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The ebb and flow of time gets puzzling treatment in "Braid," a masterful new game created by a provocative game designer.
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 8/22/2008 9:05:45 AM ET 2008-08-22T13:05:45

One of the highest-rated Xbox 360 games of all times isn't some shooting game from some fancy-pants company that makes games by dipping programming code in giant vats filled with hundred dollar bills. And it’s not some action game that tap dances across your TV screen showing off its high-def graphics like some supermodel showing off her expensive new dress.

No, one of the highest-rated Xbox games of all time – the one sitting there at No. 8, just below “Call of Duty 4” and just above “Guitar Hero II” on the Metacritic charts – is a little downloadable thing decorated in watercolor artwork and steeped in old-school gameplay and basically created by one guy with a punk rock attitude and, if I had to guess, a brain approaching the size of the sun.

Game designer Jonathan Blow – a man with a reputation for speaking his mind whether other people like it or not – spent three years and more than $180,000 of his own money crafting “Braid.” Available for download through Xbox Live Arcade, “Braid” artfully blends old-school 2-D platforming with brain-tweaking puzzle gaming to create a sublime package that plays with the rules of time, plays with expectations, and just generally plays with your mind in a way that has left critics drooling all over themselves with praise.

They’re calling “Braid” “one of the most ingenious puzzle-based games ever devised,” and “a shining example of the intersection between art and technology,” and “the kind of game that will likely change the face of downloadable entertainment.”

And while I’m loath to jump on a bandwagon covered in spittle…let me jump on the bandwagon and say “Braid” is totally effin’ awesome.

The nature of time
“I wanted to explore very difficult ideas about existing in the world that we live in,” Blow says, “like what are these laws of physics people are discovering with quantum mechanics, and time potentially being illusionary, and how can that be illustrated in gameplay?”

Talk about your big ideas. But what’s interesting is the way Blow has crafted a game full of big ideas within the seemingly ho-hum trappings of old-school 2-D gameplay. That is, on the surface, “Braid” looks like something stripped from Mario’s universe – a game in which a squat protagonist sets out on a quest to find his long-lost love, maneuvering through a flat world and jumping on his enemies as he goes.

But each new world that greets players here, plays with the ebb and flow of time in a unique

Image: Braid
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Indie game designer Jonathan Blow has crafted a game full of big ideas within the seemingly ho-hum trappings of old-school 2-D gameplay
way. In the first world, you have the power to rewind time to correct your mistakes. If, for instance, you jump across a pit and fall to your death, you simply rewind to better times and try again.

In later stages, however, the time manipulation grows more convoluted. In one world, for example, time moves forward when you move your protagonist to the right and it moves backward when you move him to the left. In another world, you see your past actions embodied by a shadow version of your character and you must work with this past incarnation to do things like reach unreachable keys and conquer enemies.

“Each world that you can travel to in this game is like a ‘what if’ kind of question,” Blow says. “Like ‘what if time behaved in this certain way, what would that mean?’ ”

The player must plumb the depths of these time traveling what-ifs to solve the puzzles presented. And these are the kinds of puzzles that will leave you staring at the screen, your brain smelling of smoke as it churns…which is exactly what Blow wants.

“The important part of ‘Braid’ is what’s going on in the player’s head when he’s trying to figure out a puzzle,” Blow says.

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Beyond the gameplay, “Braid” is made truly marvelous by the splendid Impressionistic artwork created by collaborator David Hellman, a score so evocative it’ll give you goose bumps, and a narrative that’s an astonishing joy to unfold.

Yes, “Braid” seems at first to be offering the most mundane of gaming yarns – the tale of a young man and his quest for a “princess.” But you quickly discover that it’s a tale laced with subtext and import and one that offers anything but pat answers. In the end, “Braid” feels like the game equivalent of the movie “Memento” – a genre-busting thing that meddles with time and storytelling in a manner that will keep you thinking about it and talking about it and puzzling over it for months to come. (Certainly the Internet is abuzz with players dissecting the meaning of “Braid.”)

Blow himself is hesitant to discuss the whys and what-fors. But he will say, “It’s about the things that I care about the most. And while I actually sleep pretty well at night, if anything would cause me not to sleep well at night then that’s what ‘Braid’ is about.”

Rabble rousing
A word of warning though: “Braid” is an unusually difficult game to play (well, at least for us average Joes with brains no larger than, say, a small meteorite).

In fact, Blow says that some of the Microsoft execs in charge of certifying games for Xbox Live Arcade encouraged him to make the game easier – to offer hints to struggling players. He refused.

“Games these days are designed so that people finish them. They have a big story and you’re supposed to able to get to the end if you just sit down in front of it long enough…and I object to that on some level,” he says. “If games are supposedly presenting a challenge to the player, then they should be truthful about that challenge and they shouldn’t spend their time lying to the players.”

He points to the action game that makes it seem as though you’re in imminent danger but in reality is designed so that there’s little challenge at all. “If we enter a paradigm where every game is doing that, then we’re failing to reach the potential of our medium because we’re taking this thing that is one major pillar of what our media does and we’re hollowing it out and making it fake and cardboard.”

It’s statements like these that have given Blow a reputation for being something of a punk rock pundit (if you’re feeling charitable) and a pretentious loudmouth(if you’re not).

Certainly Blow isn’t afraid to offer his honest assessment of games, having criticized “World of Warcrack” in particular for being “unethical” and modern game design practice in general for being exploitive.

Thus all eyes have been on Blow and “Braid” – everyone curious to see how this critic’s own game would hold up under scrutiny. And now that his game is out there for all to judge, Blow seems to have proven he can put his game design where his mouth is.

Image: Braid
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Jonathan Blow collaborated with artist David Hellman to give "Braid" a look both charming and haunting.
“Braid” is not only earning mountains of praise, it’s also selling well, this despite being priced at $15 (unusually spendy for an XBLA game). According to VGChartz.com, “Braid” has been purchased more than 100,600 times – gangbusters for an indie Arcade game. And while Blow’s contract with Microsoft prohibits him from discussing specifics, he says that between the XBLA sales and the forthcoming PC sales (launching within the next few months), he will have made his money back and more. Most importantly, he will have made enough money to support his next project.

So say what you will about Blow, but all along he has done nothing more than insist that video games can do better. With “Braid,” he shows the world exactly how that can be accomplished.

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