The Beautiful Simplicity of ‘Broken Age’

[24 January 2014]

By Nick Dinicola

In a way, Tim Schafer lied to his Kickstarter backers. He promised a classic point-and-click adventure game, but Broken Age is most certainly not one of those. It doesn’t follow the typical LucasArts/Sierra adventure format, instead it follows the stripped down, streamlined, and dare I say, simple structure of a modern adventure game. Broken Age, with its tighter focus on story over puzzles, is closer in spirit to Kentucky Route Zero or The Walking Dead than Monkey Island, and that’s what makes it great.

In short, Broken Age is a game that understands its limitations. It knows what it’s good at, and it chooses to focus on only those things—those things being style, dialogue, characters, and humor. The overall narrative takes a backseat to individual moments of quirkiness, and the puzzles themselves are easy enough that they never break the calm, laissez-faire atmosphere.

Every item that you find, you’ll use—usually quickly. Each screen only has a few interactive hotspots, and the art ensures that your eyes are always drawn towards those hotspots. It’s always clear what you have to do. The puzzles never impede your progress. Instead, they exist as setups for jokes or whimsical world-building. But let’s be honest, that why you’re playing Broken Age—not for the puzzles, but for that dependable Double Fine daftness.

The world is surreal and crazy, but every character has an understated acceptance of their fate, lending this screwball world a sense of indifferent realism. In Vella’s story, there’s a mopey teenager and a couple of stuck-up “valley girls,” but in this case, the former is sad because she wasn’t eaten by a giant sea monster and the latter use their status as live bait to lord over Vella. Then there’s the family that moved to the clouds because the father fell in hard with a “lightness” cult. The rest of the family just goes with it, dropping a letter from their name to make them lighter, and embracing their bizarre new life with a zen-;like resignation. But it’s that zen-like resignation that makes them all so fascinating and fun. The entire world is a joke, and Vella is the lone straight-woman.

This is what we remember and love about Tim Schafer’s old-school point-and-click games. We remember the world and the characters. The puzzles we mostly remember for their absurdity and difficulty (sure, insult sword fighting was clever, but it was also tedious as hell), not because they were genuinely enjoyable. The puzzles were the fluff that existed in between the memorable moments of dialogue.

What sets Broken Age apart from the legacy of its creator is its understanding of that legacy and its conscious efforts to avoid it. For example, the opening section of Shay’s story tasks him with solving a series of space-faring missions. He has to rescue people from a runaway train, save the victims of an avalanche, or investigate another ship that has been attacked. The joke is that all of these missions are ridiculously easy, usually requiring only one click to complete, and they’re obviously faked. The avalanche is really an avalanche of ice cream, the runaway train isn’t really out of control, and the enemies that attacked the other ship are “hugs.”

These scenes are parodies of the adventure games of old, forced puzzle situations in which the world repeats itself until you step in with the proper item. Broken Age wants us to remember how ridiculous these moments were and how they weren’t really all that fun.

That’s not to say that Broken Age itself is free from such absurd, forced puzzles, but such moments are a natural extension of this world in which girls, year after year, excitedly dress as cupcakes to be sacrificed to a sea monster, and a lone boy, coddled by an overprotective AI, goes through the motions of saving the day, every day. These people are already stuck in an endless, dumb, unquestioning loop, and breaking that cycle is the entire point of the game.

Those missions at the beginning of Shay’s story are the most boring and repetitive part of the game, but that’s the point. Broken Age understands that it’s not the puzzles that we fondly remember from old adventure games. It’s the characters, the worlds, the atmosphere, and the humor. Tim Schafer didn’t really give us what we said we wanted, which was an old school point-and-click adventure game. He gave us something better, a modern LucasArts game. He looked past our words to our intent and gave us a game that represents what we really wanted, not just what we thought we wanted.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/178507-the-beautiful-simplicity-of-broken-age/