In today’s age of highly public crowdfunding in the gaming world, in which many previously hidden elements of a game’s development cycle are in full public view, the story of a game’s creation can sometimes threaten to overshadow the game itself.
There was certainly a risk of that with “Broken Age,” a new sci-fi/fantasy game from Tim Schafer and his studio, Double Fine Productions, the first act of which was released in late January (users who pay for this act will get the second one when it comes out in April or May). Schafer is a beloved figure in some corners of the gaming world, having worked on such classic “point and click” (in that much of the action revolves around telling a character where to go or what to interact with via cursor) adventure games as “The Secret of Monkey Island” and “Day of the Tentacle.” So when he announced that, in an attempt to help reinvigorate the genre and skirt the demands of mainstream studios, he’d be crowdsourcing his latest effort, fans took note, and the Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, raising almost 10 times the $400,000 it asked for.
Schafer and his colleagues have put the money to good use: This is a polished, very well-executed take on an old game genre.
The two main characters are Shay and Vella, and the player can switch between them whenever he or she wants. Vella lives in a village that was once full of warriors, but is now known for its baking prowess. Both her village and others have struck a tragic deal of sorts with Mog Chothra, a terrifying monster. Instead of being attacked indiscriminately by the beast, the villages offer up young women for it to devour. A couple generations after the deal has been struck, it’s considered a great honor to be chosen by Mog Chothra — and a great shame not to be. Vella is about to be offered up and has, as one can imagine, mixed feelings about this (her grandfather is one of the village’s few full-blown dissenters).
Shay, on the other hand, doesn’t live on a planet at all — he lives on a spaceship. Every morning he is awakened by a motherly computer, complete with robotic arms, that dresses him, showers him, and so on. He’s then presented with clearly staged “missions” in which he always ends up the hero (in one of them, ridiculously cute creatures have been caught in an “ice cream avalanche” and he has to eat enough ice cream to save them). Sitting on the ship’s bridge, he’s a lanky adolescent overgrown amid colorful and useless Fisher-Price-esque knobs and dials (he’s under no illusions that he actually accomplishes anything on the ship — “Fake controls,” he sighs at one point. “What a surprise.”)
Though the two story lines are distinct, they cover similar themes: growing up in general, yes, but also related questions about what it means to conform to an established system that lacks moral integrity as opposed to breaking out of it. There have been a fair number of very good recent titles that have covered these themes (most notably “Gone Home” on the former and “Papers, Please” and “The Stanley Parable” on the latter), but here “Broken Age” benefits from its genre. Adventure games are more conducive to sweeping narratives, memorable characters, and engrossing storytelling than other genres, and Schafer’s game has all three. There’s something to the PR e-mail Schafer sent out with the review copy of the game: “The way your brain works as you explore and wrestle with an adventure game is different than any other experience, and it’s fun to wander those paths again.”
The two characters’ initial situations mirror and play off each other in interesting, intelligent ways that lend narrative tension to the story despite the fact that Shay and Vella’s stories don’t intersect until the end. Both characters are in untenable situations: Shay because the growing boredom of being coddled and cocooned by an overbearing computer is robbing him of his will to live; Vella because, well, she’s on the verge of being consumed by a horrifying beast. To escape the institutions that threaten and confine them, both characters quickly have to learn how to navigate complicated, unfamiliar new systems with rules unlike any they’ve encountered before.
If this sounds a lot like many other coming-of-age stories, that’s because the overall thrust is the same. But because the first act of “Broken Age”’ is very well-executed (not to mention extremely easy on the eyes), and the settings and characters are memorable, neither the somewhat familiar subject matter nor the fact that the game suffers from some of the capriciousness of all point-and-click adventures (“I had to combine THAT item with THAT item to proceed? Whatever . . .”) can detract from a very refreshing take on a genre many of us remember from the 1990s. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens to Shay and Vella in the second half of this adventure.