Sunday, February 13, 2011

Braid: should I persevere?

This was the phase of frustration and despair.
Then there was the phase of bafflement and anger.
Finally, I got to the phase of careful reflection.

I finally got around to playing Braid, a game that has been talked about a lot. Here is Jay is games:
one of the truly astonishing aspects of this game is the deeply involving story, which sweetly lures you in at the beginning, and blows your mind as you travel onward.
Here is Emily Short:
It’s of course a masterpiece in the game-play area, and doesn’t need me to say so.

Here is Eurogamer:
Braid is beautiful, entertaining and inspiring. It stretches both intellect and emotion, and these elements dovetail beautifully rather than chaffing against each other. Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.
Well! That sounds great. But I have now played through World 2, World 3 and a couple of levels of World 4, and I have not enjoyed myself at all. I have not seen a deeply involving story. I have not encountered anything that could be called a "masterpiece in the game-play area". I have not seen beauty, have not been entertained, and have not been inspired. Is there something wrong with me, or should I just persevere and get to the parts where it all suddenly becomes good?

My gripes with the game are the following. First: it is a platform game. Oh, the reviewers claim it is a puzzle game, but you'll be spending 5% of your time solving the puzzles and formulating plans, and then 95% of the time trying to execute them. It's all about jumping at exactly the right moment, pressing the arrow for exactly long enough, and so on. This is not masterful game-play, this is boring game-play. It is very literally rewind-and-try-again-until-you-get-it-right gameplay. The puzzles are good, and I would love to enjoy them; but why on earth did they have to be embedded in Mario? It kills all the enthusiasm that the puzzles might give me.

(Everybody hates jumping challenges, right? I remember that when Half-life cam out, the reviews were unanimously positive -- except that everyone hated the jumping challenges at the end. Little skill, lots of repetition: whose idea of fun is this? And in Braid you don't even die, which means that there isn't even the feeling of tension that could perhaps give enjoyment.)

Second: there is supposed to be a "deeply involving story". But I have spent a couple of hours with Braid, and I have not seen any story except for the "stories" told in text at the beginning of each world. To say that these are poorly written is to be very merciful. This is the introduction for world 3:
"For a long time, he thought they had been cultivating the perfect relationship. He had been fiercely protective, reversing all his mistakes so they would not touch her. Likewise, keeping a tight rein on her own mistakes, she always pleased him."
"But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life's achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn."
"Tim needed to be non-manipulable. He needed a hope of transcendence. He needed, sometimes, to be immune to the Princess's caring touch."
"Off in the distance, Tim saw a castle where the flags flutter even when the wind has expired, and the bread in the kitchen is always warm. A little bit of magic."
Just pick a random sentence from this piece of text and send it to Adam Cadre. You will have a fair chance of winning. What could it possible mean to be "fully couched", and that "within the comfort of a friend"? What prose could be more bloodless than one which contains phrases like "a mode of existence with severe implications"? And if these lines contain any insight into the human condition, I fail to see it.

Avaunt, princess! For I am immune to your caring touch.

Later on, we get such jewels as: "Tim only felt relieved after the whole visit was over, sitting back home in the present, steeped in contrast he saw how he'd improved so much from those old days." Which is not only plainly ungrammatical, but also contains the phrase "steeped in contrast". Steeped in contrast.

Let's ignore the quality of the prose, and look only at the contents. These are slim, and what I've seen definitely doesn't add up to anything resembling a story, let alone a "deeply involving story" that "sweetly lures [me] in at the beginning". It's more like random quotes taken out of cheap self-help books.

So, uh... am I missing something here? Given the reviews, I feel it just cannot be the case that my treatment of the game is fair; and yet, it seems to be fair based on what I have seen. So I'm confused. Is the good stuff going to come later? Should I continue playing Braid? What on Earth is going on?

By the way, I did like the bunnies. So cute and evil.


  1. I'm not great at platformers - I have a hard time making it through more than one or two world in the classic Mario games, and the most fun I ever had with Super Meat Boy was when I deleted it.

    But I think Braid sets the bar pretty low. Only a few places come to mind that demand precise platforming: jumping onto a monster in midair in one level, circling the screen in time to catch up with a platform in another, and optimizing your path on the very last level. And in two of those, it's easy to rewind and try again.

    I found that in almost every case where I thought I wasn't platforming well enough, I was actually trying the wrong solution (and better platforming wouldn't have helped).

  2. No, jumping in general is fine. Jumping in FPS games where you can't see your feet (aka the ending of Half-Life) is terrible.

    Generally I found the jumping in Braid easy enough that the trickiness was in the puzzles, not the timing. (It was possible to "cheat" one or two puzzles with crazy jumps, but if it wasn't through solving puzzles we were doing it wrong.)

    If you're not good at jumping things I can understand why that might overwhelm the puzzle aspect.

  3. If you're not enjoying the gameplay now, well, it's not going to get any better. At its core, Braid is a Mario-style platformer.

    As for the story, it's complicated. If you're not curious about the text you're seeing and about how it connects to the game play (and it does), you're in rough waters. It pays off in the end with a final level that pulls everything together, but if you're not already partially hooked I suspect you'll just be bored or frustrated. That the ending does tie everything together, but still leaves a great deal up for interpretation won't help.

    Given all that, I'd suggest skipping it. If you're curious, get someone to explain the last level, or perhaps watch it and read the Plot Analysis FAQ which is one person's interpretation. I expect you'll find it a bit ham-fisted and pretentious, but at least you'll know what people are talking about. And at least for some of us, it did hit us hard.

  4. To answer the Mario comment, google for "Why Are So Many Indie Darlings Platformers?" You are so not alone in your thinking there.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Jesse: it's not so much that the difficulty is very high, it's that even with okay-ish platform skills you'll still have to redo a lot of stuff a couple of times. I particularly hated the "A tingling" level, where you have to get to a platform on which you are not affected by reversing time. You then have to rewind the entire level (which can be boring even at 8x speed, because the first puzzle isn't easy and might take you some time to solve), after which you have about 30 seconds to get to a puzzle piece before a dropping wall closes it of. Perfect platforming let's you get there in about 28 seconds. But of course you don't know how tight the time limit is, so you are almost guaranteed to take it just a little too easy. You'll probably get hit by bullets or fall off the ladder one or two times as well, and the result is that you have to spend a couple of minutes executing a puzzle whose solution you already know. Bleh.

    Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that even though perhaps no part of the game is very difficult, you'll still be spending most of your time trying to get your timings exactly right and rewinding them until you do.

    Now I did play two more levels today, and it seems as if the puzzle difficulty is getting a bit higher. So the puzzle/platform balance might be swinging in the right direction -- that at least is what I hope!

    Jason: okay, apparently there are people who like jumping challenges even though I don't. I can accept that. :) I'm particularly bad at them, though. It's just...

    ...maybe it's just the immediate negative feedback that turns me off? You make the wrong jump, you die or miss the platform. Rewind. Try again. Immediate negative feedback. Every other game genre I can think of right now has either neutral feedback (trying something that doesn't work in a piece of IF), or negative feedback over time. When you play a shooter, strategy game, roleplaying game, and so on, you can make mistakes as long as you don't make too many of them in too short a time.

    I'm not sure whether that is why I don't like platforming, but it might be.

    (Even so, if you make a platform game, why use Mario as your inspiration? Surely there have been far better games later that could be mined for more attractive gameplay? From Sonic and Crystal Caves to Jazz Jackrabbit and Abe's Odyssey, there have been a lot of platformers with gameplay infinitely more compelling than Mario.)

    Alan: thanks for the tip. I'm guessing that reading about the story will give me none of the impact it is supposed to have?

    Ron: Good article, but I'm not sure I understand the reasoning. Apparently, platform games are supposed to be the easiest type of game to get into, because everyone knows them. Is this true? I would suppose that nowadays, there are a lot more people who know how to play a 3D-shooter than people who know how to play a platform game. So when the author claims that

    "2D platformers are also very playable, largely due to the above. This means players of many stripes can play these games and engage with these experiences without requiring specific skills or genre familiarity. Making a game a first-person shooter immediately puts it out of the hands of many."

    I really wonder who the "many" are who cannot play shooters, and what makes a shooter more difficult than a platform game to understand?

    But those questions are irrelevant to the discussion here, of course. :)

    MY PLAN: play one or two levels of Braid a day, stopping before I get irritated. There are so many good reviews, and so few bad ones, of this game, that I am still convinced I would be missing out on something great if I did not persevere.

  6. "Is there something wrong with me, or should I just persevere and get to the parts where it all suddenly becomes good?"

    This is a false dichotomy. Maybe it's just not your thing.

  7. This is one of those stories which delivers new information at the end that makes you reinterpret the earlier events. I'm not sure it makes up for the somewhat overwrought prose; I tend to enjoy overwrought prose, so I'm not the best judge.

    There's also an odd double-narrative going on, so if you do look for story summaries, be careful of someone saying what the game is "really about." They are wrong, and it is about at least two things at once.

    But the gameplay does not suddenly get better. The writing does not get appreciably better. There's an event which is relevatory (I hesitate to call it a twist, because it's not that trite). I think it's worth persevering as gradually as necessary, but the game wasn't too frustrating for me.

  8. "maybe it's just the immediate negative feedback that turns me off? You make the wrong jump, you die or miss the platform. Rewind. Try again. Immediate negative feedback. Every other game genre I can think of right now has either neutral feedback (trying something that doesn't work in a piece of IF), or negative feedback over time."

    This is interesting, because to me the immediate feedback is appealing -- I know what I did wrong, and have an idea how I can not do it wrong. Whereas in too much IF the neutral feedback leaves me with no idea how to proceed. (I may be seriously out of touch with the IF community on this; last year's xyzzy award winner for best puzzles was Earl Gray, and this year the roof tile in 12:54 to Asgard is a finalist for best individual puzzle, and I hated those puzzles; partly because the feedback is so unhelpful that it seems to turn into a try-everything-on-everything festival marathon.)

    There's another issue here, which is how much you have to replay once you've failed, but I think that's independent of the immediate negative feedback.

    "I really wonder who the 'many' are who cannot play shooters, and what makes a shooter more difficult than a platform game to understand?"

    I'm one! I think. Platformers really are very simple -- move left, move right, jump, and it's easy to see what effects your actions are having. The rare occasions I play first-person games I often have a lot of trouble controlling them. Sometimes I think of the genre as "camera battles"; I have a lot of trouble making the camera go where I want it to, and since movement depends on the camera, aargh. When I'm supposed to simultaneously move the camera with the mouse and my character with the keys, it's like rubbing my head and patting my shoulder. (That also seems to happen in arena shooters, if that's the genre I'm thinking of, which are 2-d but involve moving with the keyboard and aiming with the mouse.)

    Emily Short has made some similar criticisms about Braid's prose. Just looking at the prose before the first screen, the problem is that there's so damn much of it. The first screen of text alone would've done nicely.

    (I haven't played Braid barely at all, because it won't run on my stupid computer. I hope I like it better than you do, given how many hoops I'll have jumped through by the time I can actually play the whole thing.)

  9. Regarding the prose: you either buy into it or you don't. I'm reminded of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, which has been variously accused of being one of the most crushing works of genius of the twentieth century and one of the most pretentious nonsense-riddled pieces of crap ever to be foisted on science fiction fans. I personally am a fan of elliptical or oblique language, so some of the bits you're holding up as "obvious" example of inept writing actually sound quite lovely to me. But if you don't like it, you don't like it.

    I also saw the mechanics very differently from you: to me, it's by far the least frustrating and most satisfying platformer I've ever played, because (with the exception of a couple levels) there's almost zero consequence for failure. I can try a strategy dozens of times in sixty seconds if I like, honing my technique without being penalized by having to start the level over. I can replay my mistakes in slow motion to see what I did wrong. About ten minutes after I started playing I became very sad that every other game in the world did not have this ability to navigate time as freely as navigating space, because I knew I was going to miss it.

    Where it works the most for me, though, is the sense of constant revelation as you realize what you can do with the tools you've been given, and the resonance between the gameplay mechanics and the thematic material. It's hard to get into this without spoiling the end, but repurposing the cliche side-scrolling narrative into a metaphor for failed relationships made me think a lot about perspective and self-delusion. Tim's yearning to change the rules of reality until he finds a way to be with the person he loves was something I found moving, the fact that his princess was always in another castle. There is material that ties this story to a different, more specific narrative, which was also an interesting moment of revelation.

  10. "I'm guessing that reading about the story will give me none of the impact it is supposed to have?"

    I expect it would be like having your first exposure to a job being someone explaining the joke. You can appreciate it on an intellectual level and understand what everyone's talking about, but you don't really enjoy it. (Oddly, that was my first exposure to The Aristocrats joke.)

  11. Even so, if you make a platform game, why use Mario as your inspiration?

    I think Mario is the "basic" game all the other ones you mentioned are variations. Braid is like Mario in the same sense, but I'd hardly call it a copy; really it varies more than Sonic, surely. (Even Mario itself strikes new territory in its own games -- Yoshi's Island, for instance, is nearly from a whole other genre.)

    I think it's more sensible to talk about particular gameplay schticks individually without just saying the game is like game X. For instance, instant-death made sense in the original Mario (and prior games) in that failure by getting hit by enemies was comparatively quick, but in games with a health bar that can take dozens of hits instant death by jumping makes far less sense. I would say the Braid time-rewinding circumvents the issue altogether.

  12. I have to agree with you, Victor. I tried Braid for all the same reasons. And I quit playing for all the same gripes.

  13. "I really wonder who the "many" are who cannot play shooters, and what makes a shooter more difficult than a platform game to understand?"

    Three things:

    1) Input. You only need three inputs to play a platformer: left, right, jump. That's practically Pong-level of input. The number of times that Mario actually required use of up, down, or the other button can be counted on one hand, and each happened in a rather quiet part of the level.

    2) There's little to no heads-up display required to play: everything you need to know is implicit in the position of things on-screen. (This is one of the first things later platformers mess with, some notion of ammo being first.)

    3) Age. Platforming's been around since Pitfall at least, and it still exists today. That's a broad target audience.

  14. But back to Braid: that excerpt does sound like it came from a tortured teen's livejournal entry rather than anything with aspirations.