Bubbling about Braid

As a general rule, I choose not to write about individual XBLA games on this blog. But this was a special week for XBLA, and I’d like to acknowledge the primary reason for that:

Last Wednesday, we launched Jonathan Blow’s Braid. As many other commentators have already noted, Braid is now the highest-rated game on XBLA. Its review score puts it in the company of Mass Effect. Rock Band, and Halo 3. It is being compared to Portal, but Portal had a much larger development budget. IMO, Braid is in a class all its own.

That said, I’m not writing this to promote Braid (it doesn’t need the help at this point.) I wanted to share some thoughts on the game itself, and on lessons that we can potentially learn from it.

Indie Vision

Many are hailing Braid as a prime example of what can be accomplished when a publisher enables an indie to fully realize their vision without interference… and that’s 100% valid. But what’s missing from those comments is context. Jon Blow is an extremely talented individual, with a clear, compelling, and distinctive vision for what he wanted to create. And he had the willingness and wherewithal to work, for as long as necessary, to realize that vision.

I’ve been working on XBLA for two years now. In that time, I’ve been pitched a countless stream of concept submissions and prototypes from a wide variety of independent developers. Those pitches rarely inspire the sort of confidence that would lead a publisher to say “here — take my money and go make a great game. We’ll check in with you from time to time and offer our support whenever you need it, but we won’t drive.” What sort of pitch might inspire that kind of response? Again: one that communicates a clear and distinctive vision (i.e., this game is not like every other game), tenacity (i.e., I’ve build a prototype on my own dime, and it’s already fun), and talent (best demonstrated via experience and references, but again, a prototype can go a long way.)

If an independent developer can’t explain why their project is going to be truly special, or can’t convey maturity, responsibility, and talent, why should a publisher trust them to do whatever they want, whenever they want? Because it might, with incredibly tiny probability, result in a Braid? Sorry, no. Indies need to have that distinctive vision, as well as the assets and ability to pitch it effectively. Then maybe someone will trust them to make the next Braid. Lord knows we need more games like it.

Difficulty, Distilled

I’ve written repeatedly about my belief that most console games are too difficult, but no article of mine has ever clarified the difference between “a challenge” and “excessive difficulty” as elegantly as does Braid itself. I find it deliciously ironic that a game people are calling “fiendishly difficult” (due in part to Jon’s very public quest to stop players from using walkthroughs) is, in fact, a lesson on proper difficulty design.

If you’ve played Braid for a while, you’ll understand what I mean. There are no save points; in fact, there’s no forced saving of any kind. Moreso than any game I’ve played in recent memory, playing Braid is like reading a book; stop whenever you want and, at worst, you’ll have to “redo” about 30 seconds worth of effort.

There are (almost) no showstoppers in Braid, at least until the very end of the game. Can’t solve a puzzle? Walk right past it to the next one. The game doesn’t even shame you for doing so — you don’t lose any points, or get a lower letter grade (there are no points or letter grades in Braid!) How many games have you stopped playing before experiencing even half the content in the game because you hit a challenge in the linear progression that you simply could not complete? A boss that was too hard? A platform you weren’t skillful enough to reach?

There are (almost) no “wasted moments” in Braid, thanks to its core conceit of rewinding time whenever you want for as long as you want. Miss a jump halfway through a series of platform challenges? No problem; rewind. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned off a game in frustration because I repeatedly failed to complete the final step in a series of platform challenges, and was forced to redo it all.

Braid obviously isn’t perfect — most people I know can recount at least one moment during which they felt that the game was not being entirely “fair” — but it’s pretty remarkable that the vast majority of the challenges within the game don’t even require significant manual dexterity… not once you’ve figured out the appropriate solution.

Now, time for a mea culpa: I will fully admit that I was one of several people who recommended to Jon that he add a hint system of some sort to the game. Frankly, it was out of fear…. fear that players would be too frustrated with the difficulty of some puzzles, even though they could be temporarily skipped. I still wonder if that might have hurt the sales of the game had it failed to receive the incredible acclaim and press that it has. But I’m glad that Jon ignored us all. He was totally right — the satisfaction of solving those puzzles is worth more than I’d ever have guessed.

Final Word

There’s much more that I could say about Braid, but this post is long in the tooth, so I’ll wrap up with one final hearty congratulations to Jon. Special thanks is owed to Kevin Hathaway and Justin Swan, Microsoft’s external producer and test manager (respectively) on the project. Kevin and Justin did whatever they could to help Jon realize his vision for Braid (and to keep peoples’ noses out of the game!)

Here’s to the most critically-acclaimed title on XBLA. 🙂

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