This is the second of two essays about Braid – here is the other, wherein I discuss each of the time-bending toy universes that Braid explores. You might also be interested in my fan-sequel mod-anthology, Braid: More Now Than Ever.
World 1: Tide and Riptide
The way to the attic of Tim’s house is only opened when all 60 puzzle pieces have been collected from the previous five worlds. After much time spent puzzling out the remaining, most difficult puzzles of the previous rooms, we ascend a ladder above Tim’s house. We discover a tiny, dusty attic, with barely enough room for a door. Outside the house, the city slumbers in the soothing deep blue of night. Confident in our mastery of time, driven by a now-insatiable curiosity to see the beginning of Tim’s story, we enter World One.
Starting in World 1 and continuing through the Epilogue, Braid starts doing about a million things at once, so it might seem confusing as I jump around and try to cover everything. But let’s start with the text, since that offers the most immediate connection to the previous worlds.
At a cafe on a bright plaza, most customers sit back, feeling the warmth of the sun, enjoying their cold drinks. But not Tim- he barely notices the sun, doesn’t really taste his coffee. For him this corner affords a good view of the city, and in the teeterings of the passers-by, in the arc of the shop-girl’s hand as she displays tea to an interested gentleman, Tim hopes to see clues.
That night at the cinema, fictitious adventurers lunge implausibly across the screen. The audience here is mixed. Some are patrons of the cafe, now sitting excitedly in the plush chairs, eager for another new flavor, for distraction from the boredom of their easy lives. Other seats hold fisherman and farm workers, hoping to forget their toils and rest their hands.
Tim is here too, but he is scrutinizing the gloss on the lips on the screen, measuring the angle of the plume of a distant helicopter crash. He thinks he discerns a message, when the cinema closes and most of the audience strolls down the plaza to the south, Tim goes north.
On one level, this is the continued story of how Tim’s intense, obsessive devotion to truth alienates him from the ordinary, apathetic residents of the city. Others are driven away by his inhuman intensity, while Tim is surely confused and frustrated that everyone around him is lost in the pursuit of such a frivolous, hedonistic life. How are they not captivated, as he is, by the search for answers to the mysteries of our existence in the universe?
Tim wants, like nothing else, to find the Princess, to know her at last. For Tim this would be momentous, sparking an intense light that embraces the world, a light that reveals the secrets long kept from us, that illuminates - or materializes! - a final palace where we can exist in peace.
By this point in the game, the player is perfectly in-sync with Tim’s mindset: they too have eschewed the paths of comfort and happiness, have grown addicted to employing ruthless cunning and cold intellectual efficiency in pursuit of the glimpses of transcendent insight that each puzzle piece represents. Just one rather cryptic piece of text to go…
But how would this be perceived by the other residents of the city, in the world that flows contrariwise? The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing, taking the castle with it; it would be like burning down the place we’ve always called home, where we played so innocently as children. Destroying all hope of safety, forever.
…and we’re off with Tim to the first puzzle of World 1, intoxicated by mystery and salivating with deep anticipation.
The strangeness of this new world is immediately apparent, but unlike in previous Worlds, an intellectual understanding of the change takes longer to solidify. The music is strange and haunting. Tim’s movement seems off, or maybe it’s his animations? Then, dead goombas falling up into a cannon?
Then it hits: in this world, causality is reversed. Time is flowing backwards. Every jump is actually a landing, spikes vivify rather than killing goombas, and the first stage of World 1 is labeled not 1-1 but 1-4. The haunting, crashing music in the background is a reverse-recording… an appropriate soundtrack to the brooding thunderclouds that lumber in the background behind jumbled debris.
As we traverse levels 1-4, 1-3, and 1-2, the text fragments of moments ago suddenly click together in an entirely different way. Lines like this one–
People like Tim seem to live oppositely from the other residents of the city. Tide and riptide, flowing against each other.
–have a literal meaning to complement their metaphorical message. Taken literally, Tim’s “Merlin sickness” (living backwards in time) also explains his desperate obsession with “discerning a message” in ordinary cinema. For someone who remembers the future and can only imagine the past, cause-and-effect relationships would be inverted. The world would be, by definition, overflowing with confusing non-sequiturs, events of unpredictable un-logic that would not surrender easily to rational understanding.
The “Plot” of Braid
Attempting to tie Braid’s six thematic worlds together into a coherent storyline is a questionable proposition. The game was explicitly inspired in part by the short-story collections of Italo Calvino; some would probably argue that any commonalities between Braid’s worlds are just reflections of a unifying idea, not steps on a narrative path. Nevertheless, I believe that there is also a sequential, literal interpretation of Tim’s quest for The Princess.
The key to Braid’s “plot” is that Tim’s life of reverse-causality does not just apply to the mechanics of World 1, but metaphorically permeates the story-fragments of all the other worlds. The Princess and any other characters experience the chapters of Braid in numerical order, starting with World 1, then 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Tim, however, begins his tale in World 6, then journeys through 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.
This hypothesis is supported by temporal clues in the art style and level design of the game: we revisit similar puzzles over and over, suggesting that we are revisiting the same physical areas at different times. World 5 is full of Autumn imagery, while World 4 is clearly in the throes of Winter. World 3’s lush rains can only be Spring, and the sunny blue skies of World 2 are unmistakable Summer, indicating that time flows contrary to Tim’s progression. Meanwhile, the empty wineglasses of the puzzle-mural that accompany the joyful frolicking of Tim and the Princess as they “lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds” is a clear causal consequence of the filled glasses from World 3’s painting. Finally, note that the Goomba King appears in both World 5 and World 3. To me, his lair looks worse for wear in World 3’s springtime , having suffered the harshness of winter and an unkind intrusion by our protagonist.
Again, it’s extremely important to avoid thinking of Braid as only a linear or literal story; that kind of overzealous adherence to a single interpretation cripples the richness of the game. The plot I outline below is only one layer:
6: Tim’s journey begins: he is alone in the world, uncertain of what path to take in life. He struggles to reconcile his obsessive, truth-seeking urge with the differing values of society. Read in proper order, the first story-fragment of Braid is this:
Tim begins to hide the ring in his pocket. But he can hardly bear it - too long tucked away, that part of him might suffocate.
Read this way, World 6 is not about Tim abandoning his devotion to the Princess, but rather his discovery of her.
5: Despite finding his direction in life in World 6, years pass while Tim works to restrain himself to the “hesitant pace” of ordinary society. Finally the day comes when Tim decides to throw off the yoke of convention; he leaves his wife and all his other ordinary ways to search for the Princess:
Giving a final kiss, hoisting a travel bag to his shoulder, he walked out the door.
4: Free and fully devoted now, Tim walks the earth, pursuing knowledge and reflecting on the things that he considers important. World 4 is essentially Tim’s finest hour: a time of learning and happy dedication to self-improvement. He wonders as he wanders, asking himself each day,
Couldn’t he find the Princess now, tonight, just by wandering from place to place and noticing how he feels? A trail of feelings, of awe and inspiration, should lead him to that castle in the future.
3: Alas, steady conventional growth is not enough for him. By World 3, Tim seeks a kind of mystical transcendence that is invisible to his obsessive, rational mind. Too late, he realizes that the Princess had already been with him, but he had failed to recognize her:
All those years ago, Tim had left the Princess behind. He had kissed her on the neck, picked up his travel bag, and walked out the door. He regrets this, to a degree. Now he’s journeying to find her again, to show he knows how sad it was, but also to tell her how it was good.
2: But Tim presses forward in his journey, becoming more excited as the prospect of reunion grows nearer, even as his relationship with what the Princess represents becomes more antagonistic, regretful, and controlling:
He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.
Finally, of course, Tim does approach reunion with the Princess in the final level of World 1…
World 1: Final Palace
You are standing beneath her, underground, when she leaps from the clutches of a burly, monstrous knight. As the beast roars in anger, a shockwave of flame crackles on the left side of the screen. It sweeps towards you, forcing a desperate race to the right. As you dodge and leap over obstacles, the Princess runs parallel above ground, pulling levers that open your way forward and shut down perilous death-traps.
Rewinding constantly to tweak jumps and shave milliseconds off your time, you manipulate Tim through a final conglomeration of goombas, then dash up the steps of the Princess’s modernist palace as the raging conflagration nearly overtakes you. You pass underneath the castle, but the fire does not stop. With seconds to spare, you climb a terrace outside of her bedroom, climbing onto a green time-immunity-panel that will give you respite from the flames.
The instant you touch it, everything freezes. The fire is gone, the frantic music replaced by perfect silence, the Princess lies asleep in her bed. As the epilogue will later say: “On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split.”
For some time we are perplexed. We observe her home, noticing it is not so different from Tim’s. The stuffed goomba and dinosaur by her bed that imply she, too, is a full person with a life full of dreams and ideas, while the painting of the Mona Lisa in another room alludes once again to Tim’s transcendent, idealized image of her. But these aesthetic touches offer no answers. Where is our triumphant reunion? Perhaps we have done something wrong. Uncertain, we revert to the most fundamental action in Braid. We rewind, past our moments of confusion, past contact with the green panel, back into the raging fire. The Princess wakes and begins to flee. We follow her. But as we follow events from the Princess’s temporal perspective, a cruel understanding dawns. From her perspective our cooperation was competition: she was not opening paths and protecting us from traps, but trying in vain to block our leftward chase. She unleashes goombas, fireballs, and deadly falls, but we leap over them with perfect timing and efficiency, expressing a sociopathic dedication and focus on our pursuit.
The Princess sees her salvation in the waiting knight, and leaps into his arms. Her terror is instantly replaced by an expression of deep calm and love, an the pair leave the screen. The rewinding stops. Player control resumes. But there’s nothing left. We can never be with the Princess. We never were. We don’t even have a way forward. In shock, we retreat through the same door we entered: no enlightenment, nor transformation, nor even hope, in this bitter resolution.
Epilogue: Missing Pieces
Still reeling from the revealed truth of World One, the player free-falls into a confused, abstract landscape of chaos and surreal devastation.
We are back in the clouds, the level-select land of Tim’s drifting thoughts. Set-piece structures from previous levels lie scattered, leaning, eerily devoid of context. Red books throw up more walls of strange text while Tim wanders through empty, apparently meaningless areas. (Actually, there are subtle puzzles here. If Tim can manage to hide himself entirely behind one of the game’s art assets, but not close the original book in the process, the text will change. With Tim off-screen for the first time in the game, the player can experience what Tim’s obsessive rationality could never access: glimpses from the Princess’s point of view. Below, I’ll put hidden text in italics.
Since the epilogue is full of so much text, it’s no surprise that it contains key insights to the meanings of Braid. But here I must reiterate my caution against oversimplified, too-literal assessments of the game’s “story”. In one interview, Braid’s designer made a helpful analogy about the different levels of metaphor at work here:
The story of rescuing the Princess has a literal interpretation, as well as a metaphorical one; and then there are other small-scale levels of change to the interpretation, too. I don’t intend for any of them to be the sole truth; the story I am trying to tell is something like the quantum superposition of all these things.
In other words, there is no strict hierarchy of interpretation: one level of story is not some kind of inferior version of, or secret code for, another. Rather, they are distinct but complementary. That said, I usually think of Braid in terms of four “superpositioned” messages of increasing abstraction, all of which are represented in the epilogue.
For people familiar with the history of videogames, the clearest interpretation of Braid is as a deconstruction of many familiar videogame cliches. By “deconstruction”, I mean that Braid toes to the same conventions of Mario and friends, but portrays the results in a deeper, thoughtful, more true-to-life way. Stomped goombas wince when hit and begin to cry as they fall to their deaths; the idea of linear forward progress is taken as a literal law of physics; rewinding draws attention to the similarly surreal reincarnation system of videogames’ 1-ups and respawns; the player revisits retro-inspired levels and learns to think about them in a new way; the nonchalant, on-to-the-next-one attitude of Mario’s “another castle” message grows into a deep melancholy.
The story of the Princess, as told through gameplay and the most literal aspects of the text entries, continues this deconstruction: just like many classic games, the Princess is a mysterious ending prize, a myth and a promise to strive towards. Braid asks, what would a person in the real world be like, who actually expresses such obsessive dedication towards such an abstract, ephemeral goal?
This layer is intermingled with the last, because it is also a deconstruction of a videogame trope. In the long history of Princess-saving games, the Princess in question is never really represented as a human being. Braid considers its Princess an actual character, not just another puzzle piece, and has presented mature thoughts on love and (unhealthy, but realistic) relationships in Worlds 2, 3, and 5. This layer of the story is also told through the completed puzzle-murals of the different worlds: each one portrays the real-world relationship of Tim and a literal Princess, from the happy peak of their relationship in Worlds 2 and 3, through memories as shy high-school lovers (look closely at the open window of Tim’s bedroom in World 4), to the decision whether to follow her to a new life, ending with Tim alone and longing in the city.
Meanwhile, the Epilogue points out that Braid’s videogamey princess-saving might seem a little less heroic in the real world. In particular, the first text of the epilogue refers fairly clearly to “Ico”:
The boy called for the girl to follow him, and he took her hand. He would protect her; they would make their way through this oppressive castle, fighting off the creatures made of smoke and doubt, escaping to a life of freedom. The boy wanted to protect the girl.
As always, Braid applies narrative tropes and game mechanics to our own reality:
He held her hand, or put his arm around her shoulders in a walking embrace, to help her feel supported and close to him amid the impersonal throngs of Manhattan. They turned and made their way toward the Canal St. subway station, and he picked a path through the jostling crowd.
…Unsurprisingly, things don’t turn out perfectly alright. Anyone who has played Ico is familiar with the unsettling air of sexism communicated by the mechanics. For one, Yorda is a helpless object of your affections whose most helpful function is as a magical skeleton key to open castle doors. She seems content to live in the castle, with no strong desire for escape; she is perhaps merely humoring Ico’s boyish excitement when he drags her to new areas. And it always does seem more like dragging than leading. The hidden text certainly reveals as much:
His arm weighed upon her shoulders, felt constrictive around her neck. “You’re burdening me with your ridiculous need,” she said. Or, she said: “You’re going the wrong way and you’re pulling me with you.” In another time, another place, she said: “Stop yanking on my arm; you’re hurting me!
Despite being arguably the least substantial interpretation, this is the one that everyone thinks they’re sooo clever for catching on to, to the point that proponents of the “atomic bomb theory” ignore the other 90% of interesting stuff in the game. Indie-game hipsterism aside, the bomb analogy is still important. The main basis for this interpretation is a piece of text in the epilogue:
He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. Through these clues he would find the Princess, see her face. After an especially fervent night of tinkering, he kneeled behind a bunker in the desert; he held a piece of welder’s glass up to his eyes and waited.
On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World…
Someone near him said: “It worked.”
Someone else said: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
Anyone with a passing interest in physical science or modern history will recognize this as a scene from the Manhattan Project. The excited scientists, eagerly conducting experiments and checking computations. Los Alamos, a paradise of empiricism and the intellectual playground of unparalleled geniuses like Richard Feynman, John Von Newman, and Enrico Fermi. The line about “the Birth of the World” refers to the director of the project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita upon detonation of the Trinity bomb: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”
Under this interpretation, Tim is another key member of the project. He is the stereotypical physicist: an amoral, tinkering genius, blindly pursuing a dangerous goal. Feynman described this state of mind well, saying, “We started for a good reason. Then you’re working very hard to accomplish something, and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking –you just stop.”
The Princess, according to adherents of this analogy, represents the bomb itself:
She stood tall and majestic. She radiated fury. She shouted: “Who has disturbed me?” But then, anger expelled, she felt the sadness beneath; she let her breath fall softly, like a sigh, like ashes floating gently on the wind.
She couldn’t understand why he chose to flirt so closely with the death of the world.
And yet… if the Princess is just a direct code for the Bomb, then her wording seems peculiar. “Who has disturbed me?“ makes no sense –bombs are designed to explode. (A better question might be, “Why have you created me?”) More dammingly, if Braid really is, as some overeager forum-posters suggest, a story that focuses on “the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the irreversible impact it had on all human conflicts thereafter”… then what the hell explains the 100% non-fissile exposition of all the other worlds? Is it all some kind of red herring? Obviously not.
The Trinity references are certainly valid, and they definitely fit the emotional tone of the ending, but they’re part of a bigger philosophical message.
Here’s the text the player encounters directly before the Trinity story:
He worked his ruler and his compass. He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. He was searching for the Princess, and he would not stop until he found her, for he was hungry. He cut rats into pieces to examine their brains, implanted tungsten posts into the skulls of water-starved monkeys.
In light of this passage, it seems clear that the story about the bomb was just one instance of Tim’s insatiable quest for scientific knowledge. Just like the grasping experimentation and theorizing that players have gone through to understand the nature of each World and solve each puzzle, Tim seeks an understanding of the real world; in particular the fundamental nature of the universe and the physical basis of consciousness. “The fall of an apple” alludes to Newton’s famous insight that the orbit of the moon is produced by the same phenomena that pulls an apple to the ground, while “the twisting of metal orbs on a thread” is a reference to the Cavendish experiment, which precisely measured the force of gravity. As far as I know, the phrases about rats and monkeys aren’t references to specific experiments, but refer to the original ways of studying brain anatomy and active brain function, respectively.
This scientific talk also recalls the images of the “Epitaph of Stevinus”, a proof of balanced forces on an inclined plane, and the Aleph, a mathematical symbol for infinity, which we encountered in World 4.
Tim’s strange mix of science and spirituality is no oddity to anyone who is familiar with the great scientific geniuses and natural philosophers of history. Plato’s assertion that our world is founded in the perfection of universal reason, Descartes’ attempts to derive the universe from the cogito, Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God”, and Einstein’s “unbounded appreciation for the structure of the world” are only a few expressions of the same deep, spiritual admiration for the order and harmony of reality.
To achieve this ultimate philosophical triumph would surely result in the transformation that Tim seeks; the materialization of “a final palace where we can exist in peace.”
Alas, Braid’s dark message is forever that “The Princess is in another castle”. The Princess, who in this final interpretation represents objective, illuminating, liberating knowledge about the universe, is neither accessible through rational inquiry nor empirical observation:
Ghostly, she stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. “I am here,” she said. “I am here. I want to touch you.” She pleaded: “Look at me!” But he would not see her; he only knew how to look at the outside of things.
Unlike the little insights of Braid’s temporal conundrums, transcendent understanding is of a fundamentally different, non-intellectual quality, and therefore transcendence –if she even exists!– lies eternally inaccessible to Tim’s analytical thought. Inevitably blind to this truth, Tim grasps ever more desperately at the deep, satisfying truths that will be forever just out of his reach.
The candy store. Everything he wanted was on the opposite side of that pane of glass. The store was decorated in bright colors, and the scents wafting out drove him crazy. He tried to rush for the door, or just get closer to the glass, but he couldn’t. She held him back with great strength. Why would she hold him back? How might he break free of her grasp? He considered violence.
They had been here before on their daily walks. She didn’t mind his screams and his shrieks, or the way he yanked painfully on her braid to make her stop. He was too little to know better.
She picked him up and hugged him: “No, baby,” she said. He was shaking. She followed his gaze toward treats sitting on pillows behind the glass: the chocolate bar and the magnetic monopole, the It-From-Bit and the Ethical Calculus; and so many other things, deeper inside. “Maybe when you’re older, baby,” she whispered, setting him back on his feet and leading him home, “Maybe when you’re older.”
Every day thereafter, as before, she always walked him on a route that passed in front of the candy store.
The magnetic monopole, a fundamental particle of magnetic charge whose discovery would confirm the grand unified theories of physics that predict its existence. Ethical Calculus, a long sought-after utilitarian ethical system that would ground moral values in objective logic and unambiguously outline the path of a meaningful, good life. The It-From-Bit, a mathematical Realm of the Forms, which would place the foundation of all thought, phenomena, and existence in the perfection of abstract axiomatic truth.
Braid confronts us with the probability that we will never have answers like these. We might writhe and fight, straining forward to extend our trembling hands. A few fingernails might claw screeching across the glass. Our eyes, blurred with tears of indescribable longing, will dart desperately across thick, swirling depths, yearning for the diamond-like glitter of transcendent insight.
“Maybe,” Braid tells us, “maybe when you’re older.”