This is a tough one for me, Iroquois. Before I played it, Braid looked like a game targeted directly at me and my tastes: thematically ambitious, artistically rich; an homage to genre-defining games I love. As I've written here previously, I want to play games that explore emotions rarely found in video games, like sadness and longing. I'm eager for games that don't fear ambiguity; games that offer open space for interpretation and rumination.
Braid is all these things. So why don't I like it very much?
I admire the game Braid wants to be, but I see a fundamental disconnect between the game's narrative ambitions and the mechanisms Braid relies on to deliver them. Essentially, it's a platformer/puzzle game with story elements interspersed throughout, separating each of the worlds. In this way, it's a fairly conventional structure, with what appears to be a purposefully thin story attached.
But as others have suggested, the real story of Braid is delivered via gameplay. Its thematic through-lines, such as memory and regret, are said to be manifested in the player's experience of turning back time and other activities. Intellectually, I understand this melding of form and content, and it resonates with me as an exciting approach to game design. But my experience playing Braid was nothing like this at all.
Maybe I'm simply not skilled enough as a gamer, but I found playing Braid a thoroughly frustrating affair. The process for accomplishing things can often be terribly fussy, requiring repeated attempts (for me, sometimes 25-30) to overcome a single obstacle or special reverse-time maneuver. At one point, I found myself perched on the last pixel edge of a moving cloud waiting for just the right moment to jump from my time delay circle to catch the next cloud. After 50 or so unsuccessful attempts, I consulted a video walkthrough (more on this in a moment), and even with that running next to me, I found it incredibly difficult to reproduce what I was seeing. At this point, any allegorical meaning I was meant to derive from this experience was destroyed.
Some players complain about single-path "guess what the designer is thinking" puzzles, and I confess I'm not crazy about them myself. But if they're cleverly designed and fun to execute, they can hit that "sweet spot" you describe. While I admire Braid's various chrono effects and the clever ways they're implemented, I found myself repeatedly stymied by the puzzles. Worlds 4 and 6 were only possible for me with multiple cheats. Perhaps if I had devoted more hours to each, I might have overcome them. But I made an earnest effort, and at a certain point it began to feel like drudgery. I understand the game plays on a certain narrative parallel between the player's difficulty making sense of things and Tim's uncertainties about the world. But for me, the frustration negated any possibility of this sort of engagement.
Anybody making the ironic connection between the name of my blog and the fact that I simply may not be smart enough to play this game?
You mentioned the writing in the narrative vignettes and wondered if such text might be considered "retrograde" in a game like this. I don't necessarily have a problem with games relying on text per se, and in the case of Braid it seems part of its spare, ambiguous aesthetic. I just wish the writing were better crafted. This is all terribly subjective, of course, but I personally found it awkward and bit mawkish. I wish it were more poetic or evocative than it is.
So it sounds like I really hate this game, doesn't it? I'm troubled by that impression because so many people I respect have written so enthusiastically about Braid. Perhaps this game just isn't for me. Despite all that I want to admire about it, it just feels like Braid doesn't like me very much, and that's pretty hard for me to overcome. I consider myself a skilled gamer, so maybe I'm just a little embarrassed that this game was too much for me. I don't know.
I do know this, however. Braid is the bees knees and the talk of the town at the moment, and I'm feeling very much like the odd man out.