When Broken Age’s first act released last January, high expectations came with it. As gaming’s first multimillion-dollar Kickstarter success, it embodied Tim Schafer’s longstanding dream to make a traditional adventure game in the post LucasArts era, with more than 87,000 fans chipping in to make it a reality. Broken Age wasn’t likely to CHANGE EVERYTHING!!!, but for longtime fans of the genre, its initial release represented a significant milestone.
The game got off to a good start, with Act 1 drawing us into the lives of protagonists Shay and Vella only to see their worlds subverted by sinister outside forces—a charming, tantalizing glimpse over far too soon, with a massive cliffhanger to boot. And then we waited. What was supposed to be a six-month gap between acts stretched into fifteen. If you want all the gory details, check out the documentary that was filmed during Broken Age’s development. But if all you care about is the game itself, you’re in luck, because the finally completed Broken Age holds its own as one of the best adventure games of this century.
Just in case you haven’t been following along since the Kickstarter campaign, Tim Schafer’s first adventure game since Grim Fandango tells the parallel stories of two teens whose paths unexpectedly converge. Depicted with a whimsical, painted art style that evokes feelings of innocence and wonder, this is a world where a spaceship is steered with controls fashioned from a baby’s crib toy and where maidens dress up like frosted cupcakes in an elaborate town-wide celebration. On the surface, Broken Age appears childlike and magical, but it doesn’t take much scratching to reveal a darker, more intricate tale beneath the fluffy facade.
The protagonists, Shay and Vella, are two fourteen-year-olds in situations vastly different yet oddly similar. Shay lives on a spaceship where he’s grown up under the watchful “eyes” of computer programs named Mom and Dad, his only playmates a herd of annoyingly chipper, sentient stuffed animals. The entire ship has been wired to keep Shay safe; decorated with smiley faces and colorful toys, it holds Shay back in childhood like the bedroom of a teenager who hasn’t yet been given the go-ahead to redecorate. He spends his days going on missions manufactured by Mom to save his stuffed animal friends from ice cream avalanches and alien snuggle attacks, taking regular breaks to be fed nutritious meals by mechanical hands and a talking spoon. Not surprisingly, the teen has begun to rebel against this suffocating, bubble-wrapped environment, and when a snap decision to sabotage one of Mom’s missions leads to the discovery of an unknown portion of the ship, an exciting and dangerous outside world suddenly appears to be within his reach.
Vella, meanwhile, has been selected for the dubious honor of representing her baking town, Sugar Bunting, in the ritual Maidens Feast celebration. Vella is to be sacrificed to Mog Chothra, a monster who has appeared every fourteen years from beyond the Plague Dam for as long as anyone can remember, because towns that don’t offer up their tastiest maidens suffer catastrophic consequences. When Vella brings up the idea of fighting Mog Chothra instead, her suggestion is laughed off—only her feisty Grandpa Beastender takes her seriously. (He remembers the good old days when their town was populated by brave warriors… a far cry from today’s pacifist bakers.) Like Shay dutifully playing Mom’s rescue games, Vella goes along with the plan to a point. Then, in a move that blatantly defies her role as a video game "princess," she breaks out of her expected trope by standing up to Mog Chothra and her world also opens up as she embarks on a quest to save other towns in the monster’s path.
At first glance, these are two separate stories with a few parallel elements: two teenage protagonists fed up with rules imposed by authority figures; two coming-of-age journeys spawned by their rebellion. But experiencing these stories side by side reveals subtle links in Act 1 that you may or may not pick up depending on what order you play them in and how thoroughly you explore. Though their paths rarely cross, you can switch between Shay and Vella whenever you want. I initially played Shay’s portion of Act 1 start to finish in one sitting—a choice I later regretted because it kept me from noticing moments where his story synced up with Vella’s. Upon my second Act 1 playthrough, the story became richer and more complex when I alternated between the characters at each major story beat. Either way, the running time for Act 1 is around 3-4 hours.
I stuck with Shay at first because I intended to switch to Vella when I got stuck on a puzzle… and that never happened. Not that I’m complaining: Act 1’s difficulty level was just right to keep me engaged, always thinking about what my next step would be but never too stymied to progress. Each character’s section has some degree of non-linearity, with more than one task to tackle at any point, so even when a solution wasn’t immediately obvious I was able to send my character in pursuit of a different goal (usually figuring out the puzzle that gave me pause along the way). The obstacles are traditional adventure game stuff, requiring item collection, exploration, and dialogue to overcome. In Act 1, Vella visits four distinct locations, each with a few people to talk to and goals to achieve, so her quest feels meatier than Shay’s—she’s traveling as she hunts down Mog Chothra, while he’s stuck in place trying to hack the ship’s controls and break free. But even marooned on a spaceship Shay has a variety of things to do, from inventory puzzles to a couple of simple logic challenges to a recurring arcade sequence that gets trickier each time.
Both the time investment and difficulty level ramp up significantly in Act 2. With the exception of a couple of new rooms, Act 2’s locations are the same places we’ve already been, but with substantial changes opening new hotspots to try out and dialogues to engage in. Vella and Shay remain separate (although their stories are more obviously linked), and switching between them becomes a necessity since several puzzle solutions rely on information you’ll find in the other character’s area. While the two protagonists don’t exactly work together, you have to think comprehensively as you hunt for clues, which makes Act 2 feel bigger than Act 1 and gives a reason to re-explore everything you thought you’d already seen. Most of the NPCs from Act 1 are still around, but their situations have changed, with the subplots of the depressed bird maiden passed over by Mog Chothra, the Dead-Eye Druids, frustrated shoemaker Car’l, and lightness guru Harm’ny Lightbeard all reaching satisfying conclusions as a result of your puzzle-solving.
Act 2’s puzzles are similar to Act 1’s, relying on inventory use, correct dialogue choices, logic, and occasionally good timing, but the later puzzles have more steps—just when you think you’ve solved something, an unexpected twist prompts one more burst of creative thinking. I solved most puzzles on my own with an a-ha! revelation and a deep sense of satisfaction; the two times I consulted a walkthrough, it turns out I was this close. It’s not every day that an adventure game challenges while staying fair and accessible, so I appreciate the care that went into Broken Age’s puzzle design. There was one puzzle that I didn’t quite get, involving a sequence of remote control operations around the spaceship, but I managed to solve it anyway; this was the only point when Act 2’s gameplay left me underwhelmed. On the flip side, several clever puzzles—such as one that requires describing a step-by-step diagram to a character who claims to be a “verbal learner” and another that involves adapting an antiquated star chart to work on Shay’s ship—are great examples of why Tim Schafer’s adventure games are fondly remembered, and I genuinely enjoyed the time I spent pondering them. Act 2 took me just over 8 hours, bringing my full playtime to nearly 12 hours. That’s more than I anticipated based on Act 1’s length, and it makes the long wait for the conclusion easier to swallow.
As expected, Schafer’s writing is witty and wonderful. The game is peppered with great moments that happen “just because,” like rotating through Shay’s comical cereal choices or leaving his spoon babbling on the counter long enough for it to embarrass itself. Some players gauge a game’s humor by how often they laugh out loud, and I’ll admit that much of Broken Age’s writing is more charming than knee-slapping funny. But even if my running tally of LOLs was low, I thoroughly enjoyed the absurdity of Shay and Vella’s situations. The other maidens Vella encounters see their sacrifice to Mog Chothra as an honor, to the point of throwing their dolled-up selves at the slobbering beast—there’s something inherently wrong and uncomfortable about it, and that’s why it’s great. Same with the lanky Shay crammed into the engine car of a toy train, rolling his eyes while his stuffed animal friends scream and cower over their imminent free fall down a phony mountain. Broken Age’s situational comedy is clever and meaningful, particularly when it becomes clear that the farce is only a frosting topper on a cake made from more mature, even sinister ingredients.
The intensity of Act 1’s surprise revelation is never duplicated in Act 2, but the story does build to its natural conclusion with most of the raised questions answered. One story point I had trouble wrapping my head around involves the sudden introduction of two new characters close to Shay; eventually I bought the explanation for their presence and I definitely got the joke, but the long delay between Acts may have made me less willing to accept it at first. It was great to see Vella’s family again in Act 2—especially her kid sister Rocky, who’s authentically childlike and makes a great BFF to cloud dweller M’ggie—but one brief appearance from another Sugar Bunting resident had me scratching my head. But these are small complaints about a story that’s generally well-written, entertaining, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, even with some heavy themes about leaving childhood behind and standing up to societal expectations simmering beneath the surface.Continued on the next page...