Despite the release of many excellent titles in recent months, I haven't written about a video game for a while. However, Braid appears to be something rather special. Available for download to your Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Arcade (a service that has several hundred games, of varying quality, available to download for a few quid each), it is has been exceptionally well received by the gaming press, and thankfully appears to be making its developers some money.
The basic engine of the game is a hark back to classic 2D platformers of the 80s, such as Super Mario World or similar, in which the controllable character (named 'Tim' here) runs backwards and forwards, climbs up and down ladders, and kills enemies by jumping on their heads. So far, so familiar. The crucial difference is that you, as the player, have the ability to reverse time - by holding down a button on your controller, you can rewind everything that has passed since you started each level. What makes it really interesting is that each area of the game introduces different time-bending properties e.g. objects glowing green are immune to your time-reversal powers, and occasionally you can deploy a ring that slows down time in a decreasingly powerful radius surrounding it. In one world time is stationary, but every step you take to the right advances it, and every step to the left reverses it. It turns the game into less of a standard platformer (after all, there is no concept of death or 'lives' - you just reverse time!) and more into a puzzle game, where you have to manipulate switches, platforms, keys, doors and other characters through time.
It is both visually beautiful and thoroughly engrossing to play through, but an extra twist is the story. Presented to you rather basically as a series of short sections of text that flit up on the screen, at first read through it appears that it is a load of sentimental tosh about rescuing a Princess (a la Mario). But upon reaching the end of the final level, you realise there is a darker theme that has been running through the game. A bit of thinking (and background reading) and it becomes clear that the whole thing is an allagory for the development of the nuclear bomb, and of scientists' desire to pursue research, even when it yields such destructive power. Tim, depicted as a rather bland hero, with a mop of unruly hair, shabby suit and red tie, is a scientist researching the bomb, pushing others away from him in his quest, fearful of the outcome, but unable to stop driving himself towards it.
"Now we are all sons of bitches" was the legendary remark made by Kenneth Thomas Bainbridge as he congratulated Oppenheimer and others after they succesfully tested the first nuclear bomb in the American desert. The story of Braid both pays homage and criticises those scientists, wrapping it up into a short yet addictive platform puzzler. Like a good book or film, this is something I'll be fetching down from the (metaphorical) shelf for several years to come.