It’s been almost two years since Tim Schafer appealed to his fans to fund the traditional adventure game he yearned to make but publishers wouldn’t take a chance on. When the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter raised $3.3M, more than eight times the amount Schafer asked for, his plans grew as well. He went on to design Broken Age, a game comparable in scope to his 1990s titles Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango—and his eagerly awaited return to the genre is almost upon us.
Traditionally, each Tim Schafer game is radically different from the last, and Broken Age continues the trend. Schafer describes the plot as “two stories [that] are parallel and have a lot of similarities,” with two teenage protagonists, a boy and a girl, coming of age and questioning the expectations of their respective societies. The girl, Vella, has just been selected for a "great honor": to be sacrificed to a monster, Mog Chothra, who eats a maiden every 14 years in exchange for not destroying her town. “But she raises this question, ‘Isn’t there another way? What if we actually fought the monster?’ and everyone sort of just laughs it off,” Schafer explains. “And she makes a decision that she then has to deal with the consequences of, and try to rectify the situation and fight against Mog Chothra.”
The other storyline follows Shay, who lives alone in outer space on an “incubator vessel” that carried him to safety when his world was dying. The ship’s maternal computer has coddled, nourished, and entertained Shay his entire life, shielding him from potential dangers that lurk beyond the pod bay doors, but Shay has recently become suspicious of its motives and determined to take control. Like Vella standing up to Mog Chothra, Shay’s decision to hack into the spaceship’s controls and steer his own course will have repercussions that he must deal with for the rest of the game.
During a recent visit to Double Fine’s office, I watched over Tim’s shoulder as he played a portion as Vella in Meriloft, a colony in the clouds. Though my demo was too brief for me to really savor Schafer’s writing, his knack for coming up with odd people, places, and scenarios is clearly as prevalent as ever. A giant blue bird named Jessie carries Vella to Meriloft after her initial fight against Mog Chothra, and Vella’s goal here is to find out where the monster is going next so she can kill it. As Jessie sulked in her nest, refusing Vella’s attempts at conversation, Tim explained that her egg has been swapped out with a golden substitute, a calamity Vella must resolve by finding the real egg and returning it. But first Vella needs to acquire special shoes so she can walk around the colony without sinking into the clouds. She’ll also encounter various members of a “cult of lightness” whose guru, Harm’ny Lightbeard, encourages shedding excess baggage from their lives (including letters of their names).
When Vella ascended a twisty-turny ladder to meet the revered Harm’ny, I got to hear one of Broken Age’s celebrity voice actors, film star Jack Black. (He voices the guru—a hippie-dippie type with birds nesting in his cloud-draped hair and beard—with a lilting, slightly stoned drawl befitting a cult leader.) Black’s involvement is a nod to the ‘90s, when many of the genre’s early talkies boasted Hollywood talent. It’s a luxury most adventures with their relatively small budgets don’t enjoy these days, but Broken Age will be an exception. Double Fine recently revealed that Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, a backer and adventure game fan, will play Shay. Other familiar voices will include Star Trek: The Next Generation alumnus Wil Wheaton, Hynden Walch (TV show Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum), and Nick Jameson (Day of the Tentacle’s Dr. Fred and Max in Sam & Max Hit the Road).
Elijah Wood as Shay in Broken Age
Broken Age’s aesthetic reminds me of illustrations from Caldecott-winning children’s books, but Schafer disagrees: “When you say children’s book I feel like people really just mean ‘painted.’ It’s children’s book in that it’s got a stylized, friendly look to the characters … but we’ve also gone to a lot of detail.” Though the art is 2D, the engine employs some technological tricks commonly used with 3D graphics, such as dynamic lighting. This is evident when Vella crosses from one side of the screen to the other, the glow on her hair subtly changing as she moves between light sources. (“That helps the characters sit in a scene and actually feel like part of the painting,” Schafer explains.) The characters are made of individual pieces that flow together, similar to the paper cutout effect used on television’s South Park, with occasional parallax hinting at depth in a universe that, in line with backers’ expectations, exists in only two dimensions.
In many ways, Broken Age is a fitting follow-up to the LucasArts adventures that came before it—almost as if its designer hadn’t been dabbling in other genres for the past 15 years. With a simplistic UI that Tim considers an evolution of the well-worn SCUMM interface, the screen is uncluttered, allowing the stylized cartoon artwork to shine. The inventory, stored in a horizontal “tray” at the bottom of the screen that only becomes visible when you move your cursor down there, works basically like the old SCUMM inventory: you can select an item from the tray to use it in the environment, or drag one item over another to attempt to combine them. During conversations, dialogue options display at the bottom of the screen just like in the old LucasArts games. But in spite of these old-school roots, everything about the presentation is “elegant and modern,” as Schafer noted during our demo: “I feel like this treatment of the UI is really slick, and is something that doesn’t look like you’re playing a ’90s game.”Continued on the next page...