Broken Age Won't Change the World, But it will Brighten it

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Posted by thatpinguino (2847 posts) -

Up until this week I’d never played a game with a playable male and female lead where romance wasn’t involved. I’ve certainly played games where an intrepid hero has to go out and rescue his lady love. Or perhaps two star-crossed lovers come to find each other after hours of “will they or won’t they”. At the very least there is some amount of flirtation and sexual tension. And yet after hours of wondering two distinct and beautiful worlds with two separate characters in Broken Age, I never thought about how Shay and Vella were going to fall for each other in the end. It is kind of sad that this seemingly small storytelling decision feels revolutionary, but it did.

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Rather than telling one unified story about a boy and a girl and their adventures, Broken Age stays true to its name and manages to tell two parallel stories that, although they intermingle, feel distinct and personal to each of its protagonists. Vella is a young girl from the town of Sugar Bunting who decides to violently reject her community’s customs of baking cakes and serving young maidens to giant monsters. She empathizes with her grandfather, a decorated soldier and one of the last remnants of Sugar Bunting’s militaristic past. Vella refuses to be a sacrificial appetizer to appease the cryptic monster Mog Chothra. As such Vella’s story is one of defiance, aggression, and overcoming the damaging societal norms that serve up and consume young women.

Alternatively, Shay is a young boy who lives in the spaceship Bossa Nostra, which is controlled by an overbearing maternal computer named Mom. Every one of Shay’s days are carefully planned and guided by Mom down to the minute. He wakes up. He eats Splorg (accept no substitutes!). He runs a few “critical missions” that include saving yarn people from an ice cream avalanche and ridding the Bossa Nostra’s hull of a piñata parasite. Then he goes to bed. It is the same routine all day every day. Shay’s central drive is to break free of the monotony and safety of his daily life. He wants to experience real adventure, not simulated adventure with life-like adrenalin substitutes.

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There is a striking dichotomy between the two kinds of defiance that are exhibited in Broken Age. While both Vella and Shay are by definition rebellious teens, the way the game portrays their respective revolutions paints quite the feminist picture. Shay starts the game with a talking spoon (if only it were silver) who sounds like an English butler (think C3PO) and measures his precise nutritional intake. When Vella finally stumbles upon a talking utensil of her own, she finds a knife named Dutch, who sounds and acts like an extra from Goodfellas. Both characters eventually come to own a remote control: Shay’s controls a robot that grabs and hugs, while Vella’s controls a hot death ray. Shay’s teen angst is undercut by his consistent position of privilege and security in the world. His largest concern is boredom and his overbearing mother. He is a suburban teen transplanted onto a spaceship without a Nirvana CD or a copy of Doom. Vella is living in a world that is content to sacrifice her to a monster in order to maintain a (relatively) bloodless status quo. Every village that Vella visits is complicit in propagating this terrible tradition and Vella’s violent rebellion against the Maiden’s Feast threatens all of their traditions, property, and ways of life. Vella is willing to break a few eggs to make a new cake that doesn’t contain young women as a key component.

It is no surprise that Vella wants to save her world and her fellow maidens from Mog Chothara, the locales in Broken Age are simultaneously gorgeous and lighthearted in a way that moved me to spontaneous giggles. The art style is sunny and happy with a painterly look that stands out amongst the countless “next-gen” 3D games that dominate triple A development and the retro pixel art styles that seem to dominate indie games. There is a cavalcade of adorable anthropomorphized robots and inanimate objects in the Bossa Nostra, from computer monitors that smile to doors that sleep when they’re closed. The organic and the inorganic elements of the ship blend thoroughly and give the seemingly stark rooms of the Bossa Nostra a digital life that reminds me of the gangs of humanized robot companions in Wall-E. Shay might not feel fulfilled, but the yarn golems and HEXI-PALs that wander the halls around him are loving life.

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The towns in Vella’s world are much more diverse thematically than the Bossa Nostra, and it’s clear that the game’s lead artist, Nathan Stapley, and the rest of the Double Fine art team had a lot of fun designing each village. Sugar Bunting looks like a quiet, European coastal town, except all of the homes are built to look like sugar bowls. Meriloft is a town in the clouds that is full of giant birds and feather clad cultists that follow the teachings of Harm’ny Lightbeard, a crooked prophet voiced by Jack Black. The clouds in Meriloft benefit from the colorful palette and soft edges of Stapley’s art style and the result is a fluffy cloudscape that looks like a cross between cotton candy and peaches n’ cream. Meriloft is one of the rare video game towns that I wish was larger, just to see what other formations Double Fine’s artists could imagine. There are a few other locales and they also offer refreshing changes of style and imagination.

Heart softening earnestness also finds its way into the characters of Broken Age. True to Double Fine’s company ethos, all of the characters in Broken Age are imaginative and eccentric in ways that make them funny and lovable. Harm’ny Lightbeard is charmingly fraudulent, and his vacillations between thinly-veiled chicanery and hippy-isms make him the most huggable cult leader. There is a tree that loves tree humor and abhors the violence of humans. There is even a hipster lumberjack, voiced by Will Wheaton, who sounds like he belongs at a craft brewery/locally sourced paper mill. And somehow all of these disparate personalities fit together into a cohesive whole that feels tonally consistent. Like the best Double Fine casts, these goof balls wind up feeling like characters you might know from a Saturday morning cartoon transported into a new world that you can stay in as long as you want.

Unfortunately the puzzles in Broken Age are mired, by design, in decades old adventure game conventions. The game is reliant on players having a keen eye for potentially useful items and an open mind for their applications. By the second half of the game the puzzles in both halves begin to intertwine, as Vella comes to need information that only Shay has access to and vice versa. The early moments of Broken Age do not really prepare you for these later leaps of logic, as most of the early goings of each character’s story is truly independent. However, veterans of the genre should find these later puzzles to be more in line with the obscure puzzles of adventure games past. For everyone else there are already plenty of guides online to help.

Regardless of your stance on adventure games, Broken Age is a game worth playing if you’re looking for a divergence from the art styles and stories of mainsteam gaming. Broken Age manages to have a look, tone, and plot that stand out from the crowd without being outspoken. It isn’t necessarily a watershed moment in gaming, but it is highlight worth seeing.

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#1 Posted by BisonHero (11575 posts) -

I really liked how snooty the tree was. He's like the tree version of Kelsey Grammar/Frasier Crane, whom I am unable to distinguish from each other.

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#2 Posted by thatpinguino (2847 posts) -

@bisonhero: I loved the combination of his snootyness with his treeness. Like if you offer to give him a cupcake he asks you to put in on the ground so it can slowly dissolve into his roots over several years. He was almost a tree-supremisist of all things.

Also he has the same voice actor as Iron Tager and the Street Fighter announcer so I couldn't help but fear a devastating tree piledriver.

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#3 Posted by jSlack (1186 posts) -

Thanks for posting!

I haven't had a chance to play it yet, but I enjoyed reading your blog. I really like the art style, and I think I can hang with the old style puzzles (I hope). I've been thinking about checking it out.

Have you played Act 2?

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#4 Posted by sravankb (544 posts) -

The problem I have with these games is perfectly expressed in your blog. I'd much rather watch someone play it rather than play it myself. I'd still get to experience the best parts without having to deal with the worst.

And that's not good if we're talking about a game. No matter how charming it is, no matter how well written it is, if the core gameplay isn't enjoyable, it isn't a good game.

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#5 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15697 posts) -

This blog has sort of convinced me to give the game a look once the inevitable steam sale or humble bundle purchase happens. I've never been a big adventure game guy, but I am someone who wouldn't mind something a little different from what video games are now and then.

Also I figure I'll just use this opportunity to say that your blogs are pretty rad and I enjoy reading them. I wish I could output the amount of writing that you can.

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#6 Posted by MormonWarrior (2945 posts) -

I really enjoyed playing through the game, even though I unashamedly used a walkthrough to at least guide me through much of it. Hey, I never play these kinds of games. I don't understand how the puzzle logic makes any sense to anybody.

A few thoughts:

  • The sound, characters, voice direction, etc. were fantastic...but I don't understand why a small-feeling, fairly short game like this took so long to deliver. But then I think Double Fine, while being great with high-concept stuff, is notoriously bad at delivering games in a timely fashion. Dunno if that's staffing, or mismanaged time, or just the nature of the kinds of games they idea. But it seems odd.
  • The split between the first and second parts is pretty jarring, even though I played them both for the first time consecutively. The puzzle design changes quite dramatically to be a lot more esoteric and tricky, to the point that I had no idea what I was looking at sometimes (such as rewiring the robot for the first time or the names for the knots?)
  • I totally guessed what was going on with Shay's ship from the moment I started playing as him. Yes, I started as Vella. No, I didn't read any spoilers or hints ahead of time about it.
  • There totally needed to be shortcuts to get to other areas faster. I mean, it's not a terribly long game in the first place, but walking through several screens to get back to a spot can be irritating. I think Vinny talked about that recently, especially with the Vita version having crappy loading times.
  • I think this style of game fits Double Fine's strengths best - the writing is sharp and the characters are really memorable. Psychonauts had similarly interesting characters, but it was such a clunky platformer that I had a hard time enjoying that part of it.
  • I think it's clever that both of the main characters seem to really know each other by the end of it, even though they've never actually met. It was a novel narrative technique that I'm not sure if I've seen anywhere else. The ending felt a little...abrupt though. I guess it wrapped up okay ultimately though.
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#7 Posted by thatpinguino (2847 posts) -

@mormonwarrior: I haven't watched the documentary yet, but @bisonhero unpacked some of the development snags in a post on this thread. In short, the game actually started development from scratch at the end of the kickstarter, rather than the funding just continuing existing work with an existing pipeline (like Yooka-Laylee). Starting a game from scratch with no pre-existing concept or pipeline is really difficult and time consuming.

The split in the puzzles seems like the influence of backers based on the ease of part 1 and I think the game was worse for it. The puzzle difficulty and style change isn't a game breaker, but it did make me want to use a guide for most of part 2.

Figuring out the twist wasn't that hard, but seeing its impact on both characters is still very cool.

Shortcuts probably matter in the Vita version, but I didn't find it to be an issue in the PC version. You can double click to warp between rooms and you can hit spacebar to skip cutscenes so traveling between the small rooms was pretty easy for me with my PC. It could certainly be better though. Maybe they could have given you an item to warp or a menu option to move around.

I actually really liked a lot of the platforming in Psychonauts, but I think I'm in the minority. I've played that game so many times that I enjoy some of the janky stuff you can do. I'm actually recording a podcast about Psychonauts later this week that should be up on my personal blog in the not too distant future (I have one on Shadow of the Colossus that will be going up later today)!

Yeah I really liked how they organized the game and the dual narrative structure was impressively realized.

@arbitrarywater: I'm glad you found this blog useful! I would definitely pick this game up in a sale when you can.

Thanks for the compliment! I found that keeping my word count in the 1000-1500 range has helped my writing output immensely. It helps keep the blogs focused, more readable, and it lets me keep the end in sight at all times. I'll try to keep it up!

@sravankb: I think that is a bit reductive because there is something about trying out all of the items, exploring the world yourself, and controlling the dialog that is still very fun. I would say that the core gameplay for me was talking to the various characters and seeing how they react to different dialog options and items, so the core gameplay was great. The puzzles were a bit of an annoyance in part 2, but I just used a guide for those parts. I really didn't care about solving the puzzles and I didn't want to get bogged down since the puzzles weren't the main draw.

So I would say it is a lighthearted and charming gameplay experience that really brightened my mood. There are some puzzles that are a bit crappy, but I didn't force myself to sit there and follow the game's intended path so it was fine.

@jslack:I played Act 2, but I didn't write about it very much because it would spoil some of the big narrative moments. There is a big shift in the scope of the puzzles in part 2, but it isn't something a guide can't solve. The changes that effect both characters in the second half are definitely worth seeing though. I especially like the end.

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#8 Posted by jSlack (1186 posts) -
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#9 Edited by thatpinguino (2847 posts) -

@jslack: You won't regret it! Also I recommend a guide if you get stuck on part 2. Keeping things breezy and fun is worth more than the pat on the back for solving the puzzles.


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