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Braid Part 2: Gameplay and Themes (spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on October 18, 2008

We start in World 2. Tim has just lost his Princess and wants her back. This world is a fantasy, Tim’s hope of what his life will eventually become once he finds his Princess again. He has realized that a mistake has cost him the Princess, and dreams of a world free of mistakes. The rewind ability is the main symbol in this world, best represented in the level Leap of Faith, where Tim must make a leap of faith to grab a puzzle piece. The player must time the jump just right to bounce off an enemy as it’s shot out of a cannon, otherwise Tim will fall and the puzzle piece will be out of reach. In any other platformer, this kind of trail and error timing would be a source of great frustration, but Braid is very forgiving thanks to the rewind ability. We can jump when we think it’s right, and if we miss we can rewind and be at it again in less than a second. We’re allowed to experiment and make mistakes, to learn from them; to try the same jump over and over with slightly different timing until we get it right, then progress as if we had done it all perfectly the first time though. This is a world just like Tim imagines.

In World 3 Tim is given a little bit of reality. The books explain the downside to living without any mistakes: If we always take back our mistakes, if we live a life that appears perfect to others, than others will never know the real us, the flawed us. Erasing all our mistakes is a mistake itself, one we can’t take back. This is interpreted literally into Braid in the form of green objects that can’t be rewound. Immune from our time manipulation, we have to work around them. The appropriately titled level Irreversible is a perfect example of this. Its very title contradicts what we’ve come to expect from World 2. There’s a puzzle with three doors and two keys, one key is immune from rewinding, and one door is immune from rewinding. If we make a mistake with this puzzle and use the immune key on the wrong door, we cannot rewind away our mistake and must restart the level. We’re forced to think about the consequences of our actions and we realize that the world of Braid is not as forgiving as we thought it was it World 2; we can make “fatal” mistakes. This realization mirrors Tim’s own realization that the world is not as forgiving as he wishes it could be.

In World 4 Tim has set off in search of his Princess, leaving his house and school behind. He’s glad to leave, and feels optimistic at the future. This optimism encourages his search for the Princess, and gives him a blinding motivation: He races towards his goal with little care of what happens around him. This blind ambition is best exampled through gameplay at the end of this World. Normally, Tim would reach a castle and the stuffed dinosaur would come out and tell Tim something. But in World 4, since we control the flow of time, the dinosaur won’t talk unless we move forward. When we move forward we run past the dinosaur, interrupting his speech. The dinosaur chases us, pleading with us to stop, but we can’t. If we stop it stops, if we go back it goes back. We have to ignore the dinosaur and run ahead in order to finish the World.

By World 5 we begin to see the consequences of his obsession. The books tell of him leaving a lover to continue his search for his Princess, but why was Tim with this other woman in the first place? Tim was looking for an “out.” He doesn’t want to spend his life searching, so he tried to live a separate life away from the Princess. This separate life is represented in-game as a “ghost” of Tim. Whenever we rewind time, a “ghost” appears to repeat the actions we’ve just taken back, leaving us free to try something else. But this ghost only lasts a few seconds and then fades away. Like Tim’s life with the unnamed woman, it can’t last. It can’t last is because Tim can never really stop his search, the obsession is too strong. It’s important to remember that the levels represent Tim’s psyche, while the books tell us what’s happening outside his mind. While he’s trying to forget about the Princess on the outside, he’s still looking for her inside. Whenever the ghost, that separate life, is active, it’s always there to help us solve a puzzle and get one step closer to the Princess. We can see why his attempt at living a “separate” life failed: It was never really separate; in his head it was always helping him in his search. Tim cannot escape his obsession; he’s too weak to take control of it.

This lack of control is subtly placed on us, the players, earlier in World 4, best represented in the level Hunt! Here (and all of World 4) time seems to be under our complete control: Each level has its own timeline, with the far left side being the beginning and the far right side being the end. Time only moves when we move Tim. If he moves forward than time moves forward, if he moves backwards than time moves backwards. Even the enemies are under this control. In Hunt! We must kill all the enemies in order to open a door. The enemies are always moving in different directions, on different platforms above and below. Tim jumps on an enemy, killing it like normal, but every time he moves to the left, backwards in time, the enemy’s death is reversed and it comes back to life. The only way to prevent resurrection is to never return to the same spot in the level/timeline where an enemy died. There are specific places where their path and Tim’s path meet, and only in those places can we interact with them and kill them. We must kill the enemies in a very specific left-to-right order; there is no other way of solving the puzzle. We may think we have total control over the world but we don’t, our interactions are limited to specific predetermined places. No matter how much power we think we wield with our rewind ability and all the other abilities we get throughout Braid, we are still slaves to the rules of Braid, just as Tim is a slave to his obsession.

In World 6, Hesitance, Tim’s long search is really wearing on him. He carries a ring that represents his search, a ring that “Makes people slow to approach…torpedoed interactions before Tim can open his mouth.” It’s a lonely life he leads. Once again he tries to stop, “…begins to hide the ring in his pocket. But he can hardly bear it – too long tucked away, that part of him might suffocate.” Tim is hesitant to continue but he knows he must. Our ability in this World comes from the ring Tim carries: Whenever he drops it, the surrounding area slows down. The ring does exactly what it was said to do, making things “slow to approach.” But while its effect is the same, the result is very different. In the real world the ring make him more of a social outcast but in his head the slowed time helps him find clues (the puzzle pieces). The ring can be interpreted as a literal object, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s symbolic of Tim’s growing reclusiveness: As he rids himself of distractions he’s able to better focus on his search, despite how lonely it makes him feel.

At this point in Braid, after completing World 6, we’re faced with a wall: We can’t continue until we find every puzzle piece. This is a common practice in games, forcing players to find all of a certain collectible before we can reach the final level, but in Braid it takes on a special significance. For us, the puzzle pieces fill in six paintings unique to each World, we’re literally solving a puzzle. But for Tim these puzzle pieces are clues to the whereabouts of his precious Princess. In Tim’s search “He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread.” And we too must infer, deduce, and scrutinize each level in order to figure out how to get each puzzle piece. We feel what Tim feels in his search because we’re in our own search. This why (or at least one of the reasons in my opinion) why the official Braid walkthrough just tells us to solve the puzzles for ourselves and asks us not to use a guide. It’s the frustration we feel over of a seemingly impossible problem and the subsequent joy of solving it that are greatest experiences of Braid.

Once we do find the puzzle pieces we’re rewarded with the opportunity to play World 1. In the last level we come within sight of the Princess, the person we and Tim have been looking for throughout all the worlds. We chase after her, but in the end we can’t reach her. It’s important to note that Braid waits for us here, while we’re standing outside the Princess’s window. In order to beat the level we have to rewind time ourselves, we have to concede the fact that we may have made a mistake, even though we seemed to have done everything right to get to this point. We don’t understand why we failed, but we have to accept it anyways. Braid is unique game in that we never actually accomplish the one goal we had from the beginning.

However, it is possible. There are eight stars hidden throughout Braid, extremely we hidden. To find them we must become even more like Tim, obsessive in our analysis of each level. Our reward: We can actually touch the Princess. In the final level, if we time things just right, we can ride a chandelier up to her position. But the second we touch her she explodes. This lends quite a lot of support to the idea that the Princess represents the atom bomb, and shows just how futile the search really was. In the end we get our Princess, but in catching her she disappears forever.

Braid’s themes are well supported by its game design. We, the players, are made to think and feel like Tim while exploring the consequences and motivations behind such a deep obsession. Braid succeeds as art because it of this personal experience it gives the player, an experience unique to video games. Instead of just watching Tim follow his Princess, we’re made to follow our own clues in search of our own Princess. It’s for these reasons that I think Braid is an important game for anyone interested in the artistic nature of video games.

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