0verhyped

Less than amusing ramblings from a jaded former gamer.

Braid, Life, Obsession, and the Dark Side of Ambition

.odnu reven dluoc eh gnihtemos enod dah eh dezilaer eh ynori taerg htiw dnA

A.K.A. THE TRUE MEANING OF BRAID?

So it’s Friday, that means the end of Braid week. An event no one knew was coming, and, appropriately, no one showed up for…

Yeah, can’t wait to write my really long post about what I think the symbols and themes in Braid represent just for absolutely no one to read them. Or if there is anyone, they’ll get bored after the first paragraph and just leave…

Uh, you know what? Braid means Ice Cream. The End.

…oh. You’re still here. I was almost certain no reads this crappy site. I guess I’ll actually have to write something then. All right, this will be long, and there probably won’t be many funny pictures. Just warning you right now. This (not at all) little analysis will be in two sections. The first part is just me commenting on other people’s observations and conclusions. Basically just bringing up what other people have said before. And the second part will be my own observations and conclusions.

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR BRAID TO FOLLOW! DON’T READ BEYOND THIS POINT IF YOU DON’T WANT BRAID TO BE SPOILED FOR YOU!

Still here? Good, let’s get started. The princess in Braid is actually the atom bomb…

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Or that’s what a lot of people have said. I sure as shit didn’t figure that out, but anyone familiar with a certain famous Kenneth Bainbridge quote put it together without much trouble. And there’s plenty of imagery in the game that seem to foreshadow this interpretation. Plus if you actually get to the princess, to quote another writer, “she fucking explodes!”

Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that the princess Tim seeks is a nuclear bomb. It can seem so obvious that I think the creator of Braid, Jonathan Blow, has denied that simple of an interpretation (I think, I might be wrong about that). It seems odd to even reject this theory considering one of the only specific references in the game was to a famous quote following the first atomic bomb test, and beyond that there are nearly a dozen other things that seem like obvious symbolism for the invention of nuclear weapons.

“It’s a nuked city! How can you not see it?”

So how could the princess not be a bomb? Well if I may, I’d suggest Jonathan Blow actually messed up here. Since I don’t know what his intentions for making Braid were, I could be way off base, but I don’t think he meant for the princess in the game to be interpreted as just a bomb, so much as something forbidden and destructive. I think he may have screwed up by stacking too much symbolism and one very non-symbolic quote towards a certain obvious destructive taboo, i.e. the atom bomb.

But let’s say I’m wrong and the princess is just a bomb, and that’s simply the correct interpretation. Then what? Why did Tim seek her out? Did Tim know what his princess really was? And why did he ever want her to begin with? If the princess is nothing but a metaphor for the discovery of the nuclear weapon (which I personally don’t believe), then how does everything else in Braid fit into the equation?

Let’s first talk of obsession, which is a central theme in Braid. Again, this isn’t something I’m claiming to have noticed my self, lots and lots of people have already pointed this out. I just want to make it clear what I already know about Braid before moving on to the conclusions I drew from it.

Obsession is probably Tim’s most, if not only, prominent character trait. I would say it is also the most important theme in Braid. All the little books that prelude each world make it increasingly clear Tim’s obsession with finding the princess is unhealthy. He ignores loved ones, resents visiting with family and evens hurts people impeding his progress to reach the Princess.

There’s clear mention of another woman at some point. And Tim ignores her because she’s not the Princess. This suggests Tim is obsessed with finding a princess not for any kind of companionship. In fact he views things like companionship as an obstacle standing between him and the princess. He just wants the princess, and we have no idea why.

In the third world, where time only moves as Tim moves, you can only finish the level by running away from the friendly dinosaur that informs you of the lack of princess. He even calls out for you to slow down, but the level is contrived in a way where it can only be finished by Tim leaving him far behind, all because he has no princess to offer him.

Tim wants nothing other than the Princess. So after searching high and low in other worlds, Tim goes to World 1, which is actually the last world you can play in Braid. This world runs completely in reverse, from the music, to the actions of the enemies, to stage order, leading to area 1-1, simply titled Braid.

Here’s the big scene and the big twist lots of people have talked about in Braid. You finally see the actual Princess, who until now was implied to not even exist. She escapes the grip of some sinister looking Knight and pleads for help from Tim. The two work together to escape the approaching wave of destruction until Tim reaches the princess’s window, and that’s when it happens.

The wall of destruction disappears, the princess is asleep in her bed, and you can’t progress any further, or go back the way you came because of a high wall. Your only option is to reverse time, to which you see that reversing time in this world let’s you see things as they’re actually happening.

The princess isn’t helping Tim along, she’s fleeing from him. Tim isn’t trying to rescue the princess, he’s chasing after her. You watch the same scene from before play out in reverse, which reveals that what you were doing before was actually backwards. You see Tim chase after the princess as she repeatedly throws obstacles in his path in an attempt to stop him and eventually jumps into the arms of the knight to get away from him.

The knight is the hero, saving the princess, from you…

The game ends with an epilogue that reveals some disturbing (and confusing) possible insight to Tim. The last screen of the game is a castle made out of icons representing the numerous levels Tim beat to reach this point, along with some text lampshading how confusing this game may be. Tim doesn’t get the princess. In fact, it’s revealed that he never was out to really rescue her. He was just obsessed with finding her for some reason.

So that covers the basic plot of Braid as well as the most common theory people have discussed. So what do I have to add to all of this?

Well as I said, I feel obsession is the most consistent theme in all of Braid. No one would deny Tim is obsessed with the princess. All the text books you can read before the other worlds show him constantly ignoring everything that isn’t the princess, or outright resenting them for slowing him down.

World 1, which is the last world you play, seems to be Tim’s obsession reaching a point of desperation where he starts deluding himself into seeing things differently then they really are. The game starts at World 2, which suggests Tim is repressing or denying the actual events of World 1.

After failing to find any clue of the princess in five other strange worlds, Tim’s obsession reaches a breaking point where he actually tries to turn back time on the actual events that lead to his journey. Seeing himself and the Princess trying to reunite, the opposite of what actually happened.

But despite Tim’s normal ability to turn back time to correct mistakes, he can’t actually undo these actions. He can only return to the point where his journey began and repeat the same series of events that lead to the princess fleeing from him and Tim going to look for her in Worlds that he now knows she’s not in.

This seems to play into what I feel is the other most consistent theme in Braid, regret. Specifically people’s desire to change the past because of regrettable decisions. One of the first books you read says the princess was snatched by a horrible monster, and that it happened because Tim made a mistake.

The books in the same area go on to question the concept of causality and suggesting we would be better if we could benefit from hindsight, but still undid the damage of past mistakes. The original trailer also asks several similar what if questions, such as what if you could undo death and see different realities, concepts that are both prominent in the gameplay of Braid and necessary at times to progress.

But considering what happens in the ending, it would appear to be you can’t actually change the past, or even get what you want sometimes. Tim can’t undo whatever mistake he made in the past (likely it was being a creepy fucking stalker or something). And most importantly, you can’t get the princess…well, you know, except that you sorta can…

That’s a star (duh). In Braid, there’s a total of eight (very) hidden stars to find. If you’ve played Braid and didn’t know this, don’t feel bad, the Stars are clearly hidden in a way that almost no one would ever find them. There is no clue anywhere in the game that these things even exist, and there sure as shit isn’t any clues where to find them. The only thing resembling an hint is a constellation at the very beginning of the game that’s in the background.

It might look noticeable now, but once you enter the house you’ll likely forget all about it.

So what exactly do these stars do? Seemingly nothing at first. Once you collect one, one of the stars in the constellation fills in, which at the very least informs you how many are out there, but what’s the point? Well here’s where shit gets (more) confusing. If you find seven out of eight stars, the final (which chronologically is actually the first) world has a couple of very minor changes in it.

Specifically a pair of switches in the final (really first) area become immune to reversing time. These small changes allow the player to actually move through the level fast enough to reach something they can use to reach the princess. You can see it all here.

In case you didn’t bother with that video, or it’s been pulled since I wrote this post, here’s what happens. When Tim nearly touches the princess, there’s a sound effect of what I guess is a bomb arming and the princess just explodes into a flash of light (again, if Blow didn’t want people to think Braid was just a metaphor for the a-bomb, he really shouldn’t have laid things like this on so thick).

After the light clears, the princess is gone. So is the wave of fire from before. So is the music. Tim can now explore the princess’s house, an area he couldn’t reach before. Above her bed is the eighth and final star, and nothing else. He can’t follow the same route the princess took with the Knight originally. There are no enemies or obstacles left. All you can do is take the same door as in when you didn’t get the princess, and get the same epilogue as before.

This brings me to what I’ve wanted to talk about most, and the title of this post (which I mostly stole from a pirate movie). I’ve already stated I feel Braid’s most prominent theme is obsession. Even the title “Braid” is likely an comment on obsession, since from Tim’s perspective, just seeing the princess’s braid lashing in the wind may have been all it took to start his obsessive journey.

The stars in Braid represent the absolute extreme focal point of obsession, which I believe is the dark side of ambition (title drop).

I have a feeling most people who finish Braid probably just stop once they finish the game. They accept you can’t get the princess, and just enjoy the little castle in the epilogue that’s made from all the levels in the game. But some people obviously didn’t accept that. Or just didn’t accept that this is the end of the game.

These stars are the last refuge for those desperate few who can not accept the reality of their situation. The stars aren’t hinted at anywhere in the game (minus that constellation in the background that you’ll forget about the second you enter the house). There isn’t any achievement that tips you off to their existence. But they are there, and some people found them. Yeah there’s guides now on how to get them, but there wasn’t always. You know there was a few people crazy enough to seek all these damn things out, without any idea what they did or why they were even in the game.

In my eyes, the pursuit of these stats represent, both in and out of context, the dark side of ambition. The point where focused determination morphs into a fanatical blind devotion. No longer is the Tim or the player pursuing just a princess, but any and everything they can find in a vague hope it may be what they want. What they chase after becomes unimportant and they want nothing more than to simply find anything at all, completely oblivious of the consequences of their actions.

The stars are ridiculously difficult to obtain, and require enormous amounts of patience and dedication. One star can only reached by waiting on an incredibly slow moving cloud that takes two hours to reach the edge of stage. Another can only be gotten by misusing two puzzle pieces in a way that seems illogical and can only be done before they’re used in their proper purpose. Others often require the player to literally journey beyond the boundaries of the game map to find things just beyond the line of sight.

Individually these accomplishments may be something to admire or appreciate. But without a sense of purpose, or semblance of reason, these become acts to pity, or even fear. If Tim and the player are willing to go to such extreme lengths for no discernible reason, what won’t they do?

And in the end, what do the stars get you? A brief moment where it looks like you might get the princess, and then she’s gone. The one thing Tim has sought after for so long and it’s gone. All that is left is the final star, which you have no what idea what it’ll do, or why you should even take it. But anyone who has come this far wouldn’t stop now. So the player, and by extension Tim, take the final star for no reason other than there’s nothing else left for them.

And what do you get for all the stars? The finished constellation.

As almost to say “There’s your princess. Now what?” (Fun fact, that’s Andromeda, the chick from Greek Mythology who is most famous for being chained to a rock until someone saved her.)

That and you have the sinking feeling that in the process of trying to correct a previous mistake, you’ve possibly made another one. That’s the vibe I got from collecting the stars.

Instead of just letting go of your obsession and accepting you can’t have the princess or correct your original mistake, you become more obsessed, did far more extreme things than ever before, ignore obvious warning signs of danger and made another mistake that can never be undone.

But what’s all this symbolic obsession and regret apply to? A lot of people seem to favor the bomb theory. Certainly not hard to make that idea fit.

Tim represents a scientist or science itself, the princess represents the bomb, or maybe just the splitting of the atom itself. The books describing Tim’s obsessed anti-social behavior represent his lack of concern for his fellow man and the people around him. Solving the puzzles and traversing the worlds represent the cold nature of the scientific method in progress, where Tim regularly alters and destroys the supposed laws of the natural world for his own purpose of finding the princess/bomb.

The stars represent the difficult process of significant scientific advancement and the insane lengths one must go in order to reach their goal. Tim/science can’t find the princess/bomb in the known borders of the game map/scientific world and must go beyond the known realms of these things to discover the unknown, as represented by the stars being hidden off screen and in things being used in ways they aren’t suppose to.

Tim/Science’s blind devotion, in pursuit of the princess/bomb, unleash something upon the world, as represented by the constellation. The princess/bomb is now visible to the entire world, and there’s no putting her/it back. Perhaps the act of getting the princess is the actual discovery of the bomb, and collecting the eighth and final star is the foolish decision to let it loose in the world. Either way, Tim/science do something that changes the world forever and can never be undone.

Doesn’t seem all that far fetched considering all the heavy handed nuclear bomb analogies you can find in Braid. But I’m not satisfied with that answer. I think the journey in Braid simply represents obsession and regret in their basic form, with the stars being the logical extreme obsession can be taken to and how that can lead to more regret. I feel you can apply the themes you see in Braid to probably most anything if you want, like, gamers, for example.

Yeah, why not? Let’s say Tim actually represents gamers themselves. I’ve mentioned gamers are often the obsessive type, with me being no exception. You run after a princess, which is ripped from the original Mario game. You destroy things and kill monsters without a thought because you feel there’s no consequences for your actions. When you can’t get the princess you start obsessively looking for other ways to beat the game.  You start collecting stars in hope that they will let you reach the princess, not unlike Super Mario 64.

There’s no reason the central themes of regret and obsession can’t be applied to gamers who have lost their sense of purpose. Hell, I’ll go one further, I’m Tim.

Hi.

Sure, I’ve made mistakes, and lost something very dear to me because of it, and I want it back. My princess could just simply be the original childhood joy I use to have when I played video games so long ago. I made mistakes, lost that feeling and desperately wanted to recapture it.

Tim goes looking for his princess in increasingly desolate and inhospitable worlds, I go looking for my lost childhood in increasingly bleak and difficult games.

Tim ignores people who care about him because he wants to find a princess, I do the same in an attempt to try and lose myself in a virtual world like I use to when I was younger.

Tim reaches a point where he deludes his past actions in a vain attempt to capture the princess, I’ve revisited the same games I played in the past in a misguided venture to find out what I was doing wrong now.

Tim eventually just starts attempting desperate acts in his pursuit of senseless stars, while I start trying pretty much everything from metagaming to self-imposed challenges for seemingly no purpose anymore (like collecting the stars in Braid or speed running the entire game).

Tim’s obsession peaks when he thinks his stars will let him get his princess, mine probably hit its zenith around the time I thought the stupid shit I did in games would give me some sort of validation from the gaming community.

Tim never actually gets his princess, losing her to only find his last star. I never seemed to recapture that same child like bliss I use to find in games, and all I got are bunch of save files and dumb achievements with I spent far too many days on.

For all of Tim’s turning back of time and erasing mistakes, he can’t fix the one he made before, and creates a new one because of his inability to cope. And all my attempts to relive my childhood through video games just cause me to miss out on a sizable chunk of my life.

She’s out there. I just can’t have her.

How bout that, I rationalized Braid in a way that’s a critique on my own life. That’s part of the fun of art, interpreting it. I’ve heard there’s a feminist theory for Braid, where the princess represents repressed or objectified women everywhere. It’s not hard to find enough threads to piece that theory together. The last level shows Tim outright stalking the princess, he seems to constantly objectify her in his writings in a literal sense that’s she more of an objective than a person and there’s constant mention of ignoring and possibly hurting other women he meets. Also the constellation being Andromeda could be seen as significant, as she’s one of the oldest examples of a damsel in distress being purely an objective for the hero to complete.

I also saw a YouTuber today suggest Braid was actually a metaphor of the pursuit of the Grand Unified Theory, some complex explanation that reconciles various conflicting forces science is yet to explain, and the atomic bomb imagery is actually just forewarning of the greater destruction that could await us should we try to achieve a god like understanding of the universe without any forethought of the consequences of such an action.

I’m too dumb to really comment on the specifics of that one, but I would note the Epilogue mentions a magnetic monopole and ethical calculus. A magnetic monopole would be a magnet with only one pole, which is currently not possible, and ethical calculus seems to be a mathematic approach to ethnics. Maybe the princess isn’t so much a bomb as Tim trying to catch her had the side effect of creating the bomb, and his continued efforts towards perfection and certainty will be even more destructive.

Who’s to say? Like I said, part of the enjoyment in art is forming your on interpretations, however crazy they may be. Speaking of crazy interpretations, I got one more part of Braid I’d like to analyze, the epilogue.

No matter what you do in Braid, you’re always slated to wind up in the Epilogue section. Even finding the stars and seeing the princess explode doesn’t change that, and I think there’s a reason for that. But first let me talk a little more about the actual epilogue.

There aren’t any puzzles in the epilogue. You can finish by just running through it and taking a door at the end that leads back to beginning of the game. There are some more books that reveal some disturbing facts about Tim. What they say changes if Tim disappears from view by hiding behind some certain objects. The text then displays someone else’s viewpoint of Tim’s actions, but that’s not really what I find interesting (personally I find this part a little forced actually).

The last screen in the Epilogue, and the entire game, is small castle built out of blocks that have the icons that represent the various levels you play in Braid. Despite all my lengthy talk about metaphors and interpretations, I think this last screen is actually the most important thing in Braid, or least important, or well, let me just tell what I think.

The little books allude to the fact that the player is probably confused as hell at this point, but the books also suggest the experiences of what you’ve done in playing Braid have formed into something substantial, almost tangible in a sense. And the little fort you find is built from bricks representing those moments.

Jonathan Blow has said that Braid was a game about the journey, not the destination. I’m fairly confident that is what your own castle made from your own moments is suppose to represent, the journey. Despite all the complex symbolism and the great lengths you can go to in trying to discover what Braid’s “true” meaning is suppose to be, I think the most important thing to take away from Braid is just that life is a series of moments and you should be mindful not to let them pass you by.

Through most of the game you’re trying to “fix” Tim’s mistake and constantly rewinding time to fix your own mistakes. From that you might get the impression that people are constantly burdened by their own pasts, but the epilogue presents a slightly different idea. It shows your past experiences as blocks. They’re heavy and could possibly weigh you down. But they don’t have to, as Tim uses his to build his own castle.

You can’t keep time in a bottle, but that doesn’t mean the time you already spent doesn’t still serve a purpose in your life.

These moments from your past are not puzzle pieces that fit together in a certain way to form a complete image. They’re just simple building material for you to forge your own path. And that’s life as far as I’m concerned. You can obsessively search for something to give it meaning, or try to find some deeper significance in everything you see and do, but it’s all just a series of moments.

Some are good, some are bad. Some you wish didn’t happen, others you’d never want to forget. But for better or worse, they’re your life. You can try to ignore or rewrite them, but you might be better just accepting them, and even building off of them.

You always wind up in the epilogue because it’s never too late to stop and examine your life, and even learn to appreciate it. I regret spending so much of my life playing video games, but with 0verhyped I’ve started to learn to accept the reality of those decisions and have even begun to build off them. I can never get back the time I already spent, but I can use the experience I gained to make better decisions in the future.

Yeah I’m just writing some stupid blog where I complain a lot and I’m still a pretty obsessive weirdo, but hey, it’s a start. Using those blocks made from his journey to find the princess, Tim can reach that little cloud in the corner. And maybe if I continue to learn from my past experiences instead of just regretting them, I’ll be able to reach something as well.

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3 responses to “Braid, Life, Obsession, and the Dark Side of Ambition

  1. Matt August 29, 2012 at 1:08 AM

    Very good analysis. Its crazy the amount of thought that goes into games.

  2. Watchoutforthattree April 7, 2013 at 6:38 PM

    This is the very definition of 0veranalysed. Braid’s storyline plays almost practically no role in actual gameplay ’til the last world where it’s only minimally felt.

    Braid’s storyline is almost exactly like those old video game manuals that try to give a deeper meaning and atmosphere to your on-screen pixels that vaguely resemble a person.

  3. Goomba September 27, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Hey. Judging by your recent posts I guess you might well not even check this site any more. But still, I think this is a great analysis of the Braid storyline and experience. Thank you very much for writing your ideas and interpretation here.

    I finished the 8 stars the other day and decided to see what other people thought about the ending in particular and its themes. I agree that the atom bomb theory (possibly about the guilt of those who invented it) doesn’t quite fit, and think that the not-so-subtle hints about the bomb are there to symbolise the main theme, which I think is the danger of obsession.

    I also thought that the breakdown of a relationship was the other main theme (the chapter 3-6 books seem to be describing Tim’s marriage falling apart, which is also backed up a bit by the puzzle pictures), but your idea that it is about a more general idea of the pointlessness of obsession in general fits really well. The part about gamers trying to reach something from their past that is out of reach (the joy of experiencing videogames as a kid) is really clever, is definitely something I am regularly guilty of. Also, it relates to things that Jonathan Blow talked about a lot in interviews – like the nature of MMOs and other games where the gameplay isn’t at all fun, but players will go through it anyway – collecting coins or XP or whatever.

    By the way I was really pleased to read how you described your feelings on finishing the game. I felt really similar, like I had gone to all that trouble and now I look up at the night sky and wish I had never done it – it’s just brilliant how the game made me feel like that, when that feeling is also one of the main themes of the game – regret. It was just a perfect way to end this game I thought.

    I could go on for ages about this, but don’t want this response to be overly long (it’s already way too long). But I just wanted to add something I thought of while reading your article. About the Braid being one of Tim’s earliest memories, and representing his obsession for finding… something.

    The word braid is only mentioned 4 times in the game, the last being when the baby is tugging sharply at his mother’s braid when trying to get at the candy. He is becoming obsessed with impossible things, the obsession made stronger by passing that candy shop every day. I had wondered what kind of a person she was – I think it was an innocent mistake, and she didn’t realise her child was becoming crazy on getting to that impossible monopole. [Aside: I guess that the Ethical Calculus is probably alluding to taking morality out of moral decisions by reducing them to cold mathematical forms.]

    But something which is made explicit, but which I hadn’t really paid as much attention to before, is: what kind of person is the baby? An angry and compulsive being, who tugs painfully at his mother’s hair to get what he wants, and considers violence. A terrible person, but not evil: he is just a baby after all. He is that way because he is too young to know better. As a baby grows stronger, he also learns not to be violent to other people to get what he wants, and he learns this by making mistakes and learning from them. So I think that the question the original trailer asks: “Then what would you be?” is saying you would be an adult, but with an infant’s mentality: doing whatever, including committing acts of violence, to get what you want. Take causality out of a person’s life experience, and you are left with a monster: someone who never need regret anything he does.

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