Little did I know that, as I was punching out my last post about innovative games available from Sony's PlayStation Store, my Xbox 360 was in the process of downloading the startlingly original and refreshingly mature Braid , a game that may well end up being the most inventive interactive entertainment of the year.
An unabashed tribute to Super Mario Bros., Braid is a side-scrolling adventure loaded with nods to Nintendo's iconic plumber, including man eating plants that pop out of pipes, cannons that spit out deadly creatures, and clouds upon which players can hitch rides (we even get to read that most famous of video game lines, "I'm sorry, but the princess is in another castle").
But labelling Braid a simple Super Mario Bros. homage hardly does this brilliant and pioneering platform game justice.
Braid's wildly imaginative environments, composed of beautiful, perpetually moving watercolours, owe inspiration to such diverse sources as the painted worlds of Capcom's Okami and Vincent Ward's film What Dreams May Come, scenes of which appear set on living canvas. The sky in Braid is a swirling ocean of blue and white, and heavenly bodies pulse and spin as we run beneath them. It's impossible to recognize the game's milieu as anything less than interactive art.
And as our little blue-suited hero journeys through the game's mesmerizing worlds, questing for a vanished woman whom he once loved, a surprisingly adult tale about the hope and futility of finding perfection in our mates begins to take shape. Through brief bits of efficient and beautifully written prose, Braid details the relationship of a man and a woman that has come, through a series of all too common events, to wallow in resentment and mistrust. The primary theme concerns the profoundly human wish to turn back the hands of time and right our mistakes, and this concept is cleverly translated into play via one of the game's main mechanics, which involves rewinding time to allow us to fix our blunders.
Indeed, Braid is dripping with sly allegories that bridge story and play. Another example can be seen in the way our hero collects jigsaw puzzle pieces of paintings that show scenes from happier moments in his life. As he does this we realize that he is, in fact, trying to find and reassemble the pieces of his broken relationship.
As I played, I couldn't help but think of Michel Gondry's psychedelic time-shifting love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is acclaimed for its musing on wrecked relationships and our desires to at once treasure and be rid of their memories. Like Mr. Gondry's film, Braid masterfully leads the audience through something that has the potential to be thorny and inaccessible, keeping us on track until we arrive at its obvious-and, as it turns out, inevitable-conclusion.
The only downside for the game is its difficulty. Some of the puzzles, which involve bending time in ways most people are not naturally equipped to imagine, are true brain breakers. There's a good chance that, despite the game's appealing narrative and artistic design, some players may not have the patience to persevere through to the end-which would be an unfortunate shame.
My advice is to do whatever it takes to make it through this stunningly creative piece of entertainment (including watching user walkthroughs on YouTube, if necessary). Braid is a game that redefines what the medium can be-and, perhaps more importantly, what it can say.