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‘Braid’ delivers a crushing tale of loss and introspection

‘Braid’ delivers a crushing tale of loss and introspection

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Braid
Number None Inc/Hothead Games
Number None Inc/Microsoft Game Studios
PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac OS X, Linux

Have you ever made a mistake that you wished you could undo? Well that’s a silly question–of course you have. It would seem an obvious statement that we all have our regrets about this life. Whether it be in relation to friends, family or career, each of us carries a skeleton or two around with us as a reminder of the missteps which we have been party to. Moreover, though, for so many people, their central regret is tied into the memory of a lost or faded love.

This is the idea behind Braid in a nutshell.

That time reversal is the central mechanic of Braid is no accident. The protagonist is obsessed with the idea of going back, and the closest he can get is this fantasy wherein he re-examines the events of his past again and again until he can get them right. Unlike most games that feature time manipulation as a gameplay element, Braid centers the idea as part of the world from its opening moments–so much so that the game might be thematically superfluous without it. Much like the iconic TV show, Lost, in Braid the idea of going back is far from a gimmick: it’s the whole point.

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The rest of the game is basically a Super Mario Bros. redux, only deconstructed through a surreal palette of despair and longing. As is the standard in platforming, the player must seek out collectibles in order to gain full completion of the game. The collectibles in question are puzzle pieces, which, again seem pretty standard, as far as collectibles go, until Braid challenges you to put the pieces together. The first solution is a clumsy hand reaching from under a table and knocking over a wine bottle. The second is a man raising a glass at an empty table. And the third is a man looking into a child’s bedroom, where only shadows and heirlooms remain.

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Soon it becomes clear why the hub world in this game is an empty home, and why the protagonist is so eager to relive the past again and again. While much of the tale is deliberately cryptic, it’s understood from very early on that the principle plot element of Braid is that of a failed relationship. Telling this story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator makes it only more compelling, particularly when it comes to the ending–an intensely memorable sequence that plays out the conclusion from the protagonists perspective, before using the time reversal mechanic to reveal the truth.

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The classic trope of the gallant prince arriving just in time, to save the princess in distress from a terrible fate, is turned on its head in the grim finale. When the fantasy is stripped away, the player sees not a delicate ally who is in need of saving but a terrified and exasperated woman who will do anything to get away from you. It’s the ultimate shock in a game that quietly weaves an uncomfortable tale around you from the start, yet only reveals it in full just as you think you understand. Suddenly it becomes pretty clear why the princess was always in another castle–she’s been trying to get away from you.

As a parallel to life, Braid takes on even more meaning: while we all want to see ourselves as the hero of the story, and we all justify our actions in what ever manner we see fit, none of us acquiesce to the role of the villain willingly. How could we?

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In the end, even the worst monsters have tales to tell–only sometimes they end up telling them to themselves, again and again and again.