Timing is everything. In Braid, a time-bending, darkly psychological puzzle platform game by Jonathan Blow (distributed by Hothead Games), time is your main tool to guide Tim through his strange odyssey. A complex and genre-defying masterpiece, Braid is difficult to label and even more difficult to beat.
When you first launch Braid, you’re confronted with what looks like a darkly backlit and haunting silhouette of a little tie-wearing man with a cityscape behind him. After a couple of seconds, you realize this isn’t a title screen but the first level. The beautiful art style and haunting soundtrack are key features that thread throughout the game but begin when the game is first launched.
The objective of the game is vaguely stated. You must guide Tim through various obstacles, collect puzzle pieces, and eventually rescue The Princess from a “monster.” As you navigate the dreamy watercolor-looking worlds, you’ll be able to manipulate time so that you can prevent yourself from dying or complete time-sensitive puzzles. The time element aside, the interactive world is a simple set of obstacles that you’d likely see in a game like Super Mario Bros., complete with canons, goomba-like enemies, and killer plants.
Actually, you could consider Braid either a homage or a satire of Super Mario Bros. When you complete a level, you lower a flag and are told by a Barney-like dinosaur that the Princess must be in another castle. Fans of Super Mario Bros. will appreciate the references.
But don’t mistake Braid for light fare. Despite the light classical music and dreamy surroundings, Braid is not a pleasant walk down memory lane, but more of a shroom-fueled trip through a David Lynch film. Each stage opens with text that explains a bit more about Tim and his relationship with The Princess, his stormy love interest. As you play throughout the game, you find that the truth is hard to discern. Did Tim lose his love or did he forsake it? Does the Princess even exist? Where does this game take place? Why can Tim manipulate time? Without revealing too much of the twists, Braid unravels into one of the most original, complex, and thought-provoking gaming titles ever.
But Braid doesn’t throw you into the pits of neurosis immediately. The backgrounds, gameplay, and story are initially quite dreamlike. As you progress, in addition to getting used to the weird story and unique art that surround Tim, you’ll also have to adjust to the difficult gameplay. Not since I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game have I seen a more frustrating platformer. The margin for error between success and failure in any given puzzle is razor thin and measured in milliseconds.
Each stage gives Tim different abilities to manipulate time. Certain platforms, enemies, and objects are unaffected by Tim going back and forward through time. For example, you can jump into a pit, grab a key, and reverse time to get back out with the key in tow. You’ll learn to use Tim’s abilities to collect puzzle pieces throughout the levels. The levels themselves are relatively easy to navigate—getting from one start point to the other usually just requires some simple jumping and dodging of fireballs, pits, etc. But this will only take you so far in the game; you’ll realize that the puzzle pieces are the real goal because they unlock the later stages and more of the story.
The pieces are scattered throughout the levels but usually require Tim utilize his skills in some very specific way. Half the battle is figuring out how to gain access to the given location on the screen where the piece is held and the other half is actually executing your plan. Neither are easy.
On my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, Braid ran predictably well. Judging by its old school graphics and gameplay, I imagine that it could run on many lesser Mac models without a problem. Hothead Games deserves commendation for porting this unique title to the Mac platform when more commercial and predictable titles were available.
Macworld’s buying advice
Every few years a game comes along that begins to push the gaming industry in a new and exciting direction. These games transcend entertainment and are in fact pieces of art. Inevitably, they are not commercially successful. Braid is a bit too cerebral for the average player and the puzzles of the later stages are so challenging they will likely frustrate users. That’s a shame, too, because the ending is worth the arduous (if brief) journey. Without multiplayer or much replay value, the game is simple, focused, and raw in its flaunting of conventions. Unlikely ever to be remembered as fondly as Mario, Braid is six levels too clever for its own good.
[Chris Holt is an assistant editor for Macworld.]