(DISCLOSURE: I was a backer for Broken Age on Kickstarter)

 

Double Fine’s Broken Age suffered from a problematic development cycle. Tim Schafer first pitched the game in February 2012 seeking funds to develop a new adventure game inspired by the classics, one that his studio could develop and release without the need to look for an outside publisher. Given Schafer’s reputation in the industry and the stellar titles he’d worked on in the past, it piqued the interest of many adventure game fans, myself included. Within hours of its announcement the Kickstarter campaign had already surpassed its goal of $400,000 (which Schafer set as what he considered the minimum budget he could use to develop the game), eventually surpassing $3 million by its end. Not only was it a massive success for Double Fine, it helped establish Kickstarter as a viable venue for crowdfunding. Having raised more than eight times what Schafer had initially asked for, it looked as though Double Fine could go far beyond what they had initially intended to deliver a truly stellar product.

After development began, things took a turn for the worse. I’m not privy to what went on behind the scenes and I can’t speculate on exactly how Double Fine budgeted the funds they raised, but by the summer of 2013 the studio had spent all of the money raised through Kickstarter without finishing the project. Rather than scaling things back Schafer decided to release the game in two installments, using sales from the first act to complete the second. I was upset to learn that the full game would be delayed, but part of me was still buying into the hype. Schafer said repeatedly that he had overspent to deliver a much bigger game than he initially anticipated. I assumed that this meant the final release would be something incredible. Now that I’ve played the game in its entirety, I’ve been dealt a strong reminder that hype often leads to heartbreak. Whatever grand vision Schafer had for Broken Age was sadly misguided as it resulted in an underwhelming, lackluster game.

Across vast distances, two young souls suffer in their prisons. In the village of Sugar Bunting, Velouria “Vella” Tartine has been chosen as an offering in the Maiden’s Feast. Every 14 years, her town and its neighbors select several young women and sacrifice them to gargantuan creatures known as Mogs as a tribute to keep their villages safe. Vella protests the barbaric ceremony, suggesting her people fight back instead of sending innocents like her to a horrible death, but her words go unheeded. In the depths of space, Shay Volta, a Lorunan teen, is consigned to captivity aboard the sophisticated spacecraft Bassinostra. The ship’s AI treats him like a child, forbidding him from doing anything that it fears could put him in danger, even if the threat is minimal or nonexistent. As a pathetic attempt to distract Shay from his dull existence, the ship tries to distract him by sending him on fake “missions” that involve rescuing twee creatures made of yarn from laughably easy scenarios. One child’s life is soon to end; another has never had a chance to live at all.

But Shay and Vella will not give up and grudgingly accept the fates others decreed for them. Through desperate acts of rebellion, both of them will find a path towards freedom. Their journeys will lead them to discover a world far greater than either of them could have expected, revealing ancient secrets that connect them. The two have never met before, never even knew of each other’s existence, yet their actions will determine the future for both of their worlds. Will they achieve salvation for both of their civilizations, or bring about the violent end of their age?

The first act of does well in establishing the setting and characters, though the effectiveness of its pacing isn’t even between the game’s protagonists. Vella’s tale has a much stronger focus on world building, taking her from one village to another as she learns how they’ve been coping with Mog Chothra’s rampage. Almost everyone has become inured to the barbaric ritual, while those who don’t react with incredulity to her desire to fight the beast can’t offer any support. They’re so resigned to their fate after centuries that they can’t fathom mounting a defense, convinced it would prove futile even though they’ve never made the effort before. It provides a strong lore, but does so at the expense of deep development for Vella.

 

As I mentioned, Vella’s campaign also suffers from being oddly paced. Her journey moves almost instantly from a tranquil domestic setting to an energetic peak at the Maiden’s Feast, then after establishing a baseline of strength and power with her incredible escape, the tone is relaxed until the end with an actual fight against Mog Chothra. The long period of relief as she travels provides many interesting moments moments, and it doesn’t lessen the impact of the intense scenes that bookend it, but it just feels off since there are no other high points between the two encounters to get players more engaged.

Shay’s story is more character driven and better adheres to the structure of a five-act dramatic arc, as well as offering a stronger sense of mystery. From the start there’s very little information given about why Shay is on the ship or why he’s being treated like a child. It’s clear why he has such resentment towards his mother given the rut of his daily routine, but the purpose remains unknown. After he encounters Marek, the stowaway on his ship, the action rises following a nearly unbroken linear progression. Shay not only has to take on the weighty task of rescuing what he’s told are innocents in danger, he must do so while avoiding the almost constant watchful eye of his mother, even resorting to sabotage in certain cases to guarantee he can act freely. Although Shay is told he’s doing good work, he shows confusion when told that he can’t bother trying to save everyone while on his missions. It’s clear that Marek isn’t being completely honest with the boy about his true purpose in Operation Dandelion (the mission he and his family were picked for). The final moments of Act 1, which reveal both the reality of what Shay’s been doing and how it’s connected to Vella, were genuinely shocking. It was a cliffhanger that got me and many other players deeply anticipating the finale so we could learn the full impact of this twist.

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Act 2 is where Broken Age both hits its peak and falls hardest. As Shay and Vella switch locations they piece together the truths that have been eluding them, in particular the sinister significance of the Maiden’s Feast and the Lorunan expeditions. Revelations continue to build until a rather intense struggle for survival as both protagonists and their families are stuck in a pair of ships under heavy fire… and then the game simply ends without even fully vanquishing the enemy. It feels like the writers couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion that could top the ship escape sequence so they simply decided not to have a conclusion at all, just a series of illustrations in the credits suggesting that everything turned out all right in the end.

To say this ending is disappointing would be an understatement. It fails to resolve any of the conflicts that have been brewing over the course of the story and just expects players to accept a happy ending without any signs of true resolution. Would the Lorunans, as technologically advanced and under such harsh rule as they’re revealed to be, really be defeated so easily by the loss of a few ships? For that matter, will the villages that took part in the Maiden’s Feast for centuries be so willing to forgive Loruna after they learn of the nation’s role in the barbaric event? Peace isn’t this easy to achieve after such prolonged periods of animosity.

Similarly, none of the strain present between Shay and Vella and their respective families is ever worked out over the course of the game, which hurts any attempt at a theme on the importance of familial bonds and solving problems as a group. Not even the secondary conflicts brought up throughout the course of the game (such as Walt’r and Car’l’s marital issues and a strange love triangle between sentient utensils) are settled in any meaningful way. Even a rushed closing narration with half-thought out handwaving would have been more satisfactory than the actual ending. There’s no closure and therefore no catharsis when the characters overcome their struggles; it’s a hollow victory.

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Another issue I had with the abrupt ending was how it left so many plot holes unresolved. How was Marekai able to prolong his life for more than 300 years? Why did Shay’s parents stop interacting with him in person and decide to communicate only through their ships’ systems to the point that he even forgot his mother and father were real people? How does Shay’s mother know about the history of the maidens feast sacrifices if their people were kept isolated for so long? If the Lorunans are so paranoid about contamination from the outside world that they’re willing to kill and incinerate any of their citizens that came into contact with outsiders, why are some of their agents allowed to freely pass between their city and the rest of the world?

For that matter, what is the technological status of the world the game is set in? It’s clear that Loruna is highly sophisticated in fields like genetics and computer science (the latter so advanced that they’ve actually created sapient artificial intelligence), but there’s an inconsistent understanding of technology throughout the rest of the world. Sugar Bunting has electric lights, Vella is familiar with trains, Meriloft even has a video arcade and novelty singing fish; yet the Marshal of Shellmound has no idea what electronics are. I apologize if this sounds like nitpicking, but I would have appreciated some clarity.

 

Broken Age suffers from some basic narrative flaws, but it isn’t a horrible story. Like the majority of Double Fine’s work the game is brimming with humor. Like most adventure games, clicking on specific background objects or presenting an inventory item to the wrong person can lead to a sarcastic or surreal reply. While there are far too many comedic moments to mention, I want to highlight two that stood out to me. The first occurs when Vella tries to alleviate the fears of a talking tree that’s worried she wants to murder it by throwing away the axe she’s carrying, but because she wasn’t looking it ends up lodged in the trunk of another tree. The second happens when Ales, another Lorunan traveler, tries to contact his city’s officials to stop them from firing on his ship… only to be put on hold several times. One bit that tried to be funny but ended up coming off as awkward was when Curtis, a lumberjack who’d been unable to do any woodwork because of the pressure being put on him by the insults of the trees, shows relief when Vella finds him a piece of wood so he can carve again, or as he puts it, get a stool “out of his system.” It’s a forced stretch for scatological wordplay with a very weak delivery.

 

While the game isn’t successful at conveying any serious drama, it does manage to establish a few moments of genuine horror. The Maiden’s Feast is frightening enough on its own young women are devoured alive by a Lovecraftian monstrosity, but much of the real terror is implicit rather than explicit. It’s very unnerving seeing almost everyone in the world treat the sacrifice as something to celebrate; even the women offered to the Mog view their inevitable deaths as an honor. When one of Vella’s neighbors breaks down and frantically tries to escape as she realizes what awaits her, the sense of fear is palpable. It becomes even worse when Vella learns the true purpose of the Feast and what happened to the hundreds of women who went before her. One situation that’s both disturbing and morbidly comedic occurs near the end of the game when one of the yarn creatures on the Bassinostra is unraveled at a rapid rate, screaming as its existence ends, only to find the pile of yarn that serves as its remains still has eyes and a massive smile.

 

A prominent motif I noticed at several points in the game was a demonstration of what can happen when a desire for security trumps all other rationality. The people of Vella’s village and those around it are willing to sacrifice their loved ones simply to protect their homes from being destroyed. Because the ritual has gone on for centuries, they’ve become indoctrinated, not even bothering to consider any other suggestions on how to deal with the Mogs. Shay is coddled around the clock simply because his mother won’t allow him to be put at risk in even the slightest way, stunting his personal development and seriously harming their relationship. The greatest dangers of excess security can be found in Loruna; centuries of isolation have made them paranoid and xenophobic, and while they consider themselves genetically “pure” they’re ironically frail, highly susceptible to any disease that may come from outside their walled city.

For all of Broken Age’s narrative shortcomings, at least its protagonists are well written. I mentioned earlier that the first part of Vella’s story focuses more on the world and less on her personality, which is a shame since she is a truly compelling character who gets to shine in the second act. She’s a determined fighter without falling into the trap of acting like a stereotypical “tough girl.” Disgusted at the sacrifices her village offers every few years, she takes proactive steps to end the threat of the Mogs once and for all, actively seeking out allies to fight alongside her or a weapon capable of bringing the monsters down. Several character interactions and puzzles also highlight Vella’s cleverness; she can think on her feet as well as hold her own in a physical altercation, a trait betrayed by too much of eh. My only real issue, no disrespect to Masasa Moyo, was that I felt too much of her delivery was flat and didn’t show much variation in tone. Other than that, Vella impressed me.

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Shay is a bit more erratic. Sheltered on the Bassinostra since he was an infant, he’s developed a strong rebellious streak against his parents. He longs for adventure and craves thrills, so much that in several situations where his life is genuinely at risk he shows perverse glee at the thought of being in actual danger. It made me wonder if there was some underlying psychological desire to endanger himself, but that was never really addressed. Again, Shay doesn’t fall into conventional clichés and isn’t simply another teen acting out against authority. He has a noble spirit; he wants to take part in real heroic exploits rather than the silly games he’s been subjected to for years. Elijah Wood did a fantastic job conveying Shay’s youthful energy and giving him a wide emotional range.

 

The secondary characters are more of a mixed bag. Several voice actors who contributed to Double Fine’s games in the past filled several roles in Broken Age, but very few of them stood out. The only memorable NPC performances were Cree Summer as a trio of sassy teleporters, Jennifer Hale as Shay’s overbearing mother, and Richard Horvitz as Walt’r, who made me crack up whenever he unintentionally made an innocent line sound far more perverse with his creepy delivery. Marek/Marekai, the cunning, conniving agent provocateur voiced by David Kaufman, could have been a memorable antagonist considering how he easily manipulated Shay and Vella to further his own agenda, but he’s unceremoniously vanquished in an anti-climactic manner twice before he has the chance to do anything seriously heinous or pose a genuine threat to the heroes. The biggest break-out characters had to be the Dead Eye God’s acolytes Courtney and Dawn, voiced by Nikki Rapp and Ginny Westcott, respectively. Their naïveté, desperation to find something they can believe in, and close devotion to one another made them very endearing. Also, while I may be reading too much into their friendship, I think there was some romantic subtext between the two.

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Several big-name actors were brought onto the project, but I felt like they were wasted. This is most evident with Jack Black’s character, the floating cult-leader Harm’ny Lightbeard. He does a good job exuding a mellow, faux-enlightened aura while not so subtly hinting that no one can leave Meriloft until he gets what he wants from them, but nothing is ever realized with the character. It’s never explained why he began his movement or what his ultimate end game was other than getting as much stuff as possible. A similar problem occurs with one of Lightbeard’s disciples, the clumsy Gus (voiced by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward.) He has a few lines of self-deprecating humor and gets into some awkward situations, but he’s only encountered twice and then never seen again, so he has no chance to truly develop. I will admit that the lumberjack Curtis was amusing – he was a boilerplate hipster, but his dialogue and demeanor were effective in showing just how full of himself he was. Curtis was one of the better characters, and I say that as someone who isn’t a fan of Wil Wheaton.

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While Schafer pitched Broken Age as an homage to classic point-and-click adventure games, the puzzle design doesn’t live up to that legacy. The game never falls into the trap of including outlandish, bizarre, logic-defying puzzles found in titles like The Dig or King’s Quest, but it veers too far to the opposite end of the spectrum by making so many of the puzzles incredibly easy. Far too often in the first act, especially in Vella’s story, there’s an excessive number of fetch quests where obstacles are bypassed just by finding one specific item with a mundane use – an extension ladder to reach ledges at varying heights, or a toy robot with four arms to grab four valves at once, to give a few examples. Constructing the death ray to fight Mog Chothra is laughably simplistic, just requiring two panels in Alex’s ship to be switched around. There are some more intricate puzzles in Shay’s story which focus on getting around the ship’s security, though I was left wondering how the near constant surveillance didn’t notify his parents when he was preparing a diversion or an act of sabotage.

 

Like the plot, puzzle design reaches its peak in Act 2. Many puzzles still follow a fetch-quest design, but they’re now multi-part and require outside-the-box thinking concerning item use: a constricting snake to perform the Heimlich on a choking man, a fruit tapper to crack a partially hatched egg, or a bowl of ice cream to keep a nuclear fusion core from overheating. Some memorization is necessary to get past certain obstacles, like recalling important aspects about Shay’s childhood to trick his mother, or the correct sequences for reprogramming a robot and adjusting navigational coordinates. In these situations, it’s highly recommended to take notes and avoid unnecessary frustration later down the line. There’s even a bizarrely amusing dialogue puzzle which requires Shay to construct a joke that will make the talking tree laugh. While an achievement is available for getting the joke right in one shot, it’s fun to watch the various ways his routine can bomb.

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Not every puzzle in the second act is well designed though; quite a few rely on excessive trial and error. Most of these offenders are found during Vella’s time on the Bassinostra. Three challenges require the protagonists to move between rooms to either pick up or dispose of a crucial item while distracting people in their way (twice for Shay, once for Vella). If they can’t reach their destination in time they has to start over from the beginning, which can become tedious on Vella’s side since she has to travel through multiple rooms. One lengthy puzzle that’s a bit more forgiving involves guiding a maintenance robot through the halls by manipulating lights, opening doors, and overloading fuse boxes through use of the ship’s remote operations system. It can take a few tries to get the timing down but it never becomes too frustrating unless the robot returns to a previous screen, and this can be avoided by simply closing the door after it enters a new corridor.

Similarly, Shay runs into this problem when he has to untie a complex knot. Not only do players have to decipher what the knot resembles from a quick glimpse of it and match it to one of several descriptions (like a lazy pole vaulter, an elephant eating its own trunk, or a headache wearing a belt.) After getting a diagram to deal with the knot in question, Shay then needs to decipher the pictorial instructions, some of which have abstract descriptions like “She loves me, she loves me not,” and “poke the clown in the eye.” If players misinterpret one of the instructions or got the wrong blueprint then a different knot will form and they’ll have to start again, though thankfully there’s no lengthy backtracking needed to get a new blueprint.

The second act also makes better use of the ability to switch between Shay and Vella. In the first act this didn’t really serve any purpose other than allowing players to progress with the other protagonist if they got stuck with the first they were controlling. However, the latter half of the game requires players to regularly switch back and forth so one can find clues the other needs to progress, usually a code. It’s executed very well in the finale when the ships both children are on have crashed together and are under fire, performing tasks as one so that the other can then work on getting everyone free.

Frequently swapping perspectives does highlight another major plothole though – how do Shay and Vella know what the other’s done? They never communicate with one another, and it wasn’t established that they have some psychic rapport between them, so how is this information being shared? They even say that they have a good feeling about a solution that came to them when it was picked up by the other protagonist, but can’t explain why. It also highlights another glaring flaw with the game’s structure since Shay and Vella are kept separate until the end of the game. I wanted them to fight alongside one another, share information about their respective lives and cultures, work together to overcome deadly challenges as a team and grow even stronger. It’s even more upsetting because at various points it felt like the game was setting up their coming together to achieve something greater. Keeping the two apart does nothing but further hurt the narrative and the game as a whole.

Double Fine’s in-house artist Nathan Stapley was tapped as lead designer for Broken Age, and he did an incredible job. The game is rendered in 2D to replicate the style of old-school adventure games, but everything has an incredibly vibrant hand-painted aesthetic with an abundance of pastel shades to make it stand out. Shading and forced perspective are well implemented to convey depth in both the characters and backgrounds. Every location has details that make them stand out as unique environments, from the haze shining through the clouds of Meriloft to the patterned knitworks integrated with the electronic structures aboard the Bassinostra. Character designs are a bit unconventional though; they mostly adhere to the standard Double Fine model of slightly larger than normal heads and eyes, but many characters have unusually slender limbs. Movement animations are limited, but they flow naturally without any noticeable jerks or missing frames.

Despite boasting an orchestral soundtrack, the music never really stood out to me. The only background music that caught my attention was the up-tempo calypso beat in Shellmound. Other than that, sound design is handled well except for one flaw. During the segments on the Bassinostra, Shay and Vella will have the sizes of their heads altered when traveling through the teleporters (it’s a contrived means to solve certain puzzles). Shay’s head shrinks and rises in pitch, while Vella’s grows and her tone becomes deeper. But it never remains consistent and their voices soon return to normal even though they were told their heads could only be fixed by going back through the teleporters. Again, this is nitpicking, but I don’t understand how this was missed when testing the game.

Broken Age is not a bad game, but it’s much less than it could have been. This had the potential to unify the classic logic-challenging adventure game format popularized by LucasArts and Sierra and with the more emotionally compelling character-driven titles that have come to prominence in recent years thanks to developers like Telltale. It comes close to achieving this harmony in some areas, but never fully succeeds because of the unbalanced character focus and abrupt ending that doesn’t resolve pressing issues in a satisfying manner. Anyone looking for a better example of Tim Schafer’s work in the adventure game genre should play the remastered Grim Fandango instead of Broken Age – it has a much more cohesive story, incredibly creative puzzles, and an abundance of intriguing characters. I’m not going to give up on Double Fine because I know the studio is capable of creating much better works (Psychonauts, Stacking, The Cave, the Costume Quest series), but I don’t think I’ll be contributing to any of their future crowdfunding campaigns, and when another game is released that had Schafer at the helm, I’m going to approach it with lower expectations.

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