Broken Age is like a jacuzzi – bubbly and fun but not very deep.
Broken Age is a classic point-and-click adventure game that also happens to be one of gaming’s most notable crowdfunding success stories. The second fact happens to overshadow the first. After all, game creator Tim Schafer and his team were responsible for some of the most beloved adventure game classics of the last century – Grim Fandango, Escape from Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle, to name a few – and the game amassed over $3.45 million in support – almost ten times as much as its initial goal of $400,000. On my part, I think Broken Age, while no instant classic, is a game that can stand on its merits, even as it is somewhat unfairly judged in relation to its antecedents and the stratospheric expectations that came with its crowdfunding success.
There is a pleasing symmetry in the game’s overall story. From the onset, the game tells the parallel stories of two protagonists, Vella and Shay: teenagers who have had overbearing social expectations placed upon them, and who struggle to escape those societal obligations. The player can switch between the stories at any time, but otherwise the parallel narratives do not intersect in the first half of the story. Where it gets more interesting is when the big reveal at the end of the first Act twists the plot strings into something resembling an hourglass, and the protagonists find themselves in each other’s worlds, so to speak, and their respective stories and puzzles begin to have an influence on each other. But this does mean that the story is relatively constrained – the second Act is a retread of the same locations and characters encountered in the first Act.
It’s a smart approach from a design perspective – the game’s puzzles start out relatively straightforward, but ramp up in complexity as the two narrative strands start to influence each other, requiring players to switch back and forth between protagonists to solve puzzles and propel the story forward. The puzzles themselves are actually mostly also quite well-designed, as far as point-and-click adventure games can be. In my review of Schafer’s earlier magnum opus, Grim Fandango, I expressed some frustration about how the puzzles in Grim Fandango often crossed the threshold from challenging to frustratingly obtuse, trial-and-error mix-and-matching. I’m pleased to report that this is not a significant problem in Broken Age. Even the game’s most complex puzzles are logically laid out and rely more on thinking and memory than fruitless pixel-picking. Unlike Grim Fandango, the puzzles of Broken Age are actually fun to work out.
Less salutary, however, is the fact that the puzzles sometimes make no sense in the context of the game’s plot. In the second half of the game, the protagonists are made to solve puzzles that they would have no way of knowing the solution for, because the solution lies in clues only found in the other character’s game world. Of course, the player knows, since they play both characters, but in the context of the story, the puzzles rely on information that neither of them could possibly have had. This actually highlights that old gameplay vs narrative tension. In this case, the game’s puzzle designers clearly tried to privilege gameplay over plot, to require that players switch between worlds to solve puzzles. In all fairness, it would have been much harder to make it work from a narrative point of view, and given the ‘floaty logic’ that is par on the course for most adventure games, it can be forgiven in the light of time and budgetary constraints.
Speaking of floaty logic, the world is positively Schaferesque in how it is so delightfully free of internal consistency. Like Grim Fandango’s intriguing but nonsensical Land of the Dead, there is little sense that the world of Broken Age would make sense if suddenly ported over to reality. Anachronisms abound – Vella, who grew up in a village seemingly without any apparent technology, seems oddly au fait with the notion of video games and robots. Shay, who has grown up in a spaceship all his life, with no other human companionship, seems strangely cavalier about exploring a natural environment and interacting with others in the second half. There are many characters that seem out of place with their milieu – the hipster lumberjack in a forest of talking trees is one amusing example. Some plot elements are never really explained – like the fact that Shay didn’t find out his parents were real people instead of computers until the second act (I still don’t see how that could possibly make any sort of sense – and this is really the game’s biggest plot flaw). The world is static – there is no sense of time, history, place – it is a fairytale canvas upon which the plot unfolds like a children’s bedtime story. But given that the game really is just like a kid’s story book, it isn’t a deal-breaker. And the environments and music are beautifully rended in painterly 2D fashion, which complements that fairy-tale aesthetic. ‘Schaferesque’, then, is not really a pejorative here – merely a creative direction, and that’s fine.
This is because a Tim Schafer game is really made by its dialogue. If Tim Schafer knows how to do something, it’s the kind of all-ages humor endemic to adventure games, with just the right amount of glibness, satire, and heart without crossing over to being trite. Although his overall effort here doesn’t quite match up to certain parts of Grim Fandango, it’s still an inspired effort, especially compared to the dross of the rest of the video game industry. It’s actually worth playing the game just to listen to its dialogue, which happens to be delivered by some truly talented voice actors. My personal favorites are the snarky cloud-town denizen M’ggie and the talking spoon and knife (don’t ask) from Shay’s spaceship.
Ultimately, however, the interactions between characters, while fun, don’t elevate the plot or characters of the game to true classic status. While Grim Fandango had Manny Calavera, who was suave but conflicted and plagued with an uneasy conscience, who spent his years working towards physical and emotional salvation, the characters of Broken Age are still bit players in the two dimensional plot, marionettes compelled to follow the rigid parallel-hourglass structure of the game. In the first Act, the motivations of Shay and Vella are established – Vella wants to escape her fate as a maiden offered in sacrifice to a chthonic monster-deity, and Shay, smothered by the attentions of his overbearing and infantile “Mom” computer, wants to break out of the endless, sanitized routine of his daily existence. Those motivations aren’t really borne out in the second half – Shay and Vella do what they do because plot exigencies compel them to. Instead of being constrained by their circumstances, they become constrained by plot, carrying out fetch quests to set the stage for the final Act, at which point they actually get to be the heroes.
But even this final Act has its own problems. The game has an overarching and not especially subtle message – that people should connect and that good things come out of communication and talking to each other, to size up each other as people, not ciphers or things, and to live unconstrained by the obligations unfairly imposed upon you. However, in the denouement of the story, Shay and Vella have to work together to solve the final puzzle – and they do – but the ironic thing is that they never actually talk to each other – they just know what to do by virtue of the gameplay trick of the player knowing both parties’ circumstances. Shay and Vella never actually speak to each other throughout the entire game – and that’s where the thematic charge of Broken Age falls through into self-parody. They don’t actually communicate – they trust in their own guts to do what is right – but of course, they couldn’t have known what was right without talking in the first place. The game ends happily, in effect, without anyone talking to and working with each other – that social glue is purely an artifact of the player’s singular agency as the person who controls both characters. That’s the insuperable contradiction resulting from the gameplay-story tension of adventure games.
As such, Broken Age isn’t really more than the sum of its (well-made) parts. It’s a well-written and fun puzzler with a great aesthetic and high production values, but whose plot and themes don’t quite bear out in a way that provides the game with a thematic unity that goes with its design symmetry – in fact, it’s the opposite – its design and gameplay are often at odds with its themes and story. The dialogue bits are fun but they don’t add up to a particularly compelling narrative. The game doesn’t possess that ineffable element that would have made it a classic – but it’s hard to blame it for that. The odd thing about Broken Age is that people expected it to be a classic based on its pedigree and its kickstarter success, and are now savaging it because it doesn’t quite live up to those lofty expectations. It’s somewhat unfair, because, on its own merits, Broken Age is a great game that will give you a solid 10 hours of fun, even if it doesn’t astound you with its depth.
And those Hexapals are adorable.
I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 Superconducting Gyroscopic Hypercams