Though Broken Age acts as a return to Double Fine’s earliest adventure game roots, it’s also their largest and most ambitious project in years. But if anything, the added scope and possibility that exploded out of their hugely successful Kickstarter has only amplified their talents as a developer, giving birth to what seems easily capable of becoming the game that defines them as a studio.
But playing Broken Age, there’s never the sense that Double Fine has grown beyond the quirky, commercially unviable studio that I’ve loved for years. Broken Age as a game, is exceptionally simple and humble in its construction. It’s unmistakably a product of its creator: esoteric, humorous, and at times even a bit profound, but without the often rough mechanics and invisible cage of possibilities that shackled most of the studio’s prior games. It’s Double Fine in their purest, most unrestrained form, and if you’ve played anything the studio’s made I doubt I have to tell you how exciting that is.
It’s somewhat precarious to attempt to discuss Broken Age’s plot, both for fear of spoilers and for the fact it’s only half finished, but its themes are so strong and its writing on point that it’s deserving of more than a minor conversation. It follows the dual stories of Vella and Shay, two people stuck in vastly different situations but united by their shared lack of freedom, forced to blindly conform to the traditions and expectations of those older than them, unable to even question “why?”.
Shay is the sole human aboard a ship intended as humanity’s last chance at finding a new planet they can call home. Trapped in an endless isolation, he lives out his days following his computer mom’s orders, still treated as a child ignorant to anything outside his daily routine and sheltered existence.
Vella in contrast is a member of a village whose traditions dictate the sacrifice of several young women to the towering Mog Chathra during their annual maiden feast, or otherwise doom them all to its wrath. Vella is the sole person brave enough to propose they fight the beast, but is shrugged off as a silly girl who doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation.
These two plotlines fold into each other to form Broken Age’s main themes of rejecting the systematic lives their characters are placed in, and being brave enough to discover the world for themselves. It’s rebellion without anarchy; breaking out to find who you are, not out of distaste of the world, but a desire to make it better if only you’d be given the ability to think and act for yourself.
You could label Broken Age a coming of age story (in fact it itself does), but it’s so much more sincere than I feel that commonly implies. Its characters are delightful and lively and often absurd, but also fully developed in how they fit within their world. They fully embody their roles and proclaim them so effectively that it felt like I knew the people I was talking to, as if they had somehow taken on a life outside of the game. Even characters you see in only a single scene or who are given but a few lines of dialogue have so much personality and heart in their interactions that they transcend their small part into the larger world of the game.
Double Fine has always been a developer recognized for brilliant writing and characterization, but I’ve never felt as immersed in the worlds they created or as invested in their characters as with Broken Age. As bizarre as their circumstances become, I connected with Shay and Vella’s plight for freedom of their parental and societal shackles, and was as curious as them upon entering a new area and meeting its peculiar inhabitants.
For all I know act two could be a complete disaster. It could cause Broken Age to go down as one of the most disappointing games in recent memory and probably cause even me to think twice before checking out anything Double Fine puts out in the future. But for now, it’s sublime, beautiful, expertly pinned, and not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. As a huge fan of all things Double Fine, I’m finding it hard not to readily declare this their best work yet, which I consider no small praise.
Act II Update
Perhaps I expected too much.
It’s been more than a year since the first part of Double Fine’s Kickstarted nest egg first release, and since then the anticipation, unease, and in some cases legitimate anger have been steadily increasing to levels that beg the question just what this game means to people. It was one of the first hugely successful examples of using Kickstarter to fund games, as well as a callback to Double Fine’s earliest work and easily their biggest and most ambitious game in a long time (despite having began as something far smaller). It was hard not to want to continuously give them the benefit of the doubt; to let them give it their all and assume Broken Age would come out the better for it however long it took. But for all the hype and impossible dreams of what Broken Age might be, we might have taken it too far. Or maybe Broken Age took it too far, and in my naive enthusiasm I went along with it.
The second act of Broken Age isn’t bad, but compared to its beginning it feels almost like a different game. Gone are the simple logic puzzles of act one and its stronger focus on exposition, with act two falling back into the earliest days of adventure games and all the convoluted nonsense that entails. Every puzzle in act two feels like a chore, giving you too many items with nonsensical usages and no direction as to how you use them. I was barely settling back in with Broken Age before I had fallen into a last hope loop of attempting to use and combine every item with each other in the hopes I’d stumble upon the solution.
The nonlinear fetch quest that takes up almost the entirety of act two effectively dropped me into Broken Age’s world without even the assistance of what direction I should be heading. Puzzles have a tendency to loop back into themselves, require multiple steps, bizarre mechanics that are only ever used once, and a patience for backtracking that at times is infuriatingly tedious. Even falling back on a guide for much of the later, more obscure puzzles often had me confused. There are so many things that need to be done just right and in a perfect order (to say nothing of the finicky timing incorporated in many puzzles) that it’s hard to know when you’ve done something right, or if not what it is you messed up.
The way Broken Age’s narrative evolves and wraps up however is what really breaks my heart. The characters are still as delightful as ever and the dialogue witty, but when it comes to moving the plot forward Broken Age drags its feet and then limps over the finish line. Most of the episode involves basically an inverse of the first act, with Shay and Vella now exploring each others’ worlds and the people who inhabit them, but having already introduced us to everyone in the first act Broken Age mostly uses its characters as puzzle solving tools with far less time spent to developing them.
When things finally pick up I was left…unsatisfied. I didn’t know where Broken Age was headed after the revelations at the end of act one, but where it arrived feels far less interesting or thought out than anything I could have hoped for. Answers to act one’s questions are given quickly and without a great amount of detail, often being swept together in blobs of lore that isn’t given time to develop into anything I cared about. Despite being quite a bit longer than act one, act two seems to rush through its narrative as if it’s anxious to end in case you spend too long looking for plot holes it hasn’t filled. It lacks the confidence I loved about the first act, seeming to hesitate at every moment and causing scenes that should be impactful to just kind of come and go.
I said at the end of my act one write-up that I could see Broken Age being the game that defines Double Fine. I still think that to be true, but unfortunately it isn’t as glamorous an image as I had first imagined it to be. Broken Age isn’t a bad game, nor do I regret playing it or wish to advise others not to. It’s impossible to ignore though just how uneven and weird the first and second act are. Broken Age seems to reflect a lot on its extended development and the detriment its model of funding and community feedback may have had on it. It began with an eagerness you couldn’t escape and the feeling that this couldn’t be anything but an amazing, and yet by the end it has lost a lot of its drive. It’s tired and drained, seeking to provide closure for those who have been waiting so long, but being unable to do much more.