Double Fine’s Broken Age is an adventure game. Imagine playing a fantasy novel; L. Frank Baum or Diana Wynne Jones come to mind. The story guides you through spaceships, time travel, monsters, cakes, clouds, and magic as you help the two teenage protagonists, Shay Volta and Vella Tartine, break from the paths they were fated to follow. This is fantasy in a way we rarely—if ever—see in video games.
The point-and-click mechanics are very straightforward. Although the game isn’t exactly a side-scroller, it works much like one, and each pane of the world creates a small scene for the character to explore. Players click to speak to other characters, and may choose dialogue options from a list. Items are gathered and can be used on characters, the environment, other items, and on Shay or Vella. The idea is to find the right combination of dialogue choices and item combinations to get the things you need to accomplish tasks. It’s not always obvious what those paths to victory are, but the characters will give hints when pressed.
The scenes are easy to navigate, but occasionally I found myself at a loss when it wasn’t obvious where I should find a necessary item. I also would have preferred each diorama to lead seamlessly into the next, instead of cutting to a loading screen. These were, however, minor annoyances.
The game starts with a choice of character; players may choose Shay, a skinny young white man who seems to live on a spaceship, or Vella, a dark-skinned young woman in a fancy, torn, pink dress. At first, it is unclear how the two teenagers are related to each other, as they seem to be from different times and cultures.
Vella’s story begins in a town called Sugar Bunting. She’s been chosen for a celebratory feast…during which she will be eaten by Mog Chothra, a massive tentacle monster who rises from the sea. Vella’s family, with the exception of her elderly grandfather, are enthusiastic about the feast, and everybody is excited to sacrifice her for the town’s safety. It’s a great honor, after all.
Vella herself isn’t so sure. She isn’t exactly fighting for freedom, but the very act of questioning her fate seems to be subversive in this community. I won’t give it away, but things get a lot more intense very quickly, and Vella tasks herself with saving Sugar Bunting—and herself—from Mog Chothra.
Shay’s story begins on a spaceship decorated with children’s toys. He’s not particularly interested in…well, anything. Cereal? Over it. Bedtime? Whatever. The ship’s computer, an overly pleasant device that calls herself “Mommy,” presents a series of missions for Shay to accomplish, all of which sound exciting, and none of which actually are. The kid is clearly being coddled by an over-protective parent who refuses to let him grow up, and he’s had enough of it (though the ship isn’t an enemy, per se).
Shay sets out to escape from the ship’s smothering embrace and accomplish something meaningful for once. He takes to this task with vigor, finally having something to do, but…is it really the right choice?
Rest assured, Shay and Vella’s stories—despite taking place in different time periods and worlds—do come together in the end of Part 1, in some very unexpected ways.
I have one quarrel with the writing. Vella is fantastic. She is sly, smart, and funny, while still exhibiting kindness, and she is most certainly the hero of her own story. However, many of the other female characters were stereotypical in ways that, taken out of the context—female characters in video games—might not be a problem, since all the NPCs in Broken Age are caricatures. But the young women in the game, aside from Vella, are vapid, obsessed with their looks, and not particularly intelligent; it was funny, don’t get me wrong! But it made Vella into a special type of woman, a different type of woman, a woman not like those other women…and yes, this is an issue. Again, all the characters are caricatures except Shay and Vella, but stories don’t take place in a vacuum, and the “I’m not like other girls” mentality is a problem that I wish Broken Age didn’t have to contribute to. I was hoping that the story would do more to point out that these are the qualities in girls that their communities have bred in them, rather than something innately feminine, but in the end I just wasn’t convinced.
The design of Broken Age is absolutely gorgeous. The animation is simple but evocative, and the game looks as if it was made with paint or pastels (the crayons, not the color range). There’s this bit that takes place in the clouds…anyway, I can’t emphasize how beautifully done the art in this game is. Whimsical, but not childlike; vibrant, but with a mature color palette. I was reminded of the feeling I had while reading the original Wizard of Oz books. Warm, but not condescending. There are tons of secrets hiding in the backgrounds, if you take the time to look for them. The only thing I would ask for more of would be facial animation—occasionally when characters were supposed to be upset, they appeared to be smiling, which was a slightly off-putting (but only slightly).
Games are beginning to seek out talented voice actors to fill their rosters, and Broken Age has quite a roster. Wil Wheaton, Jennifer Hale, Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Pendleton Ward, and Masaya Moyo all make appearances as major characters.
The voice actors are great (Jennifer Hale, for instance, is a goddess and I adore her), but I felt the voice acting was lacking something. There was a certain blandness of tone that was present throughout the game. I wondered if this was intentional, since the voice acting did blend nicely with the overall tone of the game—and with the lack of variation in facial expressions–but with the fantastic cast, I wish we could have had more variation.
That being said, the dryness of the acting certainly lent an air of sassiness to both Shay and Vella.
The music is lovely. Truly lovely. It is never ostentatious and always adds to the gameplay rather than distracting from it. I was in turns calmed, excited, and moved. Most importantly, though, I never got annoyed by its repetition—this is pretty essential in a puzzle game, where you might be listening to the same song on loop for hours.
The puzzles are fun and interesting, and it’s not always obvious what the answer is. There’s a lot of back-and-forth—you speak to one person, then another, then pick up something behind them, then speak to the first guy again in order to get the item you need to get those duck shoes the other person had. It takes a bit of concentration.
Are the puzzles too tough for kids? Proooobably not. At least for kids who like puzzle games. (I wasn’t one of them.) The great thing about Broken Age is that when you get stuck on one thing, you can switch to the other character and take a break without leaving the game. Can’t get those stupid duck shoes? Play as Shay for a while to give your brain a rest.
I can’t lie though, I had to look up hints twice; once for Shay, once for Vella. Both times it was because I’d missed some visual cue in the environment—clues to find items stuck in places I hadn’t thought to look.
I had limited time to play the game, and I couldn’t spend hours on one thing, but I’d still say that if you have kids the best way to play this game would be to play together. Two minds are better than one, and a fresh perspective is always nice.
My advice for parents, particularly of younger kids, is to look up a walkthrough beforehand and have it on hand for when kids get too frustrated. Ideally it’s good to take a break when things are going downhill (whether that means putting the game down or simply switching characters) but another way around frustration is for you to guide them towards the answer without giving it away. Think of it as being like reading an I Spy book.
This brings me to my second piece of advice; I wouldn’t give this game to kids who can’t read yet. For learners, it’s a great way to engage them, but non-readers who might have fun with Broken Age probably won’t be able to navigate the dialogue options on their own. Luckily, none of the options are devastating—characters don’t die, opportunities aren’t lost, you can’t give away your items to the wrong person. Characters also repeat the written dialogue verbatim, so early readers might benefit from that (although it actually got a little annoying for me).
This isn’t to say that the game is only for kids. It most certainly isn’t. The humor is dry, but not overtly mature. The protagonists are teenagers, and they’re struggling with distinctly adolescent problems—finding a way away from over-protective parents, rebelling against societal norms, trying to find meaning in life, and becoming the heroes of their own stories. Both Vella and Shay, more than anything, are trying to find agency in their lives. These are themes that young people can get behind—and older gamers will certainly remember.
I’m looking forward to Broken Age Act 2. The second half of the story should come out later this year, and I’ll certainly be writing the second half of my review when it does.
This reviewer played Broken Age on a PC using a Steam client.