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The Great Wall of Text and the 'A' Button: Where Braid Fails

Braid is a modern masterpiece of indie game design, but that doesn't mean we can't look at its storytelling shortcomings.

Jake Shapiro

March 22, 2012

5 Min Read

The Great Wall of Text

Before I start, let me reiterate that Braid is a modern masterpiece of indie game design. It's got a beautiful visual style, stirring soundtrack, and unique game mechanics that play into the plot. It's a one-of-a-kind satire of Super Mario Bros. My criticisms that ensue are meant to see how we as a game design community can learn from some of the best.

With that said, Braid has no idea how to tell a story. Jonathan Blow weaves an intricate tale of loss and regret, conveyed mostly through... walls of text.

Braid is moving games forward as an art form, right? That message comes off a bit stale when his own magnum opus relies on another medium to tell its story.

I'm not against writing in games. Gaming's history is built on text-based adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork. Even in modern games, text is often a better choice than the medium's notoriously abysmal voice acting.

But in my humble opinion, modern games should only rely on text (and cutscenes) when it's absolutely necessary to convey points that couldn't be accomplished through gameplay itself. We canonize Valve's games because Half-Life and Portal are so good at weaving storytelling and gameplay together. Braid, however, uses copious amounts of text to give itself meaning. It wouldn't be nearly as bad if the writing weren't mediocre. The story is cliché and the characters bland--one could say it's because it's a satire of games like Super Mario Bros, but then again, Mario didn't use walls of text.

What if Blow got rid of this? The "loss and regret" themes are still captured in essence through Braid's flowing gameplay. The game would be much more ambiguous, but would perhaps capture Blow's intended emotions in a more pure form if he had avoided the Great Wall of Text.

An example of this in practice is Danish developer Playdead's Limbo. Both Limbo and Braid are indie 2D platformers initially released on Xbox Live Arcade, and both tell the melancholy story of a silent boy searching for a girl.

But perhaps due to their roots in Scandinavian design, Playdead created a much more moving experience with their game. Limbo features absolutely no text, and there's no HUD. None of the characters speak. The minimalist visuals are in silhouette and even the music is dissonant. Through this, the game conveys pure emotion in a way no other art form can come close to, because the audience is completely involved. It's not static, as text is. Braid, on the other hand, relegates the majority of storytelling to text.

The 'A' Button

One of the single most frustrating parts of Braid's design is in its opening moments: teaching players the game controls. Tutorials are notoriously tough to do well in games, and Jonathan Blow had noble intentions of letting the player learn the controls on their own instead of flashing "PRESS 'A' TO JUMP" across the screen. Instead, he did this:

A box near a ledge with a picture of the Xbox 360's 'A' button on it. The player can't jump over this little ledge without pressing the correct button, so it forces them to learn that 'A', in fact, makes the character jump.

But this helpful box is completely unnecessary. It's the 'A' button--the most cardinal of all video game controls. Even the original NES featured the 'A' button to jump in most of its games. Braid itself is a satire of the most iconic "press 'A' to jump" platformer on the NES, Super Mario Bros.

Mario jumping to destroy a box

Super Mario Bros.

Suffice to say, I doubt many people savvy enough about video games to purchase Braid need to be told to press 'A' to jump. This would be like a novel telling the reader "turn the page to read more." I understand explaining more complex control layouts to players, but 2D platformers like Braid have the most basic and intuitive of all video game control schemes.

Even if someone were playing a platformer for the very first time, when faced with this small ledge to jump overin Braid, they could most likely figure out. The 'A' button is prominently displayed on the Xbox controller; when one holds it, their right thumb naturally rests on 'A'. Not only that, but the button is green--the universal indicator for "press this button."

My second big issue is that the 'A' button onscreen is in a box. In most platformers (including Mario), boxes are something you destroy to reveal a power-up. When I played Braid for the first time, the first thing I did upon seeing this 'A' box was jump on it and try to open it, to no avail. The three other people I've watched play Braid for the first time have done the exact same.

Not only is Blow's 'A' box redundant as a tutorial mechanism--it's outright unfaithful to the genre whose conventions it's attempting to emulate for dramatic effect. I expect many commenters below are going to complain that I'm nitpicking. But if we could nitpick a little, we could improve on one of the greatest games of the past decade. Jonathan Blow underestimates the intelligence of his players in Braid, but he also underestimates the quality of his own game design, muddying it up with unnecessary boxes and walls of text.

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