In the 25 years or so I've been playing games, never once have I encountered an earnest conversation about what a game means. You see every other sort of discussion — people talking about how a game looks, or how it plays, how long or short or difficult or easy it is, or whether the writing or online elements are any good. But never, not even once, have I witnessed a discussion about how to interpret a game's content. That sort of conversation usually is reserved for books or films.
Then Braid comes along and provokes that sort of discussion. So how we judge games has maybe — just maybe — been changed forever.
On its surface, Braid is a platformer of the Super Mario Bros. variety with an increased emphasis on puzzle-solving over action. What makes Braid altogether different, though, is time travel: Protagonist "Tim" can reverse time at will, and he uses this skill to traverse the game's obstacles. For example, one puzzle might involve Tim's having to retrieve a key lying at the bottom of a pit that is too deep to climb out of. Hop into the pit, collect the key, and then "rewind" time so that Tim is back standing on its edge — but with the key in hand, ready to proceed.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: E10+ (may be unsuitable for kids under 10)
Score: 10 (out of 10)
That would be a very simple "Braid 101" example of how the game's mechanics play out; in time, players will find themselves lost in temporal mindbenders that would make even Professor Layton and Dr. Kawashima take two aspirins and turn in early. Tim eventually acquires new powers, including the ability to slow time in small areas or create parallel-reality versions of himself by performing an action, rewinding time, and then watching his shadowy "future-self" repeat the process while he attends to other areas of a puzzle. Players are forced to use many of the skills at once on a few of the more devilish maps, though the bigger challenge is teaching one's brain to not just accept the game's strange "logic," but think along the same lines.
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Braid does all this, and does it well; viewed strictly for the gameplay alone, it's the most interesting, innovative game of the year so far — and at $15, a true bargain. But what's got people talking isn't the gameplay (not precisely) but the narrative, which tells a story more powerful than anything in Metal Gear Solid 4's hours of self-indulgent cut-scenes.
Talking about Braid's story would only spoil it. Suffice it to say: While Tim's adventure starts as the archetypal video game search for a princess, it slowly mutates into something more human and even subtle, culminating in a revelation that — like the endings of The Sixth Sense or Memento — forces you to re-examine everything about the experience prior.
The ending (as I described it at my blog, Joystick Division) is an emotional gut punch, and though it may leave players feeling conflicted, one also experiences elation over the simple fact that a mere video game has made one feel anything. It's fascinating that after decades of performing fatalities, stealing cars and lining up headshots in games, Braid — with its enigmatic, haunting, lonely ending — is the first to truly provoke a moral reaction from a player.
Is Braid the greatest game of all time? Even if I thought of creative works in those terms — as part of a ranking in my head — I would say no. But is it one of the most important games of all time? That, I think, it very well may be.