One Giant Leap, 2008: Braid

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: the indie boom begins in earnest with Braid

The HD era was a period of massive upheaval for the game industry. The resources necessary to make an Xbox 360 or PS3 game that looked cutting-edge were an order of magnitude larger than what the PS2 demanded. Budgets ballooned and team sizes approached triple digits to keep up. Many smaller studios found themselves unable to hang in this new paradigm, either because they couldn’t muster the finances to produce at the AAA1 level or because they only barely could, to the point where even minor underperformance sunk them.

There were several different trends that emerged from this. We talked about one of them, Nintendo abandoning the cutting edge, last month. One of the others was the rise of the “indie game”. Now, independent game development is both notoriously hard to define and is a concept that’s existed forever, but when someone says “indie game” there is a specific subset that they generally mean. Indie games are smaller games, with smaller teams and budgets, not even attempting cutting edge graphics and in fact often featuring retro throwback aesthetics. A few months ago we looked at Cave Story which is maybe the archetypal example. But Cave Story didn’t start a trend. It didn’t even really get popular until years later, when indie games were a more solidified concept and ecosystem. If you want to look to the “official” start of this nebulous semi-genre, you have to go forward 4 years, to Braid.

Compared to the AAA mainstream, Braid is different in many key ways. It’s a 2D platformer (hell, a platformer at all!), it was downloadable only2, it cost $15 instead of $60. It was a puzzle platformer, based around a time-rewind mechanic3 that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Newgrounds4. And, most importantly of all, it was overtly “artsy”.

It’s this last part especially that ensured that Braid would be a game that produced Discourse. Braid has a story, told mostly through text snippets at the start of each world, that is written in a non-straightforward manner, utilizing symbolism to the extent that you’re not sure what, if anything, is meant to be literal. And, look. We’re all aware of cultural conversations here on the Avocado dot gov, whether we want to be or not. There is a certain type of person who openly resents any work of art that isn’t immediately, 100% clear with its intentions. The kind of person who says “my 5-year old could do that!” to a Pollock, who whines about how the Oscars only reward “pretentious bullshit” despite having not watched a single nominated film in 20 years5, who had to read The Great Gatsby sophomore year and still isn’t over it.

The kind of person who makes memes like this

This was certainly me when I tried to play Braid for the first time back in 2008. I was offended by its sensibilities, labeling it pretentious as a reflex. I never gave the game a fair shake, and part of why I chose it for this month’s article was to see what it was actually like, if given a second chance. (Hot take: you probably shouldn’t believe everything you did when you were 15 at age 30!)

Now, I could certainly craft a tidy narrative about how I had the measure of Braid from the jump, if I wanted. My resolve was immediately tested in the first story segment, reading lines about how protagonist Tim is chasing after a Princess, who left him because he made “a mistake”. About how, if we learn from a mistake and would never repeat it, shouldn’t we be rewarded rather than punished? Like, from the jump Tim is pretty obviously Not A Great Guy, a fact that is treated like a twist reveal by both the game itself and many players in the game’s ending6. “Braid thinks itself quite clever for mostly realizing that women are people too” is a take that writes itself, you know?

But, is that just defensiveness speaking? That very same reflex to dismiss any art that isn’t instantly “gettable”? Again, that’s not how I wanted to approach this game; it felt too easy. If Braid were just empty purple prose, if I could figure it out within 5 minutes of playing, it means I can dismiss it, not have to engage with the bits that I didn’t really understand. There’s no value here, after all. I certainly haven’t done anything wrong. Right?

This tension gets really interesting when you consider the gameplay in conjunction with the story. Braid is a puzzle platformer, a game where you have to use the mechanics in non-obvious ways to progress. Personally, I think the puzzles in the game start strong, but after a world or two start to become obtuse and frustrating. Braid never explains things with words; its tutorials consist of occasional button prompts and a lot of giving the player space to mess about and learn for themselves. This is a style that was very “in” at the time, especially in indie scenes, with text tutorials viewed as the vulgar domain of mindless AAA games. But it’s also a style that requires true mastery from a designer to execute on, and Braid features some interactions that are very hard to intuitively grasp. I don’t feel like most of the later levels teach the player very well, I don’t find them fun to play, and I mostly used a guide to get past them.

But this is just the same complaint as the story, isn’t it? I found an aspect of the game hard to grasp, and am holding that against the game rather than myself. It’s a pretty common issue in any sort of games criticism, one that’s definitely come up in this column before. And it’s a well-worn topic of discussion, as well. I’m hardly the first to observe that while an impenetrable story might make it hard to understand a text, impenetrable gameplay renders it fully impossible to experience on any level. Whether a player struggling with a game is the fault of the player or the game is a question that’s impossible to answer, and a question that’s spawned intense and exhausting discourse of its own.

What I find interesting is how it isn’t a clean parallel to our earlier question; there are plenty of people who are Dark Souls fiends who otherwise think visual art should Retvrn To Tradition. Ultimately, I think we see these splits because a difficult video game is still at the end of the day something that can be objectively understood and mastered. I found Braid too difficult to grok, but plenty of players don’t. They figure out the puzzles, and once they do there is no more uncertainty, forever. Conversely, art is so interesting because it can’t be solved. My takeaway from Braid’s story is that I don’t think there’s all that much meat there; ultimately I think my initial distaste was correct. It’s a story about a shitty dude chasing after a woman who has explicitly rejected him, treating her as a symbol rather than a person. The game’s finale, which seems to show Tim and the Princess helping each other escape a dungeon before revealing that it was playing in reverse, and that the Princess was actually fleeing Tim and trying to impede his pursuit, is the sort of thing that would be mind-blowing only to someone who wasn’t paying attention, because Tim’s true relationship to the Princess is frankly obvious from the start.

Is Tim fleeing with the Princess? Or is she fleeing him?

But that’s not a definitive take at all! There’s tons about the game that I’m not weighing heavily in that analysis, because it doesn’t resonate strongly with me. And while I don’t think I’m being unfair, plenty of people will play the exact same game and have divergent impressions of what it meant to them. Art is a conversation between a work and the audience, and thus no two people can ever have the exact same experience. It’s not something to solve, you’re not dumb if you don’t get anything from it, there’s nothing to prove.

…which is something someone probably should have told Braid director Jonathan Blow7. Listen, I’ve been a good girl this whole article and never mentioned him once, I deserve just one little dunk, as a treat.

What an asshole right? “Oh no people love my obtuse game but they didn’t “get it”, how terrible” like my brother in Christ you’re the one who made it hard to “get” in the first place!

Stray Observations:

  • Braid looks shockingly bad for a 2D game made in the 21st century. No one element of it is bad in isolation but none of them look like they belong together. The character sprites are super clean cartoons while the backgrounds are painterly and the particle effects feel like they came from a free FX library. Plus the sprite animations don’t match movement speed very well, leaving walking and especially climbing feeling floaty and artificial. Braid looks like maybe 75% of all student games I’ve ever seen, not because its style was influential but because when a game is made by competent amateurs it sort of inevitably winds up looking like Braid
  • Part of why I was so determined to try and give Braid a chance, even though I ultimately didn’t like it much at all, is because I’ve seen similar “oh it’s just pretentious” dismissals of games I actually do love. So many people use “lol the game makes you Do Violence and then tells you you’re bad for doing it, how lazy” as an excuse to avoid actually engaging with Spec Ops: The Line, possibly because actually doing so might make them feel legitimately guilty for things they do in the real world! Anyway this is barely germane but it’s my article and I’ll rant if I want to
  • The late 00s indie scene really was a Singular Moment In Time, it seemed like every game that got on Xbox Live Arcade before 2011 sold a million copies and turned its director into a micro-celebrity. We’ve had plenty of smash-hit indie games since then, but there isn’t really a single cohesive “scene” the way there was ~15 years ago, for better and for worse.

Other 2008 platformers of note:

Mirror’s Edge is a very interesting game, a first-person 3D platformer that feels like a GoPro parkour video brought to life. It has a really clean visual aesthetic, marking the key path in red while leaving the rest of the environment white. It’s a game I respect the hell out of even though I wasn’t quite able to jive with it; it’s an acquired taste for sure. It didn’t catch on enough to justify its existence to a bean counter (a casualty of HD development) but it enjoys a cult fanbase to this day because there really is nothing else like it.

Elsewhere, Little Big Planet gave players a taste of the game development action, offering a robust suite of level-editing tools for players to create their own 2D platformer levels. It’s a neat premise, and it too enjoyed a robust fanbase, but it’s never something I was able to get into. The physics are very floaty, and it does a 2.5D thing where there are a couple parallel planes of action and it just never feels correct.

Next Time: So, if AAA studios were either abandoning the platformer outright or else struggling to adapt it to the modern industry, what were they making? We take a look at Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to see how the big dogs are thinking about running and jumping.