The Lyricism of Braid
At the beginning of Braid, the placement of the jigsaw pieces I had to collect, the design of the levels in which they were contained, functioned as the picture on a jigsaw puzzle’s box; the puzzle itself was the disarray of pieces inside the box, which I had to put back together. Halfway through Braid, I began to ignore the pictures themselves, and look only for the connections between each jigsaw piece. By the end of Braid, it was as if the jigsaw pieces had already been connected by someone else, completing the puzzles for me.
The pictures I was to recompose with jigsaw pieces were my goals and also the guides to achieving them. Each individual jigsaw piece was a mechanic based on platforming or time manipulation, its connecting edges guiding me in how to put the pictures back together; teaching me Braid’s relatively complex platforming mechanics—and how to manipulate them by altering time—while I simultaneously recomposed the pictures they were a part of.
Halfway through Braid, the puzzles had not increased in complexity so much as in quantity of jigsaw pieces. The gradual growth was more like a dramatic arc building to a climax, than the erratic difficulty-based pacing of most puzzle games. This nuanced pacing made returning to earlier puzzles seamless; yet returning to earlier puzzles also revealed that they, in fact, sometimes contained more jigsaw pieces than later puzzles.
By the end of Braid, the puzzles sometimes contained few jigsaw pieces, whose connections were oblique. How the jigsaw pieces made up the completed pictures could be indistinct—or so distinct as to mislead: seemingly complex puzzles obviously solved by platforming, as if I were navigating an already completed jigsaw puzzle. Yet even the most oblique pieces I could almost instantly fit together—had I unconsciously recomposed the picture, or was the recomposed picture the level through which I passed unhindered? Had the levels always been recomposed pictures?
The purest puzzle games are abstract. Tetris tasks the player with repeatedly creating an uninterrupted horizontal line from an endless supply of falling geometrical shapes. Some less pure puzzle games combine abstract puzzle design with figurative level design. Portal asks the player to reach an unreachable goal in each level, by solving an abstract riddle: How can one reach an unreachable goal by creating two doorways out of nothing—one to enter and one to exit?
The trouble with this impure way of designing puzzle games is the discordance between the abstract puzzle design and the figurative level design. (A discordance conducive to producing level design in which puzzles are arbitrary doors to unlock; alien to each level, yet leading from one level to the next.) The best impure puzzle games thematically or aesthetically link abstract puzzle design and figurative level design. Jonathon Blow links Braid’s level and puzzle design with a singular pattern of thought.
One ideal of puzzle game design dictates that a game’s puzzles must follow a consistent logic, but that does not mean that the puzzles themselves must be based on logical thinking. Braid has the player think creatively to most expediently solve its puzzles: each puzzle is the conception of a creative vision destined to be born in the medium that is its very solution. The picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle is the vision, the assembly of the jigsaw pieces is the labour of the material birth of that vision.
How distinct is the vision in the mind’s eye during the labour of its birth? How closely does the vision, once born, resemble the vision in the mind’s eye? Each contraction might distort the vision, just as it materialises it. Each contraction diminishes the fidelity of the vision until, after material birth, it is invisible to its author. At the completion of a jigsaw puzzle, the recomposed picture loses all its beauty and its mystery.
The master is a prophet. His work is not the daydreaming of an athlete in preparation for an imagined future. His work is not the images in the mind’s eye of the artist, or the passages written automatically in the head of the writer. Neither is it the improvisations of children, nor the spontaneities of the naïve. All these are visions—not prophesies—that must be born of distorting labours. The master’s work is in premonitions; prophesising without vision the labour itself. Without a vision, birth is immaculate. Without a vision to distort, the labour can distort nothing. Great athletes do not daydream, but learn that great victories—and their roles in such victories—are preordained.
Braid is not sublime. It inspires no aesthetic joy or awe. Yet its gameplay creates an empathetic connection to Jonathon Blow so strong the player understands him; a connection so great, as with the masters, that they become one. This empathetic connection communicates the mastering of a craft—the awe, the hollowness, of pursuing greatness; of understanding that one is at the mercy of fate not in spite of but partly because of one’s ambition.
Whether Tim is a Mario/De Flores deconstruction of the player in a game/performance of Super Mario/The Changeling, is developing the atom bomb, both, or something else entirely, he is not only a victim of obsession, but of circumstances beyond his control. His hubris is to attempt to control his own or another’s destiny, which can only end in disillusioned failure; or perverse, catastrophic success.
In Braid, Jonathon Blow uses the medium of games to simulate something that cannot be simulated in any other medium, for other mediums cannot produce the same type of interaction which games can, without becoming games themselves. He uses the medium’s greatest dramatic and aesthetic weakness—direct interaction or the illusion thereof—as the very basis of Braid’s drama and aesthetic; as Braid’s greatest dramatic and aesthetic device.