Tim is on a journey to find the Princess. You have heard this story before, in games other than Braid. She was kidnapped, you see, or perhaps she left. Tim can’t really remember; the past gets so blurry when it may be the future. If you’re confused, that’s only natural. Jonathan Blow’s Braid is a metaphorical puzzle, full of worlds that contain platforming puzzles that you solve to get puzzle pieces that you assemble to reveal more of the game’s core riddle. It is not layered so much as coiled, like a diamondback with a taste for its own rattle. Its dense, ambiguous narrative provides rich ground for interpretations to grow. Is it about a breakup? The atom bomb? A stalker? Or is it about something more fundamental?
Braid is Tim’s quest for the Princess, a journey that in which he must surmount obstacles by manipulating time. Each “world” of the game makes use of a different time alteration. In all of them Tim can rewind time to undo most of his mistakes, but some worlds introduce objects that are immune to this trick. In one world, the direction of time depends on the physical direction Tim is walking; in another, a shadowy doppelganger repeats Tim’s actions when he rewinds. There is little reward for merely crossing a world; in order to reach the Princess, Tim must gather and assemble its puzzle pieces.
But who, or what, is the Princess? She appears in the game’s final level, when we learn that she was fleeing Tim, and that the identity of monsters depends on time’s arrow. The character of the Princess seems to change in each piece of text. Here, she is a lover, there, a mother, elsewhere, nature itself. Tim loves only her. Tim loves someone else, but seeks the Princess anyway. Finding the Princess in the text is almost a greater challenge than finding her in the field of play. Perhaps she isn’t a literal woman at all, but rather enlightenment, an understanding of the universe and of other people. I say this because, more than a quest for a person or a place, Braid is a journey of learning.
We learn by reading. We learn by observing. We learn by trying. Braid demands that the player do all these things. The world occasionally provides hints, but only the most trivial mechanics and controls are ever explained directly. Getting a puzzle piece rarely requires any particular platforming skill; rather, each requires that the player carefully look at how the world reacts to what he does, and develop a plan. The text that prefaces each world provides a metaphorical hint of the experiences to come, and the object of each world is the assembly of an image that represents that world’s ideas. In one, a young man makes a mistake, in another a boy sits sullenly in an airport while his doppelganger chatters happily with strangers. The music contributes perspective as well. In one world we are presented layouts reminiscent of early platformers, layered in with Braid‘s native time mechanics. Lullabies play in the background: we are looking in on an artform’s infancy. The player’s progress and success in each levels depends on a scientific attitude towards the world; the player’s understanding of what this means depends on an artistic view.
Art and science. Tim seems to understand one, but not the other. He can dissect the angles and the lighting, but the emotion of film passes by him. When the Princess lies within his reach, longing for his grasp, he cannot see her; half of the universe lies beyond his ken. He is busy putting tungsten posts into the brains of monkeys and splitting the atom. Yet each step forward takes him further away from her. The puzzles of Braid‘s worlds escalate in complexity, and solving them requires ever greater acuity. However, the Princess can only be found at the beginning of World 1, a world without any puzzles at all, which presents the game’s purest platforming sequence. Tim is closest to the Princess when the player operates off reflex and instinct. Once he begins manipulating time, Tim can only get further away from her. The paradox is that each step away, by revealing more of the narrative and art, nonetheless brings Tim closer to the Princess. Braid is his purgatory, in which the skills of the scientist must be made to unlock the reflections that allow him to approach the Princess again, for the first time.
Braid ends with Tim’s decision to build a castle from his experiences, an edifice of ideas. He has already encountered many such palaces in his travels, each inhabited by a metaphorical dinosaur from the old school of thought it embodies. Should we wonder how Tim’s castle will look? Or have we already seen the interior, gazed at the key moments that form its structural walls? You know what they say about a man’s home…
Is Braid too difficult, too inaccessible? Possibly so — understanding the game means the player must think deeply in divergent modes. Success requires that the physical world of Braid be taken literally, but its art and literature must be interpreted symbolically. The platforming and puzzles are physically and mentally demanding, and ultimately some players will not be able to make their way through.
But what Braid asks of us is difficult. The gap between the artistic and scientific views of the world seems so wide that many would say they have nothing (or little) to offer one another. Braidargues that either approach is insufficient, that if we look at things only one way, we cannot see the Princess. Without a piercing examination we cannot understand the physical reality. Unless we understand the physical reality we cannot make the art. Without the art we cannot find enlightenment. No one strand of reality is enough alone; they must be woven together, into a braid.