Perhaps the most high profile release of the early wave of Kickstarter games, Broken Age is Double Fine’s attempt to break away from the normal way of doing things. So it’s fitting that its story should focus on two characters trying to escape – one a mundane routine, the other a potentially fatal ritual. And yet at heart, it sees Tim Schafer return to familiar territory, namely the point-and-click genre he played such a key role in defining during his time at LucasArts in the Nineties.
The man behind Grim Fandango and Full Throttle and who co-wrote Day of the Tentacle and the two best Monkey Island games: it’s no wonder people were lining up to throw money at Double Fine, with Schafer receiving over $3 million from backers to bankroll his vision. And while you can see where the money went, there’s an unexpected lightness to Broken Age. As one of the most publicised crowd-funding successes, it represented a watershed moment for creators, encouraging and enabling others to look for alternative methods to finance their games, free from publisher interference. And yet it’s a game that mostly seems unburdened by the immense pressure placed upon its slender shoulders. It’s got a lot to live up to, and yet a few minutes in you’ll realise it’s perfectly happy to do its own thing. And if that means certain expectations are confounded, so be it.
Which isn’t to say that protagonists Vella and Shay don’t face pressures of their own. Indeed, both stories are a rite of passage for each character, as they learn to fight against the status quo. Vella is preparing for the Maiden Feast, where she’s to be sacrificed to a giant squidlike beast named Mog Chothra in order to protect her home village of Sugar Bunting protected from harm for 12 months. Shay, meanwhile, lives out a lonely existence on a spaceship, mollycoddled by an overbearing AI ‘mother’ who treats him like a baby, and unsuccessfully attempts to inject some excitement into his day by sending him on spurious rescue missions involving sentient soft toys in fabricated peril. We’re introduced to the unhappy pair before they take the decision to change their stars, at which point the stories really begin to kick into gear.
Coming-of-age tales are hardly new, but Broken Age’s narrative defies convention at every turn. Vella encounters friendly lumberjacks, deadly snakes and a family that lives above the clouds, while Shay finds hidden routes and rooms around his home, while fulfilling clandestine quests set by an enigmatic stowaway. You may or may not guess how the stories are tied together, but you’ll rarely be able to predict where you’re headed next. Meanwhile, Schafer’s writing eschews the broadly comic tenor of his previous efforts, with a more heartfelt, emotive tone. That isn’t to say it isn’t funny, of course – as with Schafer’s previous games, often the best lines are saved for incidental interactions – but there’s warmth and wisdom to accompany the wit.
As an adventure game, meanwhile, it adopts a relatively easygoing approach. This isn’t a game where you’re likely to be stuck for very long. Unlike the pick of Schafer’s LucasArts titles – or, indeed, any point-and-click from that era – you’ll rarely be left attempting to use myriad items on different persons across several locations until you stumble across the right combination. On the face of things, this would seem to be progress, and yet you’re arguably given a little too much of a helping hand, not just with the item descriptions, but with the limited nature of your interactions. Move the cursor around and areas and objects of interest will be highlighted, but the appropriate action is chosen for you. This not only simplifies the solutions to the game’s puzzles, but denies the opportunity for Schafer to cram in the sillier throwaway gags that often made your struggles in those 16-bit classics that much more enjoyable.
Removing these roadblocks has its upside, however, as it means the narrative can maintain a brisk pace, with a regular flow of new sights and new characters to chat with. It’s a typically Schaferian cast of oddballs and mildly dysfunctional everypersons, each with recognisably human idiosyncrasies, and it’s brought to life by a voice cast that nails the tone (no doubt thanks to some assured direction). Elijah Wood skilfully underplays Shay’s evident frustration, breaking into barely-concealed glee as he wriggles free from the daily grind, while a reined-in Jack Black provides a rather subtler line of humour than he’s known for as a narcissistic cult leader. It’s Masasa Moyo who steals the acting honours, however: her Vella is an instantly likeable rebel, spirited and defiant. While her personal struggle is a fairly obvious metaphor for the pressures women still face in modern society – albeit one presented in an outlandish fashion – it’s easy to empathise with her plight.
It helps, too, that the visuals are pitch-perfect. The hand-drawn art and stop-motion animation makes for a stylish and unusual aesthetic, and it’s an ideal match for the tone of the script: soft-edged and warm-hearted. As with the rest of Broken Age, there’s nothing flashy or grandiose about it, it’s just another sign of a game that’s been crafted with loving care.
This is only Act 1, of course, as an agonising cliffhanger reminds us, and as such this can only be regarded as a very promising start. Whether or not the concluding part offers the increased breadth and complexity many will be clamouring for as the credits roll is unclear. But it’s hard to see anyone reaching the middle point of Vella and Shay’s story and not wanting to stay tuned to see where they end up.