Continuing my careful, uncertain return to gaming, I decided to pick up the
2014/2015 title, Broken Age. Like so many Grim Fandango fans, I helped fund
its development when it was first announced in 2012. I stopped playing video
games over the course of its lengthy development process, but I never forgot
about it. It’s surprising to realize that it’s been over eight years, but I
tried not to let that affect my expectations too much.
One of the first things to notice about the game is its art direction. It’s
distinctive and ethereal, a style that suits the adventure genre well.
Exploration is rewarding in part because each area is so gorgeous. They’re all
unique, and yet they also all fit together very well. You would almost expect
this if you’d followed the game’s development; creator Tim Schafer was vocal
about his desire to put the work of his long-time collaborate Nathan “Bagel”
Stapley front-and-center. Despite some indication that the workload was more
than either of the two anticipated, the finished product feels thoughtful and
In a video game, the visual design is deeply tied with the engine used to
display it. Playing to the strengths of an engine helps games “age well.” The
Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (another game on my list) serves as a good
example. After watching some gameplay, who’d guess that game is pushing 20
years old? Unfortunately, Broken Age falls short here. Those beautiful
designs are conveyed through an engine that doesn’t feel up to the task. From
dynamic lighting to animation, anything beyond displaying still images
(beautifully hand-drawn though it may be) feels like a seam. My guess is that
this was a constraint imposed by the studio’s decision to release on mobile
platforms; it can sometimes feel like you’re playing a full-screen Android
game. Though the animators definitely made the most of it. Even limited by the
apparently primitive tools, they gave more life to the characters through
When it comes to writing, the story itself is passable. There’s enough mystery
to provide suspense and keep you interested, but it’s ultimately limited by a
somewhat shallow world. It never managed to convince me that there was much
life beyond the specific areas I visited, and I wasn’t really bothered by what
felt like a very rushed ending.
Those would be pretty damning observations for most other games, but the fact
that it feels forgivable here is a testament to Broken Age’s dialog.
Schafer’s renowned writing talent shines: the characters are imaginative and
silly and self-aware. This is why people got so excited by his return to the
adventure game genre: interacting with people and objects is so consistently
delightful that it drives gameplay all on its own. You just want to know what
people will say next.
Talking Knife (drifting away into space): Free to cleave the infinite void of
Shay: Phew! That’s a relief for a lot of reasons.
The game occasionally makes light of its genre. For instance, the leading
character Vella Tartine is at one point explicitly tasked with solving a
riddle, and after you make a number of failed attempts to solve it (which is
inevitable in adventure games), she admits, that she’s just making random
That writing is well-served with excellent voice acting. You might expect as
much from big-name actors like Elijah Wood (who voices the leading male role,
Shay Volta) and Jack Black (who voices a minor character, Harm’ny Lightbeard),
but even lesser-known actors give great performances. Critically, Masasa Moyo
brings Vella to life. Some of the minor characters are surprisingly
memorable–the hipster lumberjack and the fellow “space” traveler come to mind.
A solid musical score rounds out the audio experience. It’s provided by another
familiar talent, Peter McConnell of Grim Fandango fame. I’m certainly biased
here, having corresponded with the man about jazz in my teenage years, but I
think I would have been impressed by the music even if I didn’t have a soft
spot for its composer.
Gameplay in Broken Age is unsurprisingly formulaic. The adventure game genre
is pretty prescriptive about what interaction is supposed to look like. Even
the name of the sub-genre, “point-and-click”, packs in expectations about the
core gameplay mechanic. It offers some incremental improvements over the last
such game I’ve played, notably the ability to skip any animation/dialog and to
quickly navigate across areas through double-clicking exits. Both are critical
for preserving your patience while retreading old ground, but like I said,
they’re modest tweaks on the formula (and may not even be unique to this game;
I’ve been out of it for a while).
The major flaw is all-too-familiar in adventure games: getting stuck. This is
made less frustrating by the large amounts of dialog. You’ll inevitably find
yourself making wild guesses at one point or another, and although you’ll be
wrong most of the time, you’ll frequently be treated with some commentary about
your failure. “Until I find out what this is, I’d better not immerse it in fish
guts.” But during those sessions where I was totally lost, I couldn’t help but
think that this was a missed opportunity to improve the format. A more
intelligent system could recognize stalled progress and dole out successively
stronger hints, for instance.
The challenges that really left a bad taste in my mouth involved a
narrative-breaking mechanic. One novel aspect of Broken Age’s gameplay is that
you can switch between the two leading characters at will. These characters are
never in contact with one another, and for the most part, they are solving
puzzles with the information available to them. The biggest hurdles for me
occurred near the end of the game, where solving a puzzle in one character’s
story requires applying knowledge from the other character. This subverts the
narrative and because of that, it’s particularly difficult to “learn.” But I’ve
read enough Daniel Kahneman to know that our natural tendency is to
overemphasize unpleasantness at the very end of an experience, so it’s
important to bear in mind that the vast majority of the game is delightful.
All in all, I was very satisfied. Broken Age delivered on eight years of
waiting, so if you’re considering it with any less anticipation than that, I’m
certain you’ll be pleased, too.