Saturday, January 24, 2009

Braid Review: Getting to the Point

all this and brains Here’s a sweeping introduction for you: since the Beginning of Time, games have been getting longer. Okay, that’s not necessarily true, but the number of 80-hour games that Atlus alone releases every single day makes me wonder who their target audience is – even the people who play games full time can’t possibly have the drive needed to plow through so many lengthy quirky strategy RPGs. It’s not just Atlus, though – all developers are releasing longer games these days and often, in an effort to make their titles feel like they’re worth the $50 or $60 we have to drop on them, they add on side quests or introduce some sort of unnecessary level-up system to artificially extend their game’s length. Have you played a game that asks you to, say, find and destroy four of something, all in remote corners of the game’s map? The developer has taken one task, in this case finding and destroying a certain object, and made you do it four times, with a good deal of travel time in between. Congratulations, Whoeversoft, you have claimed another half hour of my time on this earth.

Not every game is like this, though. Especially in the indie scene, where there is little such pricing pressure, games are allowed to be of a more natural length. Take last year’s Portal, which didn’t have to be $60 by itself because it was part of a package including two and two-thirds other games – it was only four or so hours long, but it was endlessly inventive and darkly hilarious, and left people wanting more in part because it didn’t give them too much.

Braid is similar to Portal in this respect – as a fifteen-dollar downloadable title, it doesn’t have to stretch itself thin to meet expectations. The result is a compact and cerebral game, not excessively long but fresh from start to finish.

Let’s start superficially – Braid is pretty. The screenshot above doesn’t do it justice. Let me see if I can find a video. I guess this one is alright:

There’s nothing that compares to playing the game on a nice, high-definition set. Backgrounds like watercolor paintings swirl and glow, soothing music enhances the mood, and detailed sprites have smooth, beautiful animations. You don’t need to bumpmap the shit out of every surface to make a game visually impressive – the careful attention to detail exemplified here is just as (if not more) pleasing to the eye.

The game’s story also bears mentioning. Like most 2D platformers, Braid is not particularly story-driven – most of the context you get for the game’s events is provided via a series of verbose books at the beginning of each world, which tell a traditional save-the-princess tale with a twist at the very end. This is nothing earth-shattering, but afterward you'll be pretty satisfied with it. That’s more than some big box games can offer.

These snippets of text between levels also tie in with that particular level’s variation on Braid’s fascinating core gameplay mechanic – Tim, the protagonist, can turn back time. Anytime you fall on instant-death spikes, anytime you bump into one of the game’s adorable enemies, anytime you’re hit in the back of the head with a flaming rock, you can back time up as far as you need to and use what you just learned to avoid making the same mistake. Braid introduces you to this admittedly Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time-esque mechanic and proceeds to turn and twist it every which way. There are some objects which your time manipulation does not effect. In one world, a special ring slows down objects in its immediate vicinity, but nowhere else. In another, a shadowy doppelganger will repeat your previous actions while you go do something else. I could only wrap my mind around four or five of Braid’s puzzles in one sitting – playing much longer, I just couldn’t think the way the game wanted me to think. It’s a game that rewards patience and thoughtfulness in a way that Mario never has – rather than quick, precise button presses, Braid demands creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Of all of its virtues, Braid’s greatest strength is its unwillingness to repeat itself. Each puzzle is unique – never will you be met with a challenge that makes you say “oh no, one of these again.” Had Jonathan Blow and company wanted to, the levels could be artificially stretched out by using more puzzles that were less inventive, but like Portal before it every challenge wrings your brain in a different way. The successes of these shorter but still satisfying games should make developers take a step back – before you add that fetch quest, think to yourself: does your game really need to be that much longer?