When Tim Schafer was in his Lucasarts pomp, I was smoking pot, playing guitar and failing to get girls to fuck me. Computer games weren’t even in the periphery of my life, so when the Broken Age Kickstarter promised the return of the point and click story-driven adventure game, I didn’t really give a shit.
Now, Tim Schafer and Double Fine are the guys who gave the world Psychonauts (one of my top ten of all time), Costume Quest and Brütal Legend. They make games that take risks and don’t always work but you can spot a Double Fine game from a mile away. This is the track record that made me happy to drop the cash on a game I would normally avoid (as well as breaking my crowd-funding duck with Psychonauts 2). I know that a lot of people feel burned by some of their output (Broken Age, Spacebase DF-9). I’ve seen Schafer described as a conman and a fraud by more than one anonymous internet coward. I’m sure that some criticism is justified but I’m certain that most of the shit he gets is at best hyperbole and at worst slander. While it wasn’t a wholly enjoyable experience, my time with Broken Age just reinforces that feeling.
I’ll get the negative out of the way first and this is where I understand the detractors. If I’d bought in at full price, played that majestic first act and got the insane difficulty spike in the second act, I’d have puked more than thick, useful sap. The two halves are like totally different games. I hated the second half. Some of the puzzles are ridiculously obtuse – and not just ‘Use Rubber Chicken with Pulley’ obtuse. I frequently checked an FAQ and thought ‘I’d never have got that without cheating’. It’s less a difficulty curve as it is a difficulty square wave (where else are you getting your synthesizer jokes from, eh?).
It could be that I’ve been softened by modern gaming. Back in the day I’m sure I would have spent hours clicking on everything and brute-forcing my way through but why should I? I have 700+ unfinished games in my collection, limited time and a web browser in the Steam overlay. I’d rather see the whole game than lose patience, throw it back on the pile and never install it again. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff to see in this game and despite all of the negatives, I’m really pleased I got though it.
The artwork is exceptional. It uses a painterly surrealist style with every frame looking like a work of art in its own right. The character models are all incredibly unique. At no point does a character return and you think ‘Who the fuck are they?’. The animation is worthy of any Hollywood production and the voice-acting is as good as it gets.
The high point has to be Tim Schafer’s writing. This is a game in which you control a young girl who is being prepared for sacrifice to a giant monster and a young boy flying through space who is mollycoddled by an over-protective ship’s computer. From this already bonkers premise, he takes this girl and boy though an enchanting coming of age story that is never trite, doesn’t succumb to whimsy and is consistently hilarious. Broken Age is, for me, the high watermark in writing for video games.
So, overall I feel comfortable recommending Broken Age. I may even play the game again to enjoy the story rather than getting bogged down with the more teeth-grinding puzzles. It’s also given me renewed motivation to get through Grim Fandango and the two Monkey Island games glaring at me from the pile of shame.
I still prefer Psychonauts.