Sunday, August 8, 2010

Braid - Design Analysis

The 2008 release of Jonathan Blow’s 2D platformer Braid for Xbox Live Arcade was largely received by the gaming community as a harrowing success.  In addition to winning the Independent Games Festival award in 2006 while still in the design phase, Braid has since received awards from GameSpot, Official Xbox Magazine, MacWorld and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. These accolades include “Best Original Downloadable Console Game”, “Best Platformer”, “Xbox Live Arcade Game of the Year”, “Best Ending” and “Casual Game of the Year” among others.  While Braid still has a strong foothold in generic platforming gameplay, it also has a strong focus on the frailty of life and love, the concepts of time travel and the importance of player decisions. Through basic controls of movement and time reversal, players are introduced to challenges in mental dexterity and logical deduction as opposed to the traditional manual dexterity and memorization posed by most platform titles, (Gaynor, 2008, Fullbright Critique) making Braid an enjoyable and challenging game bordering on artistic masterpiece.

Although Braid was released to a console supporting a 16-button controller, the game has made use of a simple system in which the analogue stick controls the main character Tim, and the ‘A’ button is used to jump. The game becomes increasingly deeper as the player is introduced to the concepts of time travel, and the ability for Tim to reverse time with a press of the ‘X’ button. These simple controls are more than compensated for by the time travel mechanic of Braid, engaging the player and introducing a challenge found not in the environment or enemies, but it the mind of the user. This mechanic also forces an important yet unorthodox realization on the player – Tim cannot die. The combination of simple control system and the ability to reverse time make for an enjoyable yet challenging experience.

Braid utilizes the time manipulation mechanic to its fullest throughout the game, creating a sense of accomplishment for completion of even the smallest of puzzles. The player is forced to stop and observe the surroundings, in addition to the current level’s time mechanic to solve vibrant puzzles and push forward into the story. Each level presents a new chapter of the story to the player, and a new ability to work with. These abilities include slowing time in the immediate vicinity of a ring, objects and enemies unaffected by time reversal, a doppelganger of Tim’s last moves and a flow of time influenced by Tim’s directional movement. These mechanics have been used before in games such as ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’, although their power has been limited. It is Braid’s capacity to continuously use these abilities and incorporate them into every element of the game which makes for interesting, unique gameplay. The levels can only be completed in one particular sequence of precise moves, an impossible task without such abilities. In this sense Braid lacks any exploratory options in the environment however it encourages the player to explore the core mechanics of the game and immerses them in the well constructed level design. Each challenge is presented to the player with relative complexity and then concluded with a realization of the puzzle’s intrinsic simplicity. Braid also offers a time trial mode for players to complete individual stages or the whole game to beat a given challenge time. Blow included this feature in the game to encourage re-playability and to possibly show players a technique or alternate answer perhaps previously unseen. (Blow, 2008, 1UP Interview) Although players may feel cheated by a lack of communication from the designer on the use of abilities or intentions behind the layout of each level, a combination of pleasing aesthetics and continuous gameplay allow the player to fully absorb each level and uncover a solution in their own time.

Braid consists of a rich and engaging story told through several texts spread throughout the game. It is a story built with numerous layers which considers many interpretations and manages to “straddle the gap between classic forms of storytelling and modern entertainment.” (Bardinelli, 2009, Bardinelli's Blog) The story, told in reverse, is that of a man attempting to change his past and make the right decisions. Synonymous to games such as those from the Mario series, Tim pursues a princess who always seems to be just out of reach. The princess in this case is a representation of a desire for not only a person, but an ideal or a dream.  Although the narrative is deep and prolific, the connection to gameplay and level design is ambiguous at times, the only relevance being Tim’s ability to reverse his mistakes. This does not interrupt the experience however, as Braid doesn’t force the narrative into the gameplay but “integrates the gameplay into a narrative, subverting the expectation that interactivity will be its primary language.” (Bruno, 2009, Cruise Elroy) Overly complicated dynamics of the human condition are told implicitly through an allusive storyline, and although some text can be excessively worded, the amalgamation of story and gameplay are bound with the beauty of the art and music.

As an Xbox Live Arcade download, Braid is delivered through downloadable content at a size of 144 megabytes. It was also developed over 4 years with a development team of no more than 5 people, predominately Blow and Hellman. Blow provided over $200,000 to see the project immune to corporate design input and pressures, and finally see the game complete. (Blow, 2008, Joystiq - Post Mortem) This does not detract from the graphical integrity of the game, but rather heightens it, presented through warm water colored textures in a simple 2D environment. Braid’s graphics are complimented by subtle sound effects and light classical music, relaxing the player for an enjoyable playing experience. Basic sound effects are played during actions such as jumping or enemies appearing, with music and sound played in reverse whilst Tim is travelling through time. The music is never too loud and sometimes barely audible, although the score is a treat and in no way obtrusive to gameplay. The simplicity of the resources used in the game don’t feel shallow, but rather blend together the story and gameplay elements and makes the player question the mechanisms of the world. This gives the game the appearance and feel of a lucid dream, and as stated by Braid’s artist David Hellman, the worlds are made to represent the inner thoughts of Tim, making the handmade, rough and sometimes unfinished visuals so appropriate. (Hellman, 2008, David Hellman)

Narrative is well presented to the player through multiple text boxes, giving the player the ability to shape to tone of the story in their own minds. The text used to deliver this story fits the scenery well, and becomes an integral part of the gaming experience. Braid does not employ cut scenes as players are thrust straight into the game and will finish the same way. The lack of pre-rendered animation forces the player to read their way through the game, reminiscent of older RPGs, providing the player with a sense of reading a well illustrated novel. Apart from these channels of information, minimal information is offered concerned with gameplay with no HUD, life-meters, scores or level information. The inclusion of such information would serve as a graphical distraction from the existing artwork and challenges, and are completely unnecessary. The simplicity of Braid’s interface allows the player to focus on one complexity at a time rather than overlapping them, allowing answers to become clear. It is the way in which Braid realizes such a broad medium of styles throughout time that makes it an enjoyable title for gamers alike.

Braid concludes with Tim arriving at a castle built from the experiences gained throughout each level. There is no princess waiting, no chest of treasure, or adoring fans. It is this subversion from the mainstream ideal of gaming that makes Braid a success on so many levels. It is complex and yet incredibly simple, beautiful but strangely dark, conceited yet also humble. The ability to introduce such an unnatural mechanic to the player through familiar and safe platforming environments provides a unique and entertaining gameplay experience to both casual and hardcore gamers, young and old.