May 8th, 2008
Tim, the protagonist of Braid, visits various imaginative worlds during his journey, but in between excursions, he always returns home. Home serves several functions, and as a result was a complex and interesting area to design. It is the “hub” which links the different worlds, a place of repose and reflection, a “status screen” representing progress within the game, and a reflection of Tim’s character.
Here’s what it looked like when I joined the project. Each door leads towards a different world; within those worlds, Tim grapples with the laws of time and earns jigsaw pieces as tokens of understanding; he brings those jigsaw pieces back home and assembles them on the puzzle boards you see paired with each door.
A basement room contains a visual clue that you can play with the WASD keys. (Well, not on XBOX, but if you were playing on PC, that would be true.)
This hallway leading to a final door is inaccessible for most of the game. It is full of gates, each corresponding to a jigsaw puzzle. Complete a jigsaw, and its gate opens. Only when all the jigsaws are complete can you access the final door.
Jonathan and I tossed around several ideas for what this area should look like. In these early screenshots, it’s sterile like a gallery – an association supported by the large picture frames. But it could have been an office, or Tim’s home. It had to be a real-world place to contrast with the more fantastical realms Tim visits.
I’m glad we decided on making it Tim’s house, because Tim’s journey is a personal obsession. I imagine him going home in the evening and completely submerging himself in his idiosyncratic thoughts, losing track of the hours as they tick towards morning. The player follows him into that personal space, experiencing his subjectivity through the reality-bending nature of the worlds.
It also reminds us that, to the extent his journey is inward, Tim doesn’t have to actually go anywhere to have these experiences. He can stay home, bent over a drafting table or stretched out on the sofa. The domestic backdrop is a natural context for the jigsaw puzzles, too.
This is the first concept drawing for what Tim’s home could look like, based directly on the existing layout. It’s full of details that suggest Tim is a man of diverse interests, a tinkerer. There’s a guitar, a Rubik’s cube, a model ship, an easel, and even a small cage on a high shelf – maybe he used to have a gerbil? I wanted to show the unfinished nature of his ambitions, how some avenues have been abandoned, others are in progress and still others have yet to develop.
Certain things from elsewhere in the game are repeated here, like the mobile which references the constellation from outside. In Braid, motifs are often repeated in different forms. Reiteration of an idea through different media (prose, visual environment design, puzzle images, gameplay, etc.) is a big deal in Braid.
The lighting is intimate, with an emphasis on lamps rather than even, ambient illumination. Mainly because that is what my apartment is like.
You will also notice that the scale is totally FUBAR. We talked about playing loose with scale, but it was quickly apparent that it made Tim look really out-of-place. This is his home; he should fit in. It required a bit of a mental shift, though, because the rest of the game is so much more spread out than this screen.
Second try. Scale has been corrected. Also, there are discrete rooms. The first draft was, vaguely, a bed room upstairs and a kitchen downstairs. Now we were being much more specific. We started talking about what rooms would be appropriate for each world, given their particular themes and moods. The picture frames are over the doors now – a space-saving measure which introduced other problems, and was soon discarded. The frames also differ in size and orientation. That wouldn’t last, either.
Now that each door was in its own room, we could have the rooms light up as their worlds became accessible.
The steps around the ladder are a good example of how we considered every little thing. When they showed up in this concept, Jonathan asked me what they were for. “I like them,” I replied. “Meaningless,” he said. “Get rid of them.”
Just kidding, Jon is a nice person (nicer than me, anyway). But we did talk about the purpose of such details. Braid is the kind of game that presents things directly, without unnecessary or distracting adornment. This is most meaningful in the time-based puzzles, where extraneous information could either be misleading or just obscure the essential dynamic, but also carries over as a stylistic preference to other areas.
The ladder was originally on the extreme left, and the player used it to enter this area from above. Now, though, the entrance was on the left, which seemed more normal and house-like. We moved the ladder so the player would encounter the door to World 2 before anything else.
As described above, there was a hallway filled with gates leading to the final door. Each gate opened upon completion of its corresponding jigsaw puzzle. But elsewhere in the game, gates are opened by keys. This was a confusing inconsistency, and we talked about alternative mechanisms that would be unique to this scene.
I suggested that the final door be in a room of its own, the attic…
… and that the ladder would appear piece-by-piece as the jigsaw puzzles were solved.
At this point we tried 150 million different arrangements. If I recall, mainly what was going on here was that the ladder seemed fairly un-housey, and we were trying to replace it with a staircase.
If you click the above image for the full-sized version, you can follow along with my morbidly intricate explanation.
A: Same as previous.
B: Little ramps instead of steps. The ladder is two colors (maybe this is less-un-housey than the single, unified ladder?).
C: The ladder to the downstairs has been replaced with a staircase. Keep in mind we would have dressed this up to look like a staircase, with a banister and everything. Sadly, this takes up way too much room; you can’t really put anything to the right of the staircase.
D: Here we attempt to solve the space issue by having the staircase end before it touches the ground. That way, you can walk under it. However, now you’d have to jump to begin climbing it, which felt unnatural.
E: A similar idea with a two-part, tiered arrangement. Same problem, plus you’d have to jump over the top of the staircase to proceed past it on the top floor. That is even more weird.
F: Similar to E, but the top of the staircase comes after the door to World 3, not before it. Same issues.
G: A recipe for madness.
We agreed the staircase idea wasn’t working, and we’d have to fire ourselves if we couldn’t come up with something better. Even if it wasn’t completely normal for a ladder to join the floors of a house, it was the most straightforward solution provided by the vocabulary of the game. We proceeded to test ladder placements.
H: Same as A, but with no steps or ramps.
I: Ladder to the attic on the right, ladder downstairs on the left.
J: Ladder to the attic on the far right.
K: Like I, but reversed.
L: Ladders downstairs on both sides.
We didn’t use any of these.
This is pretty close to the final arrangement. I’m glad we used a unified ladder for accessing both floors, as well as the attic. That the incomplete ladder which eventually leads you to the final door is the same one you use routinely creates a nice continuity, and a reminder of mysteries lying ahead.
The WASD room has become the bathroom. Mainly because it would seem like a strange puritanical omission if the house had no bathroom, and people would accuse us of repression.
The other rooms are pretty well-developed here, too. I won’t go into a big explanation, but they are chock full of symbolism relating to their respective worlds.
As I painted the rooms, at some point it seemed like the black shadows and outlines competed too much for attention with Tim. No other part of the game has anywhere near this much unique background detail. So I lightened the dark areas a bit, to set it back some more.
Jonathan and I considered ways to clarify the connection between the completion of the puzzles and the appearance of the ladder segments. (Please overlook the fact that the puzzles are not complete here. Pretend they are!) In this concept, the finished puzzles have neon highlights around the edges, and illuminated conduits disappearing into the surrounding black area. In the tower above, glowing jigsaw icons beside activated ladders strain to make the connection.
By the way, here the inaccessible ladder segments are out of reach, to the right, and activated ones have slid into place – rather than having them appear from nothing. It gives you a sense of what might happen, even before you’ve activated any of them.
Further proposals for how to link the puzzles and ladder segments. In the end, we did something much more understated than any of these. It’s almost just left to the player to observe the connection on his own.
(Or maybe we should have Bloopi go, “Look, Tim! The magic of the puzzles is powering the ladder segments! It’s bee-yoo-tee-ful! What will happen if you solve more puzzles? Wowee!”)
Here is a concept image I made questioning whether the ladder segments should emerge from the left rather than from the right. The rationale is that in a side-scroller like this, progress is equated with moving right. On the other hand, by a similar logic, you could say that things to the right of Tim are still to come. Therefore … wait, did we make a huge mistake?
Here’s what the house looks like in the game now.
And here’s the tower. Looks like I have some puzzle solving ahead of me!
One day in early 2008, after several hours of scouring the top of my head for bald spots using an elaborate arrangement of mirrors, I received an e-mail from Jonathan pointing out where a shadow should have been.
He was right!