The Psychosis of Braid
When Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece Braid debuted in 2008, the gaming community had a lot to say about it. Many were impressed with the game’s clever mechanics, while others found themselves intrigued by the perplexing story elements. Others were taken by the surreal, painting-like art style. And then there were folks that didn’t like it at all, finding it to be pretentious or difficult or simply uninteresting. Whatever the feedback, there were hardly any blogs, communities, and classrooms that weren’t mentioning Braid in some way or another.
One of the particularly striking elements of the game is its use of symbolism. The game manages to simultaneously present a very exact yet ambiguous message, largely through the many texts available to the player before each level, and secondarily through subverted visual storytelling. However, I’m not here to wax philosophical on the prose, which has already been scrutinized to pieces by the internet. I’d rather examine something else in the game — something so miniscule that I never noticed it for five years, but so profound that it sent me on a hunt for other pieces of the puzzle.
(Spoiler warning for those that have not played or completed the game.)
Many fans find Braid to be a prime example of games-as-art, whereupon anyone who plays may take away their own meaning regardless of what the designer intended. The game has several layers of storytelling, some of which get particularly deep and symbolic. Even though I’m well aware of the deepest layer of subtext in the game (as well as Jonathan Blow’s disdain for independent interpretation of it), I still primarily view it on the upper layer: the journey of a disturbed young man that’s unable to let go in the face of rejection. This is at least partially because that was the original impression I garnered from my first playthrough, but I also continue to see it this way due to a recent discovery I stumbled upon. Just because it’s an upper layer of storytelling doesn’t mean it’s without its own depth.
Braid is a puzzle-platformer that takes players on an intellectual journey (both in terms of storytelling and game mechanics) to rescue a kidnapped princess. It utilizes both misdirection and hiding-in-plain-sight to confuse, challenge, and surprise its audience. The game curiously begins with World 2 instead of World 1, leaving the player to sojourn through the aftermath of the beginning without knowing what it is. However, as the game carries on, players often forget that they’re technically missing the catalyst. Not only is it hard not to fall back on equating “beginning” with “starting point,” but the game follows several tried-and-true gaming tropes to lull the player into old habits.
World 1 is the final level of the game in terms of sequence, but it is, in fact, still the beginning of the story. Even when making the player aware of this, however, the mind typically views it as the end simply because it’s last. To further confuse our instincts, World 1’s mechanic — that time is flowing in reverse — is notable enough throughout the challenges, but quickly falls by the wayside once the excitement of the finale begins. It’s often not until the very last moment, when the player has climbed to the Princess’s balcony and can no longer walk forward, that we realize things aren’t as they seem and hold the reverse button — which, in this case, causes time flow forward because of the level mechanic. This is when we discover that we haven’t been rescuing the Princess at all; Tim, the protagonist, is actually a stalker, chasing down his target and ignoring her attempts to avoid him.
At this point, players often say, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” and move on to the next game. However, there’s a lot more information in that final scene that goes unnoticed. To put it bluntly, the final level (which is technically the first) taints Tim’s perception of the entire game. It distorts the way he sees the world around him, because everywhere he looks, he sees traces of the Princess. (Incidentally, this particular stage is the only one in the game named, “Braid.”)
Almost every repeated character or item seen throughout the game can be found in a mundane form in or around the Princess’s house. I first discovered this when I noticed that the Princess has dolls of the dinosaurs and goombas in her bedroom…
…as well as what appears to be a mobile of rabbits and cats hanging from her curtains, which explains why the rabbit enemies make feline sounds. The daisies seen growing out of the rabbits’ backs is also a common element in the Princess’s home.
Upon further examination, I uncovered even more parallels. The goomba cannon, for example, appears as a small prop on a table in the Princess’s house. It’s a little difficult to make out at fist, since the sprite is so ridiculously small (it’s a very, very fine detail), but you can still discern enough of the shape to see what it’s supposed to be.
One of the most striking parallels is the chandelier. The one that the Princess attempts to drop on Tim matches exactly with the ones Tim uses in the boss fights.
Even the foliage and structures around the Princess’s home turn out to be exactly the same as the ones we see throughout Tim’s journey.
The only significant element of the game that I didn’t find a clear root for were the piranha plants; while they do appear beneath the main staircase, I don’t think we’re meant to assume that they naturally exist in that way. There is a small plant in a pot located on the same table as the cannon, but I don’t think we could connect the two unless it happened to be a Venus fly trap (which, sadly, it doesn’t appear to be).
Next, let’s step outside of the home and address the only other characters in the game: The Monster and the Knight. I discovered several similarities between the two suggesting that they are, in fact, the same being. They appear to wear the same armor, the same cape, have the same color hair, and make the same noise (or at least, the Knight makes that sound when we first see him through Tim’s eyes).
Additionally, the Monster has a full suit of armor in the background of its lair.
The premise at the beginning of the game is that the Princess, according to Tim, “has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.” When the game is interpreted as a guy that’s refusing to accept rejection from the girl he likes, this makes perfect sense. Tim, in his warped point of view, sees this other man as some vile creature that’s standing between him and the woman he loves. To Tim, who is ignoring that the Princess is actively trying to get away from him, the Knight literally stole her away. The Monster is the visual manifestation of Tim’s jealousy; his imagined version of the Knight is animalistic, wall-eyed, doesn’t speak coherently, and spits fire. It’s also worth noting that Tim fights the Monster in the exact same way that the Princess attempted to fight back against Tim.
Speaking of that method, I noticed an interesting detail when examining the chandelier itself. When you look closely, three distinct figures can be seen across the wood patterning. The one in the middle is clearly female, and she’s pointedly turning her attention toward the figure to her left while the other simply watches.
When the chandelier breaks, there’s a specific break in this image as well — the female figure and her chosen companion on one side, and the onlooker alone on the other.
As one final note, I’d just like to point out something I noticed about the constellation in the hub area. When the player acquires all 8 stars and looks up at the constellation over Tim’s garage, a vision of the Princess as a prisoner appears. Many writers before me have pointed out that this is symbolic of Tim’s obsession keeping her in chains, but there’s an extra detail about this that no one’s pointed out so far.
The chain around her waist slowly morphs into a braid.
In the end, this is all purely speculation on my part, but I think it makes for an interesting level of storytelling whether it’s canon or not. What’s exciting is that there’s nothing to indicate that these ideas weren’t a factor in the development of the game. After all, the story of a man chasing after a woman is really just a metaphor for the deeper meaning beneath the surface, and nothing that I’ve suggested conflicts with that secondary layer; in fact, I think it actually reinforces it.
If this IS something they were going for, there are a few things I would’ve nipped and tucked here and there to make the parallels even stronger. More than anything, I would’ve put a Venus fly trap in that accursed vase on the table. I was so frustrated that it wasn’t the right plant! It’s the only basic obstacle that I couldn’t find a real connection to in the Princess’s daily life. I was also disappointed that I didn’t see a reference to the Princess’s car (seen below the staircase of her house) anywhere in the level designs, since it seems like a noteworthy piece of the house’s background.
Even with these shortcomings, however, we can still extrapolate a lot of information about Tim. He’s so engrossed in the world of the Princess, so obsessed with everything around and about her, that he sees pieces of her wherever he goes. Perhaps there’s really something there that he’s mentally replacing with another image, or maybe there’s nothing there at all and he’s flat-out hallucinating. We can’t really know for sure, since we can only see the trek through Tim’s eyes, but it certainly makes you wonder what this journey would be like from someone else’s uninvolved perspective.
Braid and all related characters, items, images, and subtext are © Jonathan Blow. This analysis is my own, although I don’t think Mr. Blow would come kicking in my door crying plagiarism anyway, since he’s not particularly fond of outside ideas about his game.
Posted on October 21, 2013, in Analysis, Developers, Feature Articles, Game Characters, Indie Games, Interface, Journalism, Level Design, Portfolio, Video Games and tagged Braid, Jonathan Blow. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.