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 reserved for books or films.
Then Braid came along and provoked that sort of discussion, and 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 uses this skill to traverse the game's obstacles. For example, one puzzle might involve Tim having to retrieve a key lying at the bottom of a pit too deep to climb back out of. Hop into the pit, collect the key, and then "rewind" time so Tim is back standing on its edge — but with the key in hand, ready to proceed.
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, like 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 these 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 to think along the same lines.
Braid does all of 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 bargain to boot. 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 cutscenes.
Talking about Braid's story would only spoil it. Suffice it to say: while Tim's adventure starts as the archetypal videogame search for a princess, it slowly mutates into something more human and even subtle, culminating in a revelation that — like the endings of Sixth Sense or Memento — forces you to reexamine everything about the experience prior.
The ending (as I described it at our blog, Joystick Division) is an emotional gut punch, and though it may leave players feeling conflicted, one also experiences elation over the simple fact a mere videogame 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 might be.