|Braid: all lush and pretty|
Braid is the second kind of great. It is a great video game. I wish that Braid wasn't great at all but rather a baseline for what is considered a publishable game. But alas, the state of video games is such that I play Braid as a happy escape from rummaging through indie detritus looking for a worthwhile review to write or a design lesson to learn. Braid is great; it delivers all the things that I thought I wanted from games. The game is a fresh puzzle platformer which relies on time manipulation as a central solution vector. You are able to play back the recent events like a VHS tape going forward and back to find the point where you want to be. Certain features of the level are immune to time manipulation and properly matching up the things that move when you rewind with those that don't is typically the crux of the challenge. This mechanic is well polished with puzzles maintaining an internal logic and are typically not contingent on chancy spacings or other unpredictable variables. The player has the full control to experiment, probe, and edge towards a solution. Braid does these things well, but really it should be unacceptable for a game to do anything less. Having polished mechanics which can be understood and manipulated by the player to achieve goals is the ground zero of games.
Where Braid attempts to make the leap from great game to great work is with the integration of mechanics into narrative and experience. My belief is that this approach is the only way through which games will get their first masterwork. The idea of Braid is to create a world where the mechanics work to explore the nature of the author's personal experiences. The game is about learning from ones mistakes, and recapturing a love lost. The mechanic of playing time backwards and forwards is a good way of expressing a way in which many us try to make sense of painful experiences. Going over them, again and again, trying to gain a piece of insight that can give meaning to pain. The reward for solving a puzzle in Braid, having massaged a problem every which way, is just one small (literal) puzzle piece that allows you to see a bit more of the picture of events that transpired. A picture which you slowly assemble at the end of each episode/world. To me this expressive feature of mechanics is the seam through which games can pass into art.
|Still the best example of video games as art|
Where Braid does not live up to its potential is that it tries to tell rather than share. As a player I am being shown the pain the author endured. And, if I am so inclined, I can make the effort to relate the ideas that he is presenting to my own life. But within a game I want to personally experience the loss, the need for answers, and the pain of trying to make sense. The only place where the creator leans on narration is in describing the pain of losing a love and the struggle this creates. This is delivered through a series of text boxes which fail to engage the player. The narrative goal does not effect my experience and so I don't care. The big lesson for me is that a great game has to go beyond a tightly crafted rule set, a great game has to do all its work communicate within the realm of player experience. This is why a good game of chess can evoke the feeling of battle and of sparring. Or a game of Catan can make you feel like a Machiavellian Ruler while arguing over sheep. Experiences stemming from design subsume all theme and style.
Specifically in Braid, the author wanted to tell me about his experience instead of bringing me along to feel it with him. I would have liked to have seen the player lose something in game, and not be told that he lost it, but feel it being lost. Specifically a mechanic, a rule, a power or something that I truly valued in experiencing the game world being taken from me. Then my struggle with the puzzles would have been an echo of the creator struggling with his past.
I think Braid is in fact a high mark for games because of its ambition and commitment to ideas. But while offering a tantalizing peek at the potential of the medium it demonstrates how difficult it is to create an resonant experience for the player while keeping tight control over the path which the player can take. I suspect that while a Braid-like game that transcends its niche will come, the first great work of gaming will come from an openly experiential direction.