Time Again and Mario Rip-off

Video games are new…relatively. So it still hasn’t reached the point where we can call it an art form. It took thousands of years after the invention of writing before the greatest works of literature were formed, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the great works of William Shakespeare. So, it might take just as long for gaming to make the same impression on the collective consciousness. However, film is less than a century old and we already got some good stuff, the Alien trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy, the Star Trek undecology and the Matrix onelogy. So maybe we can get some really good games that will still be played generations from now…or maybe we already do.

Recently, and by recently I mean April, Roger Ebert caused a ruckus in the gaming community when he said video games can never be art…ever. While Ebert is a very persuasive and brutal movie critic, he isn’t really a major authority on video games, and his exposure to games has consisted entirely of watching someone else play them, which takes away from the experience somewhat. Besides, as far as I can tell, his definition of art is inherently incompatible with anything interactive. It also seems to be incompatible with anything bad. I think the Twilight series is a collection of purely refined shit, but it’s still art. Of course my definition of art is pretty simple, it’s anything that is a reflection of the creator’s creativity and imagination.

I could go into more detail, but I think I’ll leave that to an upcoming blog post. The point is, games are art, now, and to prove it, I give you exhibit A: Braid.

Braid consists of what defines a good game, or more specifically, a good puzzle-platformer. Reasonable difficulty, intriguing gameplay, clever puzzles, clear aesthetics, and emotional satisfaction.

I’ve played and replayed Braid many times, because I wanted to, and because it’s still satisfying to replay those same levels over and over again.

Braid’s premise is…you know, I have no idea really. Here’s what I can tell, you are Tim, a red-headed guy in a suit, with the bizarre ability to reverse time even after you’re dead. The game consists of six worlds, each showcasing a new way to use your time powers.

The story is told through some obtuse text blocks at the beginning of each world, which is one way to get a story across, but I can’t really tell what is supposed to be going on outside the main game. Now, I know the main game is supposed to represent something, I just can’t figure out what. It’s hinted to in the text blocks, but not really explained that much.

In case one is wondering what the creator, Jonathan Blow, intended with the game, the answer is simple: He refuses to tell us. According to Blow, the game’s underlying meaning cannot be described in words, with I believe is pretentious prick for “I’m not going to tell you, nana nana boo boo.”

I’m sorry Blow, but that sounds ridiculous, and as I said in my Watchmen review, being needlessly obtuse is not a virtue.

Playing through Braid one thought stood out in my mind: Mario Brothers Re-imagining. It makes sense, Tim is wearing a red tie, give him a brother named Jim with a green tie and you’re all set. Don’t believe me? Well: You’re on a quest to find a princess, each world ends with a flagpole whose flag is lowered when you cross it, then a dinosaur tells you the princess is in another castle, you jump on enemies to kill them, and there’s an enemy that looks suspiciously like a Goomba, and another that looks suspiciously like a Piranha Plant coming out of a green pipe. Whether this was intentional or not, it works, and would not be a bad idea to begin with. I mean the Mario Franchise is older than me for Christ’s sake and the aesthetics and general plot of the games remains unchanged, it could do with a revamp, and that is exactly what Braid feels like, a Mario Bros. revamp with time control mechanics.

Speaking of time control, this is where Braid shines. The time control mechanics are amazing, fluid and intuitive. The basic ability of turning back time is introduced in the first world, which is oddly called World 2. Which in those early stages operates more like a cheat, like the save state function in an SNES emulator. But, not having this ability in those early stages makes the game sadistic to say the least. For instance, in one level Goombas are flying out of a pipe into a deep pit, and your job is to jump off one of them to get to the other side of the pit. (Hope I didn’t spoil this incredibly obvious puzzle for you.) In any other game this would be sadistic, because if you miss you have to start the entire level over, however in Braid, if you miss, you simply turn time back to before you jumped and try again. But it can still feel like a cheat.

The time reversal ability only gets interesting in the second world, World 3. This is where green sparkles are introduced, and objects surrounded by green sparkles are immune to your time control, which means once you throw a switch, or grab a puzzle piece surrounded by green sparkles, they won’t turn back when you turn back time, and that leads to some really interesting and clever puzzles which I for one loved. However this also means turning back time won’t reset all objects in a level, so sometimes, if you screwed up, you will need to restart the entire level, which can be frustrating.

The third world, World 4, features a new mechanic, the ability to control time through your movements. As you move to the right, time flows forwards; as you move to the left, time flows backwards; and if you stay still, or move up and down, time stands still. It offers some very interesting obstacles, for instance, in multiple levels a Piranha Plant is timed to pop up just as you approach it, and it’s not like you can wait for it to pass because time won’t move if you don’t move. So you have to find a way around it somehow, it pretty much functions like a wall…kinda. Then there are the doors, because time flows forward only when you travel to the right, you have to approach non-sparkling doors from the left. If you approach them from the right your key will be used, but the door won’t open because you travelled back to before the door was opened. It’s a clever yet subtle puzzle that some people fail to grasp. Either that or I’m a fucking genius for figuring it out.

The fourth world, World 5, features the clones. All you need to do is perform an action, then turn back time and a shadow clone will appear and do that action for you. The big caveat with the clones is the fact that they can only effect objects with purple sparkles around them. Then there’s the fifth world, World 6 which features a ring which slows down time for objects close to them. Not much to say about these two. Though there are some really interesting ways you can utilize these abilities, and like all of them, you feel like a genius when you finally figure it out.

The final world, World 1, might be the best designed out of all of them. Time continually flows backwards, which gets really cool during the final level. Which I will not give away because you have to play it.

Of course like many games, even if you finish it, it’s still not finished. A hundred per cent completion is something most won’t bother with, but that’s most likely because they don’t know where to begin.

First is the epilogue, which contains a few puzzles that one can complete for extra information. Most will probably miss it like I did the first time, until I found out about the puzzles online. Let’s just say there’s more to the epilogue than the books.

Then there are the stars, which are a bitch. There are eight hidden off-screen in several levels, including the final level and the puzzles involved in getting the stars are really sadistic. One requires epic patience, one requires evil jumping, one requires suicide, one requires Goomba juggling, one requires you be in two places at once, and so on… The final star is especially sadistic because as I said earlier, the sadism in most of the game is mitigated by the time control. You see, the final star is retrieved as part of an alternate ending, and after you trigger the alternate ending, you lose your time control. Which screwed me over several times.

To explain, I will need to give a slight spoiler. I missed the chandelier. In order to trigger the alternate ending you need to jump on the chandelier as it’s…opposite of falling. But here’s what happens to me, I jump on, which triggers the alternate ending, and then fall off, which means I can’t complete the ending and get the star.

However I kind of understand why. It’s basically the game’s way of saying how what just happened is irreversible. Tim may be able to undo all his other mistakes, but he can’t reverse this one. Anyone who’s played this part knows what I’m talking about.

The game is filled with obscure underlying meanings like that. For instance the art used in each of the six worlds seems to be reminiscent of each stage of Tim’s life.

The first two have outdoorsy themes, reminiscent of a more innocent time, his childhood for instance. With the second world filled with rain, caves and plants you might find in the jungle, as if things are getting a bit more brutal.

Then the third world has stark contrast between the game objects and the background, featuring symbols I recognize from math and physics classes. Possibly intended to represent his school years.

The fourth world looks like it might be set in Tim’s bedroom. What this represents I’m still stuck on. His sex life maybe?

The fifth world features a sterile urban environment. Possibly representing his work/career. There are objects throughout the world that indicates a vocational theme, so that is likely it.

The final world likely represents death, with all those grey stones. Though I’m not sure. In fact I’m probably wrong.

Everything in the game means something, including the text at the beginning of every world and at the end in the epilogue. But the biggest problem is that it’s often impossible to figure out what some of it means. Like this:

Sequel?

Okay, I see that, with the stones apparently referring to the levels, and the game referred to as an acceptable start, and I think “sequel.” However Blow did go on record saying there will be no sequels. Which I don’t mind. It’s really the gameplay, not the story, that intrigues me. So a spiritual successor would probably be a better idea. One that replicates the gameplay, but not the story. So what does the epilogue mean? No idea.

Anyway, speaking of spiritual successors, get Braid for the PC and you get a bonus: Mods. Of which I found two. Now one of the biggest problems I have found with this mod is that the attempt to add challenge to the game has resulted in requiring 12 years of acrobatics training on the part of the player to finish the damn thing. This is a puzzle game, once I figure out how to solve it, it should be solved. However in this mod, that is not the case.

I noticed the same thing in some Portal mods, specifically Portal: Prelude. A game where acrobatics are a theme. This kind of shit should be condemned by all players. What’s even worse is when one of the puzzles doesn’t require the use of acrobatics but a glitch in the engine. Like Maybe Black Mesa where the solution is…well it’s difficult to describe but it is illustrated 2:50 into this video:

How does that make any logical sense in the Half-Life universe…or any universe? It doesn’t, and it’s obviously not what the developers intended. Making it a glitch I hope they fix for Portal 2. So for a modder to include it, well it wouldn’t make sense, so how could someone ever figure it out? Even the most senile person on the planet would think that was total bat-shit.

Don’t forget, both Braid and Portal are puzzle games. The solutions should make logical sense and be relatively easy to execute. This isn’t making it more difficult, this is making it sadistic. Do the words “reasonable challenge” mean anything to these people!?

So anyway, Braid’s a great game which is fun to play over and over and over again. I highly recommend it. Now if only modders managed to end their evil ways we’d be in business.

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