The Midweek Madness Sale on Steam this week is Braid, which you can buy right now for less than $3.00. If you have not picked this game up and played it, I recommend that you do so. The game’s reputation for being artistic and deep is well-deserved. Braid is a unique experience; it is one of the very few games that stimulates the player intellectually, and is sophisticated enough to let the player discover the meaning and message organically, rather than spell it out in big bold letters. The interaction between gameplay mechanics and storytelling is unmatched. Whereas in most games the actual play is unrelated to the story (fighting fifty random battles in Final Fantasy really has nothing to do with the plot, does it?), in Braid the game mechanics inform the story. Without the gameplay, the player cannot fully understand the meaning of the narrative.
Warning, this will contain spoilers, because it is impossible to discuss the meaning of Braid without discussing the ending and what comes after. If you have not played the game, I suggest that you do so before you read this.
The chief gameplay mechanic of Braid is control of Time. With the press of a button, the player can rewind time in the level, reversing death, enemy movement, and certain puzzle elements. There are, of course, certain aspects of the levels that are not affected by time, and these are always integral to the puzzles. But the protagonist, Tim, is affected by the time manipulation. Due to this, the game has no extra lives or continues. If Tim dies, the player can but rewind time to before the killing stroke, and begin again. Actions carry no consequence until the level is complete.
Between levels, the player reads books upon pedestals, which seem to recount Tim’s story. It is a well-trod tale: there is a princess, and she and Tim were once together, but Tim drove her away, and now he seeks to reclaim her affection. The player gleans that someone else has taken the woman from Tim, and that he must rescue her from her captor.
As the player progresses, a strange detail emerges. The game’s progression begin at World 2, and continue through World 6, but World 1 is nowhere to be found. In the beginning, the player does not think much of this, because all of the worlds except for World 2 are locked, and one assumes that World 1 will become unlocked in time. However, World 1 does not appear until all of the other worlds are complete, and it is completely different from the others.
World 1 has four “levels,” but there is something unnerving about them. In the rest of the game, time flows forward, and Tim can reverse it. In World 1, time natively flows backwards. Enemies begin dead, then return to life and walk backward. Everything plays out as if it has already happened, and that Tim is traveling backwards. Finally, the player enters the last level, titled simply “Braid.” It begins with an expected sight: Tim’s beloved, in the arms of her kidnapper, about to be taken away. But Tim is stuck in a cave system beneath them; he can only watch what happens. Luckily, Tim’s beloved escapes her malefactor, and she flees from both Tim and his rival. As she is running, she triggers several switches that help Tim progress and keep pace with her underground. She arrives at her home and her room, and Tim emerges beneath her windowsill.
At this point the game provides no instruction. The player, and Tim, are left at that balcony, without explanation or guidance. Eventually, for lack of something to do, the player presses the button that rewinds time. But instead of reversing time back to the beginning of the level, something else happens: time starts. The princess begins running, running away from Tim. Tim gives chase, and now when she flips the switches they are to block Tim’s progress, but are never successful. At the end of the road, Tim’s rival reappears, and the woman leaps into his arms to make good their escape.
The player’s entire perception of the story is turned on its head. The story is not about lost love and the quest to rescue the damsel. The story is of a man coveting what he cannot have, and chasing something he has no right to possess. He thinks himself the hero, but in fact he is the dangerous element. It is unlikely that Tim and the princess were ever together, and that their prior “relationship” was the product of her friendship and Tim’s imagination. The player, conditioned to play protagonists with altruistic motives, is left standing there, in control of a character who is driven by obsession, who is the hero only in his mind.
This revelation alters how we understand the timeline of the entire game. These events, after all, occur in World 1, which means that all of the player’s actions have taken place afterward. We have played out a man’s delusions, and we must admit that our constant manipulations of time have been to aid those delusions. We have reversed and changed time in the pursuit of a goal that we now know to be distasteful.
But this is not the end of Braid’s narrative double-crosses. After the game is complete, the player guides Tim through a series of rooms with more pedestals and books. Each passage adds more to our understanding of Tim and the game’s narrative, but one passage ends with a quote.
“Now we are all sons of bitches.”
The game does not draw attention to this, nor does it attribute the quote to its original speaker. The player must know the origin, or must investigate independently. The player who does so learns that Kenneth Brainbridge said that line to J. Robert Oppenheimer, moments after the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb.
With this one phrase, the game gains another layer of complexity and depth. What does the atom bomb have to do with the events of Braid? How does a man’s pursuit of an unobtainable woman correlate to a weapon? Therein lies the true beauty of Braid: it does not tell you. You as the player are left standing there, alone, staring at a reference to the atom bomb in the middle of a game about damsels in distress and time manipulation. What you make of that juxtapostion is up to you.
Some players have argued for an allegorical interpretation. The princess Tim seeks is the atom bomb, and Tim represents the scientists striving to perfect the bomb, obsessing over creating the weapon without considering the ramifications of what they are doing.
Rather than see it as direct allegory, I interpret the different layers as conveying the larger message that we, in the real world, are held fast in time, unable to alter or reverse our actions. On that day in 1945, a group of men succeeded in creating one of the most devastating weapons in human history. And it can never be undone. We can never again live in a world without the atom bomb, just as we can never again live in a world without internal combustion, or steam power, or gunpowder. We cannot change the course of events , as we can for Tim in the game. Tim seeks to manipulate time in order to pursue his obsession; we pursue our obsessions with that same single-mindedness, but we do not have the power to turn back the clock. The game asks of us the question: what if we achieve our goals, but it turns out those goals do us harm? Unlike Tim, we cannot go back and correct a misplaced jump or a thrown switch. What we make, we cannot unmake.
The strength of Braid is that my interpretation is not the only interpretation. The game provides many layers, many different puzzle pieces, and asks the player to decide how to fit them together. It is one of the very few games that demands that the reader think and interpret. Braid offers no easy answers, and that is why it is so beautiful.