Review | Broken Age
There are points where Broken Age makes you wish at least some parts of the adventure game genre were left to die. In these moments, you remember how arbitrary and preoccupied with minutiae the genre has been. Modern adventure games have already moved on. The Walking Dead doesn’t halt the zombie apocalypse so its main character can solve an electrical wiring puzzle. And Bigby Wolf doesn’t carefully pick locks in The Wolf Among Us; he kicks doors down. There’s a reason why these newer adventure games are becoming indistinguishable from the ones we remember as children: nobody has time for bullshit.
Broken Age decides to briefly reminisce about the past in its second half, except all it remembers are the worst parts. The game’s young main character, Shay, is on his way to rescue his mother from likely death but is obstructed by a puzzle that is so alien it’ll make you consider symbology as a possible route to its solution. It isn’t; the real answer lies miles away as the second main character Vella, which you can switch to at any time. The answer is hidden in a nondescript family portrait a few hours into her half of the story. This could be, depending on which half you choose, the first time the game ever requires you to play as the other character to complete a puzzle. There’s a vague line from Shay where he says he wishes he was back home on his space ship–where Vella is located–but it wasn’t enough to save me from spending an hour trying to figure what I actually needed to do to move on. Who needs an excuse to get nostalgic about adventure games when this kind of unnecessary obfuscation still exists today?
Give me some items to combine or people to talk to instead, the kind of puzzles where Broken Age thrives. They’re not all easily understood, but adhere to a logic you can follow. Shay finds a blow-up version of himself, fills it with air, and uses it to distract his mother while he explores the ship. And Vella meets a talking tree that’s disgusted by carpentry, so she shows him a finely crafted stool to get him to puke out useful sap. The puzzles are not only little challenges, they’re also how you learn about Broken Age’s rainbow of characters and locales. Even when you fail to use the right items, you’ll still get a joke or a few more lines of witty dialogue.
You’ll want screw up on purpose just to let the game build Shay and Vella’s coming-of-age story. They’re both on a journey to throw out tradition and become who they want to be. Part of the process of defining yourself includes making mistakes. The way Broken Age tasks you with breaking patterns through trial-and-error is standard adventure game material, but it’s impressive how well it integrates a very artificial game-ism like failure into its narrative.
Broken Age’s story, which spans over 10 hours, evenly divides its length between Shay and Vella, but one of their stories is clearly better. Vella’s quest to kill the monster that’s been eating young girls like her for centuries, despite her humble background, works much better than Shay’s mission to break free from a coddling mother. Double Fine goes against the exhausting norm and gives a black female character the nobler tale than a white male character. In that way, it’s commendable. It’s nice to know that Broken Age is a story about youth for adults. It’ll make you wonder how the buckets of blockbuster games with limitless resources still get this backwards.
The story is driven by Tim Schafer’s smart, punchy writing. Schafer’s characters are often self-aware, at least on some level. This hilariously contrasts within the context of a fantasy world that plays it straight. The cloud world, Meriloft, is ruled by a health guru named Harm’ny Lightbeard. He dropped the letter “o” to get rid of the unnecessary weight in his zen, light life. Naturally, this is something he requires his followers to do as well, so all the characters you meet in Meriloft have names that are missing letters. Another game might treat this clearly manipulated little society in earnest and say something about the gullibility of people when it comes to their health. But in Schafer’s world, nobody believes in Lightbeard’s teaching’s 100 percent and are aware of how absurd it is to explain why they have apostrophes in their names. “No, Car’l. It’s Carol with some of the letters removed for reasons that are too stupid to repeat.”
Broken Age also beams with art and music on the same imaginative-but-realized level. It’s the kind of game that’s picturesque on mute and atmospheric with your eyes closed. It’s a gift to get both at once. The game likes to take typical environments and add a child-like twist to them, like a colorful ship built for a toddler, a village of bakers with houses that look like cakes, and a seashore where its women dress like fishing lures. The wild combinations work because there’s a mature sense of grounded creativity beneath them.
Those mixtures of adolescence and maturity get at the heart of what Broken Age is all about. It can have a character repeatedly making references to poop, and later, a character that quickly retracts a remark about hanging herself out of embarrassment that she wasn’t picked for a sacrifice. Both fit in the same world because Broken Age isn’t interested in sugar-coating what growing up actually means. The game gives Shay and Vella important moments to realize that they will have to engage with real concepts of life and death throughout the story. Shay is tasked with choosing people to save through a computer interface and Vella’s entire arc is about trying save her family and other girls like her from horrible death. Both events are not exactly as they seem, but in those scenes, Shay and Vella are forced to assume they’re real. This gives it a bit of an existential sting when you consider they’re fighting just to live their lives the way they want. I never thought I’d see a Double Fine game’s themes resemble intimate works like Papers, Please and Cart Life, but here we are.
That’s the kind of integrity that challenges you more effectively than a difficult puzzle. Broken Age struggles in a few places to let go of the adventure game genre’s mechanics-heavy past. But when it does, it shows why adventure games like The Walking Dead have dropped puzzles and embraced player driven conversations as a means to give weight to the story and characters; to invest you, not to distract you. Broken Age pulls off both the old and the new methods at the same time. In doing so, it might be the best argument that adventure games never died, but that they’re finally growing up.