I remember when Braid was first released in 2008. I heard quite a bit about the game: mostly that it was as beautiful as it was abstruse. This appealed to me, but I didn’t own an Xbox 360, to which the game was exclusively released. The game remained little more to me than the subject of conversation. Lots of conversation: about art, about independent videogame development, and about the eccentricities of the game’s creator. By the time it was released on PC several months later, it seemed as though Braid had single-handedly ushered in a golden age of indie development that we’re still enjoying now.
Of course, I had to experience this game for myself.
At its surface, there is no question as to Braid‘s near flawless technical execution. The controls are precise and the painterly visuals pair nicely with the minimal soundtrack to evoke a dreamlike experience. But what kind of dream is Braid? As I played through each challenge, the seemingly disparate bits of narrative and gameplay began to coalesce into a something much deeper.
Braid presents some obvious mechanical and thematic allusions to Super Mario Bros. This is no accident. More than an homage, Braid is a contrast to the male hero fantasy that we grew up with in the age of Nintendo. Mario is an unwavering hero, always running forward, never looking back. But Tim comes across far less self-assured. From the uncertain expression on his face to the bits of Tim’s story that are offered, Braid explores a much different set of emotions: regret and self-doubt, both surrounding the breakdown of a relationship.
In retrospect, the juxtaposition of the worlds makes much more sense than it does initially. The cloud-room is a passageway through Tim’s memories. At the end of these recollections are doorways to the dream world where he can control time. He work his way back to the beginning and save his relationship.
Then he arrives at the epilogue, oddly titled World 1. It was here that meaning of the game becomes clear. Braid is Super Mario Bros. in reverse. The entire game is a journey backwards through Tim’s memories to the moment of her departure. Tim won’t be able to rescue the princess from anyone because she is being rescued from him. He is the villain. Rather than allowing him to fix the problem, the only thing that his power can do is continually subject him to the memory of the growing distance between she and him.
It’s difficult NOT to project myself into the character of Tim because his story is such a relatable one. We all have regrets from past relationships. He missed the signals warning him that his relationship was coming to an end. While he was dreaming of heroism, his “princess” was seeking rescue by someone else. In the dream worlds, he may have the power to rewind and replay events over and over until he gets them right, but none of it is real. Even the power introduced by the (engagement?) ring, which allows him to slow time to a near-stop, is a fantasy. When he emerges from the fantasy and steps back into the real world, the ring is still in his pocket—not on her finger—and the house is still empty.