The big draw of [classic adventure games] wasn’t and never was the puzzles, but their ability to draw us into another world that actually worked like one – be it a fantasy world, a living story, a futuristic dystopia or whatever else. The verbs were tools to facilitate our interactions, exciting primarily because nothing else came close.
All of this quickly becomes a big problem for any adventure rooted in nostalgia.
Richard Cobbett, RPG vs. Adventure
This is the key. Cobbett, an expert on the adventure game genre, elaborates further in the article from which the above quote is taken on why Kickstarter has consistently failed to produce high quality adventure games despite its success with other genres. It all comes down to a misguided and uncritical emulation which preserves the skeleton from past games, but leaves behind the heart and soul. Interestingly enough, this makes for an awesome opportunity today. The door is wide open, and has been for some time, for any studio who’d dare to risk it all for a truly modern adventure game. But until then, mediocrity is all we’ll find, with games so mediocre, that even adventure game developers themselves can’t be bothered to play them, as this quote from Cobbett suggests, “In interviews, I can also count on about one finger the number of adventure developers who can name a recent adventure they’ve enjoyed or even played, with the usual response being an awkward “Oh, well, uh, I’ve been very busy…”
Well one thing’s for certain. Before Broken Age, Double Fine had been very busy. They were busy creating, despite whatever shortcomings they might have had, the utterly charming Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. Both of which Double Fine should be proud of since, in many respects, they accomplished what Schafer’s earlier games at LucasArts did — they left us with fond memories of worlds we may like to revisit some day.
Given that kind of success, why would they risk it all for a project like the Double Fine Adventure? They’d never made a game like that before at the studio, and when it was pitched on Kickstarter, it wasn’t even clear what the game was going to be. It’s not like there was any burning desire to bring a specific vision to life, unlike with the studio’s first game, Psychonauts. No. They simply wanted to film themselves making an old-fashioned adventure game. Of course, even if they could find a publisher that would allow such a film, none would fund this backwards slide into the past, because why would they? It’d be a waste of everyone’s time and money.
But what about all those people on the Internet who still remembered Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango? That’s where Kickstarter comes in. Tired of hearing the perpetual “No” both in their meetings with publishers and in their heads, Double Fine took to Kickstarter to convince their fans to join them in their revolution against the traditional publishing model and popular taste. And sure enough, it worked! The game was funded amid much rejoicing. There were many factors behind its success, chief among them being the “screw you” factor, i.e. sticking it to the man. Oh, you publishers won’t help fund our adventure game? Well away with you then! We don’t need you anyway. We’ll go to Kickstarter, where we’ll prove you wrong and bring your kingdom toppling down. Who are you to say what kind of games get made and which don’t?
It’s no surprise then that Broken Age emerged from this environment with such anti-Christian themes at its core (incidentally so did another Kickstarter darling, Pillars of Eternity). Religion is depicted herein as a ridiculous lie that must be exposed and eliminated. Shay, the spaceship boy, feels himself too mature for such things as his daily routine under his parents’ supervision, and ends up collaborating with the devil in wolf’s clothing, Marek, in order to spice up his life. And Vella, the sacrifice girl, having escaped from her own sacrificial ceremony goes on a personal quest to kill the god of the land, Mog Chothra.
It’s pretty ugly stuff, which is a shame since the game itself can look and sound so beautiful at times. One of the developers used the phrase “walking around in our drawings” to describe the game, and that’s an excellent statement. It really does seem like you’re walking around a painting, with a visual style so rich and alluring that it’s impossible to resist. The animations bring it all to life in a way that’s utterly enchanting. They may not live up to the animation standard set by LucasArts’ classic adventures, with some scenes resembling old stop motion movies at times, but the extra detail given to the facial animations help make up for it somewhat. The sci-fi environments can also be a little stale and uninspiring compared to the rest, despite the efforts made to spruce them up with various themes. They struggle to measure up to the diverse splendors of the cloud colony or the forests and villages seen when playing as Vella. There’s one tree in particular that every time that I see it, I’m struck in amazement over how incredible the whole thing looks. Would that there were more scenes like that in the game.
And there likely would have been if it weren’t for the multiple protagonists, specifically Shay. At first glance, being able to freely switch between Shay and Vella seems to echo the time travel puzzles from Day of the Tentacle, until you realize that the game’s been designed to maintain a strict separation between the two at all times. It’s such a hard line, that it’s not even clear if these characters actually exist in the same universe or not. This leads to interactions with the one having nothing to do with the other. Mechanically, all this does is let you swap characters if you ever get stuck on a puzzle. The bigger reason for the swapping, of course, is the story’s climax in which their questionable connection is finally revealed. But it wasn’t a good enough story (or moment) to warrant all the time wandering around the spaceship as Shay. If a visually impressive game that let you explore imaginative worlds was really their goal, they ought to have scrapped Shay entirely. He holds the whole thing down and isn’t someone that I would miss. Elijah Wood turns in a good performance for him, and that’s all I can say in his favor.
Speaking of puzzles, I was actually a little surprised not only to find them (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a large, interactable inventory), but to find them challenging, particularly in the second act. Alas, there’s a reason for the second act’s ramped up difficulty. It’s because it hardly has any new environments in it. This meant that the devs could focus on developing really nasty puzzles for everybody that complained about the ease of the first act. But these puzzles are so devious, I actually couldn’t take it any longer and had to quit. Two that stick out in my mind are the one where Vella has to convince someone that she’s her son, and another puzzle where Shay has to untie a knot. I didn’t proceed much further past those two before I set the game down for good. Not only did their difficulty wear me down to the breaking point, but it was very demotivating to have to solve a whole new set of puzzles in the same areas from act one again. That and the game was starting to get stupid. Not to mention that none of the jokes in the game ever made me laugh.
Funnily enough, the best things about Broken Age have little to do with the game itself. With Double Fine’s success on Kickstarter, other big studios began to fund their games the same way, leading to the creation of masterpieces like Planetary Annihilation and Divinity: Original Sin, and in an incredible turn of events, even led to the development of Shenmue III. I have much respect for the team at Double Fine for taking such a risk and showing the world that big game Kickstarters were possible. But that wasn’t the only gift that Double Fine had for us. As mentioned above, they’d also hired a film crew, 2 Player Productions, to create a fascinating documentary on the development of Broken Age, giving most people their first authentic look into the lifecycle of a videogame. It’s not always pretty, and it’s not nearly as exciting as you’d think, but nonetheless there’s something special here, and I have to commend 2 Player Productions for really capturing the magic and the joy of game development. There’s one scene in particular that tugs at my heart. It’s where Double Fine reveals their game for the first time at GDC with a short trailer. There’s a real fear and uncertainty in the air while it plays, and just as it ends, there’s a brief moment of silence. Did they like it? Then the crowd erupts into cheers and applause. As soon as the trailer hits YouTube at the show, the developers immediately all load it up on their phones to see how people are reacting to it online, eager to see how all their hard work’s been received.
I can’t join in the celebration, however, because this doomed venture was never going to measure up to what had come before. Richard Cobbett insightfully clarified the whole problem: “If you’re a modern adventure developer working in the old-school style, you’re basically trying to recreate blockbusters with pocket-money budgets.” There are inevitably going to be major shortcomings and compromises with such a modern adventure game, and Broken Age is full of them. It can’t even be said to be a better adventure than either Double Fine’s own Pyschonauts or Brütal Legend were. If it weren’t for the game’s gorgeous hand-painted aesthetic, it would be utterly forgettable. As it is, if you’re interested in modern adventure games, it’d be far more worthwhile for you to check out Telltale’s experiments in the genre instead. Or something like The Last of Us.