Broken Age: Act 1

Posted by Joseph Lindell.
First posted on 30 January 2014. Last updated on 24 April 2014.
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Broken Age: Act 1
Despite being from different worlds, Vella and Shay may share a common destiny.
Broken Age: Act 1
The maidens are ready to be served up as ritual sacrifices.
Broken Age: Act 1
Vella makes an escape from the monster.
Broken Age: Act 1
Shay is protected day and night.
Broken Age: Act 1
Shay controls his spaceship, or so it seems.

Broken Age

The game is comprised of 2 acts:

Act 1

Act 2

Broken Age, from Double Fine Productions headed by acclaimed game designer Tim Schafer, is undoubtedly among the most anticipated adventure games in recent years. To understand what the hype for this game is about, it is necessary to understand the game's unique history.

Sales of traditional point-and-click adventure games declined since the late 1990s. Most of the major game publishers, unwilling to take risks on games that might not sell, stopped funding the development and distribution of adventure games. Most recently, crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter, rose to become a new avenue for a developer to pitch an idea directly to the gaming community at large and bypass the publisher to seek funding for a game project. Schafer was the first developer to fully realize Kickstarter's potential for funding adventure game development. In early 2012, he announced Double Fine Adventure, which later became Broken Age. Adventure game fans, no doubt recalling Schafer's previous games and cult classics such as Grim Fandango, eagerly funded his new project idea. Over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, Schafer raised nearly $3.5 million USD from over 85,000 individual backers, which broke all existing records for computer game funding through Kickstarter. While Schafer was no longer beholden to a publisher for financial support, the intrepid game designer became responsible to a legion of backers who trusted him to recreate the golden age of adventure gaming. In mid 2013, after a string of development delays, Schafer announced that the game would instead be released in 2 parts and, more importantly, that sales of the first part would in part fund the second part of the game.

Act 1 of Broken Age opens with an intriguing and original premise. The game follows 2 teenage protagonists in what appear to be a pair of completely separate stories. Vella, a feisty girl from the bakery themed fantasy village of Sugar Bunting, is preparing to be sacrificed to the monster Mog Chothra in order that the monster may spare her village. Although this tradition has gone on for many years, Vella is the first sacrifice to ask if there is another way—specifically, she wants to fight the monster. Vella's story follows her attempt to save her village. Seemingly a world away, Shay, a boy who appears to be the last survivor of his dead planet, is coddled by a high-tech spaceship that thinks it is his mother. His real parents are nowhere to be found, and every day Shay goes through the same humiliating routine and boring children's games. Shay needs an adventure, badly. Shay's story follows his attempt to find a new adventure. The player can switch between Vella's story and Shay's story at any time. However, at least in Act 1, there is no need to switch at all, as each story can be played through to its conclusion sequentially.

There is a lot to love about Broken Age. The setup holds the player's interest throughout, and the story unfolds cinematically as the player progresses in the game. There is never a dull moment in the tightly written and cleverly worded script. The game is witty, like many of Schafer's previous works, but has gravitas too. For example, Shay's story is both lightheartedly banal and appropriately mysterious. The game also offers some creative gameplay choices: the player can choose to experience Shay's own ennui by repeating his daily meal routine and the same cuddly "missions" aboard the ship again and again.

The characters in Broken Age are full of presence and spunk. The all-star voice cast, which includes Elijah Wood (Shay), Wil Wheaton (a frightened lumberjack), and Jack Black (a cloud hopping cult leader), do a great job in acting out these characters. The dialogue trees are clean and simple. Rarely will the player feel the urge to click through the delivery of the lines.

The graphics in Broken Age bring the game's settings to life with a cartoonish flair that seems lifted from the pages of a children's storybook. The backgrounds are colorful and detailed. The characters' facial expressions are charmingly lifelike. The camera pans and zooms naturally. Vella visits a host of tantalizing locations, such as her own cake obsessed village and a majestic colony in the clouds. By contrast, Shay mostly remains on his spaceship that crosses science fiction technology with children's playthings. The ship's navigator literally weaves a path through the stars with a "warp and woof" drive.

The sound design in Broken Age is topnotch. Composed by Peter McConnell and recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the music blends well into the game. It is not brash, but it is interesting enough to be noticeable. Its tone is lighthearted but at times urgent, which suits the game's pacing well.

The interface used in Broken Age is simple and unobtrusive. Unlike classic adventure games, it abandons separate verb coins such as "use" or "talk" and replaces them with a single cursor that lights up when there is an object or a character with which the player can interact. It necessarily limits what the player can try, but it also tends to provide more meaningful responses to the player's actions. Likewise, the inventory utilizes simple drag and drop.

Although many gamers, including myself, were initially dismayed by the developer's decision to release the game piecemeal, I was pleasantly surprised by the final release. I found the ending nearly perfect. It made the unnecessary split entirely forgivable. Understandably, the ending was an abrupt cliffhanger. However, I also felt that it thoughtfully bookended the story and provided a clever twist, leaving me contemplating possibilities and anxiously anticipating its conclusion.

Broken Age is flawed, however—not because it is half a game but because it is, despite its charm, shallow. Schafer appears to have created a gorgeous world and then stripped it down to only the bare bones needed for the story to progress. The setup is fantastic; yet, not enough backstory makes it into the game. The characters are great; yet each character only has the ghost of a real personality—all quirks and no depth. The locations are evocative; yet, not enough hotspots exist in each location for the player to explore.

The game's puzzles blend seamlessly with the story. While this makes the puzzles more logical and less intrusive, it also makes them far too easy. The game's shallowness takes part of the blame. There is so little going on around the player that it is nearly impossible not to find the solution immediately. The game takes only about 4 hours to complete, if that. It is far too short, even for half a game. Playing an adventure game is in part about being challenged and forced to think outside the box. It is often through this process that the player uncovers aspects of the story and the world that may not be readily noticeable at first. In my opinion, modern developers often do not give enough credit to the intellect of their games' players. With Broken Age, I feel that Schafer, despite his years of experience making rather difficult but logical puzzles, has fallen into this same trap.

Broken Age goes off without a hitch, but it is all soul and little substance. The player proceeds through the story with the least possible resistance and is left wanting to know more about the fictional world and its inhabitants. Unlike the great adventure games of yesteryear, Broken Age has only a veneer of depth by comparison. This is a shame, because the inventive world that Schafer has created in Broken Age is ripe to support stronger characters, more details, and better puzzles.

Broken Age is, by all accounts, a success though not a triumph. The game is best enjoyed for what it is, not through the lens of the hype fueled expectations preceding it. I hope Schafer take these constructive criticisms to heart as he finishes the rest of the game. Releasing the game in parts provides Schafer the opportunity not only to complete the compelling story that the game begins to tell but to also flesh it out and make it real. If Schafer succeeds, the complete Broken Age will not be just an entertaining game but a truly great adventure.

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