Twisting the temporal: revisiting Xbox Arcade’s Braid

Humankind is obsessed with time travel.

When you live in a universe where time is singularly linear—where time is an unstoppable force moving inexorably forward—imaginative and speculative minds will dwell on the idea of time that isn’t restricted to a straight, forward-moving path.

They will consider alternatives. Time travel. Temporal manipulation. The resulting ideas will be used to inform movies, books, television shows, and video games.

And, apparently, time distortion sells.

Originally released six years ago in 2008 as the newest member of the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade collection, Braid has since become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed platformers of all time.

When you start the game at the cusp of a bridge amidst a town that appears to be on fire, you might have the distinct impression that you’re about to murder some zombies with your tiny little ginger character. There are no zombies, but the ginger guy does know how to handle his stuff. His name is Tim.

The visuals are stunning. Each level is built to give a dreamy, fantastical feel, with fairy-tale castles, wrought iron bridges, and medieval-esque stone. The backgrounds cast light on the main character as he trundles through each new screen, all of them getting darker and grimmer as you progress and each one delivering a mindbender of a puzzle that will take you god-knows-how-long to complete.

The puzzles. Oh, the puzzles. Braid allows you to manipulate time to solve each level, but you can never erase the time you spend swearing at the screen and ripping your hair out in frustration. As intelligent as you may be, there’s no doubt that you will struggle.

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.

Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the Princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing him with contempt.

You need to get the puzzle pieces so that you can put them together and try to figure out the story. You hear tell that, at the end of your journey, there’s a beautiful princess you need to rescue. Little hints throughout the game suggest that you two have an established relationship and that you’re sorry for something you did. It’s mysterious and, of course, your gratification will be ever-delayed by your inability to get-that-god-forsaken-puzzle-piece.

You’ll be able to slow down time. Move time forward. Reverse time. Stand on a little glittery platform that makes you atemporal for as long as you want. Little moving platforms will continue to move back and forth; evil hedgehogs will impair your chances of reaching the long-awaited puzzle piece; killer rabbits will chase you, putting you in mind of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and in-between level monologues will give you clues about what exactly this “princess” means to you.

During each instance of time reversal, you’ll hear the music play backwards. Sometimes, you can even stop it completely. It’s an eerie experience, stopping time within the game and looking at that dead silent screen. You know it isn’t paused—that you can reverse your actions with the click of a button. That an instance of time can change the outcome of the level.

It’s as terrifying as real life, where one simple action can change the course of everything.

Here’s a spoiler, for those of you who haven’t played it. Avert your eyes for a moment if you don’t want to know the ending.

And you’d be missing out, because the ending is what brings this entire game together. On its own, Braid is brilliantly visual. Remarkably intelligent.

With the ending, it’s completely mind-blowing. You get to the last level, the only one with a numeric name—1—only to reach the princess’ house and stop. You don’t go forward anymore. There’s nothing around, no item to collect, no puzzle piece to pick up. The only thing you can do—and you realize this after trying everything—is reverse time.

So, you reverse time. What unfolds is a story practically unheard of for a basic platformer. You see the princess running from you…you, Tim, the red-headed little sweetheart…into the arms of a waiting knight, who whisks her away from the sad little ginger, making it increasingly clear that Tim is the stalker. The “horrible and evil monster” Tim originally bemoans in the epilogue is, in fact, himself.

On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World…

So, why should we care about a game that came out six years ago? Why are we even talking about something that is—by modern standards—fairly dated at this point in time?

Braid, my friends, might have aged, but it has aged gracefully. If there’s one platformer that can stand up to the test of time, it’s this one. We all like letting go of our brains and playing Super Mario Bros. every once in a while, but Braid—no matter how many times you play it—will give your brain a complete and utter workout.

Braid deserves its critical acclaim simply because of its innovation. It deconstructs the very nature of princess-rescue-based platformers. Of playing a video game in which you are the hero. Braid takes these tropes and smashes them with a voyeuristic main character with rapey eyes. And for that—for Jonathan Blow’s remarkable vision—we have a game filled with immense replay value, brain-teasing puzzles, and a sense of unease that you may never be able to shake. No matter how much time passes.

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