Review: Broken Age
By Nick Olsen
Editor’s note: Because Broken Age is being released in two acts, the review will be updated with each release. A copy of Broken Age was provided for review. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers.
A letter from Tim Schafer, founder and owner of Double Fine, provided to media outlets with assets for Broken Age opens with the a very telling line:
“Broken Age is an adventure game. Which is awkward, because everybody knows adventure games are dead. Well, most people do. It seems that nobody ever informed adventure game fans.”
Whether or not you agree with Tim’s assessment that “adventure games are dead,” there’s no arguing that they were pushed to the brink of their existence as they struggled to evolve beyond odd mechanics, poor design and mounting player frustrations. Though the genre has seen a recent revival, they’ll only last if they’ve evolved.
So when we heard that Broken Age was to join the adventure game revival efforts, we wondered whether Double Fine had learned the lessons of it’s predecessors or simply slapped an HD skin on nostalgic trip down memory lane. At the end of Act 1, we’re happy to report that while Broken Age has its flaws, Double Fine got it mostly right.
Focusing on the Story
For those who are familiar with Double Fine’s previous works it will come as no surprise that one of the strengths of Broken Age is it’s focus upon storytelling and sense of humor. Much as they did with Brütal Legend, Double Fine used the story of Broken Age as a way to draw the player in, something we’ve publicly asked more developers to do. This decision is critically important in Broken Age however, as with any adventure game, there’s little else for the player to focus on game-wise. In other genres there’s variations of movement and combat mechanics (fighting/shooters), complex jumping puzzles (platformers) or character building/skill level development (role playing games), etc. With adventure games, the controls are basic point and click mechanics for both movement, item collection and puzzle solving, providing fewer player diversions.
At the start of the game, players choose to play as either Shay or Vella, and while the player can switch freely between the two, the actions taken in one story have no direct impact on the other. Luckily, the seemingly-independent-yet-intertwined stories of Shay and Vella tell an engaging tale of two teens each fighting against their predetermined circumstances – Shay, against an over-protective parent/computer determined to keep him safe until “Project Dandelion” (an evacuation and protection protocol) finds a suitable new planet to call home; Vella, against the rampant “Maiden’s Feast” sacrifices to Mog Chothra, a multi-eyed, multi-tentacled monster of lore which terrorizes villages unless they serve him the requisite number of maidens. While initially presented as such, each of these stories feels like more than just the standard “coming of age” fare that are all too common these days. Of course we can’t say for certain until the conclusion of the game in Act 2, but the stories to this point feel less about finding a place in the existing world and more about Shay and Vella reshaping their worlds to their desires.
What sets these stories apart are the evolving cast of memorable characters, whose eccentric behaviors manage to seem commonplace in Shay and Vella’s world. Vella meets swaths of individuals on her journey, from a paranoid, art-fanatic woodsman, to a family who moved to a city in the clouds to follow the teachings of a “lightness” guru, to a pair of temple guardians who intentionally blinded themselves to better relate to their “dead eye god.” Shay, on the other hand, lives in isolation on a spaceship “populated’ by the overbearing computer and a slew of knitted figurines which serves as his companions. That is until Marek, a creature in a wolf disguise, shows up and leads Shay on his journey of discovery.
Perhaps the most interesting part of both Shay and Vella’s stories are what’s left out of them. In both instances the player is dropped right into the game with no backstory or explanation of the events that have led up to current day. Through interaction with characters like Shay’s “mom” (the overbearing computer) or Vella’s grandfather we gather snippets of the past – the inhabitability of Shay’s home planet; the transformation of Vella’s village from warriors to bakers – but the lack of a substantial backstory is an interesting strategic decision on the part of Double Fine. By skipping the backstory Double Fine puts the emphasis on the current player actions (as few as they may actually be).
Of course where the story truly succeeds is in the moment of crossover between Shay and Vella’s stories. Looking back on the major reveal it seems obvious now how the two stories would eventually coincide, but Double Fine managed to obscure the intersection by creating engaging and entertaining stories for both Shay and Vella, both of which were long enough to allow the player to overlook the clues scattered throughout each. In a day and age of rampant twist endings, the fact that Double Fine could pull of this feat with such aplomb speaks to the quality of the writing in the game.
Masking the Shortcomings of the Genre
Two of the primary flaws of traditional adventure games were their reliance on illogical puzzles to increase difficulty, and the monotony of extreme backtracking through a limited number of set pieces as players searched for clues. Here’s what I wrote in my essay on the point-and-click revival about each aspect that made them so frustrating:
“ … developers appear to believe that simply because you can literally point at, and then click on, any number of objects within the environment, they shouldn’t be required to put much thought into the clues they provide players to allow them to solve their puzzles. By skipping over logic and encouraging random clicks, developers are devaluing the puzzle aspect of the game and increasing frustration levels for players.”
And citing The Secret of Monkey Island as an example of backtracking:
“Each time our solution for poisoning them fails, we must move back right through various screens, collecting items which may potentially provide our solution. Unfortunately, the only way to test our hypotheses is to try and administer our creation to the poodles. If the ingredients we’ve collected extended as far right as seven screens, we must backtrack through each screen to re-reach the poodles. And if our solution fails? Back out through the same screens we just traversed, aimlessly looking for the answer to our puzzles in a search which could extend well beyond the seven screens we’ve already explored. Think you’ve found the solution? Time to trek back to the poodles! Wash. Rinse. Repeat.”
While these problems are systemic in all point-and-click adventure games to some degree, Double Fine managed to mask these problems fairly well by focusing primarily on an engaging story rather than resorting to illogic and cheap trickery. No, the puzzles in Broken Age aren’t difficult to solve, and they don’t require hours of meditation to come to a conclusion, and that’s OK. Because instead of using puzzles as way to stall player progress and lengthen their game, Double Fine used them as a way to further draw the player into the worlds of Vella and Shay.
For example, when Marek is first introduced to the player, he asks Shay to meet him at a secret location when he’s ready to move past silly children’s games. To reach the secret meeting location Shay must escape the watchful eye of his guardian computer, open an air vent and climb through unseen. But rather than over-complicating the solution to this puzzle, all of the required items for success are within Shay’s bedroom, where he starts the quest. The simplicity of the solution rewards the player with a sense of resourcefulness and accomplishment while never breaking their sense of absorption in the game world.
They used a similar approach to reduce the high level of backtracking which has historically hampered the genre. Double Fine employed logic in their level design, encouraging players to experience the worlds they created, but made it almost impossible for the player to leave each set piece without acquiring whatever necessary piece of the puzzle they were required to collect. They did so through the strategic use of dialog (Marek explains everything to Shay/the player in precise detail), and striking visual clues (the golden eggs stand in such stark visual contrast to the other subdued hues – other than the white clouds – of Meriloft, the cloud town, that it’s instantly obvious that collecting them is Vella’s primary objective).
Normally I play video games for the challenge; it’s a key component to my enjoyment. But Broken Age reduced the level of difficulty for the player by masking these systemic flaws (or at least reducing their impact on the gameplay), while managing to keep me more engaged in an adventure game than I expected to be when I started playing.
Ready for Act 2
Act 1 of Broken Age ends on an interesting note, as the stories of Shay and Vella finally intersect. But more than just having Shay and Vella meet on the road of their respective journeys, Double Fine swaps the characters directly into each other’s environments. We leave Vella on the inside of Shay’s spaceship banging on the door to get out, and Shay on the outside, in the open air for the first time in his life, banging frantically to get back in. There’s many questions left unanswered for the player that should get resolved in Act 2, but perhaps the most important: can Double Fine stay the course and successfully keep Broken Age out of the deeply flawed adventure game rut? We’ll just have to wait and see.