This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Broken Age.
Using my best swears to critically pan games like Call of Duty: Ghosts is like flinging perfectly good cake rolls at a brick wall; you can pan that shit like a Colorado river but it's gonna make its money back anyway! And while that was frustrating enough, Kickstarter has allowed Double Fine to take things to a whole new sodding level!
Tim Schafer said "I'd quite like to get back to my roots and make adventure games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle" and everyone said "Good idea, here's $3.5m!" So we have a game that was successful before it was even fucking released! Before anyone even knew if it was good! Tim Schafer could've released a fucking escape-the-room flash game and it would've made the money! He could've released Space Quest IV, or Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, or a pile of owl droppings on the end of a length of rope and made the money back! And as a critic, that's worrying, but at the same time slightly liberating, to know that nothing I say about Broken Age matters widdly-wong. Hey, Broken Age is a game about the life of a brine shrimp swimming up a stream of piss! It isn't really! But you don't care, do you? You've already bought it!
My problem with Kickstarter is that no-one knows what they want until they've got it. I didn't know I wanted, say, Driver: San Francisco until I had it, and then I wanted the shit out of it, but if you'd asked me beforehand if I wanted a game that played like Miami Vice got Quantum Leap stuck up its bum, I'd've told you to stick a few other things up its bum. If you ask people what they want, they'll say they want the things they already like, which goes nowhere. But Kickstarter is basically built on appealing to that stubborn desire to wallow in a nostalgic comfort zone like a dolphin in Mother's homemade custard.
Having said all that, for a game founded on nostalgia for '90s adventure games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, Broken Age is less reminiscent of those, wherein you'd build instructions from verb lists to solve arcane puzzles while exploring a lovingly-crafted environment that has funny dialogues like a triple-cunted hooker has pubic lice in that you're still finding new ones after three or four run-throughs, and more reminiscent of the modern-style adventure games, wherein you walk to a thing, click on the thing, and then get a trophy for clicking on the thing.
Not that Donkey Island or Day of the Testicle had unimpeachable gameplay; yeah, some of those verbs got a bit redundant, and the pacing would grind to a halt while you sought the thread of logic that starts with stabbing an inflatable clown doll and ends with an Egyptian mummy winning a beauty contest, but Broken Age is at the other extreme; I breezed though the whole thing without stopping because solutions were obvious the second every piece was in play.
My eyes rolled like a fucking ferris wheel when one of the first inventory items you acquire is a remote-controlled toy robot with four flexible grabbing arms, because this is an object whose existence makes no sense within story context; why would a fussy parent leave a child alone with a grabbing device that can only possibly lead to severe eyeball injury or a premature sexual awakening? No, its only purpose is to provide a witheringly contrived solution to a blitheringly specific problem later on. All I'm saying is that the '90s adventure games I remember would probably have made us assemble such a thing ourselves from an electric wheelchair, a handful of eels, and four freshly-severed limbs.
But the gameplay of adventure games is like the little diseased, withered limb on an elm tree; story is the trunk, dialogue is the leaves, and character is the newly-in-love couple breathlessly giving each other one at its base. Broken Age is a game about breaking routine and broadening your horizons (ironically, Kickstarter backers.) It's divided between Shay, a teenage boy alone on a spaceship with a computer that smothers him with affection while ensuring he cannot leave, and Vella. a teenage girl in an idyllic village community whose family are planning to sacrifice her to a Lovecraftian nightmare, in which case, Shay should probably just fucking suck it up.
You can switch between the characters freely, but the stories never affect each other so there's no bloody point unless you're a film student and want to practice creating an edit on the fly. It's only at the very end that you learn how the stories are connected, and what I liked is that that game kind of wrong-foots you about it, letting you think at various points that maybe Vella might be Shay's mum, or Shay is Vella's carpet fitter and– no, wait, maybe Vella is Shay going through an awkward phase! The eventual end-of-act reveal is intriguing and well-executed like the guillotining of Alfred Hitchcock.
I did Shay fist, and that was probably smart because his is the far stronger of the two stories; there's a very "Schaferian" juxtaposition going on with the light and colourful chocolate-box playroom environment, mined with the unexpected coffee creams of sinister undertone: the borders of the prison are blurry; you wonder whether Shay is escaping from it or just digging into another layer of fantasy and hazelnut clusters; if you will, a sort of "I have no mouth, and I eat ice cream" [laughs] Critic-critic, smarm-smarm! Most importantly, it's cohesive. What is Shay's issue? He's trapped in a prison with a mad computer. How do we resolve this issue? We escape from the prison. There! A universal story for the ages we can all get behind!
Meanwhile, Vella's story is a mess, like a forgotten 2 A.M. kebab. What is Vella's issue? She wants to stop a giant monster from attacking her people. How do we resolve this issue? Not a fucking clue! We faced it at the start of the story and were completely helpless, so let's just bumble around some villages hoping it'll show up again, and we can think of a way to kill it. And we do! At the last moment, a method for killing the monster conveniently plops from the game's bum. And if you're going to deus ex machina, go all out, guys! Have a giant Tim Schafer descend from the clouds and piddle all over it!
And it's hard to want to help Vella's people when they're all perfectly content to appease the monster but also don't lift a finger to stop Vella from killing it. What a dynamic fucking bunch! "That's the joke!", I hear you argue. "Then why aren't I laughing?", I retort. It makes me think sadly of Grim Fandango, where there were characters who made me laugh and had agendas and relationships and lives outside of standing in one place reciting expository dialogue and exchanging gifts for contrived puzzle solutions.
So at the end of all that, I'm into Broken Age enough to want the second act; it might've been a mistake to split them up because this seems like a story that only comes together once you've got the full picture, but it's not as engrossing as Grim Fandango and not as laugh-out-loud, roommate-irritatingly hilarious as Psychonauts. Maybe I should judge it by its own merits and stop dragging in comparisons to older games? Maybe, but the game was fucking funded on nostalgia for those older games. It's like saying "you can't expect a racehorse to run as fast as his dad did." Then why did you charge so much for his spunk!?
- Yearning to breathe free: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- So when the second bit comes out are they gonna call it Come Back Together Again Age
- Well having said all that I now quite fancy a kebab