3P Reviews

Not All is as it Seems – Broken Age

Broken Age C

If you’ve heard of this game prior to playing it, chances are you know it as Double Fine Adventure or That Video Game Project Wot Done Broke Kickstarter. Back in 2012, indie game developer Double Fine announced that they were opening up a Kickstarter project to fund a small classic point-and-click-style adventure game. As the company’s founder, Tim Schafer, gained a foothold in the 90s for his work on popular adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, this project quickly ballooned well beyond its original $400,000 allotment into nearly 3.5 million dollars. Thus, Broken Age was born.

The game was somewhat controversial in its release, coming out as a paid experience on Steam Early Access when only the first half was completed, despite gaining a far bigger budget than expected. Some players were disappointed that the release date continued to be pushed back, while others were underwhelmed by the second act when it was finally released. In all, these are really pretty minor complaints as many people in the game development industry can tell you. Especially in recent years with horror stories of 100-hour work weeks, sketchy developers running off with Early Access profits, child gambling rings, predatory microtransactions, horribly buggy releases, and the whole host of actively unplayable games in many reputable online stores, a slight delay in release seems an almost laughable problem. The fact of the matter is, Broken Age shipped where many comparable projects have outright failed, even if it used a model that at the time was unconventional.

There are certainly questions to be asked about whether the two trends the game helped normalize — episodic game releases and crowd funding — are in fact positive contributions to games as a whole. My thoughts are, perhaps, but plenty of studios have since come to abuse these tools, either releasing episodes that never finish or never delivering on crowdfunded projects. I have at least one prominent Early Access game in my Steam library that has completely lost my interest as game-breaking changes have made the game I originally bought unrecognizable and updates have slowed to a crawl. There are plenty of worse stories out there.

But I’m here to talk about Broken Age as a game, not a product. It has an interesting development history (the bulk of which was recorded as a documentary by Double Fine that’s worth a look if you’re interested), but through both acts of the game’s release, I feel it was overshadowed by its then-unusual funding situation. Now that the game is available as a whole, it’s worth discussing as such.

 

3P Reviews: Broken Age

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

 

Part One: Murdering Monsters and Escaping Playtime

Broken Age F

The first thing to know about this game is its conceit. As is common for those who follow games during their development, for a long time, the conceit was all anyone aside from the developers knew about it. The game is split along two storylines, one following Vella, a girl in a fantasy world about to be sacrificed to a horrible monster, and the other following Shay, a boy trapped on a spaceship whose AI treat him like a toddler. As their stories converge, so too do their respective plotlines.

For the bulk of the story, the two characters are completely separated, though their stories overlap and in Act Two, the consequences of one impacts the environment explored by the other.

The writing, as with many adventure games, is one of the game’s strong points, second only, in my opinion, to the utterly beautiful art style. The animation, colors, and textures in this game are top-notch, all stylized in a way that will let it hold up for years to come. I love the little personal touches like individual brush strokes that make everything look hand-painted, and the way certain objects stretch and deform just enough that it’s barely noticeable. As with many Double Fine projects, the character designs are adorable and many of them come with an appropriately silly backstory. There are a lot of gorgeous games out there, but this might honestly be one of my favorites.

The gameplay is fairly standard adventure game format, which doesn’t particularly lend itself to action or flow. Which is kind of good in this case, because the focus of this game isn’t either of those, it’s story. Nonetheless, there are certainly sections where the mechanics — which mostly consist of clicking on things to walk up to them, and interacting with them using every damn thing in your inventory to see if does something — feel more obtuse than necessary. I generally prefer the early 2000s approach, which was to give the player full control of the character and let them swing whatever’s in their inventory to see if it does something. Same result, just a bit more fun. I will say that Broken Age improves upon some of the older Adventure Game conventions by allowing easier skipping and simplifying the ways characters interact with the world. That said, if dialogue and puzzles are not your thing, this game is unlikely to change your mind.

There are two things likely to keep you going through the experience otherwise: 1) the humorous dialogue, and 2) the overall plot. At least one of those makes the otherwise tedious mechanics well worth it.

 

Part Two: SPLARGH!

Broken Age L

I mentioned in my Psychonauts review that I like comedy in games to be structured, such as around cutscenes. Broken Age is a comedy game much in the same vain as Psychonauts, although arguably a more confined experience (I think it might actually be just as long in hours, it just has a narrower scope). Humor comes principally from the plot, which is itself only partially comedic. However, like Psychonauts, there are abundance dialogue options that present genuinely hilarious jokes, and a large part of my enjoyment of the game comes from discovering these. For instance, Shay has a talking spoon that you can try to use on most things throughout the world, and some of its responses are absolutely golden. The spoon (named Stratford on the Bassinostra), also has an elaborate backstory.

From the Broken Age Wiki:

At one point in his life, Stratford was in a relationship with Lorraine the Fork. However, Dutch Knife eventually came between them somehow. Stratford was heartbroken and consequently volunteered to be Shay’s spoon, believing it to be a suicide mission since Shay has not always been gentle with his utensils.

Lorraine and Stratford eventually made up and went on to have a spork.”

This is the utter nonsense I am always here for.

There is a similar thread involving a toy called Grabbin’ Gary who Shay insists, despite the robot’s name, will not grab anything until the plot demands it.

This is the sort of game where you are rewarded for exploring not just the world, but the text as well. Dialogue trees are often there to provide help as well as progress the plot, but asking about anything and everything available to you, regardless of how necessary it is to the plot, often yields the exact sort of absurd characterization that only video games can really deliver. You could play Shay and Vella as their characters are portrayed, Vella being a bit naive but determined and Shay being a bored numpty. Or… you could go straight for the “I’m going to kill Mog Chothra” option Vella has for every new person she comes across. You could also play Shay as the most sarcastic and simultaneously stupid teenager alive, because he always has those options available.

Exploring the nooks and crannies of the interactions and dialogue options isn’t necessarily useful, per say. I think there are a few times that optional interactions give you more reactions, like how Shay can say “SPLARGH!” when surprised if you go through all of the cereal options and get stuck with the SPLARGH cereal. It’s mostly just entertaining, though, and it’s why my playthrough of the game took about three times longer than its actual runtime. If you’re looking for a long game, you’ll find it here, you just won’t get there if you want to actually follow the story.

Which is unfortunate, because the story’s really cute and amusing for its own reasons.

 

Part Three: Grabbin’ Gary: MVP

Broken Age D

Like with Return of the Obra Dinn, I’m going to issue a quick spoiler warning here because if this sounds like the sort of game you’ll like, it’s worth going in without a map, at least until you come to any particularly challenging puzzles. There are two moments that caught me off-guard that, while perhaps somewhat obvious in retrospect, had me cackling with delight when I came across them.

So, you know, you’ve been warned.

The more precise plot of Broken Age depends on which character you choose to start with and whether you switch between them. One useful feature of the game is that you can tap out of one story to continue the other’s plotline. This is mainly an endurance reliever, as when one puzzle is giving you a lot of trouble, you can switch gears to an entirely different one and reset your brain a bit. Later in the game, you have to switch between the characters to control parts of the environment and uncover rules that allow the other character to proceed. However, perhaps an unintended consequence of the switching mechanic is that if you start with one character and play through their narrative, you’ll have slightly different biases moving forward.

For the most part, though, the two stories follow their own paths for Act One, briefly converge, and then run parallel to each other in Act Two.

If you start with Vella, as I did on my first playthrough, the story sounds like this: A teenage girl living in a confectionery-themed world is being prepared for the annual Maiden’s Feast, which we quickly learn involves the fair youths of the village being dressed up as cakes and, if they’re lucky, being fed to a giant flying tentacle monster called Mog Chothra. Vella wonders if, maybe instead of willingly being eaten, she could fight back and kill the monster so they don’t have to do the Maiden’s Feasts anymore. This suggestion does not go down well, as despite the apparent horror of the situation, well, it’s still a holiday, and people do not like being told not to celebrate holidays. Vella shirks tradition anyway, escaping the Feast on a giant bird.

From there, she wanders various towns and countrysides, encountering curious characters and other villages in various stages of their Maiden’s Feasts. Vella eventually finds a way to join another village’s Maiden’s Feast before Mog Chothra arrives, and uses a crashed spaceship to blast Mog Chothra out of the sky — a spaceship that belongs to a suspiciously familiar figure, frozen for three hundred years.

Vella gets knocked unconscious, so the player transitions to Shay’s story.

Shay is around the same age as Vella in his plotline, the sole human inhabitant of a spaceship designed to fulfill his every comfort — provided it’s safe, of course. He is lorded over by a mother and father AI, the mother AI caring for Shay and sending him on “missions” during the day that were clearly designed for him when he was a small child and have not changed since. The father AI controls the security systems and keeps Shay from exploring the ship at night.

As you might imagine, Shay gets bored of this routine eventually (assuming the player does too), and begins to break his kiddie play areas to more fully explore the ship. He finds in one of the back corridors a talking wolf named Marek, who gives him real missions, showing him how to override the ship’s computer systems and use its extractor to rescue creatures trapped on various alien planets in the midst of a war. These rescue attempts go forward successfully, but usually with one creature lost at the end, which leaves Shay increasingly distraught. On a final mission, he persists in trying to rescue the final creature despite computer errors and Marek’s pleas, which eventually crashes the ship.

Lo and behold, Shay’s ship is Mog Chothra, and he’s not Vella’s time-travelling friend, but the one unknowingly piloting the giant monster. The giant monster, of course, is not a monster at all, but it’s clearly not a space ship either. Shay gets trapped with the orb that represents his father AI, and Vella gets trapped in the Mog Chothra ship thing.

Then, in what is perhaps my favorite plot twist of all time, Shay’s father unburies himself from the sand and removes the orb, which was just his helmet. Despite Shay’s insistence that they’re just part of the computer system, it turns out his parents are actual people. Like people-people.

This is such an unnecessary and inconsequential plot twist that I never would have guessed — because, why? — and therefore I love it to bits.

Vella, meanwhile, encounters Shay’s mother aboard the ship as well as Shay’s remaining utensils, and from there, the two of them have to coordinate through the player to get the ship up and running again. Actually, two ships, as Vella’s friend, Alex, still has his crashed version of the monster from when he was sent out.

A lot of people feel the second act of the game is weaker narratively than the first. I wouldn’t dispute that. It has a lot of the same appeal, and I actually like the characters exploring their respective worlds. They have different perspectives, and it’s nice to see the side characters get little plot developments. I don’t tend to see world growth in adventure games much, so to have it front and center is a bonus in my book. It can certainly feel like the game is exploring the same territory, though, especially as it offers fewer new encounters in the second act. The puzzles are also a lot harder, which doesn’t help the story flow much.

When the Mogs are airborn again, Marek (revealing himself to be a sort of human, rather than a wolf) turns on the remaining inhabitants of his ship and explains what’s going on. He and Shay’s parents come from a land called Loruna, whose elite inhabitants, Thrushes, of which Marek is one, are obsessed with genetic purity to the point where they are slowly dying out from genetic diseases. They send out Mogs containing specially selected human boys from Loruna, who they then train in secret to pick out girls from the distant villages. These girls are then killed and incorporated into the genes of the Thrushes.

Vella, who as established is not one for being consumed by monsters, constructs a bomb to “kill Mog Chothra.” When Alex’s ship collides with the other, the characters convene to melt its reactor too. They all jump to safety, thanks to Grabbin’ Gary, who, ever the trooper, goes down with the ships in a hilariously tragic death scene.

He died as he lived: only ever grabbing the one damn thing.

Toward the end, the game is rather exposition-dense and tends to be a bit more confusing than its simple setup implies. I can completely understand why a lot of players felt the latter half didn’t live up to the expectations of the first, especially given the length of time between them. The game was written to be a full experience with a turning point in the middle, and temporally isolating its halves was probably not ideal. As in the game itself, halves are best made whole.

Nonetheless, I happened to play it all at once, so I don’t think this effect was quite as pronounced for me, and I ended up liking it quite a bit all the way through the end.

I usually dislike absurd plot twists, and hypocrite that I am, I just got through putting Westworld through the wringer for this very thing. The reason it works in Broken Age (you know, aside from the petty bit where I just like Broken Age more on the whole) is that the twists are humorous. Just a little bit of levity can make a big difference, in this case, for the better. Humor offers the audience a chance to see the plot twists as unnecessary by design, so as long as the audience isn’t expecting something more serious in their place, comedic twists can progress the plot without feeling tedious. This wouldn’t work without the pre-established comedic tone, which is present throughout the game whether you explore its side paths or not. Perhaps that added to the overall disappointment in Act Two, as the particular sardonic and absurd comedy of the first half is somewhat essential to making the second land.

Regardless, it’s a cute little game, and if you need a laugh or something to brighten your day, it’ll satisfy.

It will also give you the most infuriating headache over a knot-based-description puzzle you will ever experience. So, you know, walkthroughs are fair game. Just don’t overlook the dialogue options while you’re trying to get through it.

 

 

Breakdown Rating:

Aesthetics: 8

Plot: 7

Characters: 7

Prose: 7

Creativity: 7

Sum: 36/50

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