Braid: “Saving” the Princess

It used to be that when you were playing a game, you could be fairly certain that your avatar’s quest was a noble one. You were the “good guy” out to vanguish the “bad guys,” which of course you did and then everyone high-fived and watched the credits roll.

In the modern era of gaming, however, developers are increasingly moving away from such simplistic plots. Protagonists can be flawed or misguided (and if you’re playing a choice-driven game like Fable or Mass Effect, they can be baby seal-clubbingly evil, too). Narratives are becoming more complex, so naturally protagonists are following suit.

Braid is an independent downloadable game first released on XBox Live Arcade in 2008. In many ways, it’s an homage to the 2D platformers of the 8- and 16-bit eras, in particular the first Super Mario Brothers for the NES, the game that created the platformer as we know it.

Oh, I see what you did there.

But once you reach Braid’s final level, you realize it’s also a modern deconstruction of video game tropes.

Setting the Stage:

The heart of Braid’s gameplay is its time-manipulation mechanics. Like a typical sidescroller, you run, jump, and climb to collect puzzle pieces and finish the level, but you also have the ability to rewind time. Among other things, this allows you to fix any mistakes you make, such as falling into a pit. If you’ve played the modern Prince of Persia games, you’re familiar with the concept.

Some of the stages contain their own time-related quirk. For example, in one you can “record” a shadow of yourself that repeats your last action, effectively allowing you to do two things at once. Particularly brilliant is the stage in which the flow of time is linked to your place on the x-axis. Move right, and time goes forward. Move left, and it goes backwards (and in a neat touch, so does the music). Since the y-axis is unaffected, thinking about your up-and-down movement is the key to success.

Also important: dressing snazzy.

Plotwise, the game appears at first to be quite straight-forward: you play Tim, who is on a quest to reach his beloved princess. Simple. Sure, the first stage is mysterously labeled “World 2,” but surely that doesn’t mean anything, right?

The Scene:

Tim has finally reached the last stage, oddly called World 1. His goal is to save the princess from a big, burly knight (looking awfully Donkey Kong-ish by design) who boasts “I’ve got you!”. Jumping out of her captor’s arms, the princess shouts “Help!” and she and Tim, who are on different horizontal planes, dash towards the right of the screen, where the paths intersect and they can finally be together. As Tim makes it to the porch outside the princess’ room, the only option the player has is to press the button that rewinds time, and the scene plays in reverse… or does it?

(The scene ends around 4:35 of the clip, although if you watch till the end you see another Mario reference, with the flag-raising and the castle.)

Slowly, you realize that the event played backwards tells a different tale, a darker tale, one suited for 2008 rather than 1985. Those switches the two were hitting to help each other progress? Now they’re trying to stop each other, with the other escaping just in time. And now, the princess approaches the knight, shouts “Help!” and jumps into his arms. He declares “I’ve got you!” and the two ascend the rope they descended from the first time.

So it turns out your perception of time was reversed (notice how the first time, the cannonballs go back into the cannon, and the chandelier puts itself back together). Tim wasn’t saving the princess from the knight, the knight was saving her from Tim, who evidently had been leering outside her window like a creepy stalker. In short, the bad guy is you.

This scene blew my mind the first time I saw it. As a lifelong gamer, it’s not often that I’m taken off-guard, but I genuinely didn’t see this twist coming. I also appreciate that the game doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but rather lets the player piece the truth together on their own. In fact, creator Jonathan Blow has stated that he designed the game to be open to interpretation. (As you may have deduced from some of the “books” Tim read in the clip, one of these is that the game is about the creation of the atomic bomb.)

Also, as I’ve been alluding to, this scene turns the standard Mario formula on its head. For one thing, it gives the damsel-in-distress a much more active role, asking “What if the princess doesn’t love you back?”. For another, I off-handedly mentioned in my Bioshock entry that we’ve been trained since that first Mario platformer to run to the right of the screen, because that’s where the goal is. With the exception of multi-level stages, that rule has generally held true for 2D games. Braid plays with this convention by making the “true” scene the one in which you run… left.

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