How Braid Fails

So there’s this game entitled Braid. It’s gotten a lot of critical praise. I bought it and I played through it, and I don’t regret my purchase, even though some aspects disappointed me.

Failure is, of course, part of the creative process. Failure is not a bad thing because it helps people learn. The problem is that sometimes people fail in such a way that you really have to question how they’re thinking; sometimes you just feel like their entire way of thinking has to be torn down and started from scratch.

In this blog post I’ll go through the various ways that Braid failed, and what made me angry enough to want to punch someone.

The (Lack of) Story

I would probably describe Braid’s story as a pastiche of Jorge Luis Borges; it recapitulates themes that I’ve seen in Fritz Leiber (The Man Who Never Grew Young) and also a bit of Infocom’s Trinity.

This isn’t a bad failure, of course. The idea of a Borges pastiche is better than the vast majority of games even try to include. In this case, in my view, it’s better to reach far and fail.

The real problem is in the presentation of the story. Someone who talked about it (I feel bad that I can’t remember who) put it this way: “Story? You mean those bits of text I ran past before every level?”. By placing the story bits in easily-skipped blocks of text, they weren’t integrated with the game.

There is an argument to be made that the game mechanics themselves express certain ideas. That’s fine, but there are two problems; First, the text and mechanics aren’t well integrated, so the text is pointless, and secondly I’m just not entirely sure what ideas the mechanics are supposed to express.

False Puzzle Advertising

One of the points that you notice in Braid advertising is that, while playing the game, you can rewind time.  If you make a mistake, like a mistimed jump, you can rewind the game and try again.  In fact, the very first level has a couple of puzzles of this nature.  The rewinding almost works like save states; you can keep trying until you get it right.  The implication is that dexterity and timing won’t be important, and that the game will only test your puzzle-solving abilities.

This impression is false.  The game soon introduces elements of symmetry breaking; some game objects are immune to rewinding, so that rewinding does not produce the same game state as previously existed.  Timing and dexterity are important, and if you thought otherwise, too bad.

Difficulty Cliff

A difficulty curve is an idea in gaming where the game starts out easy and then gets harder. As the player masters the basic skills, they’re prompted to develop more skills, or else hone their skills to perfection. In theory, having the challenges too easy leaves the player bored and having them too hard makes the player frustrated. Hence, there’s the idea that if you graphed the difficulty over the course of the game, it would make a smooth curve upward.

Braid’s difficulty goes up very quickly. In a sense it’s more like a collection of puzzles than a smooth experience. The player is tossed into the game and told to beat their head against the puzzles until they have a flash of insight (more on this later).

What really bugs me about this is that there’s one set of levels dealing with the element of time flowing backward; they gradually introduce the implications of the new mechanic in a very smooth way over several levels. To me, that section has a very smooth curve.

It’s just that that section is only unlocked after you’ve beaten everything else in the game. A messed-up difficulty curve is the kind of thing that happens a lot; it can be hard to get right, and after all it’s a lot easier to create puzzles than to solve them. So, this failure is understandable, but I can’t help feeling that it drove a lot of players away from the game.

The Impossible Puzzle

In the first level, there’s a puzzle I could never have solved.

At this point there will really be spoilers, if there weren’t before.

But anyway, you read that right, in the first level there is a puzzle I could never have solved. The basic framework of Braid is that there are worlds, and each world has several levels, and each level has several puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces are the goals, they’re what you’re trying to collect.

Each world also has a picture frame where you can assemble the puzzle pieces into a picture. Once the picture is complete, you’re finished with the world. (Except for “bonus stars”, apparently, but I don’t really know much about those; they’re not obvious.) Each picture frame appears in two places; there’s one in the main hub of the game (the world select screen), and there’s one found somewhere in each world. So, going through the game it’s obvious that the puzzle pieces are a scoring mechanism. They don’t have any game effect, except unlocking the final world once you’ve completed all the others. The picture frame makes a nice alternative to a progress bar, showing you how far you’ve gotten in the game.

So, near the end of the first level is a puzzle piece that seems impossible to get to. There are no platforms or clouds near it, no enemies to bounce off of. It’s sitting high up in the air, unreachable.

Eventually I got so frustrated with this puzzle piece that I poked about on the internet to find out how to get it (more on this later).

It turns out that some of the puzzle pieces—only the ones in the first world—actually have platform pieces on them if you look closely. Instead of simply collecting these pieces, you had to rearrange them within the picture frame found in the world to create a platform allowing you to reach the last puzzle piece.

Let’s go through all the ways this makes no sense:

  • If you thought the puzzle pieces were only a scoring mechanism, you could never solve the puzzle. It’s as if, in some other game, you had to climb up your health meter.
  • If you were going to wait until you had collected all the pieces for the first world before manipulating them, you could never solve the puzzle.
  • If you dismissed the picture frame within the world as being superfluous and only using the ones on the main screen—where you can see them and your progress all at once—you could never solve the puzzle.
  • If you assumed that the game would point out all the game elements that were important and make sure you had at least a basic idea of what they did—like it does for every other game element—you could, that’s right, never solve the puzzle.

Walkthrough Bullying

So, if you got frustrated with Braid, you might want to find some hints. Your search might take you to the walkthrough page on the official Braid website.

Spoiler alert: This is not a walkthrough.

Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid) apparently takes the position that hints or walkthroughs interfere with the experience of the player solving puzzles on their own. That’s a position that I can basically respect, although I disagree with it. (Me, I believe that very often the sense of relief you get from solving a puzzle doesn’t make up for the frustration you have to go through.)

The problem is that the “walkthrough” doesn’t just say “solve the puzzles on your own”. No, the “walkthrough” actually lures you in with the promise of giving hints…and then it chastises you for asking for help.

This “walkthrough” is more like a hazing ritual. You have to go through a certain amount of pain before you can join the inner circle, and you get humiliated for your weakness.

This “walkthrough” amounts to Jonathan Blow slapping you in the face for not being good enough to play his game.

In a sense it may not be a failure of Braid itself, but it’s a grave mistake by Jonathan Blow that he needs to apologize for before he can move forward.

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