Of course, no discussion of a “traditional adventure game” would be complete without the verb debate. Like most modern adventures, Broken Age uses a smart cursor that represents whatever verb makes the most sense in context. Though this may come as a blow to some old-school fans, Schafer says this represents a refinement he and others at LucasArts were always trying to make. “Even back when we were working on Monkey Island we were [asking], ‘Can we get rid of some of these verbs?’ Because we didn’t like the way they look on the screen, and also they’re not really relevant to most puzzles. When a door is open, ‘open’ on the door is not interesting. ‘Close’ is interesting, but ‘use’ on the door will open or close it based on the context of the door. If you do ‘use’ on a closed door it opens, and if you do ‘use’ on an open door it closes. So really ‘use’ is more interesting than ‘open’ or ‘close.’ And using an object that’s on the ground is the same as picking it up. So then we were like, are we going to get rid of everything except for ‘use’? No, that would be too much of a break. So we never did it, but that’s what adventure games have matured into,” Schafer says, noting that Psychonauts, the action-adventure he created after Grim Fandango, also had a smart cursor.
Because of the smart cursor, creating unique and useful dialogue lines for each interaction is now much more attainable than in the verb coin days: “If there are 9 verbs, and maybe 15 inventory items active at any one time, [the designer has to do a lot of work] to think of a proper response for all of that. … So trimming it down to the really meaty things helps you focus the writing and response generation on the stuff that’s meaningful for the puzzles.”
The settings and situations Shay and Vella find themselves in will be reflected in the gameplay and puzzles we can expect with each character, at least in the first part of the game. “She’s got all the dialogue trees. He has very few dialogue trees,” Schafer says. “Also [they have] different types of puzzles; he’s got some pattern matching-type things that she doesn’t have. She has more item combining.” Schafer didn’t necessarily design the game with this intent: “It kind of naturally fell out of their situations, the kind of puzzles you come up with for each one. In some ways you just try to watch that and make sure the balance is interesting. Because I feel that’s the way it should be, the puzzles should reflect the characters who are doing it and also the situations they’re in. That’s why a lot of Ben’s puzzle solutions [in Full Throttle] were him kicking down doors instead of picking locks. He doesn’t pick locks. To me the ultimate goal is someone feeling transported to a fantasy world that they want to stay in, and gameplay and story are both hooks to that situation.”
It hasn’t been revealed yet whether Shay and Vella will cross paths during the game, but we’ll definitely be able to switch back and forth between them while playing, like in Day of the Tentacle. “The idea is that when you get stuck on a puzzle you can switch over to the other character and work on that for a while,” Schafer says. Designing puzzles that will have players stumped was actually one of his goals in creating a traditional adventure game, but we should get plenty of contextual hints along the way from the dialogue of Shay, Vella, and the characters they encounter. “I feel like, when you really do an adventure game well, the hints are all in the fantasy. Like if you talk to everybody, they’ll almost tell you the solution to the puzzles, they’ll mention it so many times,” Schafer says.
Tweaking the difficulty until it’s just hard enough has been one of Double Fine’s recent focuses: “It’s a really interesting process, because we have never playtested an adventure game this thoroughly before, really watching people play and seeing how no one is clicking on the thing I thought that everybody would click on.” (So far the game has only been playtested by Double Fine employees and close friends—backers won’t get their hands on the beta until mid-January.) “We got rid of a lot of the things that were hanging everybody up, but then I was like, oh no, now it’s too easy. So we went back and took out some hints that we put in, because to solve a problem we put in like three hints, and we realized we could take two of them out and people were still getting through it. … And now I was like, okay, I think we’ve got Act 1 to the point where it’s not too hard and not too easy, but I think I want to make Act 2 a lot more challenging. Because it can’t be easier than the first act, it has to be harder.” He’s now reworking Act 2’s design to reflect this feedback, with the inclusion of more inventory combination puzzles as one of his action items.
Backers at qualifying tiers will get access to an Act 1 beta on January 14, with a more polished version to be publicly released a few weeks later. The second half should follow this summer. It might sound suspiciously episodic, but Schafer doesn’t see it this way. Double Fine’s decision to release Broken Age in two parts is logistical: after Tim designed the game, he realized the Kickstarter money wouldn’t entirely cover its development, but he didn’t want to compromise his vision by scaling back. Instead, Double Fine opted to put additional money into the project along with early access profits (a model that has already worked well for their space station simulator Spacebase DF-9). What’s the benefit of playing now, versus waiting? “For some people it’ll be that they feel they can weigh in and have an effect on the final game by checking out the first half. Or they just can’t wait, because they’ve had to wait for two years,” Schafer says. While the early access version of Act 1 will be final, he says that players’ reactions could lead to changes in Act 2: “It’s good that we can get that kind of feedback on the game, because usually early access games don’t get reviewed and it allows us to have a really big beta in a way.”
For more insight into Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure journey, read on for our Q&A chat. You can also learn more about Broken Age on the game’s official website.Continued on the next page...