First posted on 20 June 2009. Last updated on 11 August 2009.
I was first introduced to Braid when I read the online writings of some gamers discussing the significance of the game's ending and trying to figure out what the game's story really meant. Theories were presented with absolute certainty on all sides, until someone found a quote from the game's designer, Jonathan Blow, chiding gamers who were taking too narrow of an interpretation of the game's themes and drawing elaborate allegories where none were intended. Certainly, Braid is an interesting concept for a game—a platformer with a significant emphasis on story, in which the focus is not on surviving an obstacle course to reach the end of a level but on solving the deliberately conceived puzzles within it.
Braid is obviously not an adventure game in the classic sense, and including it in the family of adventure games is certainly open to debate. My definition of an adventure game is a game with deliberately created abstract puzzles that are tied together by the means of a story. Hence, a game based around randomized puzzles such as Tetris is not an adventure game, a collection of Sudoku puzzles with no connecting story is not an adventure game, and a game in which advancing depends more upon real-time dexterity than making the right decisions to solve puzzles is not an adventure game. Of course, these distinctions are frequently treated more loosely than that. Many bona fide adventure games have also included real-time or randomized elements. By using a broader definition of adventure games, it can be said that adventure gaming is the genre most chiefly concerned with puzzles and story; since Braid makes significant use of both, I believe it ties in closely enough with the concept of an adventure game to merit discussion.
Braid is a game that clearly borrows from the aesthetic of Shigeru Miyamoto's Mario games, and may very well serve as a commentary on that style of gaming. Your goal is to find a princess who has been separated from the hero due to his mistakes. The protagonist, Tim, is a red-haired man in a coat and tie, whose story is gradually explained through a series of books connected to each world. His story begins with a world that demonstrates his manipulation of time—upon dying, Tim can simply turn back the clock to any previous time point and try again. You can rewind and fast-forward your steps until you accomplish what you want, turning what may otherwise be a difficult platforming challenge into simply a matter of knowing what to do and then working the timing out.
There are 6 worlds in all, each of which explores a different aspect of dealing with time, and each of which has a section of story that serves as a commentary on the new mechanic. In the first world, Tim wishes to go back and fix his mistakes and learns to rewind time. In the second world, he learns the consequences of undoing a mistake, and he has to interact with elements that are immune to his manipulation of time's flow. In the third world, he learns how being in a location corresponds to a place in time, and he explores a world in which time advances or retreats depending upon his movement within the level. Each of the worlds explores a different relationship with time and the implications of the mechanic in both story and gameplay before moving on to the next world until the end.
Braid is different from most platformers in that your goal is not to get through an obstacle course to reach the next level. With a few minor exceptions, advancing to the next level is trivial. You can even decide to run through the game once quickly and then work through the puzzles of each world in any order. The real challenge of the game is its incorporation of puzzles: each world contains a few difficult to reach puzzle pieces, and obtaining them requires some careful planning out and clever manipulation of your ability to control the mechanics of time. You will often start a level and explore it for a bit, rewinding time when you think you have made a mistake, and gradually get an idea of how you can achieve a goal that looks impossible at first. Collecting and assembling all the puzzle pieces allows you to reach the game's grand finale, with its final set of puzzles and much discussed conclusion to the story.
Braid is a gorgeous game to experience visually. Hand painted backgrounds set the stage for each world, and pleasant musical themes underscore the action. Choosing to rewind time makes the music run backwards in an uncomfortable fashion as the world's color fades, briefly drawing you out of the immediacy of the game's world and making your alteration of time's flow seem all the more unnatural. There are only a handful of creatures and environments, the levels are populated by cartoonish looking rabbits and stand-ins for the goombas and pirahna plants of the Mario series. The downsides of being a short game also contribute to Braid's strengths: you are never asked to do the same task twice or experience an event more than once unless it has some interesting twist to it.
Braid is a very clever puzzle platformer, with a number of ingenious puzzles that challenge you to approach a problem in an unusual way because of the unique way the game relates to time. It is a short game, but with enough variety that each level serves to illustrate a different concept or challenge. The game is exacting in that in order to beat it you will need to find every last puzzle piece and master your manipulation of time, but the challenges are worth going through, and the game even contains an additional layer of secrets for the truly committed player. The biggest potential drawback to Braid is that it is a short, focused game and offers correspondingly fewer hours of gameplay. Much like Valve's Portal, what Braid has to offer is an enjoyable set of puzzles you are more likely to finish and a story that leaves you thinking about it. The only downside to playing Braid is that, by the end, you wish you could just turn back time yourself and experience this intricate game for the first time all over again.