Yahtzee takes on Braid, the long-awaited indie darling finally available on Xbox Live.
Sometimes I feel like I'm spending my entire life mining for gold in a septic tank. It seems like during the development process of most mainstream games, they make a specific point of extracting everything original about them and filling in the gaps with spackle and Havok Physics. Oh, I'm sure many games start off with some bright-eyed creative director foaming at the mouth with great ideas, but before long, the stuffed shirts have fed his design document to an angry dog, and the sheer amount of time and manpower that has to go into just making one character walk across a fucking room in the top-tier graphics engines of this day and age has whittled away all the great ideas in direct proportion to the director's will to live. And me demanding quality from this process feels like rescuing someone from starvation then demanding they give me a piggy-back ride.
And you know who I blame for all this? You! Yes, you, the public. Especially you, Adrian! (That probably isn't your name, but it was worth it to mess with the heads of all the Adrians in the world). Ye unwashed masses who ensure massive profits for the same old cookie-cutter sequels, because anything that isn't safe and familiar makes you dive for your security blanket. And since you spent all daddy's money on a next-generation console, you won't even give the time of day to anything that doesn't have environment-mapped reflective surfaces, and you're more interested in buying Master Chief novelty condoms than actual gameplay innovation. In fact, I don't know why I'm even talking to you! Piss off! Close the browser and fuck off back to Gears of War! (beat) Has he gone? Good, I hate that guy.
Anyway, games are becoming more and more like the film industry in that while you may occasionally find sultanas while rummaging around in rabbit droppings, you'd probably have better luck at a dried fruit shop, by which I mean the independent stuff. Braid is an indie 2D puzzle-platformer recently released for the Xbox Live Arcade and which is better than most full-3D titles, despite (and indeed, possibly because) you could fit the entire development team inside a phone booth. It does, however, undermine the whole "indie" aspect when you hear that the lead developer, Jonathan Blow, sunk $180,000 into the project. I mean, how many bedroom programmers have that kind of scratch kicking around? That's like $90,000 for both of his original gameplay ideas.
I kid, really. While time manipulation isn't by any means an unexplored concept (I promised myself I wouldn't mention Prince of Persia at this point because I feel if I suck that particular dick any harder it's going to drop off), it's never been quite this stylish or presented in enough new and interesting ways to still feel like something totally original. The puzzles are extremely cleverly put together and always seem to have deceptively simple solutions. The hard part is just getting your head around the sneaky time manipulation mechanics available. But when you do finally master your powers Hiro Nakamura-style and find the solution, it's a more satisfying feeling than tea-bagging a hundred noobs in any death match shooter you care to name, because it's nice to know that bits of your brain besides the usual run-shoot-kill-teabag reflexes haven't turned black and dropped off yet.
But wait, I think I hear the nitpick train coming into the station! After a top-notch first half, there's a sense that the game is running out of momentum. Several of the later levels are literally copy-pastes of the old ones, only sold with a different time power, which feels a little unimaginative. Oh yes, and here's a recurring scenario: two doors, one key. Key only fits one of the doors, the other one makes it break. No indication of which door is the right one, broken key cannot be recovered, have to start entire level again. That, Jonathan, is what we call a dick move. And I can't think of any reason for it, unless the Xbox Live Arcade has some kind of minimum shittiness quota you have to meet.
There is a story, although there might as well not be. I've always said the best stories are ones that merge seamlessly with the gameplay, and in Braid they're kept in separate rooms, with you in the gameplay room looking into the story room through a tiny hole in the dividing wall. Most of it is told through a bunch of disjointed text walls about some berk looking for a princess, except maybe she's actually his estranged wife or his dead daughter or maybe she's the atomic bomb - who knows? There's a glimpse of absolute genius in a really well-done endgame sequence, but it still doesn't explain much, and then it's back to obscurely-written text boxes for the epilogue, which ultimately left me confused and unsatisfied (which is, incidentally, how my girlfriend feels most nights). And I refuse to accept that it's just because I'm thick.
Of course, with the gorgeous painted graphics and excellent soundtrack, Braid is proudly wearing the "arty game" label. But it's possible that it might be taking refuge in that to avoid having to explain itself. Oh, people say it's open to interpretation and you're supposed to discuss it on forums and stuff, but I don't buy that. It's like when you tell a joke and nobody laughs. You then explain the joke and people go, "oh, that's pretty clever, I guess." But they still won't laugh, because you didn't tell the joke properly in the first place!
I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who gets pissed off at this sort of thing, though. Braid's excellent gameplay makes up for its pretentiousness, and it's the Killer7 argument again - the flaws are irrelevant, because you have to play it for the utter uniqueness alone. I've heard people complain that it's too expensive at $15, and all I can say to that is, "Welcome to my world, motherfuckers!" I live in Australia and have been conditioned to blithely accept ridiculously big mark-ups on games. There was a time when paying twice what you hateful Yankee twats do would have pissed me off, but these days, I think of it as the "having the nicest beaches" tax.
Not what you'd call a romantic: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I wish this game had been shit, then I could have used the line 'Jonathan Blow? More like Jonathan Suck!'
The whole secret stars business was a bit of a dick move too