Indie Arrogance: Braid

…what.

It was really interesting coming to indie darling Braid after World of Goo, in part because where the latter gooball physics puzzler succeeds mightily is precisely where the beautiful and atmospheric platform puzzler fails.

Braid is a beautiful game, and clearly well-designed, with each movement of the player being intentional, and highly contained. Many of the time puzzles rely on just this sort of precision, knowing exactly what the player is capable of, and making the player leap through very specific hoops to get the solution to its puzzles. And this is the ultimate cause of the gaping design flaw that pretty much wrecked my experience.

Kurt Vonnegut has an old piece of writing advice that I think Jonathan Blow needs to think about applying: use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Braid is indulgent. It is arrogant. It treats its mysteries as things worth puzzling over for hours, but it not a beast nearly so precious. Its story is obtuse and incoherent (it’s about an A-bomb developer?….what?!), its symbolism evocative but impenetrable. Its gameplay follows suit: Puzzle pieces drift out of reach and don’t require you to find them, but the game ends early if you don’t – you don’t have true freedom, you just can’t progress until you read Jonathan Blow’s mind and find out what solution he had in mind. Even some of the games aesthetic choices – like starting on “world 2” , or the meaningless little puzzles you assemble, verge on pointless artistic indulgence without greater ramifications (and this may be in part due to an opaque storyline that says much without ever communicating anything). It is a poster child for clever indie games, and it should also be the effigy we burn for artistry over accessibility, for mystery over clarity, for a work of art that, to appropriate another Vonnegut-ism, disappears up its own asshole.

It is what I dislike about many puzzle games: there is One Solution that you must find, and it relies on you doing a precisely ordered chain of events that, if you fail to apply in exactly the steps specified, simply wastes your time. Even the rewind function in Braid, which one would think saves it, simply exacerbates it once the game start to employ it as a necessary part of puzzle solutions. Several puzzles require you to do offscreen stuff or to die on purpose and reverse it. It’s pure guide dang it stuff (and the “official walkthrough” consolidates their condescending attitude toward their players quite nicely).

World of Goo shows quite a powerful counterpoint: it teaches you what to do each time by making failure and iteration quick and painless (and even a bit of fun in a “tower of Jenga” way), letting you toy around with new physics and mechanics before demanding their more-precise application at some later date.

Then again, this game might be more fun stoned out of my mind:

Lessons Learned

  • EXPLAIN, preferably by use. When you’ve got a new mechanic, give the player a way to use it that is SUPER OBVIOUS. Reward them a bit for doing the obvious thing. THEN make them use it in a way that’s less obvious.
  • Communicate. If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it through gameplay directly. Don’t wank about in precious little emotional vingettes too hard.
  • Be Beautiful. If there’s one thing World of Goo and Braid both do phenomenally, it’s weave visuals and sound together. I wish I had these talents. They’re things that as I futz around, I’ll have to shell out for or find free versions of or figure out some way around.
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