The Many Threads of Braid

These days, it’s vogue to call Jonathan Blow a pretentious blowhard and his game Braid a cute puzzle platformer with a gimmicky time travel mechanic that tried to be too artistic and clever for its own good. It wasn’t always that way, but here in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I have seen in the past few years on multiple occasions game critics, journalists, reviewers, developers, and even every day gamers routinely dunk on both Blow and his game.

This is a shame because I think Braid is one of the most important video games in the history of video games thus far.

In order to explain this, I have to talk a little bit about what Braid is. And this requires us to tread some familiar ground, especially for those who have played Braid or followed along the contentious drama which occured in its wake. But please, stay with me, because I will work very, very hard to try and get you to say with me, hey, maybe Braid is a really well-done and important video game after all.

Braid Is A Game About Puzzles And Manipulation

Braid is a puzzle platformer that also has a clever mechanic where the player can rewind time at any given moment (all the way to the beginning of the level if needs be), even if the player has “died” in the game. A great deal of Braid’s fame comes from the fact that the time rewind mechanic wasn’t just a cute gimmick that allowed players to continually try over and over again to solve the fiendishly difficult puzzles without having to reset everything every time they mess up; the game combined the time rewind mechanic with the puzzles themselves which required some really mind-bendy out-of-the-box thinking to solve some of the especially difficult ones.

It’s important to note that the five “Worlds” (quizzically but importantly starting at “2” instead of “1”) introduce different variations of the rewind mechanic. The first world, 2. Time and Forgiveness, introduces the rewind mechanic itself; 3. Time and Mystery introduces items that will not rewind when you use the time mechanic (to your benefit in solving puzzles); 4. Time and Place has the entire game’s time progression revolve around you — when Tim (the protagonist) moves towards the right, time moves forward, and when Tim moves towards the left, time moves left; 5. Time and Decision introduces a shadow Tim that, when you finish rewinding, carries out the actions you just rewound; 6. Hesitance introduces a ring which Tim can drop that creates a bubble causing time around it to move painstakingly slow.

Braid Is A Stereotypical Video Game Plot With A Plot Twist

Braid’s story starts out fairly stereotypical and trite: “Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake.”

Everything about Braid screams homages to the ur-platformer, Super Mario Brothers, from the Goomba-looking baddies roaming Braid’s levels to the castle and flags at the end of each world. The homages include the cute little story hook in the beginning. Players identify its familiar call — you are a hero, and you must find the Princess, who has been taken into a castle by an evil monster. We know the drill.

Each world starts with a story room with a line of books — each book has a segment of story describing Tim’s search for the Princess. The first two rooms ruminate on the nature of time, decisions, and consequences and asks:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving them too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and became better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistakes?

The initial narrative introduces the concept of time reversal and players use it almost exactly how the story assumed they would — time reversal was a gentle mechanic that allowed players to make mistakes and experiment without having to suffer the consequences of death like other games (whether it’s having to repeat parts of the game over again or loss of resources).

Eventually, though, the story breaks down into almost completely unintelligible fragments of gibberish, about visiting home and Tim’s old university. The story ends most unsatisfactorily, and that’s if you stuck with it. Usually, players skipped over the story entirely, paying little attention to it and instead focusing on Braid’s main bread-and-butter, the puzzles. After all, we’re fairly used to otherwise worthless narratives that simply provide window dressing for a video game’s mechanics (like, say, the nonsensical world of Pac-Man or Super Mario), and it’s the mechanics, not the story, that most gamers play video games for.

However, there is a plot twist at the end for players who finish every puzzle by providing a sixth world (titled 1.) in which Tim is trying to rescue the Princess from the clutches of a knight; along the way, she provides help like destroying obstacles. But when you get to the very end, you must rewind the game and as the game rewinds, you realize that the Princess is actually trying to get away from Tim, and her “help” is, in reality, acts of hostility with the intent to hurt Tim.

In other words, the Princess is running away from Tim. Tim is the monster.

Braid Is About the Nuclear Bomb

Later on, after much searching, players realized there was even more secrets in the game where, upon completion, allowed Tim to catch up the the Princess running away in world 1. When Tim reaches the Princess, there is the sound of an air raid siren and an explosion, which then takes Tim to an epilogue room that quotes Kenneth Bainbridge, a nuclear scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb (and later worked stridently to stop nuclear proliferation). This, gamers asserted, is the true ending and meaning of Braid and all of that stuff about Tim and a Princess is a heavy metaphor for scientists in pursuit of splitting the atom without realizing the implications should they discover the atom’s explosive and powerful secrets.

Braid Is An Indie Darling and Success

Braid was released to almost immediate critical acclaim. It received over 90% on Metacritic (and was one of the highest rated games on Metacritic for some time). It sold a lot of copies. It got a lot of high praise from reviewers who loved the clever mechanics and mind-bendy puzzles. Braid along with its creator, Jonathan Blow, was featured in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Many people even (in my opinion, somewhat presumptuously) declared Braid as ushering in the new golden age of indie games. Either way, it’s clear that in the initial few months after its release (and still for some time), Braid was considered a very important game for many commercial reasons.

Braid Is A Pretentious Art Piece By A Pompous Jerk

And yet, Jonathan Blow wasn’t very happy about it all. He reported that months later, he was depressed because he felt nobody understood what Braid was really about. He oscillated between blasting critics (especially those whom he felt came from Humanities backgrounds and were too intellectual for their own good) for reading too much into Braid and making stuff up about it and saying gamers were too simplistic to understand its complex message.

This, understandably, upset a lot of people, and began turning public opinion against Braid and especially Jonathan Blow. Many called him pretentious, a hack, a self-proclaimed auteur who thought much too highly of his obtuse and poorly written garbage. While Braid the game still remains quite popular (even if its glamor has worn off quite a bit in the last few years), Jonathan Blow is an especially divisive figure, who, after Braid, went on to give several talks in which he excoriated the gaming industry for creating derivative drivel void of any meaning or artistic heart.

Braid Was A Homework Assignment

It is 2013, half a decade after Braid’s 2008 release. I’m a junior in the University of Washington. I’m taking a class by Terry Schenold titled “Machines To Think With” that deals with Fiction as a genre, medium, and technology. We have three texts we’re reading that quarter (in this order) — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shelley Jackson’s hypertext fiction Patchwork Girl, and Jonathan Blow’s Braid.

(For those who don’t know, hypertext fiction is like if you took a novel and broke it up into a million chunks and then linked them all together with embedded hypertext links; it was an experimental non-linear writing format that really took off in the 1990s with the advent of the commercial Internet but later died off in popularity around the mid-2000s. Interestingly, Twine is one of the philosophical descendants of hypertext fiction.)

I’m playing through Braid after reading Shelley’s excellent Victorian Gothic horror novel and Jackson’s unsettling, disorienting hypertext fiction. It’s 3 a.m. I’m sitting at the coffee table with only the soft glow of the laptop to keep my company. My wife has fallen asleep hours ago. But I am driven, like Victor Frankenstein, by a compulsion, an addiction even, that has plagued me all my life — If I begin a story, I must finish it, and I must understand it. I must dissect it. I must digest and take apart and reassemble it, having examined every part and piece. If I don’t, the story haunts me, it nags at me, it stays lodged in my brain like a piece of food stuck between my two front teeth, uncomfortable, always reminding me of its irritating presence.

But like I’ve mentioned before, Braid’s story dissolves quickly after the second world into non sequiters and gibberish. Whereas the first two worlds’ narratives feel like it’s moving towards something, some idea or theme, the story soon disintegrates before you like spun sugar on your tongue. And so, I am in a kind of fugue state, parsing each word, each line, trying to figure out the meaning behind the story but deathly afraid that maybe there isn’t one.

But that night I felt confident that there must be some meaning in these words. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but I felt that even in the gibberish, it was too purposefully composed with maddening glimpses of meaning within the chaos. And so, I walked from story room to story room, reading from book to book, back and forth, back and forth, from book to book, segment to segment, node to node,

back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back —

Wait. My blood freezes, and I feel that familiar rush right before the breakthrough of an especially difficult intellectual problem.

What if you read the books… backwards?

I hold my breath. This has got to be a dead end. There’s no way. And yet, initially, it does make a kind of sense. You experience so much of that game in reverse, and it’s designed to be experienced in that direction. And the story is broken up into segments, like disparate pages in a hypertext fiction. Even the ending in 1. requires you to reverse the sequence of player actions to reveal Tim is the monster, right? Tentatively, I start to read not from the beginning of the story room in 2. Time and Forgiveness from the left-most book to the right-most book, but in the story room for 6. Hesitance from right-most book to left-most book:

Tim begins to hide the ring in his pocket. But he can hardly bear it — too long tucked away, that part of him might suffocate.
In time he learns to deal with the others carefully. He matches their hesitant pace, tracing a soft path through their defenses. But this exhausts him, and it only works to a limited degree. It doesn’t get him what he needs.
But the thing makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion, distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.
Perhaps in a perfect world, the ring would be a symbol of happiness. It’s a sign of ceaseless devotion: even if he will never find the Princess, he will always be trying. He still will wear the ring.

I’m about ready to shout out loud, sleeping wife and kid and neighbors be damned. Could this be? This, this actually makes some sense! I keep reading through, and suddenly, Tim’s search for “the Princess” turns quite selfish and sinister in the next chapter, 5. Time and Decision:

Over the remnants of dinner, they both knew the time had come. He would have said: ‘I have to go find the Princess,’ but he didn’t need to. Giving a final kiss, hoisting a travel bag to his shoulder, he walked out the door. Through all the nights that followed, she still loved him as though he stayed, to comfort her and protect her, Princess be damned.
She never understood the impulses that drove him, never quite felt the intensity that, over time, chiseled lines into his face. She never quite felt close enough to him — but he held her as though she were, whispered into her ears words that only a soul mate should receive.

Tim, despite his initial heady feeling of freedom after leaving “her” to search for “the Princess”, soon learns another lesson in 3. Time and Mystery:

Off in the distance, Tim saw a castle where the flags flutter even when the wind had expired and the bread in the kitchen is always warm. A little bit of magic.
Tim needed to be non-manipulable. He needed a hope of transcendence. He needed, sometimes, to be immune to the Princess’s caring touch.
But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with several 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.
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.
All those years ago, Time had left the Princess behind. He had kissed her on the neck, picked up his travel bag, and walked out the door. He regrets this, to a degree. Now he’s journeying to find her again, to show he knows how sad it was, but also to tell her how good it was.

Tim learned his lesson. He left the Princess all this time. He wants to go back to her. But everyone in a relationship knows that when you walk out on someone and abandon them in search for something better, coming back is never easy. Suddenly, the hypothetical what-ifs of avoiding consequences for actions and learning from mistakes take on an almost laughably unrealistic and self-absorbed tone in 2. Time and Forgiveness:

Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.
What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: ‘I didn’t mean what I just said,’ and she would say: ‘It’s okay, I understand,’ and she would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing. We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.
Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving them too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be reward for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?
He knows she tried to be forgiving, but who can just shrug away a guilty lie, a stab in the back? Such a mistake will change a relationship irreversibly, even if we have learned from the mistake and would never repeat it. The Princess’s eyes grew narrower. She became more distant.
Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.
Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake.

There it was — the exhilarating rush of release from the compulsion I have. I figured it out. I unlocked the meaning. I basked in this euphoria for a few minutes.

Then I immediately jumped onto the internet and searched. Surely I’m not the only one who figured this out? If there’s one thing I can bank on in life, it’s that I’m never as clever nor smart as I think I am. So I kept looking. And looking. But I never found anyone else talking about how the story is meant to be read backwards (like everything else in the game). Is it possible we all somehow missed out?

Braid Is About A Relationship That Falls Apart

This new narrative of Braid introduces us to Tim as someone who runs out on a relationship, most likely a marriage considering the ring symbolism. He wants something better than his partner, the nameless “her”, and abandons her in search for the Princess. During his search, he discovers that he always had the Princess all along and sets back to “her” to tell her how wrong he was. This is the main mistake Braid fixates on — Tim literally wants her to forget about the abandonment, the pain, the sorrow, the loneliness, and pretend like it never happened because, hey, now he understands what he lost and isn’t that all that matters?

But of course, we know that’s almost impossible to do, and Braid points that out, too. You can’t just pretend like such betrayal never happened. And Tim loses the Princess because he made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Braid Is About The Danger of Avoiding Consequences and Accountability

Braid ties the time reversal mechanic specifically to Tim’s desire for freedom. Just like how Tim wanted to find freedom by pretending the consequences of his mistakes didn’t matter, time reversal is introduced to us as “consequence free.” But in the second world, we discover there are caveats — certain things cannot be reversed away. In the third world (arguably when Tim is at the peak of his selfish hubris narrative-wise), time revolves entirely around Tim, just as we, being fallible humans, also often feel like everything in the world revolves around our individual selves. But worlds four and five introduce even more caveats — in the fourth world, Tim’s reversal creates a shadow Tim (who looks depressed and distraught) who still carries out the actions that we reversed, hinting that maybe the time reversal isn’t as perfect as we assumed. And in the fifth world, the ring manipulates time by slowing down everything around it — including Tim, who struggles every time he places it to escape its powerful gravitational pull.

Braid says, yeah, the ability to reverse time so that you can learn from your mistakes without suffering the consequences of mistakes would be nice — for you. But only for you. You’d still be hurting other people. They would still have to suffer those consequences that ripple out from your actions, even if you reverse time eventually. And, Braid reminds us, this is a fantasy — real life never works like this.

But this doesn’t stop many of us from trying to live as if we had that power anyway.

Braid Is About Us As A Gaming Culture

The final world, titled simply as 1., does not follow the flow of chapters 2–6. Nor does it fit the narrative. It sits on its own, a kind of artist’s statement, if you will, about what we are to expect when we play the game.

In 1., the story opens up with Tim at a plaza, watching the people passing by him. He later attends a cinema where the audience is “eager for another flavor, for distraction from the boredom of their easy lives” or “hoping to forget their toils and rest their hands.”

Tim describes wanting to “find the Princess, to know her at last.” Tim thinks this would be a momentous, beautiful, intense occasion, but for those “other residents of the city, in the world that flows contrariwise”:

The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing, taking the castle with it; it would be like burning down the place we’ve always called home, where we played so innocently as children. Destroying all hope of safety, forever.

Jonathan Blow sees himself in this Tim, and I believe he’s talking about video games. Often times, we treat games like the audience in Tim’s cinema — distractions, ways to forget our boredom or hardships. But Tim/Blow wants more — he wants games that “embrace the world, a light that reveals the secrets long kept from us, that illuminates — or materializes! — a final palace where we can exist in peace.” He wants games that mean something.

Most of Blow’s criticism of the gaming industry follows this vein: he often grew angry at the idea that game developers churned out whatever seemed the most popular, the most easy to turn a profit, with little thought to whether their games were good, or contributed anything worthwhile, or had anything of value to say or teach. He lamented that the industry and culture as a whole still treated games mostly as objects of mindless entertainment, devoid of any lasting message of value. He hated how many developers simply wanted to make games that were fun (Blow especially hated this word in many of his talks and presentations) as opposed to important or good or meaningful, and that many gamers demanded games that were fun but never challenged their world views or assumptions.

Easy, fun, digestible, but ultimately never satisfying or nourishing.

Braid plays out exactly how Blow describes it would in 1. For players, the game starts out bright with pastoral settings and light, almost bucolic music. But over time, the world degrades, the music grows more sinister, the colors more washed out and dark, the castles decrepit and falling apart. In other words, a light that “would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing.” Braid before 1. ends in a disquieting, incomplete, even disturbing manner that just flickers out like a candle rather than an actual story.

But if we read Braid the opposite way, if we understand that our first initial playthrough was backwards and is meant to be reversed to find the true meaning (which the entire game is actually about, I can’t believe it took me so long to figure this out), then, like Blow, we come to realize that actions matter; consequences matter; accountability matters, and we move from darkness to light.

But — and let’s be honest here — the gaming industry and culture as a whole struggles with the concept of accountability and responsibility, of treating games as more than just mindless entertainment, of seeking to create things that are of value rather than things that are of profit. We still seek out thrills without consequence, violence without ramifications, evil without punishment, power fantasies without responsibility for exercising that power. The past two years especially have demonstrated this to us as a culture and industry, sometimes in terrifying and horrifying ways.

We are still children, playing in the castle we called home, pretending like it is some safe refuge.

And Jonathan Blow wants to burn it all down.

Braid Is A Video Game

The beauty of Braid’s themes about the dangers of trying to avoid accountability or responsibility for actions and mistakes, of pursuing projects simply because you can without thinking of the ramifications (whether they are video games or atomic bombs), of a relationship destroyed by one’s blind selfishness and hubris — all of these are dependent on the fact that Braid is a video game.

I’ve said before that most video games don’t really take advantage of the fact that they are a video game and thus are afforded with abilities other media only wish they could have. Often times, video games are simply other forms of media that happen to take advantage of computational power. Skyrim is essentially a tabletop roleplaying game but with a calculator and artist for a Dungeon Master. Visual novels are basically choose your own adventure books but without the flipping through pages. Pong is tennis without the physical exertion of tennis. Super Mario Bros is a game of dexterity with the fingers and hands, like any other game of dexterity, just with computational power to make it more visually engaging.

But we still understand that video games have something very special. Video games allow players agency, and this agency can help to make points in a video game more powerful and visceral than, say, a movie or a book. There’s a reason why people feel a video game where you can shoot werewolves feels more engaging than a movie about shooting werewolves (even if they find both entertaining).

Braid is a complex weaving of many, many different threads and themes and ideas and things into one compact package that allows a player — if they choose — to discover them along the way. But Braid doesn’t necessarily try to cram these messages down your throat (even if people found Braid to be pedantic and didactic at times); it hides them away as secrets for players to discover. That is, the player must use agency to find these themes. The player has to choose to read the books backwards, the player must choose the right choices to solve puzzles. After all, discovering something is much more memorable than simply reading it or having it spoon fed to you. And Braid makes you push through its many layers and faces and threads and gives you just enough clues to show you how to untangle it all, how to unwind the braid, so to speak.

You couldn’t do this with another medium besides a video game (or, at the very least, it would be very difficult). When players revel in the freedom of time reversal mechanics but curse the deep gravity well of the ring, when they puzzle over how to manipulate things outside of time reversal to still serve their needs, when they experiment and scratch their heads about how all of this works, they become further enmeshed in the world and atmosphere of Braid. This kind of immersion can be fun (there’s that word Blow hates) in its own right, but if you pay attention to the words and connect the dots, they add new layers of meanings as well as warnings.

And if any of you dear readers also thought to read the story backwards, please let me know. Because I don’t want to believe that I am the first person in the world to think this. Not because it means that everyone else is not intelligent — far from it; as I’ve said before, I believe there are a great deal of people much more clever and smarter than I — but because it means we, as a large group of fairly intelligent people, ignored it. When faced with a written narrative that started out coherent and maybe even interesting that quickly descended into a chaotic scramble, we didn’t dig deep enough into Braid or we gave up way too quickly because, you know, screw it. It’s not worth my time.

After all, it’s just a video game.

And video games never have good writing.