Braid PC annoyances
Posted at 09:00 on 15th April 2009 - permalink

“Braid treats your time and attention as precious.”

Braid official website

The PC version of Jonathan Blow’s arty platform puzzler Braid came out last week, complete with a demo. Much praise has been lavished on this game since its original release on the Xbox 360 last year. I’ve not caved in and paid for the full game yet, mainly because the demo suffered from some fundamental technical issues which virtually every other PC game released in the last 20 years has been able to successfully negotiate. Specifically:

  1. The game only supports a single resolution, aspect ratio and refresh rate. (Updates have added command line parameters to force other resolutions, but unless you have a 1280x720px monitor, there’s no satisfactory way to run the game full screen and scaled correctly.)
  2. The game does not support generic PC joystick devices. (Only Xbox 360 joypads and keyboard are supported.)
  3. The game does not allow the controls to be remapped, either in-game or through a configuration file. (If you’re left-handed or using a laptop without conveniently placed arrow keys, shift and space, then sorry, you’re out of luck.)

For the first of these, we can give the developer the benefit of the doubt. Braid would hardly be the first game to be built on the assumption of fixed screen dimensions. If the Xbox 360 version had been a flop, there would likely never have been a PC port and this issue would never have arisen. (That said, it does make me wonder how the Xbox 360 version handles 4:3 and standard definition televisions.) It’s irritating, but not a deal breaker.

There is no excuse for either of the other two issues. It is completely reasonable to expect to be able to configure the controls for a game, and for it to support the player’s preferred (standardised) input device, without having to resort to third-party utilities. The overwhelming majority of games ever released on the PC (and before that the 8-bit and 16-bit home computers) have supported these options.

The only explanation that I’ve seen regarding these issues is that Blow didn’t want to have to change the “tooltip” graphics which prompt which button the player should press when each new mechanic is introduced during gameplay. I hope that this isn’t true, as it would suggest that his priorities are very badly muddled. (Also, surely if this was the sticking point, it could be overcome by referring to the buttons by generic labels – i.e. ‘JUMP BUTTON’ and ‘REWIND/ACTION BUTTON’ – and if there was any further worry about thick people getting confused, automatically prompting the player the option to redefine the controls on detecting a joystick.)

With so many games being developed concurrently for the PC and ‘next-gen’ consoles these days, there is an insidious trend for the more subtle differences between the platforms to be ignored. Fallout 3 (and Oblivion) presents its UI in enormous fonts designed to be readable from the sofa across the room from the screen. Dead Space and Bioshock (and countless other games) instruct PC players not to remove the storage device or switch of the power while saving. Devil May Cry 4 comes with an external utility to configure joypads, which quickly turns into an exciting (and potentially unwinnable) game of ‘guess the axis’ if you don’t have the exact model of joypad the developers used internally. Usually these are minor inconveniences, but Braid’s problems go beyond that. Will these problems get worse if the trend continues unchecked?

It shouldn’t be that hard to anticipate the most common ways that PC users will want to configure a game. King’s Bounty (discussed previously) is particularly smart in this regard, detecting the desktop resolution and allowing the game to be cleanly task-switched using Alt-Tab without struggling or crashing.

And another (final) thing! I seem to recall Jonathan Blow has previously publicly moaned about the burden of technical requirements and QA testing required to get a game onto Xbox Live Arcade. If the PC version of Braid is anything to go by, perhaps it’s just as well that Microsoft were breathing down his neck to enforce some baseline user interface niceties.

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