January 16th, 2014


Broken Age: Act 1

I love Broken Age.

It's hard for me to say whether or not this is because I backed it a while ago and have been obsessively watching (and rewatching) the fantastic documentary that is being produced as game development progresses, showing the ups and downs of making a complex and ultimately subjective system for the delight of everyone to see. It's a really fantastic documentary (though not available at the moment for purchase) and I love how it's about adults sitting in a room and talking about things and also about making really beautiful things.

But this isn't about the documentary. This is about the game.

I'm not someone who has nostalgic feelings about Tim Schafer and the old school LucasArts adventure games. I once tried to play Monkey Island as a kid and got stuck and bored and gave up on it, and that was pretty much the extent of that experience. I only got around to playing Psychonauts a year ago when it came out on Linux. I've enjoyed plenty of adventure games over the years (omg Machinarium <3), but I have no particular attachment to the old ones.

Broken Age is a modern adventure game, for better or for worse. It's slick, and it's streamlined such that I never hit a point during the game where I got frustrated enough to look up a solution on the internet (trust me, that's happened more times than I can count). It's gorgeous beyond belief and crafted with loving care. Just see for yourself.

But where the game really shines, for me, is the story.

There are flaws, of course. The main characters are draw thinly, but fairy-tale-thin not typical-video-game-protagonist-thin, and since this is Act 1, there's plenty of ways for them to go towards becoming fleshed out. The worlds they inhabit can feel a bit spare at times. The goofiness of video game logic continues to hold throughout the world.

There's something magical about its central theme, though, about teenagers becoming adults and what that means. As you can see, there are two main protagonists, a boy and a girl, and I suspect it's more unintentional than intentional, but there's something about the way their stories contrast against each other feels surprisingly feminist for a story constructed almost entirely by white dudes (trust me, I've seen the documentary, I know).

Vella has been chosen to be sacrificed to a monster that likes to eat girls during the Maidens Feast, and everyone around her talks about how great this is, it's an honor, etc. The game takes the darkly humorous tack of making most of the other maidens super eager to be 'chosen' by the monster, talking about the perfumes they wear, the construction of their clothes, whether it's better to be skinny or fat, and I guess, talking in Valley Girl accents. Vella has already decided this is absurd and upsetting, of course, and is ready to make her escape. This does have the weird, uncomfortable effect of making many of the other female characters around her seem shallow, vain, or downright stupid. But it does, in a lot of ways, remind me of being a girl who liked jeans more than skirts, who thought Barbies were boring, who grew up angry that boys got all of the cool things. There's a lot of effort put into impressing the giant unfeeling monster who probably actually care about the unrealistic and arbitrary demands being made on the maidens. Everyone buys into it. No one questions it, because 'that's the way it's always been.'

Shay, on the other hand, is living a coddled life. He's the only living thing on a spaceship that's been designed for a five-year-old. The ship's computer lovingly puts him into fake adventures where he has to survive hug attacks and deal with ice cream avalanches. Until, well, someone mysterious shows up in the ship and offers him the chance to go on a real adventure. I feel like there's some interesting deeper meanings here, in how we teach our boys to be heroes but not how to be adults. There are very real consequences to Shay's adventuring (which I will not spoil here), ones he cannot see because he lacks the ability to see past his own selfish desires. I think I see that at times in my male friends, the realization that they can't be the gung-ho hero who can do whatever they want and get away with it.

The ending of the first act is a pretty killer cliffhanger, and I'm sure these half-baked ideas that I have will either play out more fully or fall apart once we get to see the rest of these stories. Who knows, man. Still, at the end of everything, this is an experience that has stuck with me for a bit, and I expect it will stick with me just a little bit longer.

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