Broken Age is a ‘90s point and click adventure game, one made over a decade after the ‘90s ended. It’s the product of Double Fine’s recent and hugely successful Kickstarter campaign – a distinctly modern method of funding – and yet, the only obvious indication that this is a 21st century creation is its painterly visuals, and even these lovely brushstrokes can be de-resolved to pixels for the full retro experience. Still, beneath the clear and present nostalgia shines a beating, characterful heart that succeeds in not being constrained by expectations, but embracing and building upon them.
Given its retrospective sensibilities, the game’s title is something of an apt descriptor for the circumstance of its creation – it feels like a game made in a different time. But it’s also more directly a reference to its split narrative structure. This is, in fact, two ‘90s point and click adventure titles in one, each built with the same gameplay, but taking place in different locations.
“Beneath the clear and present nostalgia shines a beating, characterful heart”Shay, the Elijah Wood-voiced protagonist of one story, is trapped on a space ship with his overbearing, virtual parents. It’s a comfy nursery-school themed prison, designed to nurture a child’s innocence, but lacking in the thrills a young adult naturally craves. He’s bored of his cotton-wool wrapped routine, and his story and its puzzles all centre on his desire to break free of the monotonous repetition of simulated choo-choo train rides and ice-cream avalanches.
Conversely, Vela (voiced by Massasa Moyo), is an adolescent born into a community of cake making maniacs, and suffers from a lack of parental concern. Every year the villages in her land hold a ceremony called the Maidens Feast to appease the dreaded floating monster, Mog Chothra, the centrepiece of which involves offering up multiple young women as decorated sacrifices. It’s a state of affairs that everyone except Vela seems worryingly comfortable with, especially considering that she’s soon to be served up as a snack.
Both tales bumble through a series of amusingly off-kilter scenarios, revelling in the celebrated humour of Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert’s adventure game lineage. Their setting, story and characters are as ridiculous and exaggerated as you might expect, with a colourful cast that includes a cowardly lumberjack (Will Wheaton), a mysterious agent disguised as a fox and a cameo from a veteran Double Fine voice actor as a bearded, birds-nest dwelling cult leader, living in the clouds.
Broken Age exudes the kind of personality it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Double Fine producing these days, and the same thing could be said of its gameplay. As a project born of a sepia-tinted desire for pointing, clicking and item based puzzle solving, it’s unsurprising that this is storytelling through a series of gates that require very specific keys in the shape of one, or a combination of many, items. Adventure game puzzles have always relied upon contrived solutions – combine the hammer with the squid to appease the be-tentacled god of DIY, that sort of thing – and Broken Age’s locked doors are no different. Feathery slippers, canisters of compressed air and four-armed robots all help you progress, and most combine with humorous if sometimes frustratingly ineffectual results.
“Broken Age exudes the kind of personality it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Double Fine producing”Some puzzles are as rusty as you might expect considering that they’re built on decades old foundations. But Double Fine have greased their gears with a slick interface, beautiful animations and branching conversations that give detail and well-judged hints in appropriate measure. Charming storytelling may be what makes Broken Age worth playing, not the prospect of a brain twister, but the ease with which most scenarios can be puzzled out might be a disappointment to anyone who can recall the warped internal logic of Day of the Tentacle. The solutions to most situations are obvious, and those that aren’t can be puzzled out by testing one or two combinations from your inventory. The only outlier to this takes place in Vela’s third and final chapter, providing the most interesting protracted puzzle of the game, with multiple parties posing multiple riddles that hang together in one twisted structure.
This is a fairly easy game to play, and it’s also an easy game to love. Both Shay and Vela’s tales are acutely observed coming of age fables, with the struggle to break free of parental constraints and escape the seemingly crazy world around them being the thematic glue that binds the two narratives together. And the ability to switch between either story at any time is a refreshing feature that serves to highlight the parallels.
Shay’s plight stands out as the more interesting and unpredictable overall, with the conclusion to Vela’s struggles being fairly obvious from the outset. What is less apparent throughout either is the way in which Vela and Shay’s arcs are tied together, which is something Broken Age reveals with a tantalising concluding twist that makes the second chapter something of an exciting prospect, whilst cutting the first a little short.
There’s an adherence to old design tropes throughout much of Broken Age, but there’s also a yearning to find a way to tell this fun story. Nothing here is as radical as the branching narrative paths that Telltale Games’ franchises, oft cited as the modern evolution of the adventure game, are built on. But what’s resoundingly apparent when Shay and Vela reach the half-way point in their respective adventures is that, regardless of the age we live in, there should always be a place for small, backwards looking experiments when they’re as delightfully crafted as this.