Thoughts on Broken Age

Some things: adventure games are great, and it’s a travesty that the genre lost popular support at the end of the ’90s; Tim Schafer is one of those celebrity developers whom I actually think of as someone worth paying attention to; and there’s an adventure game that Double Fine made two years ago that’s all kinds of wonderful.

I bring these things up because Broken Age is pretty brilliant, and I just finished playing it the other day (after having bought it on sale and sat on it for a few months), and it reflects the general impression I’ve gotten of Tim Schafer over the years that he, unlike many other celebrity game devs, is not a smug asshole.  It also, through its at the time record-breaking kickstarter, shows that over a decade after the heyday of adventure games the genre still has a financially viable market.  This last point is important because, as I have already said, adventure games are great, and I would like to play more of them with contemporary art direction (I don’t think I can stress enough that Broken Age is a beautiful game with tons of highly detailed, spectacularly animated 2D art assets).

Look at this screenshot! Now imagine it in motion.

The story of Broken Age follows two characters, Vella and Shay.  Vella lives in a fantasy world where her hometown of Sugar Bunting is preparing for the Maidens Feast, a ceremony where the town offers up a selection of its young teenage girls to be eaten by a giant floating brain monster called Mog Chothra in exchange for peace.  Vella has been selected to participate in the feast, and everything about it is super creepy, particularly in the way that everyone but her grandfather is incredibly cheerful at the prospect of her dressing up like a dessert (everyone in Sugar Bunting is a baker by trade) so she can be eaten.  Shay lives alone aboard a spaceship where the ship’s AI, which acts like it’s his mother, coddles Shay and prepares simulated adventures that are obviously geared toward entertaining a toddler rather than a teenager.  Shay’s predicament feels creepy in the way he’s perpetually infantilized despite his age and apparent desire to engage with real challenges.  The two stories are connected, but the connection doesn’t become apparent until the second act.

Both branches of the story are interesting in how they deal with attitudes towards adolescence, although I have to admit that Shay’s story isn’t quite as interesting as Vella’s (Shay’s struggles to be treated as competent simply don’t grapple with gender issues in the way that Vella’s do).  Vella is a highly capable, independent-minded girl who persistently questions the cultural assumptions surrounding the Maidens Feast and gets nonstop odd looks from everyone who just goes along with the tradition.  This starts off early with the beginning scene that show’s Vella’s family having a party for her inclusion in the Maidens Feast, overseen by an old lady who insists that this is the way things have to be in order for the community to have peace.  Only her grandfather, who remembers the town’s history as a society of warriors, offers any strong objections, but he’s generally presented simply as someone who doesn’t like the way things are now but has grown too disaffected to do much about it.  There’s a lot of obvious subtext here about the way we socially condition women to invest their worth primarily in their appearance and sacrificial value to larger social structures (everyone gushes over the way the girls in the Maidens Feast look in their fancy dresses that also happen to immobilize them on pedestals so that Mog Chothra can eat them at its leisure and also talk at length about what an honor it is to be chosen to be devoured by the monster for the good of the town).  Vella’s ingenuity helps her escape being eaten, but she ends up traveling to a couple other townships that have history with the Mogs, and everywhere she goes she meets with the same weird obsession with appeasing the monster (particularly salient is one girl in the first town Vella visits where Mog Chothra has already come and gone; the girl is distraught over the fact that she wasn’t taken by the monster and generally inconsolable).  It’s all done in a very lighthearted way, but the real world parallels to the messages with which we bombard women give everything a sinister edge.

Shay’s storyline doesn’t feel nearly as rich in comparison.  The motif of arrested development and normal teenage rebellion dressed up as a highly subversive act works well enough, but it simply lacks the punch of Vella’s plotline.  We’ve seen plenty of boy coming of age stories before, and Shay’s plot feels like a retread of that.  It’s a very well done retread, and Shay’s quest to be independent and contribute to solving real problems around him never sways towards either being patronizing of its main character or wallowing in his extra special destiny (there’s actually quite a bit in the game’s second half that undermines the narrative being sold to Shay that he’s super important to civilization).  Shay’s eminently likable as a character, and you root for his success throughout; it’s just that Vella’s interactions with her environment are way more interesting.

You can find Broken Age on Steam or on the Playstation Store if you’re interested in checking it out.  I definitely recommend it.

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