MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
BLOCK: Combat Evolved, and its successors. A couple of weeks ago, though, Xbox launched a more philosophical game, and it instantly became a hit on Xbox Live, the company's download service.
It's called Braid, and it's more a meditation on the meaning of life than a shoot-'em-up. Within six days, the game was downloaded more than 50,000 times. As Heather Chaplin reports, video game critics are calling Braid a masterpiece.
HEATHER CHAPLIN: Braid is not your usual video game.
JONATHAN BLOW: It's a meaning-of-life kind of game.
CHAPLIN: That's Jonathan Blow, the game's designer.
BLOW: The idea was, hey, wouldn't it be cool if you had this game where you could travel from world to world, and each world was an exploration or a meditation about different ideas about our reality.
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CHAPLIN: You play as Tim, a tiny figure scuttling his way across the screen through a series of mind-bending puzzles. You have to figure out when to move forward in time and when to move backward.
As you play, 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 actually 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 like plumbing your own past can be unsettling.
BLOW: Everything about our daily lives is predicated on this very solid difference between the past and future, right? 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.
If you start questioning that kind of thing, if you fundamentally start calling into question some of the things that obviously should be questioned, it very rapidly pulls you out of that stream of everybody going in a certain direction, and it's very uncomfortable. It's very isolating.
CHAPLIN: Braid feels like a game that a grownup can play, that a grownup perhaps ought to play. Braid pulsates with feelings of loss, loneliness and longing, which means Jonathan Blow is violating one of the cardinal rules of game-making, that games have to be fun, fun with a capital F and an exclamation point.
BLOW: You know, the game doesn't give you a bigger sword that does more damage to enemies or anything like that. It doesn't put on any light shows and fireworks and say you're awesome for solving this puzzle. You simply feel the satisfaction of having done something that seemed difficult at first and having expanded your understanding.
SAM ROBERTS: It doesn't feel immature the way other games feel because it doesn't short you in any respect.
CHAPLIN: That's Sam Roberts, games director for the Slamdance Film Festival's Guerilla Gamemaking Competition and an early champion of Braid.
ROBERTS: It expects as much from you as an audience member as any other fully adult media and media for adults does.
CHAPLIN: Roberts says he was struck by how rich and fulfilling Braid felt. 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 if for no other reason than to please himself. Jonathan Blow agrees.
BLOW: Whoever satisfactorily answers the question of why people create art, I don't have a satisfactory answer to that question either, but it's just - it's the same thing, I think, as anybody who's compelled to make something in their medium, like compelled to, not really wants to or feels like it would be a good idea.
CHAPLIN: Despite everything you hear about the magic of video games, making players feel richer and more fulfilled isn't generally at the top of the list. Maybe it's time they were.
For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.