[7 February 2014]
We open on a divided screen. Both Vella and Shay leaning back asleep mirroring one another across a divide. Fantasy dipped in orange light on one side and sci-fi in the hue of blue on the other. The opening shot of the game is a choice of where to begin, a matter of deciding which beginning to play first to enter a world of wonderment, similar worlds, but tinted differently.
The menu screen reminds one of the history of adventure games, the legacy of games like Day of the Tentacle, Secret of Monkey Island, and Loom. LucasArts was more than a brand, it was a style, an ethos, a philosophy of the genre. However, in the time since Grim Fandango failed to meet growing sales expectations and the company stopped making adventure games, the company itself has been shuttered. All the great luminaries of the studio’s golden age have moved on in a dozen different directions. Tim Schafer has held the banner high at Double Fine, but this is the company’s first foray into the genre that their leader was so famous for.
The genre has, of course, evolved. The calcified tenets of how the genre functions have in some cases been replaced, while the underlying heart of what made those games great remains. Newcomers like Telltale and Wadjet Eye Games, along with numerous indie outfits, have staked out their own place in the medium with their own brand of the form. Games like Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero are almost unrecognizable as adventure games when contrasted with the classics of the genre. Offshoots, like hidden object games and simple exploration games, have turned what the underlying ethos of the genre could be on its head.
Part of the tightrope that Broken Age finds itself having to walk is related to how the numerous indie outfits mentioned above have tried to emulate the style of the classic LucasArts adventure games and usually only succeed in making superficial updates to an outdated design and play methodology. What worked in the early 90s doesn’t work anymore. Some of these games feel like they are talking pictures utilizing silent film acting with no thought or awareness of their own retrograde qualities.
Broken Age may have the wisdom, experience and skill of one of the original masters of the adventure game, but it arrives in a world that has moved past the stylistics of that master. Add in the high expectations of fans and that Broken Age served as the great vanguard to the video game Kickstarter boom, and the game finds itself with a lot to prove with its recent release.
And Broken Age does prove itself. Double Fine knows adventure games. They knew not just what was done back in the day, but more importantly they understand why each thing was done. So many years after their lead, Tim Schafer, directed his last point-and-click adventure game, they know what can stay the same, what has to change, why and, most importantly, how.
Vella is a young lady set to be sacrificed by her family to a tentacled bog-monster god but decides to give in to her more feisty inclinations and fight for her life to kill this monster, Mog Chothra. Shay is a young boy on a spaceship, watched over by his helicopter mom on a central computer. Bored out of his mind, he was raised to believe that he was important, and now he wants to actually prove it. Their stories mirror one another in many ways and diverge in others.
Shay’s half of the story is an updated design of the old school style that allows the player to go everywhere to find solutions to the game’s problems. While Vella’s half takes a different approach by segmenting its different parts into digestible bits that gradually grow larger and offer a walking tour of several fantastical locations. Shay’s half does have the better story. It’s a more directed arc with clearer goals. But Vella is the stronger character. She doesn’t know how to achieve what she wants, but lets nothing stop her. She is crafty, clever, and devious in only the way that a teenage girl hero can be. She takes advantage of the opportunities presented to her and hopes that her ingenuity will be enough. Shay, on the other hand, wants to be a hero and follows through, but all the steps about how to do so are handed to him on a silver platter. This contrast represents the divide between magic and technology, fantasy and sci-fi.
Broken Age is a game about divides and about halves, and it is a game whose story is literally divided and splint into halves. But what is out, it only one half of the full experience. Ultimately, anything that I have to say about the game is only half of its accomplishment and the rest is yet to come. I struggle to fully praise it for what it does best—telling a story, alongside doses of humor and surprising moments of creativity—for fear of spoiling the journey that others might take on for themselves.
What Broken Age is is a masterwork of the adventure genre. The puzzles have changed from the wacky challenges of previous Schaefer titles that happen to occur within a setting defined by slapstick comedy to being far more connected to the game’s narrative itself. They emerge organically from the world in which they inhabit. The game’s craftsmanship by itself should be enough to silence the naysayers of the genre and the method by which it came into existence.