Braid I give it 4 stars

Braid is a jewel of a game: small, polished, complete in itself. Or maybe it’s a fishhook: I finished it two days ago and it’s still stuck in my head. I haven’t been able to stop thinking through the ambiguities of its plot or reliving the cleverer puzzles. My dreams have been inflected by its time-turning mechanic.

The basics are simple. It plays like a simple platform game—run, jump—with one single twist: You can rewind time. Hold down X and time reverses itself. The first few levels introduce you to the forgiving freedom of being able to undo any mistaken button press. Then there are puzzles that depend on that freedom. Throw yourself into a pit; it’s okay, you can rewind yourself out if you land on the spikes you can’t yet see.

And then, well, there are a succession of additional mechanisms—objects that can’t be reversed, shadow selves, a ring that slows down time locally. Each is simple and follows predictable rules. The result is some of the cleanest, most satisfying puzzles I’ve ever seen. Most can’t be solved with any amount of noodling. Instead, if you state your goal precisely and reason rigorously about the constraints you face, you will (almost always) come up with the answer. It’s always a logical, sensible consequence of the rules of the system. Nor are there tedious repeats; each insight is a single ticket, good for this puzzle only.

The plot? It’s ambiguous and unsettling. By the time I reached world 6, I’d lost my bearings on what I was “supposed” to be thinking and feeling. The disorientation of hearing the music constantly playing backwards or slowed down or both didn’t help. And then came world 1 (this is a game about time), which is also ambiguous and unsettling, but definitively, brilliantly, satisfyingly so. I won’t spoil the ending here; this is a game to be played, experienced, and savored very much on its own terms.

This is not a five-star review. A few of the puzzles break the careful logic of the game-world’s rules. A few of them turn on precise gamer-reflex work of the sort the rest so studiously avoid. A few of the design elements just don’t quite fit with the rest. The music consists of two earworms and a few tunes that started to grate. But these are small matters; I’ve overlooked worse. Instead, let me just say that I think Braid successfully creates an aesthetic gaming experience wholly its own, and that from within that frame of reference, a flawed, imperfect, human four stars is a higher and more honest form of praise.

I played the demo, and was suitably impressed by the gorgeous handpainted graphics, and intrigued by the potential of the mechanism. Guess I’ll need to go pick up a new MS Points card…

I was in love with Braid up until I got stuck on the final puzzle piece (“Elevator Action”, piece 2). And so, remembering that I’d seen a big link saying “Here is the official walkthrough!” on the author’s site, went to check it out:

A lecture about never using walkthroughs, with constant reassurance that the game is fair, and that I’ll enjoy it more if I solve the puzzles myself. The taunting seemed self-satisfied, but I was inclined to give Blow the benefit of the doubt. I banged my head on the puzzle some more, and sadly gave up.

So I found a hint on some random message board instead, and you know what? That last puzzle wasn’t fair. There was a huge red herring that made it look like the solution depended on high-precision platform hopping, and I had wasted two hours banging my head against it.

THEN the ending turned out to be a very, very artful version of one of my least favorite game twists.

THEN I learned about the stars, and read a description of the “reward” for getting all the stars, and I was forced to conclude that Jonathan Blow is too much of a dick for me to place the trust in him that his exquisite game design requires.

On that account I am sad.