Jonathan Blow made Braid because... he had to. Like three years' worth of therapy it's a game which changed him and altered the way he sees the world, and it's a game Blow hopes might just work that same magic on every last person with Xbox Live.
Braid is for the most part one man's labour - a classic 2D platformer with none of the negative presumptions 'classic' raises - hammered out over three years of experimentation and iteration, now at last headed to PC and Xbox Live Arcade. Along the way Blow has collaborated with musicians on the game's tunes and worked extensively with artist David Hellman on the visual style, but the game remains personal; still the game he envisioned on day one, free from the distractions of publisher pressure and the chaos of committee design.
"I knew I wanted to make a platformer where you go from world to world and time behaves differently in each world," he explains. "I knew I wanted it to have pieces of fiction to accompany each world in a style like Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. And I knew I wanted to experiment with existential difficulties, like what it means for our daily existence if it's possible to see the future, or if time is really bi-directional, or if you can rewind time at will without limit to erase mistakes."
The rewinding trick has already been pulled by games like Blinx and Prince of Persia, but since Braid's 2006 GDC debut Blow has repeated again and again that both treat time travel only as a gimmick. Braid's objective is nothing short of changing the very way you perceive the world, so unlike the Prince and Artoon's timewarping cat, Blow's time bending is fundamental to every element of the game. "I decided that the core of the game would be unlimited use of time powers," he explains, "and I discarded all other rules of game design as necessary in order to preserve that core."
Back in time
With its total disregard for conventions like lives and even death itself, Braid is difficult to frame using the usual genre rules. Set across six worlds of puzzle-filled stages, every second of every level can be rewound and each world handles time differently. In one, time flows normally; in another, it advances as you move right and rewinds as you head left; another lets you place a single focal point around which time 'bends', slowing objects as they approach it; another allows two universes to exist simultaneously - a world where a parallel version of yourself is born every time you rewind.
At its most basic, your ability to rewind time will let you make jumps which would otherwise be torturously difficult to get right. On later stages things get trickier; you'll find yourself committing suicide and rewinding yourself back to life again and again so that your death in the parallel universe can assist you in this new, real one. Each puzzle, Blow explains, was naturally 'born': "Designing the puzzles for Braid felt great, like a rush, because they were just there waiting to be discovered. After I came up with the idea for the basic time behaviour, I just had to think about what strange things could happen as a result and then build situations to illustrate those things."
Even as the universe of Braid naturally evolved, the design process wasn't without its casualties. Blow's design ethic was - and indeed still is - merciless, and it's that brutality with his own creation which has made Braid so very strong at every given moment. "Sometimes I'd come up with an idea for a time behaviour and I would have to repeat ideas to fill out the world," he says. "When that happened, I just cut that world from the game. I cut at least two behaviours from the game - or maybe three."