words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Jonathan Blow for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, and Xbox 360, originally released in 2008.
To discuss Braid is to discuss the very rise of indie game development and the resurgence of 2D gaming. Prior to its release in 2008, game distribution was very much a gatekeeper-driven system, with major publishers dictating which products would eventually end up in the retail space. Indie developers who wanted to get their games into players’ hands could do so via numerous Flash portals or via their own websites – often for free – but they didn’t have many dedicated platforms from which to sell their games and make a living.

However, with the advent of digital distribution services like the App Store, Steam, and Xbox Live Arcade, having space on a store shelf was no longer a prerequisite for selling a game. These new services gave indie developers the ability to sell games across a variety of platforms without the risks involved in manufacturing, and often without the need of a publisher.

By extension, these lowered barriers for entry allowed for a resurgence of 2D game development that had been all but crushed with the introduction of CD ROM technology. When major developers and publishers continued to push for bigger and better 3D titles, 2D game development largely retreated to handheld systems, despite the occasional appearance of standout 2D titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

In the 70’s and 80’s, game developers were pioneers, working within the constraints of the technology available to them, resulting in 2D games created by single individuals or small teams. Fast forward 20 years and the kids who grew up playing early 2D games have become developers themselves, heavily influenced by this pioneering era. Combined with a vast increase in digital distribution platforms and lower barriers for entry, many of these developers returned to their roots, working on their own or in small teams to create new 2D experiences without the technological limitations of their forebears.

In addition to its importance as an indie-developed game, Braid was on the crest of the wave that has become a 2D gaming revival, along with The Behemoth’s Castle Crashers (following the success of Alien Hominid) and Capcom’s Mega Man 9, all of which were released in the same year. The success of this new generation of 2D games even inspired the remastering of some of the 2D games that the world missed during the 3D heyday, like Cave Story and La-Mulana. Even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was re-released.

Braid pays homage to the 2D classics in a number of ways, with references to games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, but it’s not just a retro throwback; it takes advantage of the increased horsepower of the modern day to introduce a number of time-based mechanics, while also toying with some established gaming tropes.

The game appears to feature a well-worn tale of a man who must rescue a princess from a monster. The unnamed protagonist admits that he has made some mistakes which led the princess to turn away from him. The player is able to read passages before each mission in which the protagonist reflects on his mistakes and considers his regrets. The narrative is delivered in a somewhat ambiguous fashion, leaving the player to guess at the motivations of the protagonist and the extent of his past misdeeds.

The game is a puzzle platformer that offers the player a 2x nonvariable jump. Players are able to climb latticework and ladders, as well as bop enemies on the head to kill them. Bopping an enemy kills it and grants the player a bit of extra height, while dropping onto an enemy from a great height results in an even higher bounce, allowing the player to reach higher platforms.

The first set of levels allows the player to experiment with his ability to rewind time, and the player is able rewind all the way back to the start of the level if so desired. In this introductory world, the player finds himself in a number of situations that seem to require incredible reaction time, such as jumping on an enemy’s head in midair in order to cross a gap. In actuality, the player may jump and miss, only to rewind time and make another attempt – or as many attempts as are needed – to get the timing right. Players may also rewind time to adjust their trajectories or undo their own deaths when they land in a pit of spikes.

The player learns early on that the order of operations is very important to solving some puzzles, as killing certain enemies out of order means that you won’t be able to use them as springboards later on. As such, the player may experiment with puzzle solutions, become aware of his missteps, rewind time, and then play again to adjust his actions accordingly.

Keys may be found around the environment, allowing the player to unlock doors that otherwise block his progress within the level. Keys can also be carried by enemies, setting up situations where you may need to let an enemy grab a key for you, especially since enemies can walk through tight spaces that are too small for you.

There are several puzzle pieces to be discovered in each world, and collecting all of them allows the player to assemble a puzzle in the hub area. The hub has doorways leading to five worlds, each with a puzzle to complete, and there is a sixth door that cannot be reached because the ladder below it does not extend that far. By completing each of the puzzles, the player adds another piece to the ladder, thus requiring all puzzle pieces to be collected in order to reach the final world.

What may not be apparent to players is that a partial set of puzzle pieces may also be arranged at certain points within the level itself, and doing so is required in order to reach some of the other pieces. For instance, platforms in the puzzle can be arranged in order to cause an enemy to walk across them, at which point the piece can be moved to cause the enemy to fall down and keep walking, allowing the player to use it as a springboard to reach a new puzzle piece.

Very often, time-based puzzle solutions are not apparent upon the player’s first encounter with them, nor is there a precedent for how things must be manipulated in order to solve them. Instead, the player often learns how to properly manipulate time by completing challenges in later levels. Then, equipped with this knowledge, the player may return to any previously visited level to attempt to reach all of the puzzle pieces.

This inability to understand puzzle solutions on the first attempt may frustrate some players, but the game offers a fairly elegant system to allow the player to bypass puzzles that he doesn’t understand… Each level’s exit door is typically placed in an easy-to-reach area, so if a player is unable to figure out how to reach a given puzzle piece, he is free to move forward into the next area and return whenever he likes, while retaining any puzzle pieces that he did manage to collect.

The player is generally free to move through the entire game in this fashion, skipping any difficult areas along the way. Combined with the painterly visual style and tranquil soundtrack, and the fact that any mistake can be undone, this makes for a generally relaxing experience outside of the frustration that comes from being unable to solve a puzzle.

Each new world introduces a new wrinkle in the time-based mechanics and offers its own complications. For instance, the second world introduces flashing objects that are immune to time reversal. The player may find it impossible to jump between rows of floating clouds, but reversing time allows for the flashing set of clouds to keep moving forward while the others are reversed, thus closing the gap. The player may also stand next to a closed door, run over to a flashing switch to open it, and then reverse time and run through the open door before it slams shut.

The third world ties the passage of time to the player’s movement. As the player runs to the right, time moves forward, and running to the left causes it to reverse, while moving up and down leaves time stopped. As such, the player’s position in relation to enemies is very strict, and enemies can only be killed while time is moving forward… but they are also un-killed if you run back to the left again. Piranha plants – which rise out of green pipes – are immune to these time effects and must therefore be avoided at all times.

In the fourth world, rewinding time allows you to move forward with your last set actions playing out as they did before with a shadow version of your former self. You may sacrifice yourself to collect an out-of-the-way puzzle piece or key and then rewind time to let your shadow self grab it for you without consequence to your true self. There are a number of switch-flipping puzzles where you need to flip a switch, rewind time, and then take advantage of the environmental changes that occur when your past self flips the switch for you.

In the fifth world, the player may drop a ring anywhere in the environment which causes a time warp around it. Closer to the center of the ring, time moves more slowly for enemies, projectiles, and the player, while the world moves at normal speed further away from the ring. Completing this world and assembling all of the puzzles allows the player to reach a final world where he must apply his time-based knowledge to reach the princess… and finally gain some context to understand the overall narrative.

There are a couple of bosses that can only be defeated with creative use of time travel. In each case, the player must climb up a set of latticework and knock chandeliers down onto the boss’ head. In the first fight, the player may drop the chandelier, reverse time, and then drop it again to cause additional damage. In a later encounter, the player must drop a chandelier, rewind time, and then let his alternate reality shadow self drop a shadow version of the chandelier instead, making it tougher to line up a direct hit.

Braid was developed by Jonathan Blow under his Number None Label. The game was originally released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008 before its critical and popular success led it to be ported to several other platforms. Jonathan originally created a prototype for the game in 2004, which he developed and expanded over the course of the coming year. In 2006, the game won the Independent Games Festival Game Design Award at GDC.

Jonathan is one of the founding members of the Indie Fund. In addition, as an early indie success, he has often been asked to speak on the state of indie game development, and he was also featured in the documentary film Indie Game: The Movie.