, Resident Evil 4, they’re just building off the original idea of Super Mario. Its mostly subconscious, but it’s the same in terms of their dynamics, in the assumptions they make of the player. Braid turns that upside down.
“From a musical perspective it reminds me of punk rock,” he adds. “There were all these assumptions about what a pop single or an album should be but then Sid Vicious came around and said, ‘Fuck that, this is how music should be made.’ I think Braid is the first step in a new movement toward designing video games in a more critical perspective based on the essential nature of the medium. It’s a pretty big step.”
The most obvious way Braid doesn’t make assumptions is with its time warping puzzles. A simple example: a jigsaw piece lies on the other side of a locked steel door; to open it Tim must pull a lever nearby. The problem is that the door closes as soon as he lets go of the lever. To get the piece Tim has to create a time duplicate of himself to hold the lever so he can then run through the door to get the piece.
“Its an important game in that it treats the gamer with respect,” says Stephen Totilo, the Deputy Managing editor for the gaming blog Kotaku.com. “It’s been created with some maturity.”
According to Totilo, the success story behind Braid makes just as much of a statement as does the game. “It’s not only a game that will stand the test of time,” he says, “but people are inspired by Jonathan Blow’s story and how he made one of Microsoft’s centerpiece games. It’s the dream that designers don’t have to sell out their values.”
The game’s ending however, which gets discussed at length on message boards across the Web, will probably be the its enduring legacy. The jarring conclusion provides a brain-boggling jolt the same way the endings to films like The Shining and Blade Runner do, and like them leaves little explanation. No spoilers here: just assume Tim’s search isn’t exactly what it seems to be.
Blow refuses to explain the game’s ending because it would defeat the point. People don’t demand explanations to ambiguous short stories or obscure song lyrics; instead they enjoy the mystery. Blow says games should be no exception. “Why make a video game instead of writing a short story? Or writing an essay?” he asks. “Its because a video game is a different kind of object than writing and it should be allowed to do different things.”