I was all set to write a big rant about how much I hate the little storybooks in Braid: the pretentious tone, the wanton thesaurus abuse, the relentless emo-ness of it all — big blobs of text that do nothing but take away from the gameplay, which does a pretty good job on its own of communicating Tim’s obsessions and regrets. But then I ran into this reading of the game (warning: story spoilers) on Feministe, which places the books into context and points out how they help reinforce the idea of Tim as an unreliable narrator. (I mistyped that last sentence and wrote “Time as an unreliable narrator,” which… yeah, that too.)
So I’ve made my peace with those books, and with a story that probably piles on a couple more layers of allegory than is healthy. And since I’ve solved all of the puzzles, I’m less annoyed than I initially was by how finicky and tightly wound some of them are. It’s actually been interesting, watching the way Braid’s difficulty has been received: first, the glowing praise for a game that makes no bones about being a real challenge; then, the backlash as people realize that the game is serious in its unforgivingness, and declare it to be too damn hard; then, the backlash against the backlash, as Braid’s defenders point out that you can freely rewind the game if you make a wrong move, accuse the backlashers of being coddled by all these newfangled hint systems, and threaten to revoke their Hardcore Gamer licenses.
The problem with the game’s difficulty level isn’t so much that the puzzles are mind-bendingly hard and require some pretty big leaps of logic to solve: after all, that’s sort of the point of a puzzle game. The problem is that even after you’ve figured out what to do, doing it often requires inordinately precise timing and spacing. When you’re trying to coordinate your movement with a bunch of wandering creatures and environmental obstacles for the umpteenth time, you’re no longer growing or learning anything, you’re just inching your way along a spiral path, as if you weren’t playing a game by Jonathan Blow, but by Samuel Beckett. Ever tried. (Rewind.) Ever failed. (Rewind.) No matter. (Rewind.) Try again. (Rewind.) Fail again. (Rewind.) Fail better. If some of those creatures fell a just a teensy bit slower, or some of those cannons spaced their shots out a couple centimeters more, the player could focus on figuring out the puzzles, rather than on constantly having to go back and try again to line up everything just so.
Or to put it another way: Being able to go back and fix your mistakes is not the same as being forgiven for them. Maybe that’s what all those storybooks were trying to tell us.