Games are strange in that they’re a medium that inspires devotion but even the most feverish fans often know little about how they’re made. Most efforts to explicate the process are also often hamstrung by the marketing need to put on a good face or by the details being delivered long after the fact by developer’s whose memories have faded.
Double Fine Adventure is different. It’s a twenty-part documentary series about the making of Broken Age where the cameras were there at the very beginning, when the fresh Kickstarter success seemed to point towards a future of infinite potential, and were still there at the very end, when the team size had been whittled away, when morale had been dampened by layoffs, and when crunch had caused people to fall ill. As of last week, the final episode is out and available to watch for free along with the rest of the series.
I like watching TV shows about people working: chefs preparing food in Top Chef; traditional craftsman carving ornate wooden boxes on NHK World; or people working in government or on TV shows as in any of Aaron Sorkin’s work. The problem, especially with the latter, is that the methodical satisfaction of talented people working hard is constantly interrupted by the dull plot beats of emotional drama. Will they? Won’t they? Who cares. Show me the ornate wooden box.
The Broken Age documentary features all of the work and none of the mucky human emotions that I find so tedious. Except, perhaps, for your own complicated emotions connected to the project. I haven’t played enough of it to have an opinion of my own – my interest in the game is borne of watching the documentary, not the other way around, and the documentary is illuminating for the way it lays bare Double Fine’s development process more than for any revelation about the particular game that’s being made.
As part of that though, the documentary also shows the internal view of the various struggles that befell the project between inception and release, including splitting the game into two halves and the wonky review embargo around Act 1. Tim Schafer directly addresses those struggles near the end of the final episode, reflecting on the experience of crowdfunding and being so transparent:
“Crowdfunding was so great and is so great in a lot of ways. The relationship you have with the community and the nature of the money is so perfect to do something creative and community-focused without worrying about ties to people who might want to influence your game because they gave you money. It’s weird because it just happened to coincide with a weird phase of the internet where everyone is super angry all the time, and it was hard to be that open and transparent and give everybody– it’s like we opened up a little tray of bludgeon instruments so people could beat us up with, and then people picked them up and just beat us up with them. And we were like, ‘Huh, that was an interesting experiment, we probably shouldn’t have given all the weapons to all the people who are mad.’
“If that had not erupted at that moment, maybe I would have thought– Because at the beginning, the transparency was nothing but hugs and high-fives all around. Everybody, our PAX meetups, that was our community experience was everyone just telling us how excited they were about the game and how much they loved us and everything, and then we announced the change in schedule… Just all that, it just seemed like there was this big crowd of people, just super mad.
“And if you Google ‘Broken Age Broken Promises’ on the internet, you’ll see all these angry articles, not just from random people on Twitter but from these journalists, who are like, ‘They really let everybody down with this and they should really be sorry.’ And, here were are at the end and we’re shipping the game and it took a long time but it’s everything we said we going to do, and I want to mail all those people individually and be like, ‘It’s time for you to apologise for that article.’ But I don’t think they feel like they were wrong, I think they feel like we still messed up, but… I don’t!
“Isn’t it great to know I’ve learned nothing? [laughs] I feel like I have this need to make an official announcement that I don’t apologise for anything, because I feel really good about it, and if we had shipped one day earlier then the game would have been one day buggier and if we had shipped the game that the original $3.3 million paid for, it would have been small, and I like the game that we made instead and put a lot of our own money into it and I think I’m really really happy. This is what the game sort of said that it wanted to be, about this size, and we did a really good version of that and so I don’t apologise for anything.”
Which probably means that their next project won’t also come with a twenty-part documentary series alongside. Later he adds:
“I wish I really knew right now, that I could say 100%, what I learned from all that, because some of it’s still too soon. There’s a part of me that just, I don’t want to tell anybody what we’re working on right now, because I feel so exposed that I just want to have some secrets for a little while just as a break from that. I had a pleasant trip down memory lane making adventure games, but I remembered how hard they are to make, and I don’t think my next game will be an adventure game. I wouldn’t say I’d never make one again but in the end, but in the end I really think the team really put together a beautiful game, and that’s what I’m most happy with.”
So that’s that. Whatever you think about the end result or the schedule or the management along the way, you should watch the Double Fine Adventure documentary. It’s a humanising look into the process of game development and at people trying their hardest to make something beautiful. At times, such as a particular montage near the end of episode 19 that highlights the stark contrast between the beginning and end of the process, it’s a little bit heartbreaking – and all without a forced romance plotline between Tim Schafer and his point-and-click adventure hating co-worker.
Also there’s no smug baby boomer bullshit in Double Fine Adventure, so that’s another point against Sorkin.
Here’s the final episode in full: