Split, But Not Broken: Broken Age Act 1

This is as timely as my posts are ever likely to get. Act 1 of Double Fine’s point and click adventure game Broken Age was released a mere week ago; usually, months or years elapse between a game’s release and my posts about it. But the release of Broken Age is especially notable. Long before Act 1 went on sale, Broken Age was already famous for the circumstances of its creation. Tim Schafer, the industry veteran and fan-favorite developer who heads Double Fine, pitched the game (or, more accurately, proposed making an adventure game in general) on Kickstarter roughly two years ago, and the overwhelming response opened the doors for countless other game projects seeking crowdfunding. From other industry veterans to untested indie teams, the influx of games on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites can be more or less pinned on Tim Schafer, and everyone wants to see how Broken Age, as the poster child for the movement, is going to turn out.

It’s undeniably exciting, and certainly worth discussing, but I think Broken Age deserves to be judged on its own merits. So, much like Broken Age itself, I’ve split this post into two parts: the first covers the history behind the genre and the development of Broken Age, and the second discusses the actual game. Read on.

The History

It’s a shame that I haven’t yet written about an adventure game as part of my History Lessons series, since they constitute the oldest genre of computer games. Starting way back in 1976 with Colossal Cave Adventure, the earliest adventure games were presented entirely as text. These games consisted of many different locations or rooms, each with a text description, and the player would type in commands such as “go north” or “get rope” to interact with the game. The games usually involved a series of difficult puzzles, which required finding the correct items and using them in imaginative ways, as well as clever use of text commands. Some even introduced role-playing-like combat systems, time limits, or other mechanics to spice things up. This type of game became quite popular, spawning classics like the Zork series and The Hitchhiker’s Cuide To the Galaxy (based, of course, on the famous novel by Douglas Adams). Today, there is still a thriving independent development scene for these types of text-based games, now termed interactive fiction, with many interesting titles that move far beyond the simple navigation and puzzling of the classics. I really should write about some of those at some point too.

Zork. I totally just grabbed this screenshot from Wikipedia.

Over time, designers started adding graphics to their adventure games. In some cases, these were simply illustrations to go along with the standard text descriptions that were already common in the genre, but in others, the graphics played a more significant role. In the early entries of Sierra’s King’s Quest series, for example, the player could see the protagonist on the screen and move him or her around with the keyboard. Interaction with the world, however, was still handled by typing in commands through a parser. That is, until the advent and increasing popularity of the computer mouse. Soon adventure games were moving away from text-based input and were instead asking the player to use the mouse cursor to click on various objects in the environment or the protagonist’s inventory to navigate and solve puzzles. This type of game became known as the point-and-click adventure, and was one of the most common game genres in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Sierra was a huge player in adventure games, developing and publishing not only the famous King’s Quest series, but also the Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Quest For Glory, and Gabriel Knight series. The other major player was LucasArts. Tim Schafer got his start in the industry at LucasArts, and he worked on classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. In contrast to Sierra’s games, these LucasArts adventures were characterized by a lighthearted tone and lots of humor, and Tim Schafer became known for his funny writing and imaginative settings as he assumed lead development duties for later Lucasarts titles like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. The latter, especially, is considered a masterpiece of the genre (despite not actually using the mouse for its controls).

King’s Quest: Quest For the Crown. Image from Mobygames.

Sadly, Grim Fandango was also one of the last adventure games made, at least in the western market (adventure games remain quite popular in Germany). It won numerous awards, including several “game of the year” awards, and regularly makes lists of the best games of all time, but sales did not meet expectations. Publishers took this as a sign that adventure games were no longer viable, especially as the popularity of the first-person shooter genre was exploding. Today, shooters and other action games dominate the market, and with the exception of some strong independent offerings and certain niche markets like Germany, adventure games seem to have been lost to history. I find it interesting that many pundits decry the perceived violence and debauchery of the video game industry, based on the current crop of shooters and action games. The most virulent seem to think that games are inherently foul and violent, with no redeeming qualities. These people do not know their history: adventure games typically featured little or no violence, instead focusing on exploration, story, an interesting cast of characters, and brain-stumping puzzles. In short, they embody everything these pundits think games lack.

Tim Schafer founded Double Fine Productions in 2000 and continued to make interesting and funny games, but he hasn’t made an adventure game since Grim Fandango. Until now, that is. Frustrated with publishers’ refusal to consider releasing adventure games, Tim Schafer turned to Kickstarter, and appealed directly to adventure game fans for funding. He wanted to make a point-and-click adventure game, like the ones he used to make at LucasArts, and he also wanted to de-mystify the process of making games, hiring the 2 Player Productions film crew to make a documentary of the entire development of the game. He asked for $400,000: $300,000 for the game, and $100,000 for the documentary. At the time, this was a largest sum anyone had ever asked for to fund a game on Kickstarter, but Tim hoped that there were enough adventure game fans out there who were itching for a new adventure game and who would be happy to help fund it.

Grim Fandango. Image from Mobygames.

He was right. The Kickstarter campaign blew past its goal in just 24 hours, and by the end of its 30-day run it had raised $3,336,371 (bumped to over $3,450,000 by direct donations). Suddenly everyone was looking to Kickstarter as a way to fund their game projects, and the Double Fine campaign was the hot news in the game industry. Tim and his team at Double Fine got to work.

What many did not realize was that Tim didn’t actually have a game concept yet. He wanted to film the entire process, from initial concept through the final release, so he was able to design a game to fit the new, higher budget. Documentary episodes were released regularly to backers, chronicling the development process and showing both the highs and lows. The release date slipped, as is common in game development. Then, as Broken Age really started to take shape, the team realized they were going to go over budget, which is also common in game development. The documentary shows the internal discussions that eventually led to the tough decision to release the game in two Acts. Sales of Act 1 would fund the remaining development of Act 2. For those who hadn’t seen the documentary, however, the news was something of a shock. “You mean they made 10 times the amount of money they asked for and they still need more?” was a common reaction. Personally, I think it’s a shame that the documentary is currently only available to backers (there are plans to release it to the public after the full game is finished). I understand why it was done — access to the documentary served as an incentive to back the Kickstarter campaign — but it means that the non-backers that Double Fine must convince to purchase Act 1 are easily confused by the situation. For example, Double Fine did not actually set out to make a $300,000 game, they set out to make a $3,000,000 game, but to those who hadn’t been following the documentary episodes, this was not necessarily clear.

And on top of it all, everyone was looking to Broken Age as the decider of the entire Kickstarter craze. What if everyone who wanted to play Broken Age had already donated to the Kickstarter campaign, and no one bought Act 1? If it flopped, many contended, it would be the death knell for crowdfunding game development. No pressure.

Personally, I was happy to give Double Fine the benefit of the doubt (and now no longer have to, since I’ve played through Act 1; my thoughts are below). The development cycles of their earlier titles like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were hindered by friction with publishers, and players tended to take Double Fine’s side, decrying the publisher interference and ranting about what could have been if Double Fine had been free to make the games the way they wanted. Now people see that delays and growing budgets are a consequence of this freedom. But I’m happy to accept those consequences; I’d rather get a game that’s remembered fondly as a classic than worry about delays and additional funding in the moment. I hope that such concerns are swiftly forgotten, and that Broken Age is remembered as a game first and a crowdfunding poster-child second.

Which is about as good a segue as I could hope for. By now it should be apparent that I’m hardly unbiased, so don’t view the next section as a review, but simply my personal thoughts on Act 1.

The Game

More than being split into two Acts, Broken Age is also split into two stories, although they eventually intertwine in fascinating ways. One story is about Vella, a young girl upon whom has been bestowed the honor of participating in the Maiden’s Feast in her village of Sugar Bunting. Soon, however, the player discovers that this “honor” actually involves being sacrificed to a giant monster so that the monster will not destroy the town. Vella has other ideas, and decides to fight back instead.

The other story is about Shay, a young boy who lives on a spaceship all by himself. A computer acts as his caretaker, feeding him, washing him and dressing him, and even creating entertainment for him. But he’s outgrown the childish “adventures” that the computer concocts, and yearns to break out of his boring routine. Both Shay and Vella must deal with the consequences of defying their respective authority figures and striking out on their own.

I don’t want to give any plot spoilers, but I will say that I loved the ways the two separate stories were crafted. The player is free to switch between the two at will, and I think they work best that way, as each drops subtle hints about how the stories might be related. And any fears I had about splitting the game into two Acts were wiped away when I reached the end of Act 1, which is an excellent finale and a natural dividing point between Act 1 and Act 2. It is a cliffhanger, however, simultaneously answering many of my questions and creating many more, but I’m happy to wait in anticipation of the conclusion. I should also note that the tone of the game is darker than Tim Schafer’s earlier games. There are plenty of jokes and funny moments, and I genuinely laughed out loud on several occasions, but there are also some sinister and strange undertones to the story. I think this suits the game well, and I was overall quite impressed with the writing. Schafer isn’t merely retreading earlier ground, he’s writing something new.

Physically playing the game felt like returning home after a long time abroad. While I’ve played a few of the independently developed adventure games in recent years, it’s been a long time since I played one of Schafer’s adventure games, and I’d forgotten how much I missed them. I could feel his mark on the game from the beginning, although the game doesn’t feel antiquated in any way. The interface is somewhat simplified compared to classic adventure games, using only a single-click interface rather than the usual dual “look at / interact with” design. This means that clicking on an object will sometimes prompt Vella or Shay to take a closer look, and other times to take the object or otherwise interact with it, but this didn’t bother me as much as I expected. It’s still possible to look at inventory items (by clicking on them a second time when selecting them from the inventory) and the environments usually made it clear when an object could be interacted with or merely examined. Soon I was happily exploring, chatting, and poking things just like I used to in games of old, and enjoying myself immensely. I did find it odd that the default inventory controls require dragging an item onto the environment to use it, but this is easily toggled to a single-click interface (no need to hold the mouse button down) in the options.

It’s immediately apparent that Double Fine have made the most of their unexpectedly large crowdfunding haul. The art, primarily paintings by Nathan “Bagel” Stapley, is beautiful and full of character, and the various scenes look stunning in motion. Wisps of cloud curl away in the breeze while beams of light shimmer from below in the cloud colony of Meriloft. Lights blink and robots whirr and scuttle as Shay stares through a window into the nebula outside, his reflection showing faintly in the polished floor. Subtle lighting effects drape both Vella and Shay in light or shadow as they move through scenes. Both characters look around each scene as I move the mouse cursor, their faces reflecting the wonderment I’m feeling as I take in the lovely scenery. Close-ups during conversation show the broad brush-strokes used to paint each character, but they remain crisp and detailed nevertheless. It’s really a joy to behold.

The audio is excellent as well. The voice cast does a fantastic job of bringing Schafer’s witty script to life. I was initially surprised at the announcement that Elijah Wood would be voicing Shay, but he delivers a great performance, as do Jack Black and Wil Wheaton in smaller roles. Jennifer Hale provides the perfect voice for the computer on Shay’s ship, and there are lots of other voice actors returning from previous Double Fine games, but my favorite performance comes from Masasa Moyo, who really sells the character of Vella. Then there’s the beautiful soundtrack composed by Peter McConnell, which not only fits the game perfectly but also cleverly reinforces certain narrative themes through its motifs. Altogether it’s a polished package that feels how a modern take on the classic genre should feel — all the same charm wrapped in beautiful visuals and audio.

But some modernized elements might annoy fans of the classics. I’ve already mentioned the simplified interface, which didn’t bother me, but I’ve heard others wish for a greater degree of interaction. Some have laid the fault on tablets, claiming the interface was designed with them in mind (and the final game will indeed be available on tablet devices as well as Windows, Linux and the Ouya console), but honestly the game felt right at home on my desktop to me. Still, it’s something to be aware of. Then there’s the fact that it’s a lot easier than most classic adventure games. Even Grim Fandango, Schafer’s most recent adventure game before Broken Age, was infamous for stumping players for extended periods of time, and in the classic days it was common to be stuck for days or even weeks in an adventure game. Modern design has shied away from this type of difficulty, and Act 1 of Broken Age more or less follows suit, lacking any real head-scratchers. Having said that, I did get genuinely stuck a couple of times, before kicking myself when I figured out the solution. There are also lots of gentle hints to prod the player in the right direction without actually providing the answer, so players are unlikely to suffer the frustration of old. But of course, this is only Act 1, and it stands to reason that the difficulty of the puzzles will increase later in the game.

The big sticking point, however, is likely to be the length. Playtime in an adventure game can vary widely, depending on how much time the player spends poking around and looking for funny bits of dialog rather than trying to progress directly through the story. Without any really tough puzzles to stop the player cold, however, even players who take their time with Broken Age Act 1 will finish in only a few hours — I took around 5. Given that it’s only the first half of the game, this implies the complete package will run around 8-10 hours. Which is a pretty good length, but its not as substantial as some of Schafer’s previous games like Grim Fandango, despite actually having a larger budget. Doubtless some players hoped for a longer adventure.

But what I hope is that they won’t hold that against Broken Age. I feel I should restate just how satisfying it was to play, and how it made me realize I missed these games even more than I thought. In an alternate history where adventure games remained one of the most common genres, Broken Age might be a less notable but still high-quality title. For the majority of us, who haven’t played a large-scale adventure game in many years, Broken Age is an excellent return to form, and a reminder of why the classic adventure games are beloved by so many. Put simply, playing it made me happy, in a way that I haven’t felt from a game in a long time. Today, games are fighting to be taken as seriously as other more established media, and Broken Age is proof that a game can be serious without being relentlessly grim and dark (but to be fair, the grim and dark trend is wider than just games, infecting today’s film and television as well). The short running time didn’t matter. I laughed, I pondered, and I kept thinking about it even when I wasn’t playing. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it constantly since I finished, and I can’t wait for Act 2. If you’re considering playing the game, my humble suggestion is that you not try to finish it in a single sitting. It’s certainly possible to do so, but I think it benefits from a slower pace, giving one time to think and reflect, and to try and fail to guess at some of the plot twists. I was glad I took a few breaks between sessions. Then again, everyone has their own way of playing games, so you should really do whatever you want.

Those are my nostalgia-tinged and totally biased thoughts on the game. I really enjoyed it, and I doubt anyone could really be disappointed with it, even if they hoped for a longer game. If you’re on the fence, you should realize that the $25 price tag on Act 1 will also get you Act 2 for free once it’s released, and if you buy now you’ll be supporting development of the second half of the game. Which will probably make you feel good inside. So if you have an itch for some pointing and clicking, go ahead and give it a try; you won’t regret it.

Broken Age Act 1 is available on Steam for $25, with the second Act included as a free update once it’s released. The final game should be available from multiple sources for Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

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