Sunday, 27 March 2011

Who has seen the wind?

Title is a poem by Christina Georgina Rosetti:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

But while I do enjoy some poetry, that is not the subject of this blog post. Because the place wherein I came across the title-quote was not the poem. In fact I had to google the quote to find out about the poem. Because I came across it in the video game Braid.

The quote may be found in the credits. In fact, it is the credits. No, seriously, you go to the help & options menu, go to credits, and all you get is that quote. From what I've read about the creator, it seems fairly in character for him. Guy sounds like he's kind of odd, but also rather cool. Certainly has good ideas with regards to making really good video games. A link from his wikipedia page took me to something he wrote about how games shouldn't have to rely on false rewards to keep people interested, or words to that effect. That some games people keep playing simply to gain all the arbitrary rewards like leveling up, getting items or achievements or whatever, rather than because the games are actually that good. Because we get that feeling of achievement, but it's kind of a false achievement, because in a lot of cases all we get for the effort we put into the game is either a little image which says we did it, or, often, something which helps us put even more time and effort into the game to get more false achievements. I'm not going to get too into this point because it's not so much the point of this post, but it's an interesting thing to think about.

OK, so I got this game because it was on sale for cheap, and I like things which are cheap. It looked and sounded interesting, I did a quick google search and it seemed to have generally positive reviews, so I got it. Then I was looking through the Zero Punctuation archive and found Yahtzee had done a review of the game and he actually thought it was good. Now that's rare. He had a few complaints which are reasonable, but in general it is a really brilliant game.
Incidentally, a quick search on Steam indicates that you can get a demo for free, or the full game for £6.99, which is more than I paid for it but still pretty damn worth it. So, if you have Steam...

So the basic premise of the game: Standard platformer, but you can mess about with the flow of time. As you can see from the image above, the backgrounds are kind of arty. They look like paintings and it's possible that that's what they actually are? Only, y'know, digitised. So it's visually appealing. And then the background music I also liked - nice strings, I think the term I'm looking for is chamber music? I don't know for certain if it actually qualifies as chamber music, but that was the impression I got. It fits with the arty backgrounds, it's quite nice and relaxing, and it doesn't distract from the game itself. So far so good. Oh, also for each world (It's split into multiple worlds), there is a jigsaw puzzle, and you have to collect the pieces in the levels. Well, you don't have to, you can just go through the levels without getting the jigsaw pieces, but obviously it's more challenging if you go for the jigsaw.

So onto the game mechanics. It starts out as just a basic platformer, only you have the ability to reverse time. That in itself could make for a decent enough game - it can be an issue in some platformers that when you die you have to go back to an autosave point and they're not very frequent, so you have to keep doing a load of stuff you can do easily over and over again in order to keep retrying a harder bit that keeps killing you. Now Braid doesn't get that much into the really hard platformer stuff, but if it did, it would be so much easier because you could just rewind time and redo only the last bit that is actually causing you problems. So, yeah, that's obviously fine. I believe I've mentioned that I rather enjoy old-school platformers, and this is pretty basic. You can run, jump, kill enemies by bouncing on them, pick up keys by walking into them and then use them to open doors, and that's it.
But then, rather than get into the process of making the platforming more difficult (Which has, of course, been done before many times), Braid gets into the time manipulating mechanics which are it's big innovation. You get some things which are immune to your time reversal. In one world you have a ring which massively slows down time in the surrounding area when you drop it, with the effects lessening as you get further away (It also makes me think of Lord of the Rings a lot). In one world, when you rewind time, a shadow-you will then redo what you just rewound, while real-you can go and do something else, and there are some things which can be affected by shadow-you and some which can't and you have to co-ordinate things with your shadow self. There's a world where time for the rest of the level flows forwards as you move to the right and backwards as you move to the left. I think I've described all the time mechanics except the last one, which I will leave a mystery for you.
Sidenote: the background music follows the flow of game time, so if you rewind, the music goes backwards, and in the world where time depends on your movement through the level, the music does too, which can be very weird, especially if you stand still a lot.

So naturally, this makes for some very interesting puzzles. Yahtzee's major gripe that I remember was lack of imagination in level design, with some later levels being identical to earlier ones but with a different time manipulation mechanic - but personally I found it kind of interesting going back to a level you'd already done and realising that your original solution wouldn't work any more so you'd need a different one. My major gripe is that the mechanics aren't explained very well. Now, I am very much against lengthy boring tutorials in games, but I'm not against game tutorials in general. You just need to avoid the 'lengthy' and 'boring' parts. Braid doesn't really tell you anything, it just expects you to figure out how everything works for yourself. OK, there are occasional hints, but not enough. For example, I mentioned some things are immune to your time rewinding? There are also certain platforms which confer that immunity on you when you stand on them (So you stand on them and rewind and you stay in the same place instead of going back through your own timeline). But I only found out about this when, exasperated with a seemingly impossible puzzle, I checked an online walkthrough which gave me that crucial piece of information which makes said puzzle not impossible.
There's one other bit I'm going to mention which I can't decide if it's good or bad. I mentioned the jigsaws - in each world there is one level with a panel showing your progress with the jigsaw and you can move the pieces you've already got around. In this particular instance, you can move a jigsaw piece such that a monster will actually walk onto a platform in the jigsaw picture, and you can then move the piece so it falls off and stuff. Or similarly you yourself can jump onto this jigsaw platform. And you need to do both those things to get two other pieces of the jigsaw. Now on the one hand, that's rather innovative, actually using the jigsaw in the game mechanics as well as just as a pretty thing to do as you progress through the game. But on the other hand, it's another big instance of the lack of explanation I was complaining about above, so my feelings are mixed.

Finally story: Deliberately confusing and ambiguous. I wouldn't be surprised if the creator didn't actually know precisely what the little story bits were supposed to mean. Either way it doesn't really matter because it can be interpreted in multiple ways, probably. The rather ambiguous story is revealed through little snippets in books, a few for each world, all about a guy named Tim and his search for his Princess. Pretty sure Tim is the guy you're playing as, though it's hard to be 100% certain about anything story-wise in this game. It all has to do with the time manipulation as well, stuff about fixing mistakes in the past, the ring is mentioned (In such a way as to slightly feed the LotR thoughts imo...), and towards the end it gets into the point that Tim sees the world differently to how most people do - 'cause of the time stuff. And then there's an epilogue level, which is very much story though there are no words to explain it, and that very much gets into the thing of how things seem different from different points of view, especially where time manipulation is involved.
Pretty sure a lot of analysis could be put into the story of this game, and certainly I had some thoughts to that effect while playing it, but I'm not going to go into it partly because I can't remember it all and partly because I'd prefer if people just got and played the game and thought about it themselves.

So, thoughts on how it could be even better: As I said, it chooses to focus more on its own time manipulation mechanics rather than the basic platforming elements, so I think an interesting idea would be to go the other way, more challenging platforming but with time manipulation, and then bring in all the later time mechanics as well. That'd be really interesting. For that matter, just being able to mix some of the special mechanics together, rather than just having one per world, would be interesting. Shadow-you and the ring and movement-dependent time. And, as I said, a tad more explanation of how things work would have been good. Explanation is especially helpful when you're doing something which has never really been done before.
But overall, even leaving aside the fact I really like fiddling around with time in fictional media, it's a really really good game, if somewhat confusing at times.


  1. I've watched the game being played through completely so I know that game pretty well. It was rather good but I wouldn't have teh patience to do it all.
    I liked the story... actually I loved it. It was wonderfully broken into tiny fragments that everything was a little bit jumbled. I like that kind of thing. And the end? Nom. It was a beautiful story.
    I love the art and the music. I actually have the soundtrack somewhere.

    Thing is I can break your "non false achievement" thing because I first knew of it on Xbox Live Arcade and it does give you achievements on there. I'm not sure but you also might get them on the Steam version. But yes the game is meant to be played solely for it's story and own benefit. Just pointing =)

  2. Oh and... well done! A picture! =D

  3. I don't know about Xbox Live, but the only achievements for it on Steam are one for traversing each world, one for completing each jigsaw and one for completing the game. That's not quite on the same level as he wa talking about in that article or whatever it was that I read.