At first, Jonathan Blow’s independently developed game, Braid, seems to be an ordinary platform-puzzle game about a man, Tim, saving his princess from a monster. As the game progresses and the story unfolds, however, the player is able to manipulate time; the character has the ability to move forwards and backwards in time throughout the game, thus giving him the chance to redo and replay different levels and puzzles.
The format is a video game specifically made for Windows, but later adapted for consoles and Macintosh computers. It is extremely accessible, as it is available for an inexpensive download instead of having to buy a physical copy. Jonathan Blow wrote the code for the game, and initially had crude artwork to accompany it. Eventually, he collaborated with a different artist to create the beautiful art and animation that can now be seen and played.
Just because Braid is a game does not mean it is not literary. It has several conventionally literary components, such as a strong narrative about romantic entanglement and betrayal. The plot revolves around unrequited love and treachery between friends, and also raises questions about our own perceptions of good and evil, right and wrong. Tim is introduced as the hero at the start of the game, who is on a journey to save a princess. Something happens to him before the story begins which afflicts him with amnesia, and as each level is completed, more clues are uncovered. As the story progresses, the player comes to the realization that the monster Tim is searching for is himself, and that the princess is fleeing his grasp. The text in question is literally a playable story, as the player must solve various puzzles and overcome numerous obstacles to see more of the story unfold.Braid tells a beautifully unorthodox story, it has its ups and downs and brings the player into a completely revolutionary new world. There are no lives like there are in regular games, because time can be reversed and errors can be undone. As the player proceeds through the game, puzzle pieces are unlocked and are used to solve a picture. After much frustration, it becomes evident that the solved image is actually a physical part of the level, and can be used to reach higher places and unlock further items. In the screenshot below, this mechanic can be seen in action, as Tim is standing on the partly solved puzzle.
In terms of the history of gaming, Braid has much in common with Nintendo’s Mario games. For example, both make use of a mostly horizontally scrolling platform organization, but also because both works have a similar narrative. Both of the main characters’ ultimate goal is to rescue the princess. While the main character in Braid strives to save his love, it turns out that she is actually running from him, making Tim the monster he was searching for the whole time.
Similarly, in the Mario World, Bowser is the monster who is always kidnapping Princess Peach. Perhaps Mario is in a similar situation: he is the villain, constantly trying to steal a woman away from her true love. The game also has certain elements of the Zelda franchise, since there are characters that are analogous to the Triforce (the villain, the princess, and the hero) that the players always encounter in the Zelda games. In this sense, Braid lends itself to a feminist reading, in that our hero isn’t really the hero, but a villain, trying to steal a woman away from her own true desires. The reasons for his wanting to kidnap her could be explored from a feminist perspective, as he literally wants to steal her as his own, thus objectifying her.
Braid is at times both frustrating and amusing. At certain points in the game, the player has to seriously rethink and reevaluate how to play a video game. It forces the user to study the environment and the obstacles in unconventional ways, due to the reversal of time mechanic. For example, to reach a certain spot in the game to advance to the next level, Tim has to move forwards and then backwards in time. There are some places in the game where Tim cannot move forward at all, and requiring the player to think of the world in reverse. In this sense, the game requires a more formal, structuralist approach, one that takes into account how the player must transcend time and space to access the end of each level. The structure is completely irregular in regards to other games, since parts can be played forwards, backwards, and over and over again.
This game is a marvel. The schematics and mechanics used to bring the player in and out of time are unique and extremely well done, but Jonathan Blow adds a storyline element that is not often seen in video games: the role reversal of villain and hero. Most often people play as the hero, defeating evil for many righteous reasons, and feel a sense of accomplishment. That idea changes in Braid, when the final reveal occurs and the player realizes that Tim has been the villain all along. The ultimate moments are exciting but confusing, and force the reader to wonder which side she is really rooting for. It is not every day that a game can shatter a player’s perception of right and wrong so gracefully as Braid does.
Alex Maldonado was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Literary Theory taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014.