Monday, April 15, 2013

Force Against Habit: Braid (Mac) Review

In the time that I've been playing and thinking about indie game superstar, Braid, enigmatic Swedish electronic band, The Knife released their first album in 7 years. 2006's Silent Shout was a watershed moment for The Knife, garnering heaps of critical praise for culling ideas represented in previous albums into a monster of an artistic statement that sounded unlike anything else. The particular trademarks of Silent Shout's sound were ghoulish, pitched-down vocals, layered over clean electronic beats and synths. Several tracks were even solid dance cuts.

For The Knife's new album, they've all but thrown out their recognizable sound and most of what is regarded as conventional album structure. Track lengths are all over the place, with about half on the 100 minute double album clocking in at over 8 minutes. The tracks feel too sprawling, too varied to really be called "songs" in the pop radio sense. The Knife's latest effort shows them not only breaking from what they as a band were known for, but what folks expect to hear from an album of music. No surprise that it's called Shaking the Habitual.

Braid, on the other hand, a 2D platformer with time manipulation mechanics and an introspective story, had players reconsidering what they thought they knew about Super Mario Bros-style games. Braid came largely from the efforts of one individual, Jonathan Blow, and brought the concept of "indie games" to mainstream consciousness through its success on Xbox Live Arcade. The XBLA marketplace had up until Braid been primarily known for revamped arcade-style experiences like Geometry Wars. Braid presented something different though: a game as a new kind of artwork, one that integrates formal game history into a narrative about reaching for life's greater unknowns. It asked existential questions not only of the main character, Tim, but of players themselves.

While both Shaking the Habitual and Braid have succeeded in formal disruption of their respective media, what really drew them together for me was their conceptual density. For The Knife, many sounds on their new record defy easy identification and lyrics are stuffed with politically charged rhetoric. On top of that, music videos and song titles both obfuscate simple interpretations and simultaneously offer clues for further investigation. The album cover for Shaking the Habitual is thick with saturated color, juxtaposing equally vibrant pink and green neons.

At the time of its release, Braid was considered a relatively short game, but there's so much happening in the game that a longer experience may have simply worn players out. Levels in Braid are preceded by text that vaguely spells out the nature of protagonist, Tim's quest to save the Princess. Or is he seeking intellectual enlightenment? Perhaps reconciliation for past behavior? These are all viable interpretations and not mutually exclusive. Each new world in Braid has a new twist on time manipulation mechanics, presenting one loaded trope after another (rewind actions, a shadow-self, a wedding band that slows time) that contextualizes the written entries. You collect jigsaw puzzle pieces that when properly fitted together, reveal paintings that somewhat allude the sentiments of the texts and mechanics. I could write an entire essay interpreting any one of these elements, which on their own only scratch the surface of what Braid conveys.

At first, Braid seems like a much simpler game. You begin in a house that acts as a hub area for accessing the different worlds. Each world contains a string of levels with hidden puzzle pieces that you must bend the rules of time and space to acquire. Time manipulation gets complicated, but each world eases you into the mechanics with a difficulty arc that starts easy. With all of the puzzle pictures put together, you can access the final level and see the ending of the game. The ending has a revelatory twist that satisfies even if you're just casually trotting through the game's puzzles, understanding them as a riff on Super Mario Bros.

But for those who care to look deeper, there's so much more.

"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 at him with contempt."

These are the first two passages you read in Braid, suspiciously labelled "Chapter 2." These texts setup a seemingly simple quest about a rather complicated relationship. At the end of each level you're greeted by a friendly brown dinosaur who informs you ala classic Mario delivery that the Princess is not there, and must be in another castle. Surprisingly, when you finish putting the puzzle pieces together, the resulting paintings seem to have little to do with any princess. Texts spread the narrative in directions other than merely pushing Tim's Princess journey forward. Who wrote these cumbersome passages anyway? An omnipotent narrator or Tim in third-person? The waters become increasingly muddied. To stay with the basic "save the princess" premise begins to feel like you're ignoring a mounting number of signs pointing to the contrary.

The text that begins Chapter 5 makes the depth of Tim's narrative explicit.

"She never quite felt close enough to him - but he held her as though she were, whispered into her ear words that only a soul mate should receive."

"Over the remnants of dinner, they both knew the time had come. He would have said: 'I have to go find the Princess,' but he didn't need to."

If the woman Tim speaks to is not the Princess, then who or what exactly is the Princess? I'm not out to pen a long-winded interpretation of Braid here, just to note how moderate doses of ambiguity on top of loaded symbols opens up a multitude of avenues for interpretation. As a result, Braid feels dense with material, especially for a game that, on appearances, seems to be small-scale. That's the big difference between Shaking the Habitual's density and Braid's; The Knife's album is dauntingly large from the outset, but Braid only reveals that it has depth through engagement with its systems.

Mechanically speaking, Braid's time-defying abilities act out Tim's contemplations. At first you learn how to simply rewind time, but each world complicates matters with it's own unique take on time manipulation. In one world you can drop a wedding band that slows down the actions everything in range, and in another, you can execute an action, reverse time, and then watch a shadow version of Tim reenact you movements prior to the rewind. The puzzles that you solve using these mechanics really twist your brain, and can stump you for a good while. Ultimately, every puzzle is solvable given enough examination of the elements in play and some good old fashioned trial and error. The mental gymnastics you go through seem to mimic Tim's existential pursuits as established in the pre-level texts.

Conceptually, Tim's quest is filled with dead ends, or at least Princessless outcomes. Rewind aside, abilities don't carry over from one world to the next. Each mechanic learned is but a small victory, only slightly improving the likelihood that you'll better grasp what the next world throws at you. Once you've mastered the shadow ability it's time to put it aside and pick up the next one. No two puzzles are ever approached the same way. Tim's actions defy routine. The mechanics don't build to a crescendo through the course of the game; each is its own limb: part of the same body but with distinct purposes. While these chapters do not lead to full-fledged conclusions, they do offer insight into where and how Tim seeks his answers.

The level of density in Braid's narrative approach is a rare find in games. You don't really consider why you collect coins or jump on turtles in Super Mario Bros, it's all just a part of the surreal dreamscape in service of tight platforming mechanics. Braid has no shortage of trippy moments and obtuse symbolism, but it is filled with rich thought spaces that you can really dive into. It's not often that play is this contemplative.

:reposted on Medium Difficulty:

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