braid.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Jonathan Blow's critically acclaimed platform-puzzler, Braid, available on Xbox Live Arcade]

In 1977, the Atari 2600 was launched with a joystick that had a grand total of one button to use. Today, the Xbox 360 has sixteen buttons on their controller. In other words, about every two years we get another button on our controllers.

This increase in interface complexity is the result of increased game complexity. Games have added features such as fully 3D environments, complex dialog trees, and crouch-jumping in recent years. Often in these games, the mechanics are layered on top of each other to create a greater challenge. Moving in a first-person game is simple. Shooting in a first-person game is simple. Moving and shooting at the same time, at a target that is also moving and shooting, is not.

So, it's refreshing when a game comes along that not only goes back to a classic genre that is under-represented in current games, but also keeps its unique game mechanics separate, rather than running them together until the game can only be controlled by an interface as obtuse as the Xbox 360 controller.

Braid is such a game.

Design Lesson: Braid uses the inherent complexity of individual mechanics, rather than the combination of those mechanics, to create interesting and unique gameplay that never feels unfair to the player

Braid looks like a 2D platformer at first glance, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is a puzzle game. The player has the ability to rewind time at any moment, making death impossible and mistakes easily fixable. If only life were this easy!
This simple manipulation of time is present for the entire game and is the basis for the rest of the game. The game takes place across six different worlds, each with a unique take on time manipulation.

In one world, items with a green glow on them are not affected by the rewinding of time. This allows players to interact with objects, such as keys to locked gates, that are not affected by the rewinding of time. The player can ultimately affect the world to be able to use the key to solve the puzzle.

One of my favorite worlds has time move forward as the player moves to the right, and rewind as the player moves left; Time is being controlled spatially. Another world has the player make a recording of themselves that can interact with certain objects, similar to Cursor*10.

What is interesting is how easy it would be to combine these mechanics together to create challenging puzzles. Having a puzzle that would require the player to move to manipulate time, while recording a copy of himself, would be an easy design trap to fall into. Layering mechanics would make the puzzles more difficult, and somewhat difficult puzzles are part of the point of a puzzle game right?

Luckily, Braid doesn't do this. Each world has a specific mechanic and overlapping rarely occurs between world mechanics. Instead, the player is given just enough objects on the screen to solve the puzzle with the limited tools available. By being able to concentrate on one mindset of solving the puzzle, eventually the solutions make themselves apparent.

What is amazing is how complex and devilish some of the puzzles can still be, even though they revolve around the single mechanic for that world. By finding more interesting and intriguing ways to make puzzles complex, Braid is able to make players feel like geniuses by solving them.

There were a couple puzzles that took me well over a half-hour to finish, and when I stumbled across their solutions it was a true “Aha!” moment instead of an “Are you kidding me?” moment. Feeling like you have to guess what the designer was thinking is how many old adventure games played out, and it was rarely fun. Feeling like you just made a discovery on your own is what makes this game and games like Portal work so well.

Making more complex puzzles with multiple mechanics would have the opposite effect. Thinking about a game with time manipulation is difficult enough as it is. It's not the way we linearly progress through the real world. Trying to figure out multiple mechanics at once would probably become an exercise in futility for many players. It would be frustrating and unfair. The game would become “Guess when the designer was thinking” rather than “explore the rules of the world”.

Instead, by using intuitive puzzles and concentrating on one mechanic at a time, Braid finds complexity within each given mechanic. It's the ability to find this inherent complexity that makes Braid one of the best games I've played this year. It's also proof that complex game mechanics that require sixteen buttons on a controller are not necessary to make an amazing game.

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]