Pixelhunter – Broken Age


Coming to Broken Age is a strange experience largely thanks to the 2 Player Productions documentary that has followed the team over the past two years, providing an incredibly frank insight into the production of a game, without filtration through a marketing department. This is an unprecedented achievement, providing a valuable insight into an industry so often still a dark art to the public at large. They not only pulled back the curtain on the production process, but made each of their backers feel a part of the Double Fine family, vicariously sharing in their emotions and inhabiting their eclectic offices. This is not, therefore, a review as I feel far too close to the finished game to give an objective opinion.

The game's two protagonists have more in common than it seems
The game’s two protagonists have more in common than it seems

Broken Age follows two characters in very different worlds, unified by a feeling of being trapped. A boy named Shay (Elijah Wood) lives on a space ship where his overbearing computerised mother controls his entire life, until one day he meets a wolf named Marek who opens his eyes to reality. Meanwhile a girl named Vella is about to be sacrificed to a monster called Mog Chothra by her village, something she is apparently supposed to be grateful for. She isn’t, and decides to fight back. Although many seem to find Shay’s story most interesting, I personally felt the clever reversal of the ‘rescue the maiden’ trope in Vella’s story, along with her empowerment and subsequent sense of guilt for having rebelled, to be the deeper of the two. Sure, there is a town made of sand castles and a hipster lumberjack, but, much like The Whispered World, the game has a thematic maturity in spite of its quirkiness.

The fact that you can switch between these two very different coming of age stories at any point is a nice touch that helps the flow of the game, as it provides a built in way of gaining some critical distance from an irksome puzzle. That won’t often be a problem, however, as the puzzles are pretty simplistic, making this a perfect introduction to the genre for new comers, though it might fall short of the expectations of the hardcore point and click enthusiast.

Marek is an unsettling presence in Shay's comfortable routine
Marek is an unsettling presence in Shay’s comfortable routine

It’s been 16 years since Tim Schafer made an adventure game, in the form of the masterful Grim Fandango, and whilst the genre can’t be said to have evolved much, it has become more refined and more rarefied. Whilst there have been dozens of adventure games in recent years that are more complex, with cleverer puzzles, and longer play times than Broken Age, Double Fine’s new adventure game has a ramshackle charm and a gleeful, optimistic simplicity that sets it completely apart from the rest of the genre. It seems to effortlessly cut through all the clutter that has accumulated over the years.

Although Schafer is the grand daddy of the genre, his long break from it has resulted in some creative and sophisticated new approaches. For instance Nathan ‘Bagel’ Stapley’s beautiful, slightly surreal children’s storybook art style is divided up into layers that paralax as the player moves, so the whole thing feels like the 3D stage of a puppet show. Meanwhile the 2D character art has been rigged onto jointed skeletons allowing the animators to produce subtly expressive gestures. Another brilliant move is the use of cinematic framing, for instance close ups of characters during dialogues and shot-reverse-shots, giving even the most mundane exchanges a captivating dynamism.

With so much media attention on it, it was perhaps inevitable that Tim Schafer would become an ambassador for the genre that he helped to build. With this in mind the game seems perfectly pitched to offer a mix of nostalgia, modern aesthetic presentation and accessibility. Its success should, hopeful, help buoy up the genre as a whole.


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