The success of Microsoft's Xbox game console has largely been built on titles like Gears of War, Halo: Combat Evolved and its successors. But a couple of weeks ago, it had a much smaller but perhaps more interesting hit on its online service, Xbox Live.
The game, Braid, is less shoot-'em-up than meditation on the meaning of life — and within six days, it had been downloaded more than 50,000 times. Game critics are calling it a masterpiece. Braid feels like a game that a grown-up can play, and that a grown-up perhaps ought to play.
You play as Tim, a tiny character scuttling his way across the screen through a series of mind-bending puzzles. You have to figure out when to move forward and backward in time.
As you play more, you realize that Tim has a lonely past — and is alienated from his lady love. And that all the moving backward and forward in time is a metaphor for Tim's attempts to figure out what went wrong in his relationship and where exactly he fits into the universe. When you rewind time, the screen turns red and the music plays backwards — it's disconcerting and disorienting, just as plumbing your own past can be unsettling.
"It's a meaning-of-life kind of game," says Braid designer Jonathan Blow. "Everything about our daily lives that we consider meaningful is predicated on the difference between past and future.
"You think, 'The past has happened, the future hasn't happened, therefore I have choices about what I can make happen, therefore my life has meaning somehow.'"
Braid pulsates with feelings of loss, loneliness and longing — which means that in creating it, Blow has violated one of the cardinal rules of game-making: that games have to be fun.
"It doesn't feel immature the way other games feel immature, because it doesn't short you in any respect," says Sam Roberts, games director for the Slamdance Film Festival Guerilla Gamemaking Competition.
Roberts, an early Braid champion, says he was struck by how rich and fulfilling the game felt.
"It expects as much from you as an audience member as any other fully adult media ... does," he says.
Roberts also says that unlike most game makers, who test-market their games incessantly, Blow wasn't trying to satisfy any particular audience. Rather, he felt driven to make the game [third story at target page], if for no other reason than to please himself.
Despite everything you hear about the magic of video games, making players feel richer and more fulfilled aren't generally at the top of the list. The unlikely success of Braid suggests that maybe it's time they were.