Arthouse Games
Exclusive Preview: Braid

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/147/356033955_36abb7a5bd_m.jpg Jonathan Blow's game Braid has been much talked about but little played, since he has been keeping the game under very tight wraps. Braid won the award for Innovation in Game Design at the 2006 IGF, but no demo was posted. Braid was discussed at the 2006 Experimental Gameplay Workshop, but no demo was posted. Braid was entered into the 2007 IGF and Slamdance festivals, and still no demo was posted.

Braid was selected as a Slamdance finalist, and I was heading to Slamdance too, so it seemed like I was finally going to get to play this elusive game. Alas, controversy erupted (when SCMRPG was pulled from the finalist list), and Jon pulled his game from the festival in protest. I wasn't going to play-test Braid at Slamdance after all.

However, somewhere along the way, Jon was nice enough to send me a snapshot build for review purposes. That build, version 0.847, is the subject of this preview. The build is a little rough around the edges, with place-holder graphics still lurking in the later levels and some performance issues in the early levels that were nearly complete (on a 1.9 GHz machine with a GeForce4 graphics card, this 2D platform game saw major slow-down when played at it's ideal resolution). Even with this rough build, I was able to draw one simple conclusion without doubts or reservations: Braid is the most innovative and interesting game I have ever played.

Braid has the potential to change the way you think about reality. It will certainly change the way you think about video games. In this preview, I will explain why it has this power, using detailed examples from the game. However, part of the game's interest lies in it's surprise factor: there is great joy to be had in discovering just how clever this game is for yourself. In fact, I am glad that I never read a preview of this game before I was lucky enough to play it myself. All I knew, and all you should know if you want the full experience, is that Braid is a 2D platform game in which the player manipulates the flow of time. If you're willing to wait for an official release, you should stop reading here.

You're still reading, so you don't want to wait until "sometime in the first quarter of 2007" to learn more about Braid. Okay, here we go.

First of all, the basic game mechanics: on the its face, Braid is a stock-standard 2D platform game. The arrow keys move your character (a little guy in business attire) left, right, up, and down. The Space bar causes your character to jump. The universe in Braid is split into six worlds, and each world is divided into several levels. Some of these levels are only one screen wide, while others span several screen widths. In the longer levels, the screen scrolls to keep your character centered.

The levels are filled with standard 2D-platform elements: stationary and moving platforms; "goombas" walking to and fro; cannons spitting out fireballs (or goombas) at regular intervals; long jumps over pits full of spikes; and even green pipes with snapping piranha plants poking out. In terms of its level elements, Braid makes nod after nod to that platform game of all platform games, Super Mario Bros. The story line follows suit, using SMB's princess rescue as a metaphor for the main character's pursuit of an ideal romantic partner.

The story is delivered, bit-by-bit, at the start of each world. As you walk past a series of podiums, a series of text blocks fade into view (all the screenshots in this preview can be clicked to show full-size versions):

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/164/356033960_0e4f1c8fbd_m.jpg

At the end of the podium chain, there is a series of doors. Only the first is open to you, and it leads to the first level of the world you are in. Once you pass through a level, the next level's door will open to you.

You start off in World 2-1, and you're walking, jumping, and climbing along---easy enough, and there's plenty of pretty stuff to look at along the way (the multi-level, animated backgrounds look like a living, breathing impressionistic painting). That 2D-platform honeymoon is short-lived, however, because you soon find yourself faced with an almost impossible jump:

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A pit of spikes, with some platforms hanging above, and tempting puzzle piece (your collectible in the game) perched on a way-too-narrow platform---you certainly won't make it on your first try. Into the spikes you go, and here comes the key question: now what? Back to the start of the level? Loss of one of your three precious lives? Game over? Braid's answer is "none of the above." Instead, the game just hangs there, frozen in time, with your little guy floating in mid-death.

If you take the hint that the game gives you, you will try pressing the Shift key, and you will be greeted with wonderful sights and sounds: the game rewinds time right before your eyes. The background animations, the goombas, and all of your previous actions move backward. Even the music plays in reverse. You un-die, and up you un-fall, out of the spikes and back onto the platform from whence you jumped. If you let go of Shift, you're ready to try that jump again. If you keep holding down shift, you can rewind back through all of your actions, right back to the point where you entered the level. Everything can be undone.

You're suddenly free to try, practice, and learn from mistakes without any annoying overhead. It's like practicing basketball shots without ever having to chase after the ball. I found myself becoming an expert at 2D platform jumps in very short order---I could try a single difficult jump 50 times in a minute or so, racking up much more practice during a few days of Braid testing than I did in a whole lifetime of playing other 2D platform games.

The upshot, of course, is that standard 2D platform challenges, like difficult jumps, are rendered trivial. You can instant-retry your way through anything, and Braid celebrates this fact throughout World 2 by throwing all sorts of nearly-impossible challenges your way---you'll never see this kind of stuff in a standard platform game, because players would never be able to get past it.

There's a commentary lurking here about video games: they waste the players' time by forcing them to trudge through the trivial over and over in order to retry the challenging parts. Traditionally, with each life lost, you go back to the start of the level, even if your point of failure was near the end of the level. Worse yet, if you run out of lives, you go back to the start of the game, even if your point of failure was near the end of the game. Who wants to replay an entire game over and over just to retry the hard part at the end? No one, obviously, so we invented save points---after the game ends, players can resume from wherever they last saved. But even save points become tedious: you still need to navigate the "Load Game" menus each time you want to try again. Not as bad as replaying the whole game, but more like chasing after the basketball between practice shots. Still, computers can do whatever we program them to do, so why should we force players to chase the ball? Braid strips out every last scrap of tedium and leaves us with nothing but the core challenges. Further, it shows us that the standard challenges really aren't that interesting, or challenging, without the tedious filler that usually surrounds them.

Braid could stop right there and still be a very interesting game---it has already knocked 90% of the existing games right off the shelf and rendered them repetitive and uninteresting. But the designers forged ahead and asked another important question: if the rewind button renders even the most difficult timing challenges trivial, what kind of new challenges can we come up with? Worlds 3 through 6 answer this question with an assortment of new time behaviors and puzzles based around those behaviors.

In World 3, time works the same as it does in World 2, with the addition of "purple sparkle objects." These objects, like the key and the gate pictured below, are immune to the rewind button.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/145/356037069_023e72118b_m.jpg


For example, if your character falls down into an inescapable pit, the rewind button can be used to rescue your character by allowing him to un-fall back out of the pit. If he grabs a purple-sparkle key while down there, however, the key will remain in his hand while he un-falls, and he will carry the key up out of the pit. For a non-purple-sparkle key, your character would un-pick-up the key as you held down the rewind button. As another example, once open, a purple-sparkle gate remains open, no matter how much you rewind (a normal gate will un-open as you rewind).

In World 3, Braid sometimes falls into the trap it was seeking to avoid. Once a purple-sparkle object is moved or manipulated, there is no way to undo what you have done. Sometimes you find yourself stuck, unable to solve a puzzle after manipulating purple-sparkle objects in the wrong order or messing up timing for purple-sparkle objects that are moving. The only way to reset the positions of purple-sparkle objects is to restart from the beginning of the level. I found myself starting certain levels over and over to retry un-rewindable puzzles that I messed up---I felt like I was stuck back in a pre-Braid game again, and I found myself was wishing for a "meta-rewind" button (that would rewind time for purple-sparkle objects).

World 4 introduces a totally different time model: the world's position in time is directly linked to your character's position in space. As your character walks to the right, time goes forward. As he walks left, time goes backward. While he stands still, time stops. Hitting the rewind button causes your character's actions to rewind, which can cause the surrounding world's time to go both forward and backward (depending on which way he moves during the rewind). Puzzles in World 4, like the example pictured below, involve interleaving your character's position with the position of moving world objects.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/147/356037074_2515d42f38_m.jpg


In World 5, time's behavior becomes even more interesting. Pressing the rewind button to undo an action spawns a "alternate universe" in which an alternate version of your character still carries out the action that you just rewound. The activity in the alternate universe is visible in a red overlay, as can be seen below:

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/159/356038248_35d9d0a438_m.jpg


Another addition in World 5 are yellow-sparkle objects. These are linked between the alternate and main universe. If a yellow-sparkle object moves or is manipulated in one universe, it does the same thing in the other universe. For example, if your alternate-universe character switches a yellow-sparkle switch, a main-universe door hooked to that switch will still open (whereas if he switched a non-yellow-sparkle switch, only the version of the door in his alternate universe would open). This is heady stuff, for sure---the puzzles in World 5 are some of the hardest in the game.

World 6 cools things down a bit with a somewhat simpler time model: your character is equipped with a ring that he can drop and pick up at will. The spot where the ring is dropped becomes a locus of time slow-down. For your character, and the rest of the objects in the world, time progresses at a rate proportional to the distance between these object and the ring. Objects that are far away move at nearly-normal speed, while objects that are close to the ring grind to a crawl.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/143/356038252_ec97deba01_m.jpg


Puzzles in World 6 revolve around slowing down particular objects, such as gradually-closing doors.

After World 6, if you have collected all the puzzle pieces in Worlds 2 through 6, you'll be able to enter World 1 (recall that the game starts in World 2). In this final world, time moves backward for all objects, excluding your character. Goombas walk backward and un-die instantly after you jump on them. Fireballs retreat back into cannons. Hitting the rewind button causes the world to run forward (while your character's actions are rewound as usual). There are a few puzzles in World 1, but they're not very difficult.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/149/356033958_2c313afa15_m.jpg


After a several levels, you make your way to the ending. I've promised Jon that I won't spoil the ending for you, and regardless, I wouldn't want to spoil it anyway. I'll just say that it is one heck of a clever ending, perhaps even the ending to conquer all endings, perhaps even the greatest artistic statement ever made with a video game, or---should I stick my neck out?---maybe even one of the greatest artistic statements ever made with any medium. I hope I'm not over-inflating it for you. If you're lucky enough to play Braid someday, just promise me you'll make it through to the ending.

What really makes Braid great as a work of art, from what I saw, is the way that all of its various elements are connected together. The story feeds into the game mechanics, and those mechanics change your understanding of time, and that new understanding influences your reading of the story. Ideas from the story also serve as metaphor for the overall structure of the game, which in turn complements the ending. Braid is like one giant riddle comprised, step-by-step, of some of the most interesting and innovative gameplay I've ever seen. It's all woven together into a very tight, elegant package---an ideal form, really.

And yes, this elusive game was for me, and will be for you, well worth the wait.

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Comments:
[Submit Comment]
by PatrickMonday, February 5, 2007 [8:24 pm]

I saw the ending at the EGW last year, it was clever, and possibly one of the best endings in a game, but unless its changed significantly since then, I think it hovers slightly below the Planet of the Apes ending, maybe slightly above The Usual Suspects, but well below Citizen Kane.

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by raiganTuesday, February 6, 2007 [11:34 am]

Braid is definitely the most fun I've had playing a platformer since SMW originally came out, and it's _much_ more intellectually stimulating/puzzle-y.

It's like an adventure/puzzle game, only instead of boolean "key-in-inventory/locked-door" puzzles, the puzzle-solving abilities you have at your disposal are your continuous movement through 2D space and 1D time. This sounds limited but in fact it's often more than your brain can handle. The experimentation and mind-bending-ness of it all is just amazing.

The only downside is that now every other platformer, including the one i'm working on, is utter crap in comparison!

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by Joe BourrieTuesday, February 6, 2007 [4:37 pm]

Braid is absolutely brilliant... it has changed my own approach to game design. I have not seen the ending, but already heard the spoilers at GDC last year (thanks alot Raigan!) :)

I got stuck at the level 5 boss, and then the preview time window ended and my copy won't work anymore :(

Definitely looking forward to the final release so I can finish this platforming gem.

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by Steve ChiavelliSaturday, February 10, 2007 [6:39 pm]

Seems like everyone except me is in the Cool Kids Club That Gets To Play Braid. I'm not bitter or anything.

I'm looking forward to finally getting to try it out at GDC =)

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by lollerskaterWednesday, March 7, 2007 [12:42 am]

prince of persia had the whole time rewinding thing in it exactly like this article describes it. how does that make this game innovative at all.

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by cliftutSaturday, April 14, 2007 [5:09 am]

It is innovative because rewinding and slowing down time isn't the ONLY thing you do, and you can do it without having to worry about running out of sand or anything. Thus, the focus is on the puzzle and not on managing your sand all the time.

This game will surely be unique in its own right. I'm interested to see what it will look like when finished!

[Link]


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