Offered as a download on Xbox Live, this experiment strives for videogame greatness -- but falls frustratingly short of its goal

(Microsoft, Xbox 360, Everyone)

Cultural artifacts that wear their ambitions on their sleeves pose a conundrum to potential audiences: Should said works be dismissed out of hand for their lofty aspirations — or should they be given the benefit of the doubt? In the case of Braid — an experimental title available for download on Xbox Live (for $15) — it’s all about its metatextuality. The game’s suit-and-tie clad hero Tim journeys through several different worlds searching for a princess he intends to rescue — just like in the Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros. And while sharing some similarities with SMB (including enemies, gameplay style, and structure), the relationship between the protagonist and the princess is more nuanced and fraught with emotion: it was something Tim did that drove her away — and into peril.

”[To] be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications,” the game posits. ”To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.” Love, regret and the relation of time to memory become themes that weave themselves in to the game’s seven levels. Each world allows the player to manipulate time in a different way — rewinding it here or speeding it up there, to give two examples — and delivers narrative and pictorial clues to the couple’s past. Along with flowery quotes like the one above, Braid‘s artsy ambitions are further evident in the impressionist-like watercolor backdrops Tim jumps and bops through, all the while accompanied by chamber music. Classy!

And while obviously influenced by arcade-era platformers, Braid requires a radically different approach in problem solving. To successfully clear each world, players will need to develop the ability to see each room as a puzzle whose solution requires both careful moves and clever use of time travel. It’s frustrating, then, that the developers offer little in the way of tutorial or guidance. (Just as in life, perhaps?) In the end, what’s most pretentious about Braid isn’t its philosophical aspirations. Rather, it’s creator Jonathan Blow’s statements that all you need to know to play the game is already in the title. (Someone ought to explain to him that a game can offer some direction or assistance without sullying its supposed purity.) Still, since you can’t ”die” in the game, the most important asset one should bring to this game is patience. For such suitably prepared players, the haunting melancholy of Braid just might linger after its relatively quick play-through. B-