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Broken Age Act One: Kickstarter's darling is a charming, shallow half-game

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 20, 2014
After all this time, it's finally here--the game that kickstarted Kickstarter, that brought crowdfunding to the mainstream. Once known only as Double Fine Adventure, then renamed Broken Age, it was a golden promise: point-and-click adventure legend Tim Schafer was going to take the gloves off the wall for one more fight, returning to the genre that made him famous with games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle.

And you know what? Despite the limitations, it's a great ship to explore. There are a lot of clever sci-fi references sprinkled throughout (Soylent Dreams cereal, anyone?) and the core "child's plaything" conceit makes for clever design. Your ship travels through space courtesy of a grizzled old robot named Space Weaver, who literally knits patterns into the ship's navigation and quickly became my favorite character.

But it says something about Broken Age when the environments in Vella's story take at most thirty to forty-five minutes apiece, and when Space Weaver — a character with one purpose and few lines — is my favorite character in the game.

Broken Age is missing one key aspect: depth. And it's missing it in so many places.

There's a sparseness to Broken Age. The game is beautiful, but it's a passive beauty. Frames are crammed with visual detail, but 95% of it is static background. A frame with five objects to interact with — even if "interact" just means "Shay or Vella provides commentary" — is a crowded frame in Broken Age. Too many areas have a single object.

And it's not just environments. Broken Age has tons of potential which it rarely capitalizes on. Characters are disposable, given one purpose and then cast aside. I mean, Jack Black voices a soft-spoken cult leader who licks feathers and loves yogurt, and he does a fantastic job...for the maybe fifteen or twenty lines he's given. Then he's gone.

It's lucky the game looks so great on the surface, because so far "surface" is  most of the game.

Which brings me to the last point I'm going to make about narrative — splitting your narrative when it wasn't originally intended to be split is awful. I understand the reasons: Double Fine ran out of money, whether you like that reason or not, and needed to fund Act Two of the game off the first half's profits. But episodic stories only work when they're planned that way from the start. Just splitting a singular story in half? Not so much.

It's all about structure. Episodes work because they form a larger arc in the long run, but each singular episode contains a beginning, middle, and end.

Broken Age halfheartedly tries to fit a beginning, middle, and end into its story, but it doesn't quite make it. The beginning drags on, and the "end" (such as it is) feels rushed. Which is a shame, since the end is the most fascinating part of the story so far.

Shay's story is particularly egregious — his entire half feels like set-up to a larger tale that's then cut short right before it begins. Vella at least gets a halfway decent arc before it's over.

 

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