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Braid Part 1: Story and Themes (spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on October 11, 2008

My take on Braid is split into two parts. The first part looks at the story and its themes, and the second looks at how the themes are supported through game design.

Braid doesn’t have a normal narrative arc, but more of an emotional arc for the character Tim. Each world Tim enters represents his psychological state at some point in time during his search for his “Princess.” His search for the Princess becomes an obsession, and Braid is about the growth, and ongoing cycle, of this obsession. Each world begins with some writings (shown in little books) about an event in Tim’s past, but these events are loosely related, and there is little that connects them other than Tim himself. That’s alright though, because these events aren’t supposed to represent actual events in Tim’s past. Instead, they’re a metaphor for how Tim is feeling at that point in his cycle of obsession.

The game begins at World 2, after the beginning of the story (where the game actually ends). The book tell us that Tim has lost the Princess due to some mistake he wishes he could take back, and go on to describe what the world would be like if one could take back one’s mistakes. Despite his loss, World 2 is a rather bright, colorful, and optimistic world. That’s because it’s a daydream; it represents Tim’s fantastical mistake-free world. This is the kind of world he hopes to live in once he’s reunited with his Princess. After having just lost her, all he can think about is how great life will be once he finds her again. But the world ends on a somber note: Tim reaches a castle and a giant stuffed dinosaur (this does have a point in the story) comes out and tells Tim “The Princess is in another castle,” even in his fantasy he can’t have her.

In World 3, Tim’s fantasy world has been given a dose of reality. From the books we see that Tim has learned he can’t be perfect. “To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.” In other words, by constantly taking back his mistakes, Tim would be living his life according to someone else’s wishes, and that would be a mistake he couldn’t take back. The fact that Tim realizes this shows he is growing as a character. He is able to admit to his mistakes, the first step in fixing them and finding the Princess again.

In World 4 Tim’s search is in full swing.  The books tell us he has gladly left his home and school behind, riding himself of an undesirable past-the “embarrassment of childhood” and the “insecurities he’d felt at the university.” Tim is continuing to grow, and when he looks back at his past self he can see just how much he didn’t know, how ignorant he was. He accepts this mistake-riddled past because he can also see “how he’d improved so much from those old days.” Tim is improving himself, fixing the mistakes he made, and he knows that “This improvement, day by day, takes him ever-closer to finding the Princess.”

In World 5 it seems as if Tim’s search has stalled. The books tell us he has taken up a lover, and that he has “chiseled lines [in] his face,” or wrinkles, suggesting that much time has passed and he still hasn’t found his Princess. This lack of a result has made Tim lose hope that he’ll ever find what he’s looking for. He has given up his search because of this lack of hope, and in the meantime he has tried, really tried, to create a life outside of his search. He holds his lover “…as though she were [close to him], whispered into her ear words that only a soul mate should receive.” But this lover is not Tim’s true desire. Tim can put off his obsession for a while, but not forever. Eventually he leaves this lover despite the fact that she truly loves him, and will love him “as if he stayed.” Tim can’t ignore his search, he can’t forget about the Princess, no matter what else he does his obsession calls him back.

World 6 shows us how much his obsession has cost him. The books tell us that Tim wears a ring symbolizing his search for the Princess, “It’s a sign of ceseless devotion: even if he will never find the Princess he will always be trying.” It has cost him a social life: “It shines out to others like a beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion, distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.” Tim tries to hide the ring, again trying to escape his obsession “But he can hardly bear it-too long tucked away, that part of him might suffocate.” The search for the Princess is everything now. Others can see how powerful his obsession is and stay away from him because of it. The obsession has made him an outsider to the world, but no matter how much it costs him, Tim continues the search.

Which brings us to World 1. This is the beginning of the story, but the Tim described by the books seems like a continuation of the Tim from World 6. More of the obsessed and lonely Tim, and none of the happy Tim from World 2: “…he barely notices the sun, doesn’t really taste his coffee…and in the arc of a shop-girl’s hand as she displays tea to an interested gentleman, Tim hopes to see clues.” Tim has now given over all of himself to the search. It’s all he thinks about, looking for clues everywhere. He is completely apart from the rest of the world, and lives for nothing else but the search. So how does this Tim become the happy Tim in World 2? To answer this we have to look at each of the four levels in World 1 in chronological order.

I’ll start at level 1-1, even though this is where the game ends (the levels are played backwards in World 1). This level has Tim finally meeting his Princess. She’s held in the arms of a knight as he climbs down a vine, but she escapes, and Tim runs after her as a wall of fire chases them both. Tim must navigate a series of obstacles while pulling switches to open doors for the Princess so she’s not consumed by the fire, and she does the same for Tim. It finally ends with her entering a bedroom and falling asleep, just as Tim reaches the landing outside her window, looking in. He can’t reach her. This close to the Princess and he can’t reach her. No matter what we do at this point, we can’t get inside that bedroom. So we rewind the level and as we do we see things as they really are: The Princess jumps up from her bed and runs from Tim. He chases her. She actually pulls the switches in order to block off ladders, preventing Tim from reaching her; she tries to drop a chandelier on him, even tries to drop him into a pit of spikes. Meanwhile Tim is pulling switches trying to trap her, catching her by her dress so she gets stuck. Back at the beginning of the level, the Princess yells “Help,” while the knight tells her to “Get down here!” She jumps into his arms and he climbs up saying “I’ve got you.” The knight is literally her knight in shining armor, saving her from Tim. The Princess doesn’t want to be found by Tim, she’ll run from him forever. All Tim can do, is exit the door, and leave the level.

The rest of the levels in World 1 represent Tim’s reaction after failing to catch the Princess. At first he’s destroyed, just as level 1-2 is destroyed, but he gets over it. Level 1-3 has some of the platforms rebuilt, and by 1-4 the level is rebuilt. Tim was devastated after his failure, his world was broken and he fell apart. But he got over his failure and begins World 2 rejuvenated; he knows how close he was to getting her, and believes that he can find her again.

Braid shows us this repeating cycle of an obsession. Tim will never find his Princess, but he will always be searching. He’ll come close, but fail, and begin again with the hope that next time will be different. But just who is this Princess he’s looking for? I think she’s a symbol of desire. I think the homage to Mario (the line “The Princess is in another castle”) is more than just an homage. It’s a line that underscores the futility of Tim’s search: his Princess is always in another castle. I also think the Princess’s bedroom in 1-1 shows how deep Tim’s obsession goes.  Every creature Tim interacts with during the game is in the bedroom: The stuffed dinosaur and stuffed “goomba” enemy lie next to her bed, and for everyone that wondered why the bunnies in the game sounded like cats, her drapes are decorated with bunnies and cats. These creatures, like everything else in Braid, are linked to the symbol of the Princess. Everything Tim does revolves, in some way, around the Princess. Even those action that seem to have nothing to do with the Princess, like killing the enemies, meeting the stuffed dinosaur, or even looking for the puzzle pieces (I’ll get into that last one in more detail in Part 2). He is truly obsessed with her.

However, many questions are introduced in the Epilogue. This is where Braid’s meaning becomes more subjective. After leaving level 1-1 we enter the Epilogue, a cloudy world with more books. Each book describes a different scene, and hiding Tim behind something on screen changes the text to describe the same scene from a different point of view. We’re still in Tim’s mind, and only by hiding him can we see the truth. This is the first time in the game where we’re allowed the opportunity to see thing from another point of view.

The first book describes a man and woman peacefully walking though Manhattan (the only city named in the game), but hiding Tim reveals that the man is actually dragging the woman along against her will. The second book describes him analyzing “metal orbs” and dissecting rat brains, then switches to the P.O.V of a woman he’s ignoring who wants to be close to him. The third book describes him analyzing more things, and shows two quotes about the detonation of the first atom bomb, and then switches to the bomb’s P.O.V: “She couldn’t understand why he chose to flirt so closely with the death of the world.” The fourth book describes a young Tim being held back from a candy store by his mother, considering violence to escape. The new text here isn’t a different P.O.V but a more detailed scene describing the candy inside as the “It-From-Bit” and the “Ethical Calculus” (Two rather complex theories on physics and ethics respectively. Defining them would take a post of its own, let alone applying their definitions to Braid. For now, here’s a long and short explanation of the It From Bit theory, and the best definition of Ethical Calculus I could find with Google). At the very end Tim is left with castle literally built from his memories.

The meaning of all these things can be debated. I’ve written a lot about Braid but I can’t really say I know what it’s about. I have an idea, but I don’t know. I first thought it was a metaphor for obsession and that the bits about the atom bomb were a kind of be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning. But this theory doesn’t explain why the atom bomb references are so common.

Another theory is that Braid is about a real failed relationship. This is supported with the many images of loving couples throughout the game. Since in this interpretation the Princess is a real person, her bedroom is real as well, and the stuffed toys represent the many inconsequential things that remind Tim of his lost love. His portrayal as a scientist in the Epilogue is metaphorical: He’s searching for his lost love as a scientist would search for answers. The “other woman” in World 5 and the Epilogue is someone Tim started a relationship with hoping to get over his true love. But this theory still doesn’t explain the bomb references.

There’s also the idea that the Princess represents the atomic bomb. Tim is a scientist working on the Manhattan Project, and his obsession with making the bomb separates him from the people in his life.  This is supported by the quotes, and the fact that Manhattan is the only city named. The portrayal of Tim as a scientist is literal, and the “other woman” is his wife or lover that he ignores in his quest for the bomb. There are also many curious references to the Princess: how she’ll spark “an intense light that embraces the world…Destroying all hope of safety, forever,” at the beginning of World 1; or how the Princess will “transform him, and everyone,” at the beginning of World 4; and others. But the best support for this idea comes by finding 7 hidden stars throughout the levels, which gives us the opportunity to manipulate time in 1-1 in just such a way so that we can jump onto a rising chandelier and actually touch the Princess. It is possible to catch the Princess. And when we do, the screen goes white, we hear the sound of a bomb, and then the Princess is gone. I think this is the most comprehensive interpretation of the story so far, and yet it doesn’t explain what the stuffed toys represent.

A lot of the fun in Braid is deducing its meaning. It’s purposefully ambiguous, and every interpretation gives us new things to think about.     Like all good art, Braid creates discussion.  Its meaning, its symbols, everything in it can be interpreted as something different, but no interpretation can ever be said to be wrong. No one theory explains everything, and that gets people talking, which leads to more theories, and so on. There may not be a consensus on what Braid is about, but the one thing it most certainly is, is art.

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