I’m really struck by the extent to which Braid invites comparison between itself and the 2D Super Mario platformers. We have the Goomba-like creatures, the absurd, unexplained jump height, the Pirhanna Plants in their pipes, the end-of-level flag and castles, the lines of tilted platforms and ladders from the Donkey Kong arcade game, and the Princess narrative (am I missing anything?)
We talked about the work that Braid does to subvert the Princess narrative and the flag/castle trope in class, but what really hit me the most was the relationship between the player and the Goomba creatures that we had to spend so much time bopping. In the original Super Mario Bros., Goombas flatten when you jump on them, and disappear uneventfully if you hit them otherwise. In Braid, the creatures look surprised and a little bit sad when you stomp on them, and because of the time-reversing mechanic, we get to relive their facial expressions over and over. So there’s a sort of human cost to solving each puzzle, where Tim has to cause pain to further his quest. And as opposed to the Mario games, where the Goombas are essentially obstacles and antagonists, in Braid, the player needs to manipulate the creatures extensively in order to move forwards.
In contrast to Mario, too, where all of the hazards Mario faces are united in opposition against him, the Pirhanna Plants in Braid can hurt the Goombas. Tim, then, is almost something of an interloper in an existing sort of natural order (does this tie into the whole nuclear theme?).
This is a little bit tangential, but another difference between Mario and Braid is the sort of incentive systems they have in place with the player. In Mario, the pleasure is strictly gameplay-oriented; it’s a hallucinatory trip of a game, from the graphics to the novelty and surprise of the invisible blocks and secret shortcuts. In Braid, Blow definitely suggests that the puzzles are supposed to be their own satisfaction–each level becomes one of the “blocks” of the mini-castle at the end of the epilogue, and there’s nothing in the way of a purely mechanical experience of the game. Because it is, at that level, a really, really fun game, where the time reversal mechanics allow Blow to up the difficulty, and force the player to be incredibly precise.
But with the puzzles in the epilogue, and the text at the beginning of each level, Braid dangles text and story advancement as an additional carrot to the player. The epilogue is particularly interesting, because the puzzles that reveal the additional text are optional in terms of completion of the game, and hiding Tim is a very symbolic gesture.
I know story as incentive is nothing new in video games, but I think this is helpful in thinking of the difference between theme in a traditional sense, and mechanical metaphors. Whereas Dys4ia is offputting because the “game” elements often just give you access to the next message (text), and Jason Rohrer’s games are about as pure as mechanical metaphors come, the epilogue of Braid works this in-between zone, where the player can opt to undertake symbolically significant actions to gain access to these very poetic vignettes.