A few weeks ago I finally beat Braid, the mega-artistic time-bending platformer by Jonathan Blow. After seeing the game through, the next three hours were spent pouring over in-game texts, interpreting level design, and discussing the possible meaning(s) of… well… everything. From the beginning I appreciated Braid for its enchanting visuals, beautiful music, and thoughtful gameplay design. After mulling over the story, however, I appreciated it as something much more.
Braid’s story isn’t some simply-clothed metaphor. Like most good pieces of art it has layers, and depending on what angle you adopt, different interpretations arise for the same concepts. You can even drill down and assign meaning to the smallest of events (even on a per-level basis, which spurs some interesting results), though your conclusions could be entirely subjective. Again, just like interpreting a book, poem or painting.
But Braid isn’t a book, it’s a game. Games feature their own realized worlds that allow you to interact using a set of rules, i.e. physics, gravity, how to destroy enemies, how to solve puzzles, etc. It’s physically more immersive than reading a novel, and if the story is told in the right way, your mind is drawn in the same way a good book pulls you in. Braid manages to straddle the gap between classic forms of storytelling and modern entertainment. It’s a game everyone should play, especially people who don’t play games.
See below for some of my thoughts about Braid’s story. It’s by no means exhaustive, and don’t let it deter you from forming your own conclusions about what transpires in the game. Interpretation is fun! Oh, and needless to say, spoilers are below.
In short, Braid’s story is about mistakes, regret, and learning from both. This is played out brilliantly with the time rewinding mechanic, allowing you to do anything you please and, if it doesn’t work out, rewind time and make it right. When you reverse time you (as the player) retain the knowledge of what transpired before, something all of us wish were possible in real life. Braid is about living, it’s about seeking higher ideals, it’s about making mistakes and moving forward with that knowledge. The entire game is structured around that, from collecting puzzle pieces (a rather thinly-veiled metaphor) to helpful “enemies” and more.
From my own thoughts and from reading around the ‘net, here are a few major points worth mentioning:
1. Braid’s story is told in reverse. This is a curious aspect of Braid that I’m not quite sure how to apply to the rest of the game. The first world you play is called “world 2″. You don’t see “world 1″ until you make it to the “last” level. There, the first door you enter is where the final door usually is, and there’s even a point where rewinding time makes things move forward, hinting that everything you’ve done up until this point was backwards, both literally and figuratively. Does this turn the entire story on its head? Should you interpret the events described in the books from “end” to “beginning”?
2. Braid is about an atomic bomb. Braid’s story is told through a series of green books sitting on pedestals in the clouds where you enter levels. In the last level (which is numbered as the first level), the green books are empty and text is shown from red books. The red books are the only ones that directly reference the bomb, leading me to assign a different level of meaning to those texts. Is this some sort of meta-like commentary about the game? Are the red books the only “reliable” sources to be found, whereas the green books are filtered through Tim’s perception?
3. The Princess. For most of Braid the only concrete detail you can gleam is that the protagonist is searching for a Princess. Like video game conventions of old, this seems to “fit”, especially since Braid features more than one homage to 2D platformers of our youth. So, while you solve puzzles and stomp enemies, you think you’re doing the usual righteous thing and saving the damsel in distress. The final level begins with the same concept, but then it’s suddenly reversed. You realize you weren’t saving the princess, you were chasing her. Worse still, she was trying to stop you from attaining her. There are numerous theories as to what the princess represents, though everyone seems to agree that it isn’t an actual princess, nor is it Tim’s mother. Personally, I think the princess is a symbol of Tim’s (and everyone’s) search for the ideal, some nigh-unattainable goal that’s always just out of reach.
4. The pivot point: your control is reversed. One of the most powerful (and possibly most meaningful) moments in the game is at the end, after you work your way through the underground tunnel and climb the fence to the Princess’ balcony. All of a sudden the music stops and time seems to be frozen (and it may well be, but both you and the Princess still move). Here the most curious event transpires: your controls are reversed. Left is right, up is down, etc. I can’t help but interpret this as a means to mess with the player directly. You, the one who has been controlling the game, are suddenly not really in control, thus the game plays you. It also hints at some sort of turning point where the game spins everything on its respective axis and sets the elements in order.
5. The castle as a metaphor. The concept of a castle is mentioned numerous times throughout Braid, but the metaphor really comes into focus at the end. Tim uses level icons from the very puzzles he solved earlie to construct a literal castle you can climb on top of. Not much to interpret here. Princesses live in castles. Your castle is built out of your experiences. In order to “rescue” the princess, you have to have a castle, and in order to have a castle, you have to accomplish things and build a foundation for your life. Once you have a life, you can place a princess at the top of your castle (the princess = an ideal concept, an almost-unattainable goal you set yourself) and start experiencing life so you can construct a path to achieve what you desire.