One man army
The callousness of the design process belies the game's soft centre. "I think a lot of players can feel that I really cared about this stuff," assures Blow. "I've been told that the game feels like it's being communicated from a very vulnerable place, which seems accurate to me."
As a one-man project, Braid - in both play and narrative - is rightly indulgent and as Blow has it, "deeply personal". Telling the story of a man searching for a princess in a strange world, it tips its hat to a world of obscure sources: Calvino's Invisible Cities, Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, Brian Moriarty's 1986 text adventure Trinity, the music of The Dirty Three, and of course, Super Mario Bros.
"It's about the things that I think about. The books and films referenced in the game made big impacts on me at various stages in my life. Super Mario Bros provided the core game mechanic that Braid and so many other games are based on, so it only seemed appropriate to reference it. I wanted to take that childlike, optimistic, simple-world blue-sky feeling of Super Mario Bros and mature it into a world that is emotionally complex, lacking in certitude, and possessing an existential gravitas."
Few developers dare throw around multisyllabic phrases like "existential gravitas" for fear of sounding like a wank-hat-wearing artisan or worse, a liar, but in Braid the proof is woven into the very fabric of the game. As a truly independent work, Braid feels as though it exists exactly as was intended.
Man at work
Funding the project with money earned from working on experimental PS3 Cell-processor gaming projects for IBM, Blow began coding Braid in December 2004. In the intervening years, he has addressed game developers and consulted on the Harmonix iPod game Phase, but his devotion to Braid ultimately led to taking a sizable loan from a friend to fund the game's final year of development. "I was compelled to make it from day one," he tells us. "The game is about intellectual and emotional issues I was struggling with. Now that the game is done, I have - to some extent - worked through them and I'm a different person now."
"I want to provide a game that actually respects players," says Blow, "and that comes from an attitude of giving rather than taking away. So many games seem to be about exploiting the player in one way or another, taking away his time and attention" - a criticism he has levelled at the likes of World of Warcraft in particular. "It seems like hubris to expect that the game will inspire people somehow, but deep down I hope it will. I was inspired by a lot of things when making Braid. Perhaps some future artists can be inspired by Braid and a lot of other things, and make something pretty damn cool and interesting and important.
"At the very least, I want Braid to be proof for developers that it's possible to make a game that's personal, that openly cares about something and that isn't just about having fun," Blow says, in spite of the hours of fun we've had with his game. "That it's possible to make an art game that actually has good gameplay, and it's possible to keep the player's attention by exploring certain feelings and interactions, rather than just throwing lots of new enemies and weapons at them. Above all, if you respect the player as an intelligent person, and you treat their time and attention as precious, it shows in the resulting game design."
Blow by blow
And it really does show. Jonathan Blow, it has been argued on the odd gaming blog or forum, has on occasion overstepped the fine line between confidence and arrogance in the past. In either case, and misunderstood or not, he has the self-belief of a man who has built a little 2D platformer set to - genuinely - challenge the Grand Theft Auto IVs and Fallout 3s of the world when critics start discussing the year's best games come December.
Braid is a risky experiment climaxing in glorious success. Ask yourself when last you felt a sense of reward and achievement playing a game; not Achievement with a capital 'A' and ten Microsoft points, but an actual sense of pride. When did you have cause to sit with a friend trying to crack the toughest of laterally-minded puzzles, discussing possibilities and daring to test theories? When did you last feel proud of your accomplishment, as if you had earned your reward? And when did a game really make you look at the world differently?
Like 2007's surprise game of the year Portal, Braid is arriving with a minimum of hype and an audience which doesn't quite 'get it' yet. And like Portal, it may well surprise those who forgot to show gamers the respect they deserve.