Braid: The best-worst game of the year

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In the dying moments of the calendar year, gaming journalists ritually thank their luck stars for making it through the November rush unscathed, and look to the approaching holiday as sanctuary, a time period where one can relax, sit back, and actually play the games reviewed in the last two months. But before then, one last duty is required: the game of the year. So while ‘best of’ lists are streaming in at every other website imaginable around the Internet, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to get in on some end-of-year discussion. 

This is largely because there was one game this year that I had a lot to say about that I never had a chance to: Jonathon Blow’s Braid. Like some of the other games I’ve written about recently, Braid is a game that has inspired its fair share of discussion, so I’ll be brief.

I hate Braid.

I absolutely hate it. I feel so strongly about my dislike for Braid that I often surprise myself. I’m not usually one to strongly dislike anything; even in bad films I can usually find something to appreciate. I’ve certainly never felt this way about a game before. Even thinking about playing it makes me clench up and mentally withdraw in anticipation.

This is despite the fact that I really should like Braid. I am certainly its target audience, as I believe games should be encouraged to do more of what I feel Braid attempts to: be self-reflexive, marry gameplay and fiction effectively, and tell stories that don’t involve space marines or the Second World War. In many respects, I think that Braid represents the future of game design, and I applaud Jonathon Blow for his innovation and thoughtful design.

However, I cannot play Braid. I’ll admit here that I haven’t finished the game; I became so sick of failing, of the impenetrable – and sometimes, seemingly arbitrary – nature of many of the puzzles, of the repeating backwards motions and looping sound effects when I held down the ‘X’ button. It became like fingers down a chalk board.

Some time ago, I likened Braid to the French New Wave, and I think this is a surprisingly helpful comparison. Specifically, I’d like to compare it to Alan Resnais’ film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. This is a fitting analogy in more than one way, and I’d really quite like to see someone who has finished Braid in its entirety to draw out the thematic similarities. Of course, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as the name might suggest, is about love and nuclear bombs, just as (it has been suggested to me) Braid is. There is a certain melancholy between the two that I find strikingly similar, and I wonder if Blow used the film as inspiration, or if it is simply happy coincidence.

However, it is also in my reactions to the two that I find similarities.

On an intellectual level, I very much appreciate Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It’s an amazingly thoughtful film, and being one of the first of the New Wave, it played a huge part in film history. However, as much as I can appreciate what Hiroshima, Mon Amour is trying to do, and is tying to say, I just cannot stand to watch it. It is beyond boring. As a cinema lover, I usually revel in slow takes, and in languid, emotional performances, but while watching Hiroshima, Mon Amour, I was in serious danger of falling asleep in that darkened theatre. The repeated lines, the deliberately obfuscated plot, and the whole mood of the film both numbed and irritated me.

Similarly, as much as I can appreciate what Braid is trying to do, I just cannot play the damn thing. It’s frustrating, and incredibly unrewarding for me. As I’ve already said, I can understand how others could get enjoyment out of it, just as I understand why so many love Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

So for me, Braid is the best-worst game of 2008. It is great for what it achieved, for what a towering work of intellectual design it is. At the same time, I truly believe Braid to have been my least favourite game all year. No other game caused me such brain melting frustration, and yes, even anger. So while I hope that designers take Braid as inspiration, I hope that it does not kick off a New Wave of gaming; a series of intellectual games, which just like the French New Wave of films, I can appreciate, but only from a distance. I want to be able to love our harbingers of change.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Braid: The best-worst game of the year

  1. Uh oh, you said his name…!

  2. It doesn’t always work, Ben. I’ve mentioned him at least twice now without summoning him. Then again, that may say more about me than Mr. Blow.

    To continue on topic, your sentiment in the final paragraph is one that I would echo even though I liked Braid a great deal. I think that it, and some other daring games like No More Heroes (Michael Abbott also compared that one to the French New Wave) did incredibly interesting things, but they came with demands that left a lot of people put out or hopelessly confused. I am hopeful that developers will learn as much from the mistakes as from the triumphs.

  3. Yeah, for the record, this wasn’t posted to summon Mr. Blow, although I realise he often reads these type of things. It was, as I said, just to get a few things off my chest. Hell, I wouldn’t comment on a post that had called my own incredibly time consuming and loved project “fingers down a chalk board”!

    Sparky, I haven’t played No More Heroes, but I have always meant to. Interesting that you think it falls into the same basket; it surprisingly makes me even more interested!

  4. The game initially seemed like a weak attempt at high literature married with fairly good game metaphors for me. It wasn’t until an argument on Twitter inspired me to flip through some of the literature that actually deals with time distortion, like Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, that it suddenly occurred to me what Blow was getting at. With the exception of Memento (which just goes backwards) or Pulp Fiction (which is just 1,3,2), I think movies are generally too dependent on linear narrative to give much reference for time distortion. Not sure if this helps, but it made me start appreciating the game a lot more.

    Blow, like Mintner and other indie auteurs, has that strange ethic that if they tell you any of this they are ruining part of the game experience. I wish someone would remind that sometimes being too clever for anyone to understand is no different than being too dumb.

  5. Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe I’ll dig up some of that time distortion stuff, but I have to say that it’s more the actual act of playing that irritates me; I can buy the fiction of the game.

    Yeah, you made me sit back and think with your final comment. Why is it that I agree with you, yet I’m okay when Radiohead and the Wachowski’s do the same thing? Maybe it’s because their work is also enjoyable on some sort of ‘dumb’ level? I recall reading a theory some time ago about Hollywood cinema that might be applicable, though for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the author. Still, he was arguing that Hollywood directors make a film for two audiences: one that will appreciate the basic level only, and one that will get all the allusions to other works and deeper meanings. A good director is able to satisfy both at the same time. Maybe, to convert that theory, Braid only satisfies one of those audiences?

  6. Why complain about arbitrariness in Braid?

    All games are arbitrary by definition.

    Is it more or less arbitrary to collect gold coins, points, dollars, headshots, achievements or puzzle pieces?

    At least in Braid I wanted to collect the pieces in order to reveal some more hints on the story and uncover the beautiful artwork.

    The puzzles are neither overly hard nor arbitrary.

    It’s okay to not like a game, but it makes me sad you didn’t.

    So – what games (if any) *do* you like to play?

  7. Sorry for resurrecting this thread a year later.
    I finally caved in and bought Braid last week.

    Thank you for putting these words together!
    I _really_ couldn’t have put it better myself.
    Frustration just piled upon frustration, especially when seeing youtube walkthrough videos.

    Really, thanks for this post.
    Hopefully one of these days I’ll manage to post an entry of my own detailing my experience with Braid.

  8. A. Cognito

    I just finished playing Braid. I used no walkthroughs or saw any videos. I solved all of the puzzles, collected all the puzzles pieces, and just finished with the epilogue.

    And my consensus of the game? I hate it too.

    While I appreciate the art, music, design, ingenuity of the mechanics, cleverness of the puzzles, and the fact that the game was created by just one person, Jonathan Blow, all of it just seems much too arbitrary. All the different time mechanics serve only to create the puzzles and aren’t used in any other way that contributes to the core gameplay. The game must be played one way, and one way only.

    Rather than offering the player a blank sheet of paper, it is a connect the dots color by number picture that can be completed only one way and you aren’t allowed to color outside the lines. And that is why I hate it.

  9. David

    @A. Cognito Actually thats not entirely true. I managed to finish the game without any walkthroughs and introduced it to a friend of mine, who, like me, likes to solve these kind of puzzles. He got to the level in which there is a key that goes back and forth in space-time depending if u go left or right. I watched him solve the puzzle in a diferent way I did, which lead me to the conclusion that there are a few levels that aren’t linear and can be approached in different ways.

    That being said, I think that Blow made a terrific job creating this game and if u get frustrated with some leves, that just means u are not looking at them the right way, since every level can be solved with logic and a bit of plattforming, they are not arbritrary. Also, there’s a reason why u can progess in the game without getting all the pieces in a world: the game is made for everyone. Actually, I think that it should be played in middle/high schools. If u cant get a piece, continue the game and get it afterwards. If u leave too many in the end, dont get mad. I mean, would u get mad at an IQ test if u got a lousy score? It’s not the test fault, but the person who solves it…

  10. Not implying I'm super-smart

    You like everything about the game apart from the fact that you’re not smart enough to solve it, or solve it quickly enough.
    Well that intended feature of the game was clearly a success. This game wasn’t meant for you.

  11. isabel

    I love you…bcz you hate braid.:p
    i feel the same. I have to play it bcz it is in tops of blah blah blah. but the game is beutiful and frustrating. even the music is nice but you cant bear it more than few minutes. thankyou for saying the truth about the game out loud.Now i know i am not the only one hating it.

  12. isabel

    @ Not implying I’m super-smart.
    there is not a single puzzle which requires more than 5 attempts, with the reliving function it is plain stupid to play and solve the puzzles.

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