Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Game That Matters

Normally I wouldn't spend an entire blog post talking about one Xbox Live Arcade game, but in this instance I'm going to make a massive exception. I pulled out Braid the other night and finally finished it. And I'm happy to say I did it about 99% on my own, without looking at a walkthrough (that last 1%, well…)

Much has been made of Braid's great puzzles, ambiguous plot, amazing look and feel and innovative gameplay so rather than parrot what I've read other places, I wanted to talk a little bit about why I liked it so much. Which was all of those things, but more.

The guys at Penny Arcade referred to Braid non-ironically as 'a game that matters,' and I agree although not because the plot itself is anything that groundbreaking. Don't get me wrong, the plot is great, a puzzle unto itself and is a Nautilus shell spiraling inward with layers of meaning and interpretation (just look at the various attempts to explain the plot online for proof of that.) But the narrative structure itself is what's so groundbreaking and ultimately satisfying about Braid.

At its heart, the game is a traditional platformer. The time mechanic is cool, but isn't exactly 100% original (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did something like this as well, as a way to fix mistakes, much like in Braid.) But Braid does something no other game has managed yet: it takes the platformer mechanics – including the time-rewind bits and other parts – and actually makes them part of the narrative itself. POP: SoT anticipated this but never fully followed through, and Braid takes it and cements it as a central part of the game.

I'd compare it to a television narrative or play that broke the fourth wall. Doing it once or twice can be funny or make a dramatic point, but when it becomes part of the narrative itself it's something totally different. The best literary analogue I can think of is a live performance of Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, where the audience becomes part of the play's narrative itself.

The thing that's surprising about Braid isn't that the platformer has been changed so elegantly into a piece of the narrative itself, but that it hasn't been done sooner. You could argue that this is what video games – if you take the 'games as art' route, which I don't see any reason not to – have always done. The narrative relies 100% on user input, on decision-making or at the very least pushing a stick left and right to make a character move around. And yet somehow it was always a secondary element to the plot of a game, apart from RPGs that relied heavily on user decisions (Fallout, Torment) or simply 'progressing the story' by moving a character closer to his goal.

Braid even plays with this concept, because as Tim (the main character) progresses through the game his 'goal' gets farther and farther away. I'm not going to spoil it in case you want to play, but suffice to say that even the 'push your joystick to move the character closer to his goal' mechanic becomes subverted and even an important part of Braid's narrative structure – in both traditional and altered forms.

So check Braid out on Xbox Live Arcade or on the web. It's the highest-rated game on XBLA and for good reason. It's a game that matters, because it sets a damn high standard for what can be done with video games, even platformers that may not seem like the most obvious venue for storytelling. I can't wait to see what Braid inspires.

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