April 20, 2009
One common criticism of Braid is that its story, infamously delivered through enigmatic and overwritten text, is largely independent of the gameplay. The ending is well done, they argue, but there are too few moments with such an effective synthesis.
I think that’s the wrong approach here. In my eyes, Braid doesn’t attempt to integrate a narrative into the gameplay; rather, it integrates the gameplay into a narrative, subverting the expectation that interactivity will be its primary language. In fact, I’d say that Braid evokes the experience of reading more than playing.
How is that? The most common way to progress through a game is to experiment. Are there any hidden goodies on this level? Let’s explore. What’s this boss’s weakness? Try the available weapons and see what works. Can I gather enough momentum to reach that ledge? Only one way to find out.
Braid, though, doesn’t tend to reward experimentation. Because of the time-bending mechanics, it’s difficult to get feedback from your mistakes and refine your solutions. Indeed, it rarely makes sense to “almost” solve a puzzle; they’re so precisely constructed that coming close can be as useless as heading down the wrong path entirely.
So instead of solving Braid’s puzzles by experimenting, I solved them by thinking: staring through the screen like it was a Magic Eye, absentmindedly tapping Shift, struggling to intuit Jonathan Blow’s intentions. To anyone watching there was little indication I was doing anything at all, let alone “playing” — but after I had absorbed everything, I could usually complete the puzzle in one fell swoop, with minimal frustration.
That is also, in effect, how I read. Interpreting literature is not a fundamentally experimental process. I don’t break off halfway through a paragraph to try out my dozen half-baked theories; I try to hold everything in my head at once and deduce meaning from the whole. It’s part reading comprehension and part sitting around allowing ideas to percolate.
As I tried to unravel Braid’s interstitial text I realized that solving the puzzles and understanding the text required very similar approaches. Their concealed machinations and thematic ambiguities are teased out using the same mental processes, and are part of the same overarching search for meaning. In a way, I was “reading” everything in the game. It’s not the unification of narrative and gameplay that we’ve come to expect, but it’s a refreshing and effective one.