It might sound snobby, but I’m convinced that in order to be somebody who really understands how unique and special Braid is then you need to be someone who plays a lot of computer games.
Granted, you can still appreciate the fantastic oil-paint art style and you can love the vaguely told story and complexity of the puzzles whether you play other games or not. But you lose the ability to compare it. The fact is that it isn’t just the wondrous beauty of the craftsmanship that makes Braid so important, It’s the fact that there are so few other games like it, let alone ones that go on to achieve such mass market acclaim. In a world of space marines and World War 2 trenches, the vibrant colours and aspirations of Braid stand out like a rose in a field of straw.
Looking over reviews of the game from when it was first released, it’s the cleverness of the gameplay that takes most of the glory. The levels have been brilliantly put together to tax both intellect and instinct – not an easy task in a game where you can rewind, fast-forward, slow down and warp the flow of time. True enough, the design of the environments is magnificent and it’s all brilliantly held together by a gentle soundtrack and art style that evokes memories of What Dreams May Come with the way the colours swim together, but that’s only part of what makes Braid important.
A game which is almost impossible to sum up in a few short paragraphs, Braid contrasts with pretty much every other modern computer game by not actually having an epic, understandable plot. Instead, it’s something simple and abstract that resists being looked at directly or being fully expressed in words.
At it’s most basic it harks back to games like Mario, with a young man called Tim looking for a Princess in a series of castles. As things move on, though, Braid‘s plot (which is told through a series of disjointed snippets of prose at the preface to every chapter) confuse things and force you to question where allegory ends and reality begins. The world you’re actively playing through is one where Tim can control time, defeat lions and talks with dinosaurs. But the reality revealed by the exposition is quite different and far more grounded.
It tells of Tim as a young man who feels oddly superior to those around him and who has made a great mistake (or is inevitably moving towards it). While the gameplay has you in pursuit of a literal princess who needs saving, the narration implies that the princess may be more like an ideal or principle that Tim has lost contact with, bringing in references to the Manhattan Project and the immaturity of man as it develops.
It’s this perfectly paced and almost undecipherable form of story that pushes Braid to new heights. It’s the masterful way that the story and the gameplay manage to fit together so perfectly without ever seeming too. Every aspect of Braid feels distinct from every other, but somehow they all slot together too, like jigsaw pieces that don’t match together but still form the right picture.
Everything, from the mechanics and controls to the way that the player is just made to accept the surreality they are presented with, has been created as part of Jonathon Blow’s pursuit of perfection – individual lines, braided together.
It’s hard to tell what that unison is working towards as, unlike most games, Braid doesn’t have a firm conclusion or expressed finality. Instead, it delivers one last push towards the concept it is trying to explore and forces players to examine it from a different perspective, still without fully being able to name what the theme is. There’s probably no name for it, in fact; it’s a complex mixture of very human feelings and failings: the pride that comes from doing something terrible, the terror of knowing it was both wrong and right and the consolation that it was inevitable anyway because, unlike Tim, we can’t control time.