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.
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.
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.
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.