I usually prefer not to write about games immediately after I’ve finished them. The excitement of the experience can get in the way of the ability to evaluate it, and the internalization of the mechanics can take a while to unwind. It’s akin to writing about a relationship immediately after it has ended: one single emotion is likely to dominate, and it is difficult to understand what really just happened. What I was able to summon immediately after Braid was released was a simple parody– something that, while amusing to write, was ultimately a rather flippant reaction to a work that was clearly the product of a long and often lonely struggle. The game, of course, deserves better.
We know that the distance of time allows us to realize things we had not been able to know at the moment of our experience. That doomed relationship, for example, may now seem to have been inadvisable from the start, or as much due to circumstance as either one’s fault. Slowly, over the days and months, we piece together the story, weaving the scattered fragments of our memories– words, faces, feelings– into something resembling a coherent sequence of events. During our lives we constantly, sometimes unconsciously, look backwards and ask ourselves: “what really happened?” The answers we settle upon become the narratives of our existence. In other words, they become who we are.
In Braid, time does not flow like a stream, but is rewound constantly, in the manner of a person trying to figure out where it all went wrong, someone who constantly revisits his own mistakes in his mind until he decides what he ought to have done. The game does not just invite us to look backwards– we must travel backwards, again and again, in order to get anywhere at all. It examines time in a series of thought experiments: here is a world where it all runs in reverse. Here is one where traversal through space and time are inextricably linked. Here is one where multiple timelines exist simultaneously.
In Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman, the young patent clerk’s meditations on time in various fantastic configurations are what lead to his enlightenment about how it works in the world we know. His dreaming is the act of taking assumptions and seeing them through to their logical consequences and conclusions– a exercise of make-believe that leads to truth. But whereas Einstein’s Dreams took on the world, Braid takes on the past. The entirety of the game looks only backwards, save for a moment at the very end. The game is not just nostalgic, it positively drips with sentimentality at times. It gives us a world made out of clouds and great castle-building stones, where diffuse light shines from nowhere and everywhere at once. It makes constant retrograde reference to the unimpeachable classics of the Mario series. The text struggles with events from a hazy past, and the innocence of childhood comes up more than once. As we begin to play we are told not that we are searching for the princess, but that Tim is. We are not Tim, and we remain distant from him as we guide him through what appear to be the shards of his own shattered consciousness.
Braid’s breathtaking climax, in which a sequence played forwards is revealed to have another interpretation when seen backwards, is the game’s most clear articulation of the ideas behind the literary modernism in which it finds inspiration. By putting the princess on a pedestal, by defining her rigidly, Tim has not attained her but lost her entirely. The way we understand things is not linear, not always the orderly, gradual process we want it to be. Of course, the hunters for that singular interpretation, the Cliffs Notes writers, are given plenty of grist to chew upon. What do those cryptic snippets of text about candy stores and atomic bombs signify? Why are there alphabet blocks arranged in the traditional WASD pattern in Tim’s bathroom? Is speed run mode a bonus in the name of replayability, or part of what we should be analyzing, too? Are the piranha plants simply coy homages to Mario, or are they, too, suffused with some secret significance?
This is Braid’s troublesome aspect, to me– the way it tacitly encourages meaning-as-metagame, the idea that there is a single specific explanation to be found for it all, and Jonathan Blow’s assertion that nobody has yet done this (at least who has made their theory public). This attitude interprets critical thought as a kind of guessing game where, I am imagining, Blow will one day descend from his mountain fastness onto a blog, a forum or an academic conference and say, “yes, you got it– you win.” Although most of the extant purported explanations of which I am aware seem wrongheaded, I do not think it is really possible to have it both ways: in order to successfully convey meaning, one must either be didactic or acknowledge that interpretation will take place.
One of the tests of a great work, though, is how we can see ourselves in it. And I know what Braid is about for me. I recognize the way it loops back over itself constantly, revisiting and trying things a new way, the way its mechanics build in successive steps, fugue-like in its theme and variations, and the obtuseness of the puzzles themselves– the frustration when one gets stuck and the rush of the breakthrough when the way forward suddenly becomes clear. I recognize the longing for the spectral thing that may or may not exist, the employ and dead-end of pure science, the consuming need to somehow capture and regain an early magic that was lost. I recognize the triumph at the end when Tim resolves to build a castle out of “the moments he’s contemplated.” Braid is, of course, about the process of creation.