"Memento" meets "What Dreams May Come"
An essay for a game? How pretentious, how high brow!
Well, I play my share of blockbuster shoot 'em ups, and its refreshing to have a game that is different. I'll watch my Batmans and Hellboys, but its nice to see an art-house flick once in a while.
If you'd rather read a straight forward review, see Kevin_Dyer's critique (http://www.gamespot.com/xbox360/action/braid/player_review.html?id=597874&tag=readerreviews;continue). But if you want to read a meandering essay, then read on. And watch out for heavy SPOILERS…
In Braid, the time-bending platforming puzzles are only not just there for the their own sake, as clever as they are. They are strings that are woven into a richer tapestry that speaks of time, mistakes and regret, and a chance at redemption.
Our protagonist is Tim (which is no accident as it is a shortening of the word Time). There are 6 worlds in Braid, but only worlds 2 through 6 are available to Tim for most of the game. Each world is accessed from a room in a large house. Passing through a door found in each room, you go into the "Clouds," which is a timeless dream like state which is like Tim's mind. His head is in the clouds, you see.
As we read the books (diaries?) found in the clouds we float through his stream-of-conscious musings about his present, his past, and his future. The stories seem sometimes contradictory, and we wonder if Tim is the same person or not, or if his time manipulations have splintered him into different alternate realities. By examining these different timeliness, we explore different themes.
LEVEL 2. Time and Forgiveness. Tim wishes for a reality where people can learn from their mistakes but undo the bad outcome so one is wiser for the experience without having to suffer the consequences. Tim wishes for a Princess- an enlightened partner who forgives his mistakes.
But the puzzles aren't so merciful, and when he goes through the level, he must go reverse his mistakes by dipping back into time.
LEVEL 3. Time and Mystery. We find Tim having left his Princess. She was perfect- they were perfect- they understood each other so well they never fought. To reach this perfection, they needed know each other perfectly. And so there was no more mystery in their relationship, no more excitement.
In this level, objects that sparkle green continue to go forward in time even when Tim makes the rest of the world (and himself) go backwards. This allows Tim to make asynchronous objects march in step. It also allows him to grab an green object and keep it as he goes back in time, so that he can go into harm's way, take what he wants, and return to the past where it was safe. No one is the wiser.
LEVEL 4. Time and Place. We read about Tim's past- how embarrassments from childhood, once forgotten, came unbidden when he returned to his family's home. He concludes that thrusting his mind back in time, he will feel the emotion of that place in the present. And he wonders if he can turn this around- that by going forward in life he will know he is getting closer to his Princess if he feels the right emotion.
The game mechanic on this level is my favorite. As you go towards the right, the world goes forward in time. As you go left, towards the start of the level, the world goes backward in time. If you stop moving, time stands still. You can see monsters inevitably fall toward you- and no matter what you do they will hit your head. Unless you go backward and find away to circumvent them. Some green-glowing objects are here too, that will move no matter if you go left, right, or stand still.
LEVEL 5. Time and Decision. Only two books here, told from the point of view of Tim's lover who was only a temporary lover on his way to find his Princess. She holds on to his memory, which is but a shadow of his real self, and cherishes it as if he were still with her.
This is a melancholic level- you can go back in time, and when you stop reversing and go on as usual, you have a shadow self who retraces your previous steps. If you picked up a key before reversing, your shadow picks up a shadow key- and this key can open doors for you. If you time it right, one key can open two doors. You can also sacrifice your shadow self (making it that much more creepier)- have him bring a key across a chasm that he can't quite jump over, and wait on the other side. Just before he falls into the brink, you can grab the key he holds.
LEVEL 6. Hesitance. Tim has a golden ring, a symbol of his devotion to the Princess. But the ring also warns others so they approach him slowly. (I don't know what the analogy in real life is- is it a wedding band or promise ring? If so, why would be be distrustful?)
When you press "Y", a ring appears where Tim stands that slows down time only locally. You can leave the ring, and once outside its influence you can move at normal speed. If you lay it next to a rapid firing cannon, the cannon's fuse slows so it fires much slower, allowing you to run along its line of fire unscathed. Monsters are slower too, so you can execute precision jumps in slow-motion.
On each world there are 12 puzzle pieces that you collect using your powers of time-manipulation and your wit. Putting together the puzzles will make a mural for each room of the house, each subtle portrait that lends a little more mood to each chapter.
Once all 5 room's murals are finished, a ladder is completed. The ladder goes to the attic, and climbing it brings you to the last (first) level…
SPOILERS. SPOILERS! Don't read the rest unless you have finished the game!
LEVEL 1. (no title). Tim is on the brink of finding his Princess. At a café, and at the cinema, he sees passersby find excitement, rest and love. As he has none of that now, he believes by going the opposite way he will obtain his goals- as he goes back in time a castle will grow from the ruins of his life and he will live in peace with his Princess. He wonders what people around him will see. From their perspective, they will see a castle that deteriorates over time and a man that becomes more alone and more sad.
Tim finds himself underground, with the Princess is above ground in the arms of a rival. She steps away from him and yells, "Help!" This level is quite exciting, as the rival ignites a wall of fire that pushes you ever forward. One false step and you're toast. This adds a a relentless pressure that your time-manipulation can do little against. Luckily, your Princess is helping you by pulling levers to open the way for you. Your pulse pounds as you jump over monsters and climb over platforms with the fire licking at your heel.
At the end of your travails, you reach her house and you see her go collapse into bed, a lá Sleeping Beauty. But you can't reach her. You remember there is a key is at the beginning. And you go back into time- you start to retrace your steps, and the princess wakes up and retraces hers. This go-around there is no fire, but something is odd. She seems to be running away from you, pulling levers to block your way, but you get through the obstacles in the nick of time. When you reach the beginning, she yells "Help!" and she runs into the arms of your rival. He carries her away, and you are left empty handed.
This is a very clever use of the time-control mechanic, and its works so well because of the themes developed in the previous levels.
Its no wonder the Princess is afraid of Tim, and that she runs away from him. From her point of view, Tim is a stalker, hanging out in dungeons and watching her sleep. Tim's use of time is so egregious, too. He kills innocent 'monsters' who are actually just going about their own business. He shirks the consequences of his mistakes and demands forgiveness. He leaves his girlfriend because she is not a perfect princess. He even sacrifices his shadow self. All-in-all, he runs counter to the flow of society.
Tim has lost. For all his machinations and cleverness, he lost, nay, repelled the woman of his dreams. In the epilogue, he wanders around a world that is half real and half clouds; such a delirious state he is in. Indeed, the diary entries we read are disjointed- some from childhood, others from adulthood, and to top it all off is a cautionary quote from Oppenheimer's Trinity Project.
For a detailed rundown of the text, lewismistreated writes a great annotated account (http://www.rllmukforum.com/lofiversion/index.php?t190136.html). He posits that the Princess is a stand-in for the atomic bomb, and chasing it leads a man to ruin. Its a well-researched theory; and I cannot offer a better one.
At the end of the epilogue, Tim decides to take the mementos of his journey, and build a castle for himself, a castle to which he may insulate himself from the world. But in the castle is a door, and going through the door…
… takes him to the original menu screen. And if he crosses that familiar bridge, he can choose to start his story all over again. (A Time-bending twist that ends Stephen King's time-bending Dark Tower series, which also had a theme of continuous reincarnations that brings a soul incrementally closer to salvation).
I want to close by talking about the pattern of stars Tim walks under to start the game. Its the constellation Andromeda (http://www.metahistory.org/images/AndromedaStaal.jpg). Ripping from Wikipedia, Andromeda means "to think of a man." As "divine punishment for her mother's bragging, [she] was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved from death by Perseus, her future husband." (Remember the movie Clash of the Titans?)
Andromeda's role is entirely passive (through no fault of her own). All she can do is wait for the hero, a man, to rescue her. And I think that's an apt, satirical comment on the role of women in traditional platformers: prizes to be had that only show up at the end of each level. Aha, but not in this game! Tim never gets the girl. And as we've seen, its his attitude towards relationships that gets in the way. Like the constellation itself, Andromeda is unreachable.
I liked how Braid distorted video game conventions distorted in a way that makes me think about what I took for granted. This game has got me thinking on many levels- from the immediate ("How the hell do I solve this puzzle?!") to the far-reaching ("What are the creators trying to say?").
Braid has certainly weaved a thoughtful tapestry for me. Bravo!