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Braid on XBLA communicates something genuinely true about human relationships. The metaphors it creates are beguiling and wonderful, it's just a shame they are interspersed with such heavy handed prose.
From the creative mind of Jonathan Blow comes the time twisting adventure of a single suited man, Braid. An intelligent 2D platformer, Braid captures the imagination with its unique use of time to create the most fascinating puzzles. But while its merits as a game were clear, it was the more artistic elements that really struck my scared gamer chord.
From the outset Braid feels desolate. There is no title screen; I begin as a lone silhouette against a fiery setting sun. I walk forward into the lit house. There is no one there, only things, meaningless objects that greet me. And then there are doors into other worlds, but even these escapes just bring my mind back to what I am trying to avoid.
It is possible I am reading too much in to Braid but a recent painful separation seems to mirror far too closely the events, or at least the atmosphere here. I feel a sense of kinship with Tim, the tiny suited man on screen, and my connection goes beyond the fact we are both ginger.
Like Tim, for a time, I could do nothing without being reminded of the changes in my life; of the hurt I had felt, and had caused. I too would leave my lights on at home, uncomfortable in the lonely dark after years of living with my partner. But most of all, I could relate to the constant attempts to escape only to find my thoughts dragged back around to what I hoped to avoid. I felt a stranger in my own mind and home.
From the outset Braid feels desolate.
There are differences between me and Tim. For a start, and perhaps most obviously, I have no way of controlling time, although this may only be a part of his imaginary escapes. I certainly fantasised about what I would do differently and how things could have been better. I also didn't find myself under attack from strange hedgehog like monsters (unless you include my Sonic 4 (360) review) and the only door and key puzzles I had to contend with were how to get into my new apartment.
Fortunately, for my mood at least, Tim's platforming problems were a lot more fun and diverting than solving my own. Each of the game's worlds had their own variation on a time bending mechanic to run with the constant theme of being able to (or wishing to be able to) reverse time. This ability, so simple to visualise, beautifully introduced a kind of omnipotence to Tim's puzzle platforming as he was always able to snatch himself back from death by rewinding back to an earlier point in time.
Along with the rewind ability other twists were slowly layered on. Some areas would see items immune to time's reversal, enabling keys to remain in Tim's possession as he was dragged back through time. Another stage saw Tim's shadow free from time's grasp, allowing past echoes to exist and repeat previously completed tasks in the world, solving tasks too complex to be done alone.
But perhaps the most meaningful of Tim's abilities was the ring. This allowed Tim to slow a bubble of time around him. This was more symbolic than it initially appeared, both I think in the game and for me personally. To my eye this was the space a relationship creates, temporarily safe from any threat and fear.
Running through the puzzle solving and platforming had a disquieting, slightly off tempo feel.
Running through the puzzle solving and platforming had a disquieting, slightly off tempo feel - something reflected in the music. As time moved so did this music, backwards, forwards, slowly, always seeming to work melodically but never feeling quite right. The unpolished feel of the audio matched the oil painted art. These strings and oil create a classical feel to events, a sense of times past rather than the present. To say it feels like there is a lack of polish, or an immaturity, to the world is actually a compliment to Braid's aesthetic. This is part of the intentional genius of the game for me.
With so much of the game telling Tim's story with oblique references, it is perhaps predictable that when it is addressed explicitly it loses some of its charm. Between every level there are books, or diaries, filled with memories. Told through lengthy prose these feel clunky compared to the eloquent gameplay.
Braid is a game, but it is hard not to review it as something more because that is how its maker, Jonathan Blow, positioned it. Braid spoke volumes to me at a time when I really needed it.
The concept of escaping into other places but never being able to escape my past, and the sense everything tied back to one point in my life, felt all too real. It provided comfort and (depressingly) companionship, alleviating the fear and depression I was suffering from in my real life.
And as Tim made his realisations of the reality of his relationship so too did I. Fortunately, unlike Tim, so far I think my decision was for the best.
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