Why Braid, the in­die poster boy’s mag­num opus, doesn’t Blow us away nearly a decade later

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - REVIEW - phil iwa­niuk

I re­mem­ber the furtive chat­ter more than the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing it: Braid was the game that re­de­fined games. It was clever in ways that de­fied ex­pla­na­tion, they said, and it was made by one enig­matic man who be­came the re­luc­tant star of a movie about the scene he re­luc­tantly fig­ure­headed. The Cult of Jonathan Blow lives on to­day in devo­tees who try to evan­ge­lize the ge­nius within TheWit­ness’ pun­ish­ing vol­ume of maze puz­zles, but it all be­gan in 2008.

I was des­tined never to like it, of course. There’s some­thing in my brain that flips an ‘I hate it’ switch when­ever peo­ple ef­fuse about the Next Big Thing, be­cause I’m a bro­ken, pa­thetic man. Nev­er­the­less I did play it in situ, and my thoughts at the time could be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows: JonathanBlow is­cle­v­er­erthanme, and he’ s re­mind­ing me of it with each of th­ese das­tardly lit­tle puz­zles. I don’ t like this so I’ m go­ing to give up.

But time ma­tures the hu­man con­di­tion, and al­most a decade later, I thought it might be nice to travel back in time, if you will, to Braid. Hun­gry for hum­ble pie, ready to ad­mit that my con­trar­ian hard-wiring got in the way of my en­joy­ing an ob­vi­ous clas­sic. My thoughts upon re­turn­ing to Braid? Balls. Jonathan Blow is still clev­er­erthanme. Braid is still a fun­da­men­tally chal­leng­ing game, and I can re­spect both the in­ten­tion and the ex­pe­ri­ence of that chal­lenge. It’s dif­fi­cult by its very na­ture, be­cause its timem­o­uld­ing me­chan­ics are in­tended to de­con­struct game de­sign and smash pre­con­cep­tions, like a wa­ter­col­or­painted punk rock song about the Mario es­tab­lish­ment. That’s how Blow char­ac­ter­ized it at the time, ac­tu­ally: a chal­lenge to the sta­tus quo. That’s in­trin­si­cally in­ter­est­ing. Some­times you have to see the sta­tus quo chal­lenged in or­der to re­ally see what it was in the first place, so Blow’s en­deav­our is a wor­thy one. And on a level, there’s a per­verse en­joy­ment in push­ing and pulling the same kind of pat­tern-led plat­form game en­e­mies this way and that with the flow of time, sub­vert­ing their be­hav­ior for your own ad­van­tage. It’s a bit like bring­ing the con­sole com­mands up, only more en­joy­able. And as me­chan­ics and nar­ra­tive progress, in ad­mirable har­mony, Braid re­veals fur­ther sub­ver­sions of the norm: The role of the pro­tag­o­nist, the damsel in dis­tress, and player agency.

Sta­tus ques­tioned

But I’m meet­ing Blow more than half­way. It’s hard to ar­gue that the side-scrolling foes and ‘The Princess is in an­other cas­tle’ damsel-sav­ing rep­re­sented the sta­tus quo in 2008. If Braid had been re­leased in 1992 it’d be a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, but this was a post-Grav­ity Gun age in which

Half-Life2’ s devs had em­pow­ered us to sub­vert the shooter norm and use en­e­mies as ammo against their col­leagues. Post-“would you kindly” too, with Bioshock hav­ing thor­oughly de­con­structed player agency in its nar­ra­tive the pre­vi­ous year. The big­gest games in 2008 were

Fall­out3, Left4Dead, GTAIV, et al— does Braid have any­thing to say about those ti­tles?

I di­gress. What stands out now in 2017 is how well the art di­rec­tion and nuts and bolts of move­ment and in­ter­ac­tion have aged. It’s in that way, with the sur­round­ing hype now long qui­etened, that Braid is re­ally en­joy­able. Tim the time-trav­eller is still vis­ually dis­tinct, and noth­ing in the in­ter­ven­ing years has man­aged to outdo Braid’s own painterly vi­sion of plat­form­ing. Above all, what stands out is the clar­ity of one cre­ator’s vi­sion, and how un­com­pro­mis­ingly they pur­sued it. Can’t knock that.

“What stands out now is how well the art di­rec­tion in Braid has aged”

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