I bought Braid a while back and after listening to a few interviews and talks from its creator Jonathan Blow I decided to invest some time into actually playing it. I am now a few puzzles away from the end and I found the game really appealing really quickly. The graphics are pretty unique and I liked the “crayon” look. The music is also fantastic and I’ve listened to the soundtrack on Spotify over and over again.
But there are really two things I wanted to talk about.
First the fact that “handholding” is limited for the better or worse. Jonathan Blow refers to this in a few talks. You won’t find tutorials in Braid except from the pit, a level which will give you the basic mechanics at the beginning of each section. I’ve mentioned this is in my thoughts on The Swapper, but coming from a AAA games background it’s a bit of a shock to the system at first.
There are two instances where I got caught by surprise. In one section I struggled with a key moving backwards. I understood the mechanics of the level but I couldn’t quite get my head around it. It’s only until later on when I was listening to one of Jon’s interview that I understood; just describing the situation with simple words and it clicked. Maybe, talking to myself whilst playing would have done the trick.
Later on in the game you will need to use a ring. I went through the “pit” which should have taught me everything I needed to know, but the truth is that I wasn’t listening. So, I get to the first level and try to do what I’ve been doing so far and find myself stuck on a cloud cannon. It probably took me a good 5 minutes to remember that “hey! I have a ring” and 5 minutes stuck on a cloud canon is a long time.
The funny thing is that I had watched Indie: The Movie several times before playing Braid and Ed McMillen talks about level design and explains that exact principle. No matter how much tutorial (or how little in this case) you throw at the player they won’t listen. I should have been listening and it shows how lazy I’ve become playing AAA games with constant “press this button” messages on-screen.
Again, Jonathan Blow spoke about structure in interviews and talks; about finding an interesting game mechanic, applying it all possible game entity combinations and “curating” the result to only offer the most interesting ones to the player.
From memory and from what I’ve seen of the game, it’s made of 4 sections (maybe more actually). The first section introduces the main mechanic of the game, the others showcase a variation of that mechanic. In each section the mechanic has to be applied to keys, enemies, cloud cannons etc to solve puzzles. Only the most interesting combinations are being presented.
In some cases the very same level, in two different sections, with slightly different mechanics, plays out in a completely different manner.The beauty of this approach is that it feels very clean and rational to the player. It doesn’t mean it’s easier or doesn’t offer any surprises but that everything in the world feels consistent, there is an overwhelming sense of continuity, which is good, especially in a puzzle game.
To conclude, I thought this was a brilliant game although two things bothered me.
First, it seems that again you have to complete every single puzzle to finish the story which I think is a shame.
Second, some puzzles seem to be made by an extremely improbable set of circumstances; the specific position of a ladder or a very precise timing of enemies and canon balls making the level particularly difficult to solve. It did feel (to me) that sometimes the game tried to give insight to the player, not by demonstrating the rules but rather its exceptions.
But regardless, I don’t think this takes anything away from Jonathan Blow achievement on this game.