I am pleased to report that I am the 1,492nd person to complete Braid, according to its leaderboard.
I really like Braid, and recommend that anyone with an XBox 360 download it and take its free trial levels for a spin. It's already a darling of the professional reviewers, and deserves all its praise. That said, I do wonder how its sense of reception will fall out after some tens of thousands of people have kicked it around for a week or so. It's an interactive art piece, implemented by mixing dollops of text (which, in style, intentionally evoke Italo Calvino), quietly beautiful graphics, contemplative music... and an action-oriented puzzle game that requires a moderate level of video-game skill to get through. So, as art, it chooses to limit its audience to people who are at least pretty good with video games.
Not that there's any kind of deception afoot, here: Braid bills itself primarily as a puzzle game, and it's a very good one. It also follows in the footsteps of Portal - last year's celebrated action-puzzler - by balancing its brevity with a tight structure and sense of purpose, so that when the game is done you feel more like you've just experienced a fine work of artistic entertainment, and less like you just pushed over an amusing but rather small collection of puzzles.
But Portal was bursting with, begging your pardon, a very nerdy sense of humor, full of dark-jokey irony that echoed the best of Monty Python. It also left players with a basket of souvenirs to take home after the game was over, most notably that catchy Jonathon Coulton end-theme, and some repeatable catchphrases and iconography suitable for wearing as T-shirts or forum avatars. Braid eschews these; after playing, you take home no more than what you would after, say, savoring a short poetry collection, or studying a large oil painting for some time.
The striking difference in attitude makes me very curious to see how well the game is received by the XBox-owning public, for whom - if I may risk stereotyping - Portal's macabre humor seems like a far easier sell than Braid's airy, contemplative sketches on the fragility of human relationships and the tenacity of regret. (Yes, by way of puzzles where you dodge cannon-fire and bounce off monsters' heads, which as far as I'm concerned is part of the joy of it.)
Portal established a precedent for high-concept, low-budget commercial games with small, tight structure and scope, planting its flag in relatively safe territory and reaping tremendous success. Braid starts there too, and ventures a little further out, taking some unusual and interesting risks, given its audience limitations. I want to see and play more games like these, so I really do hope that it enjoys a similar fate as well.
Aside: Braid also, for me, shines light on some of the more interesting challenges that digital games face when they present themselves as art. I carved out these bits and may turn them into another post later.
Aside 2: This is the second XBLA game I've played this summer that prominently features an in-game reference to the iconic phrase but our princess is in another castle, which originates from 1985's medium-defining game Super Mario Bros. Always interesting to witness the construction of a 25-year-wide artistic feedback loop, and be able to say you were there at the start.