Some of us spend Valentine’s Day with a bottle. Every drunk has “one that got away,” and we occasionally pull it out as a reason to drink. Not all of us get to spend the day doting on our loved ones. For some of us, delivering Shari’s Berries to our own sweet FemShep is only a wistful idea, or a faded memory.
Which brings me to the subject of Braid. You’ve probably heard explanations of its gameplay. If not, it’s mainly this: you cannot die. Whenever you make a mistake, an error, or a misstep, the game allows you to rewind. At every such point you can replay until you succeed, and when necessary you can rewind to the beginning.
Braid’s story is all about regret and remorse. Every chapter concentrates upon your failings. Every wrong decision you’ve made is thrown back in your face: taking an extra year of med school, taking that year off to spend surfing in Hawaii and spending a night drinking with the boys instead of making that anniversary dinner. Whatever it is, you’ll find it in Braid.
Throughout the slow, text based reveals of the character’s backstory it becomes clear that he has created a fantasy world where all actions can be taken back and tried anew. It’s a retreat into Groundhog Day. But rather than your repeatable actions involving the romantic narrative, they apply only to a Super Mario abstraction.
The things you do in the game–reversing time to stomp on goombas, slowing it to avoid a fireball or replaying a scenario to join with a parallel universe shadow self to distract and confuse the rabbit–are all amazing gameplay mechanics, but they have no effect on the story until after you finish playing the final level. It plays the same as the other levels, except the princess is there, separated from you by a layer of soil. You must rush through the level as you’re pursued by a wall of fire. You and the princess both flip switches and move things out of each other’s way to stay ahead of the inferno. You reach her, finally almost reuniting–and then time reverses. The entire level plays backwards and you see the reality of the situation. She is fleeing from you, throwing obstacles into your path as she goes, and at the end she is rescued by an actual prince, white knight in shining armor, saving her from you.
Braid is a great game for many reasons. It allows you to revisit all previous actions and reenact, correct, rectify, and fix them. The list of regrets is long; I should have gotten married, I should have asked that waitress to join me for coffee, I should have had something funny to say during that date, I should have invited myself in at the end of the night, should have… whatever. And sometimes should have not.
Or maybe I’m projecting. Maybe it’s just about the Manhattan Project.
Check out episode 129 of the D Pad D Bags podcast, featuring Aliens: Colonial Marines, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Red Dead Redemption.