I wrote about Act 1 of Broken Age nearly a year and a half ago. The full game was released back in April, and I went back and played through the whole thing, ready to provide my final thoughts. Initially I thought I would write about the entire, complete game, ignoring the fact that it had been split into two acts (a decision the design team made out of necessity rather than desire) and judging it on its own merits. But, after a few aborted attempts to do so, I realized that I couldn’t do it. I can no longer view Broken Age merely as a game, a fate I now believe was inevitable the moment Tim Schafer decided to make its development public, both by funding it through Kickstarter and by chronicling the process in documentary form. So I decided to write about all of that too.
Most people who play Broken Age begin with a set of expectations. For me, these were shaped by the excellent documentary series. This was tragically only available to Kickstarter backers at first, but it has now been released for free to all. And it really is a wonderful series, following everything from the original crowdfunding campaign through the initial design and concepting phase, all the way to the releases of Act 1 and Act 2 (though be warned, episodes after the release of Act 1 assume that viewers have played it). In fact, there is one more episode to come, which I assume will cover the response to the completed game. I highly recommend watching them all.
But watching them absolutely colored my experience of the game itself. Playing Act 1, I recognized places I visited because I’d seen them as early concept sketches. The music was a final version of the themes I’d seen composed before my eyes in the documentary. I recognized the voice cast and got to see how choice lines I’d heard during the recording sessions fit into the game itself. I saw cutscenes that I knew had been reworked and rewritten, and was able to judge the final result. And when the first Act ended on a cliffhanger, I knew what a hard decision it had been for the team, who would have preferred to finish the whole thing before releasing it.
Playing the completed game, I had the later episodes of the documentary fresh in my mind. Episodes that showed the team’s responses to the critical reception of Act 1, and how this inevitably affected the development of the second Act. I watched the team fall under increasing strain as various misfortunes befell the studio. And once again, I had some idea of what I was getting into as I moved into the latter part of the game.
I don’t think that the split into two Acts harmed the game itself; when played from start to finish it flows well, feeling natural and seamless. But I do think it harmed my personal experience of playing it, and I suspect the same of any others who played the first Act and then waited over a year for the second. That’s a long time to wonder about what might happen next in the game, especially when watching the continuing documentary and seeing how the team is faring. Many players, I suspect, were not entirely won over by the first Act, but put great hope into the second, elevating it in expectation and dooming themselves to varying levels of disappointment. The second Act is not a mindblowing masterpiece. And it’s not quite what I expected either, even though I’d followed the documentary right up until release. I had thought that the mystery at the center of the story might last a while longer, but in fact the revelations come quickly, and I then moved to the business of overcoming the obstacles that lay between me and the finale. But, playing through from the beginning, I could see how this would have been much more effective without the long wait in the middle.
Other aspects of the final game were less surprising. The second Act is longer than the first, with puzzles that are tougher and more involved; both clear responses to the weaknesses of the first Act. I have heard some complain about the puzzles, as the solutions are often strange and not particularly logical. This complaint is nearly as old as the adventure game genre itself, but a recent crop of indie adventures display a more serious tone and a more logical design that, for some, make the types of puzzles in Broken Age seem obsolete. I do not agree. The puzzles in Broken Age follow their own brand of quirky logic, one that fits perfectly with the overall tone of the game and the world in which it takes place. For me, the style of the puzzles clicked instantly. I also felt the difficulty was just right. Tough enough to leave me stumped on occasion, but not so much that I felt the need to look up solutions. I was able to figure out everything on my own eventually, which is more than I can say for many of the classics in the genre, which are famous for their obtuse solutions.
Broken Age is also a game that benefits from a slow pace. It’s packed with jokes and hints that are easily missed. I spent a lot of time walking through its beautiful locales, intentionally trying to use items on people or things that were obviously not the “solution”, and was rewarded with some hilarious writing, hints towards the true way to proceed, or extra tidbits about the world and the story. Players who push forward relentlessly will miss much of this, and consequently miss a good deal of the charm the game has to offer. It requires a different, more relaxed approach than most modern games. It felt like a vacation from the kinds of games I usually play, where I could take my time and enjoy myself without any pressure.
It’s worth restating just how beautiful the game is, too, with a gorgeous painted style, excellent voice acting, and wonderful music. The complete game is a remarkable thing to behold, and I never lost that feeling of joy I felt when I first played it. It was strange to find the story going in a direction I didn’t expect, after spending so long wondering how it would turn out, but I still liked the result. It’s impossible to say what I would have thought if I’d played the complete game for the first time, never having seen the documentary. But then again, I don’t think the two were ever meant to be separate. Showing the development of the game was just as important as the game itself, which is why Broken Age is so fascinating.
It’s also why it’s such a tragedy that the documentary episodes were originally available only to those who had funded the game. Players who hadn’t seen the episodes came to the game with an entirely different set of expectations. Many were fans of Tim Schafer’s older adventure games, and knew only that he had raised far more money than he asked for to make a new adventure game, then suffered from delays and the need for even more funding. Many of these players were looking for a game that would rival Schafer’s earlier classics, games that have been elevated to legendary status in the years since. They wanted a new Monkey Island, a new Grim Fandango. For these people, Broken Age is an inevitable disappointment. It’s a smaller and simpler game, despite the eventual size of its budget, and while it’s a quality title it will never eclipse its revered predecessors. But it is a mistake to expect it to. It’s not just an adventure game, it’s an exposition of how such games are made, one that is revelatory to those who have never peeked behind the scenes.
If all you want is an adventure game, Broken Age is still a quality title. It won’t blow your mind, but it is beautiful and fun, and definitely worth playing. But watch the documentary as well, and the game becomes something more. The best part is that you can watch the documentary for free. If you like what you see, pick up the game and give it a try; you’ll be glad you did.