braid and the unknowable correct path

Since playing it for the first time, I have wanted to talk about Braid. As is so often the case, I feel as if I’m arriving at a housewarming party after the hosts have already moved to another house. Despite the freshness of the game having worn off, it’s one of those games that demands sustained consideration and conversation about it in a way that few games do. I think this demand stems from the simple act of the game choosing to ask the player a question. Games, by definition, ask players to participate in their system, but before the player ever begins the game, Braid is up front with its intentions. If you watch the game’s trailer, it poses a few very direct and pointed questions to the player. Two of those questions (“What if you could learn from mistakes but undo the consequences? Then what would you be?”) have really taken hold of me. Braid’s construction takes the player through various scenarios in order to take these questions on. Interestingly, it is difficult to say whether or not any of the questions get answered, so far as I could tell. So I wanted to try to answer them for myself.

Being able to correct mistakes by reversing time does not come naturally. The overarching question posed to the player of Braid basically asks what would happen if you could go back in time and fix your mistakes? The game accomplishes this by allowing the player to reverse time. If the player mistimes a jump, they can press a button to literally rewind to a point before that jump is made. The way this works out, a player can go so far as to rewind to the beginning of each stage and begin all over again. Completely resetting a stage can also be accomplished by exiting and reentering the door at the beginning of each stage, a much more effective method since some actions cannot actually be reset in the stage if they are done incorrectly. While this might seem like a godsend to players prone to timing issues or even those who just like to experiment, in practice, it’s actually quite difficult to get used to rewinding. If I made a poor jump, but the character survived, I was much more likely to run and jump my way back where I wanted to go rather than simply rewind to a point before I made my error. Part of that might be years of learned behaviors from other games, but there is something very unnatural feeling about rewinding time, as if the ability is inherently wrong. This initial resistance really was surprising, considering that I generally like to experiment with abilities in games. I found that only consistent and sudden death was enough to force repeated use of the trick to achieve some level of comfort using it.

Braid deliberately eases the rewind mechanic into gameplay. Although it’s really the biggest focus of the game mechanically, the player can progress through the first couple stages without really having to use it. Those early moments are much more focused on precision platforming. In some ways, familiarizing a player with something they very probably are already familiar with is an interesting diversion. Platforming is important, but since you can rewind time at any point, becoming proficient at it is much less important than it would be in a game with a set number of lives or that forced you to start the stage at the very beginning after each failure. Again, Braid seems to be reinforcing the idea that rewinding time is an unnatural process, leading the player to consider its gravity.

As unnatural as rewinding time feels, apprehensions about using the ability eventually become non-existent. The fears associated with making a mistake slowly fall away as each death becomes a minor hurdle on the players’ path to progress, an afterthought at best. After completing the first world, I didn’t think twice about reversing time if I had even the slightest inkling that I was making a mistake. Eventually, I would press the button very often before the mistake could even play out. One of the benefits of rewinding time that wasn’t immediately obvious to me was that I was reliving the mistake in a way that would help me prevent it in the future if I so chose to use the information I was getting. The end result, really, was that I was getting better at predicting outcomes. There is a puzzle early on where you have to jump on an enemy being shot out of a cannon at exactly the right moment so that you can make it across a gap to collect a puzzle piece. It’s a difficult jump to time because the visual cue you get in the form of a lit fuse on the cannon is subtle in appearance and the velocity of the enemy being fired out of the cannon is fairly high. There’s essentially no room for error. If you don’t time the jump right, then the only option is to rewind and watch the cannon fire off again and again until you can time it correctly. It’s a simple puzzle, but it encapsulates the spirit of the game very well. Observation is key and to play the game the player must take in all of the available information and use it to arrive at the correct solution.

Being able to predict outcomes does not keep you from making the same mistakes. This was one of the more interesting lessons Braid taught me. On the one hand, the very calculated time manipulation rules that the game employs demand that the player recognize how they behave in order to exploit them. The mistakes you make lend themselves to self-correction through observation, with a little bit of trial and error to supplement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of that really matters because you can always rewind time. Armed with powerful agents towards problem solving, the player who should be better and more careful at solving puzzles can very easily be worse and reckless at executing them the more difficult the puzzles become. Yes, the player will eventually have to figure out the solution in order to progress in the game, but the weight of each individual decision gets reduced essentially to nothing. In a way, each puzzle gets subdivided into moments of good execution and bad execution. Good execution gets glossed over because of the success, and bad execution also gets glossed over as well because it gets erased immediately.

In one of the worlds, the player can manipulate the game through simulated multiple realities. If the player goes and collects a key, but then rewinds time, a shadow version of the character will then appear and replay that reality, with the key being collected by the shadow reality instead. This ability is configured in several puzzles requiring you to be in two places at once. In the game, this ability is limited to a certain amount of time and resets with each subsequent reversal of time. It touches a little on the idea where each decision that gets made signifies the creation of a new universe. In one universe, if have to decide to walk to work or drive, one universe gets created for each of those possible outcomes. Braid is lousy with these possibilities. While it only really gets expressed in a concrete way in one world, it does posit the question that each and every time the player chooses to do something, then reverses time, multiple universes are sprouting up to continue on with those actions. After a full playthrough of Braid, one can imagine the sheer scale of what this would mean. And if that is the case, why do we only get to see the one we see? How do we know which universe is the one we want? Is it worth even worrying about since it would be a given that at least one universe would contain the timeline that the character is seeking? Does acknowledgement of all possible outcomes result in a change of the outcome from what it’s supposed to be?

Ultimately, I think Braid answers the questions it posed by saying that undoing the consequences of your actions, even if you think you learn something from the experience, does not solve your problem. While the character thinks he’s fixing mistakes, it’s revealed to the player at the end of the game that his efforts were either in vain or completely misguided from the beginning. The princess he so desperately wants to save is trying to escape him. The “correct” puzzle solutions weren’t getting him what he wanted, but rather getting the player to the understanding that the character of Tim doesn’t know what he thinks he knows. Conversely, if Tim did know that working back through all of this would lead to the moment the princess tried to escape from him, why would he choose to go back to that moment? Is there something he thinks he can learn by doing so? The game seems to have an ending really only for the sake of the player. In theory, it seems possible that Tim could continue trying to solve his problems by going back, constantly rewinding time until he gets the desired outcome. This is not actually possible to do in the game as the epilogue marks the end of the puzzle solving parts, but is strongly suggested by the fact that Tim enters the first screen of the game  once he goes exits through the final door.

So then, if you could go back, if time did behave in these particular ways, what would you be? Well, you might be a person obsessed in the most debilitating way. You might become so consumed with finding the way to the end result you want that you are lost forever in time. For all the things you could try to solve, you could also be creating new problems. It might take your entire life to realize that something you did twenty years ago was the wrong thing. Would you then rewind time twenty years just to fix that one thing? Would you really even be able to tell which decisions were the ones that produced any particular outcome? Maybe you would constantly go back after each and every decision just to see how all of them played out. Maybe worse yet you might sit frozen in time forever, incapable of making any decision at all, immobilized by trying to keep track of all of your life’s events as if they were happening simultaneously. Whatever you would be, you would be experiencing it alone.

The last thing I want to talk about has to do with agency. Braid affords the player agencies that real life can’t replicate. Interestingly, despite being godlike in your ability as player to manipulate time and produce multiple and simultaneous universes, that doesn’t seem to be enough to truly change the course of an overall timeline. Your efforts within the game itself amount to failure in many ways. It’s as if Braid is saying that you cannot actually undo your mistakes, after all. This is expressed in the puzzles themselves. Braid’s worlds are designed to be solved in a particular way. Although there are a handful of exceptions, the player must understand the concepts and execute their abilities in a particular sequence for “normal” play. This is not so true, however, when it comes to tool assisted playthroughs.

To quickly explain, a tool assisted speed run (TAS), is a manipulation of a game through various means, such as emulation software or deconstruction of a game’s ROM, to execute commands to take advantages of bugs within a game’s design. This is used primarily to play through a game as fast as possible, often times employing scripted command executions that cannot be performed by a human being. The results vary from game to game, but the general idea is to abuse the game’s rules to achieve the most optimal path. For a lot of games, the results are entertaining because they show off incredible flaws within a game. For some, the idea of the TAS breaks down to cheating. Braid’s assisted run challenges this idea. Since the game’s rules were intended to ask questions about unnatural abilities, it hardly feels like cheating to use an outside method to enhance the game’s experience. While a human being playing the game might not be able to execute the flaws within the game, the point of the game to a great degree, is to cheat to see what it means to cheat. Through the assisted run, Braid’s intended sequences can be sidestepped on occasion. Since the game has physics to it that govern the movements of the player and various objects, those properties can be exploited to things such as maneuver unbelievable jumps. Time can be stopped at exactly the right moment to create a series of increasingly powerful jumps. The what if questions already asked by the game just get extended to new questions.

Applying the mentality of tool assisted runs speaks to the nature of human inquisitiveness and the ever increasing desire to know more and do more. No matter how powerful we become or how much we understand, there will always be a new frontier to break into. As that happens, individuals can change, but all of us also change with it. The definition of our world shifts to fit our new understandings. We try desperately to change the world around us, still without being able to know what it would be like had things turned out differently. Those initial questions asked in Braid’s trailer seem to tantalizingly close to being answered thanks to an excellent game design and its ability to force the player to examine the experiments conducted. Still yet, the answers are out of reach and most likely will remain so. We simply don’t know what we’d be. We just keep trying to figure that out.


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