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The 'Elixir' of Braid

'Braid' contains a bit of the magic elixir which imbues its game-play with a brave new quality: meaning.

I’ve recently finished playing the intriguing little game ‘Braid.’ There were many exciting ideas at work in this game not the least of which was its unique use of story context to put a new face on a familiar game.

I should preamble this by saying that I haven’t read all of the reviews and articles associated with Jonathan Blow’s ‘Braid.’ A quick search reveals that there has been quite a lot of discussion already. The game was recommended to me by a friend who by all accounts is a serious game aficionado. What struck me was how he described it with only a few short but reverent words (“It’s something you would *really* be interested in”).

He had an airy tone to his voice and a distance in his eyes like someone recalling a supernatural experience that they don’t particularly want to be heard discussing. This alone was enough to propel me to seek out the game. But just to be safe, before playing the game I scanned a few short reviews for some hint of what was to come. In a few I noticed that same reverent tone that suggested there was some subtle ‘specialness’ to the game; but in most cases the review stopped short of attempting to specify or analyze the odd qualities that lifted it out of the norm.

The creators of ‘Braid’ have delivered a fascinating thesis on the nature of game play by creating a game utilizing an extraneously familiar platform model and – by adjusting elements of narrative, theme and art direction – revised our entire perception of the psychological maturity achievable in games as an artform.

In terms of game play Braid stayed respectfully within the established norms of ‘traditional’ platformers; side-scrolling movement, jumping, climbing even bouncing off enemies’ heads in a charmingly familiar way. In fact the deceptive simplicity of the game was what gave its singular innovation intriguing emotive power. In terms of game play Braid’s innovation was in the simple function of providing the ability to ‘rewind’ ones actions so that Tim’s death or mistakes had little impact on the flow of action.

By itself this feature would have been little more than a simple game-play gimmick; but what makes this simple component truly intriguing is its metaphoric application to symbolize a simple yet powerful human virtue: forgiveness. The simple yet powerful concept attached to this device gave the entire game a sublime metaphoric beauty never before achieved by a side-scrolling platformer. In essence it gave the tool meaning.

As the game progresses the ‘gift’ of forgiveness takes on different functions and psychological dimensions. In one world, the ‘rewind’ button returns the player to an earlier position while a shadow clone of Tim repeats the actions that Tim ‘would have taken.’ In this world the player must then have Tim interact with the ‘Tim that would have been.’ The player is forced to think of Tim in terms of what he ‘would have’ or ‘should have’ done. An intriguing psychological metaphor begins to take shape; and to complete the game the player has no choice but to think of time and space in challenging new contexts.

In some worlds there are actions which cannot be ‘undone.’ Scintillating green halos warn Tim that should he touch or move these objects, the result would not be so easily forgiven; Tim must then consider his actions carefully in the context of what can or should be undone and what he will have only one chance to do right. In another world Tim’s movement is what propels time forward and a step back ‘rewinds’ the world itself. Tim’s lock-step with the world becomes an expression of his own life examination; stepping forward, stepping back and carefully examining the effect he has on the world around him.

Throughout the worlds of Braid Tim seeks his beloved ‘Princess’; this enigmatic character oscillates between a tangible character and a being of pure symbolism. She seems to represent a lost state of childhood and her disappearance a reflection of the unforgiving nature of adolescence; that is the fall from the grace of childhood. Tim’s quest is one of pure optimism; his journey gives a sense echoed in many great works of art and literature: that we as humans are always gravitating toward one state of eternal bliss with our ‘princess’ behind the cold stone walls of a distant castle.

In filmmaking, screenwriters know that to make a screenplay that genuinely connects with an audience they must begin with the truths that they hold most sacred in their lives and allow their story to flow sincerely from their innermost beliefs. The journey that a writer – or anyone - must take to clearly see his/her own belief structure is neither easy nor quick.

It is a sacred journey that involves, at times, difficult and painful self-examination; but with faith and luck is sure to uncover the soul’s fundamental truths. These truths are the spiritual ‘elixir’ of any great work of art. And it would seem that the creators of ‘Braid’ are keenly aware of how to use the game-play tools at their disposal to illustrate these fundamental truths.

A film director uses tools such as script, lighting, art direction, performance, cinematography and music to shape the experience of their film around its core truth. Similarly the game developer has many of these tools as well as a whole new pallet of ‘game play’ tools with which to form the experience of their game.

This use of game play tools to illustrate deep and profound aspects of the human experience and shape the narrative structure of a game is quite simply the future of games. Once the development of game tools hits the apex of its curve, the use of those tools to create artistically rich experiences will begin.

Building on the thesis of my previous blog, one could say that Chess with its simple yet powerful game-play narrative delivers on a singular timeless truism: intellect triumphs. There are layers to Braid that many players will not have the time or interest to explore; for many it will simply be another game with a few neat tricks and little replayability.

But for those that seek something with a little more substance there is definitely more to be had from this little game. Fully appreciating the enigmatic connection between the game’s emotive themes and its game-play is a task that doesn’t occur on the screen. 

Mystic Bride Holding Elixir


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