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