Double Fine’s Broken Age is only half the game it set out to be, but that’s OK. One of Kickstarter’s biggest crowdfunding triumphs, the point-and-click adventure surpassed its $400,000 goal less than 12 hours into its campaign in February 2012. It would go on to rake in $3.3 million, a sum so princely that the game could only grow in scope to match.
A victim of its own ambition—studio boss and LucasArts alum Tim Schafer blamed himself for designing “too much game”—Double Fine ran out of money mid-development. But instead of begging its backers for more, the company settled on an unorthodox solution: selling the first half of Broken Age to fund the second, to be delivered as a free update at a later time.
It was a bold move, one that that drew more brickbats than kudos. Broken Age isn’t less playable because of it, however. On the contrary, for a generation conditioned to wait months, often years between installments (see: the Harry Potter movies and anything invoking the words “dystopian” and “YA”), the act concludes with a satisfying cliffhanger, well insofar as a cliffhanger—and this is a whizbang whopper of one—can be considered satisfying anyway.
The gameplay revolves around two teenagers who lead parallel lives with no apparent relation to each other.
There’s also a certain poetic symmetry about the two-act structure with the gameplay itself, which revolves around a pair of teenagers who lead parallel lives with no apparent relation to each other.
Vella Tartine is a young woman whose hometown, the otherwise idyllic bakers’ village of Sugar Bunting, is about to sacrifice her and her fellow “Maidens Feast” elects in a centuries-old ritual to appease a ferocious monster. Shay Volta, a boy on the cusp of manhood, is ostensibly the sole human on board the incubator space vessel Bassinostra, where he’s coddled by an overprotective A.I. “Mom” and her cuddly horde of animatronic yarn creatures.
“When the candy and treats are all-you-can-eat 24/7, they just aren’t that appetizing any more,” sighs Shay, gazing up at a swirling mountain of ice cream as he prepares to eat his way through another manufactured “avalanche.”
Vella and Shay share a gnawing awareness that something isn’t right with the worlds they inhabit. Vella instinctively wants to fight Mog Chothra instead of feed it, but her suggestions are met with only incredulity and derision. Shay realizes that any agency he has is an illusion and that his so-called “missions” are really infantile diversions to keep him from taking actual risks.
Vella and Shay share a gnawing awareness that something isn’t right with the worlds they inhabit.
Both are playable characters; you can start out the game as either Vella or Shay, play the story to completion, and then embark on the other, or you can toggle between protagonists at any point in the two narratives.
Vella and Shay’s milieus, sinister and absurd in their own ways, are fathoms apart, yet their arcs follow common trajectories that intersect where you’d least expect.
With its mellow palettes and hand-painted children’s picture-book aesthetic, Broken Age is more beautiful than a game has any right to be. But players who expect a return to halcyon days of adventure gaming—Schafer, after all, was the brains behind such ’90s classics as Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge—are likely to be disappointed by the quantity and quality of the puzzles, which are mostly self-evident to the point of solving themselves.
Broken Age, with its hand-painted children’s picture-book aesthetic, is more beautiful than a game has any right to be.
Still, the strong, heartfelt characterizations keep the story from falling into any protracted lulls. Partway through the game, Vella offers a piece of fruit to a talking tree. “The sweet flesh you tore down from the arms of its mother? No, thank you,” it sputters. “Also that fruit has a big pit that’s kind of a pain to deal with.”
The talented voice cast doesn’t hurt, either. Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood nails Shay’s adolescent ennui. Comedian Jack Black gives a brief but inspired turn as the leader of a cloud-dwelling cult that values buoyancy to the point of dropping letters from their names. (Carol is rendered C’rol; Maggie, M’ggie. One particularly memorable acolyte adopts the name F’ther, “like Feather, but lighter.”) Wil Wheaton makes a cameo as paranoid hipster lumberjack.
Broken Age, at its core, is a fable about growing up.
It’s about ends and beginnings, and the leaps of faith that bridge the spaces between.
Act II cannot come soon enough.