Which game set for release late this year was designed to change gamers' lives? Maybe "Halo 3." Maybe "Super Mario Galaxy." But those games' creators haven't said as much. The maker of the relatively obscure "Braid," however, says his game — a darling of the indie gaming scene and a radical twist to "Super Mario Bros." — is made to affect people in profound ways.
"I want 'Braid' to be mind-expanding," the game's creator, San Francisco-based Jonathan Blow, 35, told GameFile in an e-mail interview this week. He had just shared a preview build of the game, which won the Innovation in Game Design award at the annual Independent Games Festival in 2006. "I want people to get experiences from it that they have not gotten from anything else. I want it to inspire people to go out and do other strange things that I wouldn't have thought of."
At its most basic level, "Braid" is a side-scroller designed to evoke "Super Mario Bros." in the structure of its worlds and in the hero's left-to-right, jump-aided quest to rescue a princess. The game's distinct feature is player-driven manipulation of time. In some worlds time can only be reversed. In another it can flow differently in different places. To get a sense of how distinct "Braid" is, consider one challenge in Blow's game: a time-warped homage to "Donkey Kong."
(SPOILER WARNING: Skip the next paragraph to keep the "DK" surprise intact.)
In the world containing the "Donkey Kong" challenge, time flows forward when the game's hero runs to the right and in reverse when he runs left. It stands still when he does. Think of how the barrels in the real "Donkey Kong" roll down six tilted floors: to the left, then to the right, back and forth. In "Braid" the barrel stand-ins roll down while the Mario stand-in runs to the right. When he climbs the ladder they stand still. When he runs left on the next floor, they roll in reverse, back up toward the ape. When he reaches the next floor and runs to the right, those "barrels" roll toward him again.
Such are the mind-bending concepts in "Braid." Blow has others, some discarded. Early on he tried to implement a now-scuttled idea requiring the player to move their character through a game world only in a path that could also be played in reverse (meaning, for instance, that no falling could happen from a height the player could not jump back up to). He decided the mechanic was "relatively weak."
What makes Blow stand out from his peers in game development isn't the uniqueness of his concepts but the degree of personal and philosophical inspiration behind them. For example, that scuttled "Donkey Kong" idea came from the notion in quantum mechanics that time has to follow the same rules going forward and back. "That is a weird existential problem, because if you really take it to heart, what does it mean for your daily existence?" he said. "I wanted to try to make some gameplay that explored that idea."
If quantum mechanics isn't an inspiration all gamers will relate to, how about the concept of gold coins hanging in the air? Those coins were a staple of "Super Mario Bros." and have been in titles for years since. Blow doesn't like those coins or what they represent about goals and rewards — in games or in real life. "I feel like unearned rewards are false and meaningless, yet so many people spend their lives chasing [them]," Blow said. "You only get collectibles in 'Braid' when you solve a puzzle, and you only get one per puzzle. Some of the puzzles are easy, some are hard; but you do something very explicit to get the reward. It's not like 'Mario' and every other game since then, where there are gold coins sprinkled everywhere, and you get them just by walking along a path or jumping up to some blocks."
Such unconventional thinking is pure Jonathan Blow, and is part of the reason why he is widely admired by his peers as one of the sharpest thinkers in the field. Not surprisingly (and despite the fact that he does consulting work for game companies), he feels distant from the commercial wing of the industry. "I don't want to get on the 'modern game industry sucks' rant-wagon," he said, "but that's really a big part of the issue. When you're gunning for the big bucks, you pursue craft, not art. So most of what gamers see is just craft. Sometimes it's really good craft."
In that commercial industry Blow sees many concepts hemmed in by loyalty to outdated game-design conventions. He was underwhelmed by "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" and "Blinx: The Time Sweeper" — two games otherwise lauded for their time mechanics — because "they had this idea that it would be cool to have rewind in the game ... But they didn't want to deviate from their core idea of what a game is about (you have a limited number of lives; you fight guys and jump over traps; and if you get killed too many times, it's game over)."
Blow isn't a fan of games that are designed to punish players with frequent death, nor does he celebrate games that keep users engaged only through the promise of collecting new things. As he puts it in the "Braid" design notes: "The design goal of the game is not to be difficult, but only to be interesting."
"Braid" has a final twist that Blow wants kept secret. It can be viewed as yet another commentary on game design, and yet another commentary on life. It's for players to experience, which he says they will (at least on PC), some time between November and February. The game is also rumored to come to consoles, but he won't confirm which one(s).
After that, Blow said he has 50 other ideas in his file. And if "Braid" succeeds, he hopes to come up with more.
More from the world of video games:
The Xbox 360 is about to get a little cheaper. Microsoft announced today that all three versions of the 360 will get price cuts effective Wednesday. The $399.99 premium version, which comes with a 20GB hard drive, will drop to $349.99. Smaller cuts are being made for the $299.99 core (hard-drive-free) system, which will drop to $279.99, and the Xbox 360 Elite (120 GB hard drive), which will drop from $479.99 to $449.99. Microsoft also announced that the upcoming "Halo 3" edition of the 360, which is painted green and emblazoned with "Halo" designs (and comes with a headset and a 20GB hard drive) will retail for $399.99 but will not include a copy of "Halo 3." ...
A California law designed to label violent video games and restrict the sales of ultra-violent ones to minors was struck down by a federal court on Monday. Passed in 2005, the law was similar to those in states such as Michigan and Illinois that also ran afoul of federal courts. "At this point, there has been no showing that violent video games as defined in the act, in the absence of other violent media, cause injury to children," judge Ronald Whyte wrote in a decision quoted by The Associated Press. "In addition, the evidence does not establish that video games, because of their interactive nature or otherwise, are any more harmful than violent television, movies, Internet sites or other speech-related exposures." California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state would appeal the decision. ...
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And be sure to check Multiplayer, which will have full text of my interview with Jonathan Blow later in the week.