I am an adventure game virgin. I admit it. No malice left me in this situation. None of my close family were traumatized in the playing of an adventure game. No pets were accidentally injured, no dates ruined, no specific reason. I simply decided adventure games were lima beans and I was a picky eater. It's unfortunate because history, especially the '90s, was packed with fantastic adventure games I missed, the most loved of which, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and The Secret of Monkey Island were all the brain children of one man: Tim Schafer.
These games have become cult darlings and their legacy helped Schafer's company Double Fine launch one of the most successful Kickstarters to date. They raised 3 million dollars to make Broken Age. Along with the money came serious public scrutiny and the company voluntarily broadcast the process of production, the budget, the people working on the game, everything -- and not everything went to plan. With the adrenaline rush of just having pulled off one of the most dramatic Kickstarter campaigns so far filling their sails, Double Fine admitted to missteps in the scope of Broken Age and decided to release the first half of the game on Steam in order to fund the remainder of development. This decision, and the expanded budgetary needs of the game, angered some people but, instead of rehashing a year's worth of speculative arguments about the risks of crowdfunding, the messiness of video game budgets, and the aura and responsibility of Kickstarter, let's start fresh and play this game with new eyes. How does the game itself stand up to all that mounting expectation?
If, like me, you've never played this type of game before, the genre works like this: The characters find themselves with no health bars or weapons, just an inventory for things to be picked up throughout the world. Those items can be combined with each other or with places and people to move forward in the game. Need to get water out of that well? Combine your rope and bucket and get to hoisting.
Broken Age features two main characters, both are teenagers stuck in a world unwilling to change and each has an itch to rebel. Vella lives in a town filled with bakers where following tradition, and her family's wishes, might mean losing her life. Shay is trapped in an infantilizing spaceship with an overprotective mothering computer programmed only to keep him safe. His repetitive existence has been filled with attempted distraction by talking toys and fake adventures. He yearns for a real life. Players can choose to start with either character and switch back and forth at any time. This flexibility keeps the game from getting stale if you get stuck on a puzzle, allowing you to simply switch to the other world.
Whichever you choose, both worlds look like living watercolors, and the delicately hand-drawn landscapes and soft edging pair well with the witty dialogue and voice acting. The art and writing, along with puzzles that were never quite challenging, contributed to the overall feeling of breezy simplicity. Not a bad thing necessarily, but a distinct choice. The story, the settings, and the characters seem more important than the actual puzzle solving, which makes the game feel more like an interactive story book. This story book is cut short; the end of Act 1 came so abruptly I was left irritated and impatient for the next chapter.
The game is not meant to be played by more than one person at a time, but I found something interesting playing alongside my husband. We played, desk chairs banging together, as we traded the mouse back and forth, letting one another drive until we got stuck. This revealed intricacies of gameplay I hadn't expected. The game rewarded exploration in a way I hadn't expected. My precise, one could even say "obsessive," preoccupation with walking perfectly on the game's paths was holding me back from finding the solution to a problem. A "mistake" I had avoided turned out to be the very thing I needed to proceed. When we switched drivers, my husband was happy to commit the mistake and was rewarded. In this way the game felt aware of its players, their habits, and how to elude them at first glance.
I am anxious to discover what happens next.
Broken Age came out on Steam January 28, 2014. The game's second act is scheduled to come out later this year. For more information, visit brokenagegame.com.