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The RPS Verdict: Double Fine's Broken Age, Act 1

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From the distant, waterlogged land of Bath Spa, John Walker sits at a keyboard and dreams of another world. A world by the sea. A world where 95% of its male population are bearded and wear Converse. Untold distances away, in said sea-neighbouring world of Brighton, Alec Meer also sits at a keyboard and imagines a tourist-besieged town made up of yellow buildings and fading magazine publishers.

Somehow, the two writers’ minds reach each other across the gulf of space and time. And they have something they must discuss: Double Fine’s Kickstarted revivalist adventure game, Broken Age, whose first ‘Act’ was released last week. They talk of its two lead characters, they talk of its unfinished nature, they talk of its puzzles, they talk of what they wanted but what they got, they talk of shrunken heads and peaches.
Alec: Which character did you play first, then?

John: I played the boy, Shay. Not all the way through, I alternated a bit.

Alec: And why was that?

John: Just random pick.

Alec: I did the same, because I thought Vella, the girl looked more twee. Of course, that proved to be deliberate on the game’s part, for subversion of expectation. As I discovered when my laptop-grabbing baby somehow hit just the right buttons to force a character switch on me earlier than I’d planned to.

John: I don’t remember giving it any thought. I just clicked the one my mouse was nearest to. So what’s your overall reaction to the game?

Alec: I liked it, I think. It’s very pretty and has excellent world/concept design. Though I must say it never made me laugh and I found the voice acting weirdly muted for the most part. In the lead characters, specifically. The supporting cast cuts loose a whole lot more. I suppose that’s to make the leads seem like real people rather than Guybrushes, but unfortunately they both seemed a bit damp to me.

John: The farther I get from it, the less I like it. The more I remember the completely awful parts, the dreadful puzzles like the peach with the guards, or being required to fall through holes in clouds moments after the game teaches you falling through holes in clouds is bad.

Alec: Yeah, the solutions are very A-B, early Telltale style. There’s no real ingenuity there, it’s the try everything on everything until something clicks approach, or it’s already screamingly obvious from afar.

John: Exactly. It’s a nice enough story, but it’s not a very good adventure game. Which is just plain weird.

Alec: And yes, a lot of faintly wretched attempts to retroactively justify the less logical puzzles in dialogue, as with the peach, those torturous puns about pits that barely made any sense. I’m still holding on to some hope that the puzzles will escalate in act 2, if you go into with your existing, albeit small inventory.

John: My dad’s currently playing it, and his frustration with it has rather compounded my own. Where I flew past things because I’m used to poor adventure puzzles, he’s hitting walls and getting rightly annoyed.

Alec: Interesting. What bits particularly are stumping him?

John: The peach puzzle especially wound him up.

Alec: I had to go and get a second one as the lumberjack ate my first one. Which was a really pointless, timewasting false positive

John: It’s utterly beautiful, and I so deeply love the theme that Schafer wants to explore – of the teenage process of discovering who you are independently of your parents and expectations. But it feels as though it’s been made by a casual games developer trying for something a bit more hardcore. Not the mind behind Day Of The Tentacle or Grim.

I know I’ve banged on about it before, but the lack of a “look at” is just inexplicable. Until you realise this was a game designed for iPad.

Alec: I do wonder what’s on the cutting room floor. I can’t imagine that they’re simply unaware people want complex puzzles, so perhaps they’ve tried stuff and deemed it unsuitable

John: I don’t even want complex – I want smart. Puzzles that make you feel clever for solving them, and make you laugh when you understand them.

Alec: The headshrinking puzzle was the closest to that, although three very similar looking doors took some of the fun out of it.

John: Yes – that was a nice puzzle, although sadly one I solved long before I was presented with the need for it. So I realised, “Oh, I’m going to need a small head for something,” then had one by the time I met the scene it was needed in.

Alec: Yeah, I second guessed the game a little too often. Partly because there’s perhaps too much hinting/foreshadowing in incidental dialogue. Which would again speak to being afraid of scaring off casuals. And that’s where the game gets so problematic; it’s been funded by adventure game hardcore types but its eyes are apparently on the massively mainstream mega-cashpot.

John: But you began saying you liked it, and I’ve taken it to my negative place. So what made you like it despite these complaints?

Alec: It’s mostly that I enjoyed being there, and both characters winding up not being what I’d expected. And to some I degree I liked that the puzzles were set at a level that the game flowed, as opposed to having the stop-start-what-the-hell-do-I 90s ethos. But as you say, when you’re further away from it you realise you don’t feel intellectually satisfied with yourself, as you would after solving great puzzles.

John: What were you expecting from the characters?

Alec: I was expecting the boy, Shay, to be brash and go-getting, whereas he’s resigned and hesitant and weak, and entirely dependent on children’s items. Vella I’d expected to be cute and inquisitive and helpful, whereas she’s brash and go-getting. Even though her oddly subdued (and indeed cute) voice acting works against that.

John: I actually found Vella’s side to be problematic. It’s great that the female lead is independent, and wants to find rather than concede. That’s all good. But then absolutely every other woman or girl in the game is either a controlling mother, or a vain idiot. The message becomes, “Look how she’s not like the rest of women”. Which is a pretty gross message.

Alec: Though in fairness all the men are fatuous. It’s unkind to everyone except Vella.

John: Yes – the game lazily confines men to being stupid, and women to being bitchy or controlling. So our heroes get to stand out by being other.

Alec: I suppose there’s a question of whether it’s unwittingly problematic in terms of her being the only woman to realise she can be something else, or whether it’s deliberately creating an alter-world where that is the case – that that is the high concept rather than the monsters and magic birds. I don’t feel ready to decide which it is yet.

John: Yes – there’s certainly an argument for its being a dramatic device to say, “This is a homogenous background, into which these characters are destined to join, but we’ll help them break free.” In that sense, it’s less problematic.

Alec: It’s also a narrative conceit used by many children’s stories, which this game is clearly trying to evoke. Almost all the baby books we have here (which are far beyond my nine month old’s pay grade, to be honest) involve the protagonist (usually an anthropomorphised animal) suddenly deciding to do something different from all the others, or from the expectations placed upon them. I was reading Connie one about a princess who refuses to comb her hair the other day. That rejection of conformity conceit applies to both lead characters in Broken Age.

John: I agree with what you said about the voices. While apparently the super-famous people worked for rate or less, it still seemed weird to cast Jack Black to play a calm, boring man. Or Pembleton Ward to mumble. While Elijah Wood wasn’t recognisable as Shay, I did enjoy his performance a lot. I thought he played the kid with a deft subtlety.

Alec: I sort of preferred that to ‘oh it’s Jack Black and now I’m distracted by that’. it was the lack of big zingers that troubled me more.

John: However, the stand-out performance was the dude in the spaceship in Vella’s story, who was some game producer who chucked in a big chunk of change.

Alec: Yeah, and I loved the overall strangeness of that scene. In fact Vella’s story was good at keeping me on my toes in terms of unexpected scene-switching

John: Yes. I enjoyed her stuff once I was past the very poor cloud section. From the woodcutter onward, it came alive.

Alec: And I guess the game is exploring different avenues of the adventure genre with each story – the weird, surrealistic worlds of her story, the room escapes of the boy’s.

John: I really wish they’d released it as one game. I think they did themselves so much harm breaking it in two. They created an abortive and unsatisfying experience, when what they need is to somehow figure out a way to sell an awful lot of copies to people who didn’t already buy the game two years ago.

Alec: Yes, and while this feels lavish it is very hard, from an armchair producer point of view, to see why they needed even more money. Other than for voice actors.

John: I’ve heard it was art.

Alec: It lasted longer than I’d worried at least; I did feel I’d had a game, and with an enticing rather than frustrating break point. Though clearly I’d much rather it had continued.

John: But this still doesn’t work for me. Clearly after $3m came in, they scrapped plans for a $300k game. But I feel like surely it’s part of the job to budget for that? Like you say, armchair producing.

How long did it take you? I got through it in four hours, without rushing.

Alec: It’s hard to say, as I played it during baby naps across three days. This may be why I liked it a bit more than you – it fits into that lifestyle well. Binge-playing I’d probably have felt an awful lot more short-changed. The perennial reviewer’s dilemma.

John: Yeah.

So then, we’re agreed, 10/10, the greatest adventure game since the last time we remember playing an adventure game which was in about 1998 maybe! Wait, no, sorry, I was thinking of ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE ELSE.

Alec: But yes, on budget, it’s almost impossible to shake off concerns that they switched course to pursue a crossplatform megahit rather than simply meet the expectations of their original backers. Perhaps that’s fine; perhaps if it works it will help open the door to more structurally ambitious adventures for a wider audience.

It’s a hard game to judge until it is complete, and until its repercussions are known. It feels a lot like watching the pilot episode of a new TV show with promise and not yet feeling like you’ve clicked with the cast, but feeling a dim compulsion for more.

John: Yeah. I really hope I can tear up a lot of my negative impressions by the time we see the full game. Unfortunately, for now, this is all we’ve got.

Alec: Yes, essentially it feels like a pulled punch. Though I do have affection for the fact that someone is trying to throw that punch at this level. Which is not the same as giving it a free pass because of who’s making it – it’s just giving them a little more patience because they are trying to make this genre feel different without abandoning its roots. Just got to hope they’re planning to push players harder in the latter stages

John: I don’t think I agree. I think there are plenty of adventure games about at the moment, and what I wanted from the man who’s the best at them in the world was another game to love as much as DOTT or Psychonauts.

Alec: I mean in terms of making people want to play because it looks beautiful and strange, rather than because it’s an adventure game. Unfortunately the latter creates huge expectations, an albatross they hung around their own neck.

John: See, I think the issue is there are other beautiful adventure games, and this one really has abandoned the genre’s roots. I think that gets to the nub of my issue.

Alec: I suppose one does have to wonder if they’ve looked at the Telltale games doing well commercially and decided they need to be emulating them more than they do early Lucasarts,

John: Who knows.

AND THAT WILL DO.

Alec: 10/10

Broken Age Act 1 is out now, with the second half to follow as a free update later this year.

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Alec Meer

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