Time Ex­tend

Wind­ing back the clock to re­visit Jonathan Blow’s in­die block­buster

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY SI­MON PARKIN

We turn back time to take a fresh look at Braid, Jonathan Blow’s tem­po­ral puzzle plat­former

For 30 years, videogames al­lowed us to ex­tend time. The clink and rat­tle of a fresh credit would buy you a few more min­utes in­side an ar­cade game’s hos­tile re­al­ity. It wasn’t un­til 2008 and

Braid, how­ever, that we were truly able to shift po­si­tion from time’s slave to its mas­ter. Now we could not only ex­tend time but also squeeze, stretch, fid­dle, scrub and ma­nip­u­late it in all man­ner of new and un­usual ways. With this power, we could undo pro­tag­o­nist Tim’s mist­imed leaps. We could care­fully lift his body from the spikes on which it was im­paled. We could pluck him from the jaws of a man-eat­ing plant, or nudge him away from the path of an in­com­ing pro­jec­tile. In Braid, we could un­pick and restitch his­tory’s ta­pes­try in or­der to save and to solve.

Videogames had played with this power be­fore. Both Prince Of Per­sia: The Sands Of

Time and, less suc­cess­fully, Blinx al­lowed us to wind the clock back a hand­ful of sec­onds to take an­other run at a leap or to avoid get­ting skew­ered by a hitherto-un­fore­seen sword stab. At its most straight­for­ward,

Braid is a game built upon the same mir­a­cle, al­beit within the con­text of a Mario- style plat­form game. But here, for the first time, your power isn’t limited to a few snatched sec­onds: you can rewind an en­tire level back to the start, re­set­ting the world to its ini­tial state. De­spite ap­pear­ances, there is no peril here ei­ther. The mon­sters ex­ist not to harm you, but to act as props in a se­ries of tem­po­ral puz­zles – ob­sta­cle cour­ses that re­quire time to be ma­nip­u­lated in or­der to grant pas­sage. As such, Braid played with time in un­prece­dented ways.

The great po­ten­tial of videogames is that they al­low us to in­habit re­al­i­ties that work on un­fa­mil­iar logic and rules. Gamemak­ers usu­ally only dab­ble with this power. They ease grav­ity’s tug so that char­ac­ters can leap tall build­ings in a sin­gle bound. They ex­ag­ger­ate physics so that punches hit harder, or ex­plo­sions cause more dam­age and spec­ta­cle. It’s rare, how­ever, that a game world pre­sents a wholly un­fa­mil­iar set of phys­i­cal rules. With Braid, cre­ator Jonathan Blow drew in­spi­ra­tion from Alan Lightman’s Ein­stein’s Dreams and Italo Calvino’s In­vis­i­ble Cities, nov­els that ex­plore the idea of worlds sub­ject to a dif­fer­ent sets of tem­po­ral rules than our own. Braid be­came Blow’s project to build such al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties, con­struct­ing places where time is yoked to move­ment (go­ing for­ward when Tim walks in one di­rec­tion, but back­wards when he moves the other way), or cer­tain ob­jects are im­mune to time re­ver­sal.

Braid re­flects both the logic and po­etry of its cre­ator, who dou­ble-ma­jored in English Lit­er­a­ture and Com­puter Sci­ence at UC Berke­ley. Blow’s logic is re­flected in the pre­ci­sion with which the game’s me­chan­ics are in­tro­duced and in­ves­ti­gated. Each of the six worlds in­tro­duces a new tem­po­ral con­ceit and, through a se­ries of sub-stages, ex­plores the idea in var­i­ous ways. In one, you are given an item that slows time for any­thing that sits within its prox­im­ity, tem­po­rar­ily de­cel­er­at­ing mov­ing plat­forms or en­e­mies as they pass close by. In an­other, you work through the stage along­side your pre­vi­ous ‘selves’, one of whom is added each time you rewind and cre­ate a new time­line. The ideas un­furl with el­e­gance, re­veal­ing them­selves with such clar­ity that it some­times seems as if Blow un­cov­ered, rather than in­vented, them.

His po­etry is re­vealed in what many con­sider to be Braid’s schiz­o­phrenic other half, a sto­ry­line that ini­tially ap­pears to have lit­tle to do with the game’s me­chan­i­cal theme. The game’s ti­tle refers to a girl’s hair, os­ten­si­bly that of Tim’s ex-lover, who flicked her braid at him as she turned heel and fled the re­la­tion­ship. Blow’s in­ter­est in cre­ative writ­ing – a form he once claimed that he mas­tered only to find that he had noth­ing he wanted to say – is re­vealed through some oc­ca­sion­ally pur­ple prose, which ap­par­ently deals with a painful breakup, and Tim’s sub­se­quent pur­suit of the girl with whom he has be­come ob­sessed.

This read­ing is sup­ported by the game’s aes­thetic, which riffs off the fa­mil­iar Su­per

Mario myth, with the de­ter­mined plumber pur­su­ing the kid­napped princess. Blow in­cudes many of Mario’s props in the game’s art (drawn by David Hell­man), al­beit aged and twisted with a sort of strange re­al­ism. Gruff-faced Goomba-alikes shuf­fle along the plat­forms, warty Pi­ranha Plants snap

from green pipes, and when Tim reaches the end of each world, a leath­ery bipedal di­nosaur hob­bles out to an­nounce the princess must be in an­other cas­tle. The game’s con­clu­sion ap­pears to twist the

Mario myth, re­veal­ing that the ‘princess’ was, in fact, flee­ing from Tim’s stalk­ing.

There’s an­other read­ing en­cour­aged by the game’s text, how­ever. Mario is a bluecol­lar, work­ing-class saviour, while Tim, with his pris­tine suit and leather brief­case, comes from a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion in so­ci­ety. In time, Braid re­veals a sec­ondary sto­ry­line be­hind the one about the jilted lover. Blow makes re­peated and in­creas­ingly plain ref­er­ences to the de­vel­op­ment of the atomic bomb (at one point re­peat­ing the in­fa­mous quo­ta­tion from Kenneth Bain­bridge, spo­ken mo­ments af­ter the det­o­na­tion of the first atomic bomb: “Now we are all sons of bitches”). Dur­ing the game’s mem­o­rable end­ing, Tim flees a scenery-con­sum­ing nu­clear ex­plo­sion, a pur­su­ing wave of de­struc­tion. For many, Braid is the story of a man who be­comes al­most ro­man­ti­cally ob­sessed with an ex­tra­or­di­nary power (be it the bomb or metaphor­i­cally some­thing for­bid­den and de­struc­tive), who is filled with re­gret when he loses con­trol over it.

There is truth to both in­ter­pre­ta­tions, as well as oth­ers, some of which Blow, in the best tra­di­tion of artists who want to en­cour­age on­go­ing dis­cus­sion of their work, claims are yet to be noted or di­vulged. For all the dis­cus­sion that the game’s story has in­spired, most con­sider Blow to be a more pro­fi­cient game-maker than sto­ry­teller. His tale, for all its in­trigue, is opaque and of­ten con­fus­ing. The stand­off­ish­ness of his prose is also re­flected in Braid’s puz­zles. This is, af­ter all, not a game that ac­com­mo­dates player ex­pres­sion; each puzzle has a sin­gu­lar so­lu­tion. In most cases, the pur­pose of the rewind func­tion is to go back again and again un­til you learn how to play the level the way Blow in­tended. It’s telling that each puzzle re­wards a player with a piece of a jig­saw. These are pre­des­tined puz­zles with

BLOW HAS SAID THAT MANY OF THE PUZ­ZLES CAME TO HIM BE­CAUSE HE WAS ALSO THE AR­CHI­TECT OF THE EN­GINE

set so­lu­tions. You ei­ther solve the game piece by piece as in­tended, or you fail to.

In this sense, the game’s rhythm is close to a crossword. It’s pos­si­ble to move through each of the game’s worlds, en­ter­ing one door and ex­it­ing through the next, while solv­ing only a hand­ful of their puz­zles. Af­ter the ini­tial stage, you’re al­most never blocked from pro­gress­ing. In­stead, you’re en­cour­aged to re­turn to re­visit the clues you missed. But de­spite this ap­par­ent le­nience to­wards play­ers, Braid is not a sup­port­ive game. Blow has stated that he ig­nored Mi­crosoft’s pleas to in­clude a hint sys­tem. There is no help within the game’s con­text for those strug­gling to meet its chal­lenges, which re­tains Blow’s phi­los­o­phy about only grant­ing pas­sage to play­ers who demon­strate un­der­stand­ing, but does so at the cost of ap­proach­a­bil­ity.

There is an upside to this ruth­less ap­proach: those who re­sist the temp­ta­tion

to gather clues from out­side sources ex­pe­ri­ence a height­ened thrill when they hap­pen upon a so­lu­tion. You can’t solve these prob­lems by stum­bling through a range of ar­bi­trary in­puts. When an an­swer re­veals it­self, there’s a rare sat­is­fac­tion to grasp­ing the logic. Then, when you’ve col­lected the full set of so­lu­tions, you have the op­por­tu­nity to at­tempt the post-game speedrun and thread these lessons to­gether into a per­fect chain of mas­tery – al­beit within the bounds the de­signer has set. Braid was not the first in­die game of its era, but it was ar­guably the most high pro­file and fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful. The game made Blow both a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and a poster boy for the in­die move­ment, a fig­ure­head who is ex­alted in In­die Game: The Movie and who was later pro­filed in The At­lantic. Su­per­fi­cially, this ac­claim is down to the game’s pre­sen­ta­tion and de­liv­ery plat­form. A down­load-only ti­tle for Mi­crosoft’s XBLA ser­vice, Braid has all of the trap­pings of a fash­ion­able art­house game: painterly graph­ics, a wist­ful clas­si­cal sound­track and a tiny team.

But that Blow and his game should come to sym­bol­ise the spirit of in­die de­vel­op­ment is due to more than the sim­ple luck of tim­ing, or its style. Braid is a game that feels as if it could only have been cre­ated by a lone pro­gram­mer and de­signer. Had the game’s de­vel­op­ment been split be­tween many minds, it’s un­likely that its ideas would have blos­somed with such fo­cus and pu­rity. Blow has said since that many of the puz­zles came to him be­cause he was also the ar­chi­tect of the game’s en­gine. In that sense,

Braid and Blow are a fit­ting team to rep­re­sent what dif­fer­en­ti­ates in­die game de­vel­op­ment from the cre­ative sprawl of the mod­ern block­buster. It’s more than a mat­ter of aes­thetic, it’s to do with the fun­da­men­tal way in which a game is con­structed.

Six years on and that def­i­ni­tion might seem out­dated. The ‘in­die game’ has broad­ened out to en­com­pass ev­ery­thing from the bed­room game-maker to teams that once upon a time would have been con­sid­ered large. But Braid it­self has not aged in the same way. It’s re­tained its bur­nish and power, and with its play­ful ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with chronol­ogy it continues to en­able us to look at our own world with fresh eyes. More­over, Braid’s puz­zles have stood the test of time – the one test that Blow couldn’t de­sign away.

Braid’s art was cre­ated by the comic-book artist David Hell­man. Blow would pro­vide rough lay­outs of each of the game’s stages over which Hell­man would draw. The char­ac­ters were orig­i­nally de­signed by Su­perMeatBoy co-cre­ator Ed­mund McMillen, but Hell­man later re­drew them to fit with his back­grounds more har­mo­niously

Blow has stated that the game cost $200,000 to make, leav­ing him $40,000 in debt at the con­clu­sion of its de­vel­op­ment. Soon af­ter the game’s re­lease in 2008, it be­came the sec­ond-best­selling ti­tle on Xbox Live Ar­cade, a feat that made Blow a mil­lion­aire

The game uses li­censed mu­sic tracks from Mag­natune artists Ch­eryl Ann Ful­ton, Shira Kam­men and Jami Sieber. Blow later ad­mit­ted that he chose li­censed mu­sic in or­der to min­imise de­vel­op­ment costs

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