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Broken Age: a new era of adventure dawns, but looks familiar

Thursday, 16th January 2014 09:08 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Broken Age is Double Fine’s love letter to and resurrection of the adventure genre. Brenna checks her inventory for useful items and sets out to solve the puzzle of whether anybody really wanted that in the first place.

Broken Age

The infamous Double Fine Adventure, which raised $3.3 million via Kickstarter in early 2012.

Double Fine’s unprecedented success is widely credited with beginning the Kickstarter revolution for mid-sized developers. Notable followers of the next few months include Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Star Citizen and Shadowrun Returns. Very few have made it to market yet.

Broken Age is being released in two parts, as Double Fine got a bit excited and designed beyond its budget. Sales of the first act are expected to expedite development of the second.

It took Brenna less than three hours to complete Act 1, and she’s not especially clever about puzzles.

Some users have complained about crashes and bugs but we experienced no problems, which ruins a potentially hilarious headline pun.

Double Fine was going to save Adventure. Adventure had been neglected too long. Adventure was on its deathbed, the victim of greedy corporate busybodies and underbred console kiddies. We, gentleman all, would open our hearts and our wallets so Double Fine could resurrect a genre that had been neglected too long. The developer’s insistence that the glory days of adventure will return was a welcome balm to those left moderately chafed by the passage of time.

But there’s a good reason big publishers are leery of point and click adventures, and that’s because it’s a niche genre with a lot of problems. Most point-and-clicks can be solved by pixel hunting, picking up everything, then clicking everything on everything else until something happens. That’s basically true of video game “puzzle solving” in general, but it takes a certain kind of personality to enjoy ponderously strolling back and forth between the same six locations repeating the process over and over again without stopping to shoot terrorists in the face between lever pulls. There are something like 30 million people who like shooting terrorists in the face, but significantly fewer who like solutions such as “find the one of 16 identical-looking items on this screen which is clickable, and start it up by combining a washing machine, crab claw, pair of underpants and dog whistle” enough to do nothing else for eight hours. Especially now that genres exist that also feature decent writing and characters, but let you do something – anything! – else.

When Double Fine popped up in in early 2012, determined to save adventure, there were questions to be asked. One, did adventure actually need saving or was it ticking along quite nicely, thank you, even if nobody wants to give you $100 million to do it? Two, does anyone really want adventure to be “saved”, or can we just quietly pop it back on the back burner with others like simulation, there to be loved by few and ignored by the many who’d rather be shooting terrorists in the face? Three, how the hell can you “save” a genre which has built into its very definition a bunch of strictures the mainstream gamer is never going to embrace?

I think we know the answer to that last one, actually, because TellTale already did it, a couple of months after Double Fine’s Kickstarter closed: you get a good license, you give players a reason to care, and you make genuine changes to the long-standing formula.

How embarrassing, then, that the self-proclaimed saviour of adventure hasn’t done any of this. To criticise Broken Age is, in many ways, to criticise old-school adventure gaming itself. There’s nothing really wrong with Broken Age. It’s a classic Tim Schafer point-and-click adventure. It oozes charm. It’s just not one of the two things it might have been – a really mainstream-friendly take on the genre, or a really hardcore offering for old-school fans. Instead, we’ve got a disappointingly traditional reprisal of an old theme sans the challenge, enrobed in a whimsically kooky wrapper.

Let’s start with the good things. The ability to switch between Vella and Shae is fantastic. Even before the plots start to come together – subtly, and much more satisfyingly if you do the two chapters simultaneously rather than one after the other – it’s a wonderful feature. Whenever you get a bit lost or frustrated – hello, adventure games – you can take a break by visiting the other story. It’s refreshing, and the two realms are so different and splendid that it’s a genuine pleasure to explore them. They don’t interact in any way, though.

The characters are varied and interesting, and it’s great to see so many female characters, not all of whom exist to be eaten by monsters. Meeting the inhabitants of the villages Vella visits is fun and the voice acting, in particular, is terrific. The humour and style aren’t going to charm everybody, unfortunately – you either like Schafer’s stuff or you don’t – but whether you’re logging onto forums to feverishly share your experience (“a talking SPOON!!!!11!!!one!!”) or a bit put off by it you can’t argue with the production values. Where did your millions go? Elijah Wood, Jack Black and co. earned their salaries.

Vella’s journey is the more varied of the two, taking in several locations.

The graphics and animation are appealing and clever; it’s all unrelentingly gorgeous, but in a deliberately misleading low-fi style. As a result, the way everyone jerks around like puppets and gestures with the suddenness of skipped frames seems intentional, and therefore doesn’t make your eyeballs vomit blood.

Finally, you can double click an exit to instantly leave a field rather than having to watch your chosen hero trot slowly to their destination, which is not entirely new but thank god. On a similar note: press space bar to skip things you’ve seen before.

Now the bad: the puzzles are only ever going to give you trouble when you’ve missed picking something up. Several of them are “solved” in conversation by simple trial and error; you try all the available options until you win. Sometimes you can guess the right one immediately by paying attention to other things the person has said, but since this is a quirky Schafer universe character motivations are often entirely men-tile and you are better off flipping a coin. Not that it matters – there’s never any consequence for being wrong, or failing one of the few sections requiring reflexes.

There’s no consequence to anything because there’s nothing non-linear, and that’s a trope of classic adventure I feel we could live without in 2014. The player follows a very strict A to B, and while it’s very fair and just of Double Fine to ensure you don’t need to backtrack very often to solve puzzles it does mean you can be fairly sure whatever problem you’re facing can be solved by dint of clicking randomly where you’re standing. Almost every puzzle item can be obtained in advance of your actually needing it, too, which is weird (why precisely am I trying so hard to get this piece of abstract art from a lumberjack?) if sometimes convenient (oh thank god I don’t have to trek back four screens for this except now I have to anyway for the next puzzle).

The puzzles are neither complicated enough to satisfy those old-school fans who really enjoy classic adventure games, nor logical and straightforward enough to appeal to people who don’t consider it normal to, oh, stick a pelican to a bus with glue made from beeswax and barnacle spit in order to use the flying bus to knock down a door which has a doorknob right there, I’m just saying. That’s not a real example, because spoilers, but it’s close.

Shay’s story contains a good, well-communicated multi-part puzzle.

On top of all that, there are sections which are just kind of boring. Several of Shay’s sequences are deliberately, cleverly simple and dull – you’ll understand when you get there, and I’m not complaining about that. It’s just that there were other times when I’d been listening to someone drone on for a bit and hadn’t actually interacted with the game for a couple of minutes. I started browsing RSS feeds on my phone because I play games to be active and stimulated, not to passively receive entertainment. Especially when that entertainment is a lot of world building background for an area we exited shortly thereafter and expect never to return to.

In short, Broken Age is pretty good, but it’s got a few problems and I’m disappointed overall. I suppose nobody ever said that Broken Age had to innovate substantially and revolutionise adventure gaming, or to really capture the old-school spirit; mainly the developer needs to satisfy its fans and make enough money to finish development and go on to whatever comes next. But these are goals I set for it myself, because I helped pay for the damn thing, and it didn’t meet those goals.

Although Double Fine has made noises about getting review builds to press, I’ve been playing Broken Age because I backed it. I’m telling you this so you know I’ve got a horse in this race, and am likely therefore to be critical and over-excited. The emotional investment on this project, coupled with the long wait, split release and budgetary mismanagement, has made some fans livid.

I’m not livid; I’m just underwhelmed, and not enough of a fan of either Schafer or adventure games to be like “aww yiss, some mother-clucking bread crumbs, which I will combine with slug juice to make mortar for the wall I’m building to stop the water hitting the baby animal farm rather than just turning off the hose“. Broken Age, ladies and gentleman: you probably already know if you like it or not.

The first of two acts of Broken Age is now available to crowdfunding backers through a Humble Bundle log-in. It will release to the general public on January 28. The second act will follow as a free update. You can save 10% with a Steam pre-purchase. It’s available on Linux, Mac and PC.

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18 Comments

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  1. Tormenter

    You mentioned Puzzles and inventory.. I’d read in a ‘review’ that it was shockingly bereft of puzzles and the inventory was utterly generic.. was I mislead?

    #1 6 months ago
  2. mreko3230

    “I’ve been playing Broken Age because I backed it. I’m telling you this so you know I’ve got a horse in this race, and am likely therefore to be critical and over-excited.”

    I know this game is a rare case, but something feels “off” about reviewers having to back a project so they can be in the Beta to review the game. Fair or not, Kickstarter is seen as a way to invest into a company. It’s probably not as nefarious as owning stock in Paramount Pictures then reviewing one of their movies- but it feels pretty damn close.

    I’ve had people say that it’s no different than when reviewers buy a copy of a game and review it. I think it is completely different; mainly because the company is basically saying “Hey, this game can’t exist without your financial support.”

    Does anyone else feel this way or am I looking too much into it?

    #2 6 months ago
  3. RPRezo

    >>I think we know the answer to that last one, actually, because TellTale already did it, a couple of months after Double Fine’s Kickstarter closed: you get a good license, you give players a reason to care, and you make genuine changes to the long-standing formula.

    No it didn’t. Telltale makes interactive shows (mostly good ones, mind), not adventure games. And even that was done before – they used an idea from Heavy Rain and simplified it.

    Broken Age, on the other hand, IS a proper adventure game. Easy, yeah. But awesome.

    #3 6 months ago
  4. Delsin Row

    thanks breena.it was an awesome article.though i did read half of it yet.
    “Double Fine knows how to make game”

    #4 6 months ago
  5. RPRezo

    #4 I know this game is a rare case, but something feels “off” about reviewers having to back a project so they can be in the Beta to review the game.

    There was nothing like this. Reviewers got their review codes (I’m sure I did).

    #5 6 months ago
  6. Tormenter

    @2

    I’ve been told I can’t read, so forgive me if I’ve picked you up wrong, but from what I’ve understood, your stance seems to be that reviewers may go easier on a title that they have a vested interest in.

    Personally I would have said the opposite, that they may be likely to be more critical of it, because they may have been looking forward to it for a while and it’s pretty difficult to live up to a certain image.

    #6 6 months ago
  7. foofly

    @6 I think @2 was more concerned about bias either way.

    #7 6 months ago
  8. Tormenter

    @7

    Possibly. My impression came from “It’s probably not as nefarious as owning stock in Paramount Pictures then reviewing one of their movies” which seemed to me to indicate the point I made.

    #8 6 months ago
  9. Butcher8

    Spot on review, I also backed this game ($100, ouch…) and it was insultingly easy, who was this game made for?! Because it certainly wasn’t made for the hardcore adventure fans that funded it!

    #9 6 months ago
  10. TheWulf

    I’m personally of the opinion that everyone played these games for the characters, stories, and settings, which were all a cut above the usual generic bull. Titles like Day of the Tentacle and The Longest Journey exemplify this. If I could sit down with those and play them without the puzzles, I’d actually do it.

    A lot of attempts to fix this were made. I’m still truly fond of the Myst approach to it, with situational environment puzzles that just require some intuition and awareness to figure them out. Those are great, providing they don’t require notoriously Heraclean leaps of logic.

    The older Myst games suffered with ‘do what the designers are thinking’ fairly badly, though Uru was much better. I think that Teledahn was the sweet spot for that kind of thing. Just enough hints and the right amount of compartmentalism (so the puzzles aren’t spread out over an entire age, where they’re all interacting with each other).

    I’m also fond of just having choice and consequence as part of an interactive show, too. This is why I’m so fond of The Wolf Among Us. I would have enjoyed David Cage’s games too if the writing wasn’t so bloody god awful. Cage is like Hideo Kojima, except without the sense of wonder. So instead of hilarious, fantastical nonsense, you just get nonsense. Just nonsense. Nothing else.

    NANOMACHINES, SON. Gods, I’m so fond of Revengeance. I am so, so sorry for that. I like over the top things, I can forgive so much in the way of trite shite for that. It’s a boon that eclipses all.

    Or maybe I’m just still a kid who likes a well written story now and then.

    Anyway, the point is is that I don’t think many people really played adventure games for inventory puzzles. They were the most loathed part of it. They played them because the settings, characters, and story involved were unlike what you’d find anywhere else.

    Also important: Adventure games weren’t typified by killing shit.

    I’m really not fond of that unless it’s so over the top that I just can’t take it seriously. I’m actually upset by glorified semi-realistic stuff, though, because that sends all the wrong messages.

    Fuck this. I don’t want to kill all the damned super mutants, can’t I just be a diplomat instead?” – Fallout 3

    I’M A SUPER-MUTANT DIPLOMAT!!! 8D” – Fallout: New Vegas

    I like being a peacemaker. I got to do that a bit in adventure games. I actually like deep, thought-provoking material, with the kind of breadth that makes playing games worthwhile. So puzzle games don’t really work for me, because I want that story, I crave it, and with it the lore.

    I want to be telling people about my experiences with those stories like a wild-haired old man with wonder-filled eyes gathered around a fireplace when that time of my life comes around.

    Stories! Novelty! The fantastic to the fucking impossible.

    That’s what adventure games were about. Never inventory puzzles. They were just there so we could all pretend that they were ‘gamey’ enough to pitch to shareholders who couldn’t yet conceive that something like Gone Home or the Novelist could exist.

    Edit: For the record, I’m playing New Vegas again with a cocktail of mods.

    I pop in another jalapeno pepper, slaving over a stove in this cleaned up schoolhouse I now call home, stirring a murky concoction so desired by some rich bloke who lives up on a mountain. Raul’s sweeping the floors, he does that, he’s a neat freak and my home is never tidy enough for him.

    Last time I ventured out I used nanomachines (son) to tear down a dilapidated, lofty spire of intertwined metal solely so that the aforementioned rich bloke could have a nicer view. Even day-to-day slice of life activities are made more brilliant by a fantastic world. I can be a handyman and a chef, and it’s fascinating nonetheless.

    You don’t have to spend time killing everything. That’s what made adventure games so magical — you actually had a variety of professions. You could be anything, rather than just Sir Killamajig the Third Wot Kills the Bad People.

    …and sadly, even that sounds more appealing than most murder simulators.

    (I think that’s my primary problem with mainstream, AAA titles these days. I’m offended by how bland, unimaginative, and dull they are to the point of being trite. There are so many things you could do, so much potential, but it all boils down to kill all of the people, all of the time. This world they’ve made can never be used for anything else.)

    #10 6 months ago
  11. Butcher8

    @TheWulf That’s like, you know your opinion man, I played them for all of reasons you stated, but the meat of the experience was the puzzles, this game had no meat, it was merely a bag of brightly coloured and very sweet sherbert.

    ps I confess I only skimmed your comment, maybe you should have a blog :p

    #11 6 months ago
  12. sb319

    Personally I would not describe what Telltale Games creates as adventure games. Certainly their more recent hits like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are largely just stories with action bits in – mostly dialogue and QTE moments for action. Very few puzzles in there.

    As for Broken Age… Personally I’d have been happier with an adventure game that 1% of the production values (ie something much cheaper and simpler to make) but with much more effort spent on the puzzles and game side of things. TBH when I backed it, that’s what I thought I was signing up for.

    #12 6 months ago
  13. SplatteredHouse

    MCV notes that BA is no longer going to be part of Steam Early Access, but is now running as a Season Pass proposition.
    http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/double-fine-repackages-broken-age-as-season-pass-offering/0126733

    #13 6 months ago
  14. Phoenixblight

    @13

    Thats correct. Double Fine said this in a email a few days ago.

    #14 6 months ago
  15. TheWulf

    @11

    I think you actually agree with my opinion, but you just don’t realise it yet. See, if you were to skim harder (damn it, man, skim harder!) you’d see that I dig puzzles. What I don’t dig is trying to figure out what a developer was doing when they came up with stuff like The Longest Journey’s rubber-duck-grabber-thing puzzle.

    I think that in order to have landed the logic for that one, they’d have to have been both drunk and riding high on DMT, possibly on the verge of death. There’s no sanity or reason behind a puzzle like that, it’s purely ‘combine X with Y until you get lucky.’

    The Discworld game was almost entirely like that, too. The problem with inventory puzzles is that 90 per cent of them make no sense (unless, perhaps, you’re frequently doing every vice under the sun and your brain has achieved some kind of alternate state required to perceive the anti-logic inherent within those games).

    So inventory puzzles, to me, felt tacked on. They were there just to convince shareholders that the latest LucasArts endeavour was, indeed, a game. “Look, it has puzzles! You have to use things on things!

    Of course, this was coming from a proto-form of the school of games development, where everything required certain basic mechanics and types of interaction. So inventory puzzles were necessary for a game to sell. Would The Longest Journey have been a better game without inventory puzzles? I’d unequivocally say yes.

    The argument against games which have threadbare mechanics is stupid, too, honestly. Anything that you can interact with that entertains you is a game of some sort. Card games, board games, video games, et cetera. And there are loads of card/board games which have less interaction than, say, The Wolf Among Us.

    But, again, I’m not against sensible environment puzzles.

    Teledahn in Uru set the stage for how to do that right. If a puzzle is compartmentalised (so it isn’t linked to other puzzles elsewhere), and it’s intuitive so that you’re figuring out as you’re poking things, then you’ve got a successful puzzle there.

    What determines a good puzzle versus a bad one is how much mind-reading you felt was involved. And with many old adventure games, it felt like you literally had to read the insane mind of the developer to solve a puzzle.

    Furthermore, I’m sure that some of the more insane inventory puzzles were thrown in just to make money from hintlines and guide magazines in a period before the Internet. That might just be me being cynical, but if you can convince shareholders that your game will also sell guides and have people calling expensive hotlines, then that’s great too.

    Frankly, I’m glad the inventory puzzle system is all but dead.

    It was a faker, a faker that’s always been obvious to me. It was never a ‘puzzle system,’ it was just something developers threw in there because they had to, and because they weren’t quite talented enough to make good environment puzzles instead.

    #15 6 months ago
  16. TheWulf

    @12

    Sounds like a semantics argument to me.

    I don’t like those, they’re silly, and they often involve someone who’s set in their ways and suffers tremendously limited thinking in that label X must immediately relate to a static and unchangeable instance of Y.

    The question is, then: Why are they not adventure games?

    They’re clearly games. You can interact with them and they provide entertainment, certainly as much as any board or card game does. If, then, they are not games then similarly lacking board and card games cannot be games either. This obsession with ‘game’ and ‘certain mechanics’ is ridiculous and we need to move away from it.

    This I categorise under ‘pet peeves,’ honestly. It sits with people who think that sci-fi has to have starships in it to be sci-fi, or people who genuinely believe that fantasy has to have swords, sorcery, and a Little Germany/England setting. Neither is true. Dragonriders of Pern had dragons, typically fantasy fare, but it was classified as sci-fi by everyone who read it at the time.

    You need to loosen up your definitions and play semantics less.

    So, it’s a game. What about an adventure? Does The Wolf Among Us constitute one? I’d say so, it’s an investigative adventure as much as the Gabriel Knight games were. If those were adventures, then so to is The Wolf Among Us. I’d also say that The Walking Dead had many of the tenets of an adventure, too.

    But guh… this is why I hate arguments involving semantics, I have to do this and it seems like common sense, to me.

    What is an adventure?

    Wktionary has this to say about adventures: “A bold undertaking, in which hazards are to be encountered, and the issue is staked upon unforeseen events; a daring feat.

    I think we can sum up this as either a risk-laden duty or journey, one which brings about a sense of excitement.

    So, an adventure game merely needs to be interactive, entertaining, and it needs to entail a story involving a character walking a path and taking risks. I’d say that sums up The Wolf Among Us perfectly.

    This is kind of like when people believed that an RPG had to be about statistics, vertical progression, numbers, and so on. To the contrary, I believe those things are a contradiction to the term. An RPG is, after all, a role-playing game. A game in which you play the role of a character, who’s making decisions and living with the consequences of them. Thus, The Wolf Among Us could also be an RPG.

    I see the numbers and the mechanics as a video game abstraction of reality that serve as a means for people who need those to interact with a virtual reality. I don’t. For example, one of the first things I did with New Vegas was getting rid of the levelled lists for creatures, and basically having a system where I started off with a set bunch of stats and finished the game in the same way.

    So, the point is is that just because something doesn’t satisfy a person’s need for numbers, mechanics, or whatever other sterile and very video-gamey element, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a game. The Wolf Among Us is as much of an adventure game as Monkey Island, or anything else.

    #16 6 months ago
  17. Tormenter

    @12

    “As for Broken Age… Personally I’d have been happier with an adventure game that 1% of the production values (ie something much cheaper and simpler to make) but with much more effort spent on the puzzles and game side of things.”

    That’s the impression I’ve been left wth the game… All furcoat and no knickers.

    There doesn’t seem to be any of the trademank quirky gameplay that I would have imagined to be the main reason people backed this, it seems quite an epic letdown TBH.

    #17 6 months ago
  18. TheWulf

    Wow, so… I was waiting on a friend to finish up act one of Broken Age and I have to say that it exemplifies everything I loved about adventure games. Namely, the fucking impossible part I mentioned prior.

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    A knitted spaceship? Sure, why not! A truly fantastic world that blends genres? Hey, yeah. A pyramid starship taking on an ancient Lovecraftian horror? Sounds fun.

    Theimplicationthatrealityisasimulationasthefallbetweenthecracksoftheirsimulatedrealityimplyingthattheactionsinonesimulatedrealityweredirectlyaffectingtheotherandthewolfguyknewaboutallthisortheboywaslivinginthelovecraftianhorrorallthetimeaspartofasimulationororor…

    Why aren’t all games this imaginative?

    Why?

    Why? :C

    This is what I miss about adventure games. Not the puzzles.

    SPOILERS ABOVE.
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    #18 6 months ago