(UPDATE: My review has run at the Onion AV Club – check it here. And I updated my “more fun than calculus” assessment, so be sure to look for that.)
Jonathan Blow’s Braid has gotten under my skin. I received a promo of the PC version and I’m about halfway through it, and the fact that I haven’t beaten the rest of it keeps me coming back for more. When Blow sent me an updated patch, I paid him a kind of left-handed compliment by telling him it’s stretched my mind more than anything since Calculus class. I meant this as a good thing, but it doesn’t sound like a selling point.
In case you don’t know the title: Braid is a platformer that uses time in novel ways. The first thing you notice is the ability to rewind time. Say you make a false move and run into a violent critter that kills you: instead of starting over or losing a life or suffering any of the usual penalties of games since the co-op days, Braid lets you undo your mistake. You simply hit the “Shift” key and rewind the game back to a point where you can try again..
This is a neat trick, but it’s only the first way that the game plays with time. Some levels allow you to rewind time while affecting some objects (say, a door) but not others (say, the key to the door), or they give you a ring that can slow time to a crawl within a certain area, or they tie all the movement on the entire board to your footsteps: move a step to the right, and everything moves forward; step to the left, and everything moves back. The game teaches you to grasp, fiddle around with, and finally master each of these techniques.
It’s been said that all games are educational: if nothing else, they teach you how to play them. In Pong, you have to learn how the ball will bounce off different spots on your paddle. In Super Mario Bros., you have to figure out how to handle each enemy, where to find bonus items, and a bunch of other tricks that were either necessary or optional to finishing the game. I liked flOw because the instruction was completely intuitive: you barely get any instructions, and have to just fiddle around with the game to figure out what you’re “supposed” to do and the “best” way to play the game. In that sense, a game is like a joke: you feel a jolt of pleasure the minute you “get” it, and if someone has to explain it to you, they’re probably doing it wrong.
Braid works in the same vein: it walks you through each of the new tricks, but there’s much more showing than telling. To really get how each map works, you have to play around with it. But the difference is that Braid can get really hard.
On one level – the one where I’ve made the least progress – you see a kind of branching effect. Say that you run from one end of the platform to the other, but as soon as you get there, you change your mind and rewind back to the start. After you rewind, you’re back at the beginning of the platform – but then a “ghost” version appears and retraces your last footsteps, while the present you can go off and do something else. Metaphorically, it’s like you’re watching two ways that your life could play out. In fact, I guess it’s like Sliding Doors. The hard part is figuring out how to use this new ability to solve a series of jumping/lever/locked door puzzles, and how to picture yourself going in two separate directions at the same time – and that’s where this felt like calculus. Yes, I get the concept of calculating the slope at a specific point on a curve, but when I actually have to use it on a final exam problem, it makes a small spot on the left hemisphere of my brain go “groan.” That same flabby brain slice acts up when I play Braid.
I started fumbling my way through instead of actually understanding the exact solution and executing it flawlessly. I beat the boss at the end of the branching-paths level but I’m still not sure how I did it. This again reminds me of taking a math exam and writing down some random number because I kind of figured that was the answer, but couldn’t crisply explain it. There are plenty of games that you can win just by randomly mashing buttons – say, any number of fighting games – and everyone’s played an adventure game where you combine the plunger with the rubber ducky and the shoelace and somehow manage to fish the key out of the grate, but the only reason you threw all that crap together is that it was the only stuff left in your inventory.
That said, Braid has little tolerance for half-assedry. Sure, I got some easy wins, but I’m also painfully aware of the need to figure out what’s going on in order to finish the game. And while I may have made a little progress by muddling my way through the trickier levels, I’m going to have to sit down and experiment and learn before I get the prize. Which makes me respect the game and its methodology even more.
(And if I’d felt that way in school, who knows where I would’ve ended up!)
UPDATE: With the release coming up, I finally sat down to finish this for my Onion review. No spoilers on the review, but I will say this is easily one of my games of the year.