Who said art and video games are mutually exclusive?
Life is short. Time is precious yet we waste plenty of it. There's plenty of money in the world. And fifteen dollars isn't much of it. Figure it out, guys.
If you take it purely as entertainment, Braid is nearly flawless. Taken as an artistic work, it's like an ambitious film that just overreaches its limits, flawed in an interesting and compelling way. As a whole, it is compelling and original far beyond conventional videogames, and is the perfect antidote for a sequel-driven industry. [At least until Braid 2 ~Ed]
At first blush, Braid seems like an exceptionally beautiful Super Mario Brothers knock-off. You have an unassuming protagonist: Tim runs left and right, jumps (occasionally on enemies to defeat them), and generally tries to get from one end of the level to the other. Yet there are numerous twists. Case in point, the first level is called “World 2”. You're collecting puzzle pieces that make up paintings. There are books before each world that describe Tim's past, the whole level acting as a metaphor. And, as it turns out, the primary mechanic is not to jump, but to rewind time.
You can run through Braid's levels without a problem, but the true objective is to search out the puzzle pieces in each level, which you can then assemble into still photos that connect thematically to that level.
If you've played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you may be under the impression that rewinding time is just a convenient way to bypass death. While it's useful for that purpose, you're not the only thing that interacts with time in an unusual way. This is the pivot point of some of the game's best puzzles, and it's because Braid's design eschews filler for flavor. It starts with the introduction: You are given several puzzles that are built around one or two mechanics, and once the puzzle-solving potential of those mechanics are exhausted, Braid introduces something new. Having to think about time manipulation, and especially how to manipulate time with objects that respond differently to it, is a refreshing and tricky realm of thought. This consistent underlying logic ensures that you hardly ever feel cheated by the design. Braid certainly feels like a game that spent a year or two being polished.
By virtue of the imagery alone, Braid is a special experience. From the first moment you boot up it up, as it bypasses a title screen in favor of beginning play immediately, you'll be struck by the look. Braid is like a painting in motion, with lush swirling colors and expressive caricatures. What's most impressive is how effectively the visuals convey the mood of every area. From light and breezy meadows to disturbingly lifeless parodies of levels you have completed before, there's instant emotional impact every time you enter a new area. It works as the bridge that gives you to a sense that there's more going on here than just some tricky puzzles.
You'll also appreciate the soundtrack, which thankfully in a game about rewinding time sounds as good forwards as it is played backwards. Some of the sound effects sound odd when reversed, but then again, rewinding time is odd. But these tunes are, any way you hear them, appropriately lush. Like the visuals, they capture the desired mood, though with it switching between being played forward and backward at the whim of the player, it never quite hits a rhythm. Still, the music is an appropriate mix of mellowness, melancholy, and nostalgia.
You can play Braid for the smooth level design, the pretty pictures, or the music, but while the plot presentation is a little thin, it should not be missed. It is unobtrusive to those who would simply play it as a pure game. You can run past the books before each level without reading their musings on love, life, the past, and time. You can simply put the puzzles together for the sake of unlocking the final world, and have a grand old time with the “puzzle mini-game”, as your finely honed, hardcore gaming instincts tell you to assemble each painting.
And if you want to play it up until the point where it gets too crazy, just for the gameplay, then here's the concluding paragraph:
Braid is a great 2D puzzle platformer with great visuals and great music, and is a great XBLA game. Buy it and satiate your unwavering thirst for more videogames. Though Braid gets a high grade (we all have warm fuzzy feelings), it's a candidate to lose to one of the giga-sequels from this year for overall GOTY.
But you'd miss the point—you'd miss the ending.
The end will shatter any thought you might have had of enjoying Braid only for its gameplay. I won't spoil the end, but do you remember all those times when you spent a great deal of skill and brainpower to finish a game, and were rewarded with a pleasant, tidy ending? Braid's ending is the precise opposite. And it is powerful in such a way that you will more likely than not want to start digging into the story a lot more than you did. If you start digging enough, you'll find out about an alternate ending, which puts an even more interesting spin on things. Without spoiling anything, what you must do to get it affects your understanding of the ending itself.
You'll start to find an unusual tale underneath it all. Each world starts with a set of books that when touched, give you a piece of text to read. The theme of these books are vague, but connect through love, loss, and obsession as common threads. Much like the jigsaw puzzle paintings you put together in the game, the plot is a puzzle itself. It gives you pieces that hint at shapes, and begins to put together solid images as you piece the connected pieces together, images that become increasingly powerful and puts the twisted ending into an increasingly more complex context.
But why does it allow you the illusion of a pure game right up to the ending? It is because Braid, despite its artistic merit, is still a game. The videogames as art debate has raged long, and it is ridiculous that there is any debate that a medium that emulates life should suffer that question. But as an expression of human experience through an interactive story, Braid is a prime example.
Yet this is an area where Braid falls short, though arguably, its intention may not have been to be a pure work of art. It is an expression of human experience, but is it an interactive expression? You interact with puzzles, not the heartbreak and obsession the books describe. Granted, the levels serve as metaphors and deepen the tale, but to that end, you would only need one or two puzzles to hammer home the point, and Braid could have been completed in half an hour.
The rest of the story comes from decidedly non-interactive means. You stand still, and read text displayed on the screen. You stare at the still paintings that you assemble to get a feel for that part of the story. You soak in the atmospheric music and sound to get the feel of the story that level represents. And yet very little of the time you spend, what you interact with, the very soul of gaming, matters when it comes to the storytelling expression of Braid. You do interact with the story at times, and those moments are easily the most striking, but these are passing moments.
Yet it's effective. If it's not a pure example of interactive storytelling art, what is it?
What Braid is, instead of a revolution in videogames as art, is a striking example of something that I don't think anyone else has thought of to this degree. Braid is a collage. It is written narrative; it is interactive storytelling; it is impressionistic painting; it is mechanical metaphor and it is a jigsaw plot. Like a traditional collage, Braid is not wholly interested in being just a piece of gaming entertainment or an expression of art - it is both. Its elements, when juxtaposed against the each other, take on an entirely different and unexpected meanings. It is a non-linear story, yet also a sequential collage.
We've seen some videogames make small breakthroughs in terms of storytelling. ICO's emotional gameplay, Indigo Prophecy's cause and effect, BioShock's observation-driven storytelling, but they all lean upon techniques from other media to fill in the blanks in a way that mature media do not. Braid's integrates those media naturally and has interactivity play a central part. Whether Braid is art or just an extremely well-designed game, it is one of the best games of the year.