Why Broken Age Act 2's Story Is An Awful Mess
It wasn’t possible for me to get into exactly why Broken Age Act 2’s [official site] story is quite such a betrayal of the first half’s potential in my review. It’s all major spoilers. So, with that in mind, the following article contains plot spoilers up to the very end of Act 2.
While Broken Age Act 2 is a let-down in many ways, not least the dreadful puzzles, for me the complete abandoning of what had seemed so special in the first half is what sucked the most. I've explored why.
Broken Age Act 1, as well as being a whimsical, slightly melancholy fantasty adventure world, was a game about adolescence. The two main characters, Shay and Vella, were each in allegorical situations that represented perspectives of teenage life.
Vella’s story took the classical tale of maidens being sacrificed to save a town from a monster, but presented it from the perspective of a potential maiden who wasn’t going to accept her fate. Her family, with the exception of her grandfather, had tentatively bought into the delusion that letting their daughter be sacrificed was a great honour to her and them – something, which when viewed from the daughter’s perspective, is monstrous. Utterly horrific. Her life deemed disposable for the sake of their own.
Vella’s rebellion against that could have been so meaningful. In Act 1, quite a parochial approach to such a large issue is taken, with Vella escaping to explore very small new parts of her world, and attempting to free a few others from the delusion. But it suggests something so much larger for the second part – how will she handle her family once she has the revelation that the sacrifices are in vain, and are made to a mechanical ship from their own world? How will the town she lives in react to the news, the guilt and horror of the truth? How will Vella identify herself now she is no longer “chosen” for this ignominious role, and has a new freedom to be the woman she chooses to be?
Shay’s metaphorical existence is perhaps more overt. Living on an apparent spaceship, monitored by a daytime and night-time robot, Mom and Dad respectively, and entertained by the requirement to complete a series of childish tasks. The whole ship looks as though it were designed by Fisher-Price, classic children’s toys implemented as computer controls, Shay’s entire existence essentially a nursery school. But Shay is no longer a child, and this puerile existence has become a patronising prison. The Mom computer is entirely unsympathetic to his frustration and stupefaction, determined that he stay the same little Shay he always was. The Dad computer seems to understand the issue, but is too impotent to do anything about it.
God, this is such a brilliant set-up. Yes, it’s a heavy-handed simulacrum, but it neatly captures such a common feeling of teenage years. Shay doesn’t simply sit in his room and refuse to do his childish challenges. Part of him is comforted by them. It’s safe, familiar (literally), and unchallenging. But it’s also clearly not enough, and his sense of being held back and infantilised reaches its peak when we start playing as him. We help him to subvert the childish missions, to find his way to secret, non-child-friendly parts of the ship, and then he’s eventually influenced by an unknown figure to rebel against his parents in a way that’s ultimately deceptive. There’s so much going on here, and it is just bursting with potential.
Which makes Act 2’s utter abandoning of every element of it so peculiar and devastating. Within moments, it’s revealed that Dad is in fact not a computer, but actually his dad. And while it holds off for a while on showing you the same is true of Mom, it makes it very clear that their representation as only existing as computers was Shay’s doing. He had reduced them to these roles by only engaging with them via their ability to reach him through communication devices.
And with this, Broken Age stops becoming a game that attempts to explore and understand the realities of adolescence, and becomes a patronising adult perspective that minimalises teenagers to spoilt brats. Shay, as presented in the first half, has good reasons to be annoyed with his parents. His mother is infantilising him, and his father is too enervated to intervene. The fact that they’re both literally doing this, rather than the seeming metaphorical computerised situation, is such a shame, but it’s far worse that we’re now asked to believe that Shay was so cruelly refusing to acknowledge their reality.
It’s a shame that Shay was doing it. It’s utterly bewildering that other characters were too. The game’s story really rather relies on there actually being computers to make any sense. In fact, with any level of scrutiny, the whole concept makes no sense at all.
Shay’s ship, as far as Shay knows, is on a multi-year mission to rescue some sort of space creatures. Built for him as a child, he’s lived on board for his entire life, as is evidenced by the treasure room containing all his childhood memorabilia. Which means his parents have also been on board for many, many years, and also believe they’re on an important rescue mission.
What’s revealed in Act 2 is that they are in fact flying a ship disguised to look like a monster, that captures girls from a town the other side of the “plague barrier” (a concept poorly explained and never explored). A journey that, when done in the other direction, takes a matter of minutes. So we're asked to believe that the best solution these baddies thought of for raising a boy in the right conditions is to have them fly in circles for fourteen years.
The logic for needing to send teenage boys is some sort of nudge-nudge-fnarr reference to the fact that they have an intrinsic ability to know which girls to select for capture (for what turns out to be something to do with the dilapidated gene pool of a collection of peoples never even alluded to in the first game, and introduced in a clumsy heap in the second). Quite what this is actually supposed to mean, and why the need for such elaborate subterfuge, and on and on is never touched upon. Instead it might as well just be fart sounds, as you’re demanded to still give a damn about any of it.
Meanwhile, Vella’s tale goes in the absolutely-no-direction it always had. She escapes capture, and then... gets captured anyway. On the ship she reveals the stuff we didn’t yet know about Shay’s childhood, without actually knowing she’s doing that, and then spends most of the time rewiring robots and moving them about in clunky, dreary puzzles. There’s no further exploration of her character, or her situation, whatsoever. When she’s finally reunited with her family – the family seeking to see her dead - it’s jubilant, rather than at least sodding awkward.
There’s just nothing else to say about Vella. She was only ever the spirit of rebellion, rather than a rounded individual, and once that’s out of the way she fizzles into nothing. This is most tellingly demonstrated in the completely false relationship she has with Shay’s mother. The conversation options with her are like two people’s small talk at an office meeting, not a terrified teenage girl discovering someone responsible for the deaths of generations of her peers. And as much as she discovers about Shay, she never asks anything significant about him. When she finds other kidnapped girls aboard the ship, there’s not even the option to tell Shay’s mother about it, so utterly disconnected are the events from the characters.
So neither character follows the potential set up in the first act, nor in fact goes anywhere at all. Vella just dawdles about on the ship until she can get off it again. Shay runs about the same places Vella was in last time, completing convoluted and wholly irrelevant puzzles, while not having a thought nor opinion about anything. His entire life being spent in a toddler’s playpen has seemingly had no impact whatsoever on his psyche, how he communicates with people, nor his interpretation of the world. It’s so woeful as to be beyond belief.
And by the very end, we're expected to believe that they might give a damn about each other. Remember that in the first half of the game, the only connection the two have is to have sat in a similar position in a montage shot. Neither knows the other even exists – it’s crucial to the plot that this be the case. Shay believes Vella is a space creature on a videogame screen, and Vella believes Shay is a giant killer monster intent on destroying her land. In a split second they see each other, then swap places, and so Act 2 begins. And from this we’re expected to believe they have, albeit very minor, an ambition to rescue the other.
Despite the potential for them to communicate, now knowing the reality of their situations, none occurs. In fact, all sense of a connection between the two of them exists purely in frame-breaking nonsensical puzzles which rely on you – the player – having omnipresent knowledge the characters couldn’t possibly obtain. To solve key puzzles in the latter half of the game, you need to gather information from one side and apply it to the other. For example for Shay to rewire a robot correctly (oh gawd there’s so much bloody robot rewiring), you need a diagram obtained from a picture only Vella can see. By the game’s final abysmal mess of a puzzle, you have to coordinate the two characters' actions in an order that can only be stumbled upon through miserable trial and error and yet more robot rewiring, repeated over and over and over, until you’ve discovered the arbitrary order of things the designers randomly intended. It – and so much else in the game - is only plausible if you, the player, exist in the world.
At one point I optimistically believed this was going to be the case. That the game was going to introduce the player as a character, give meaning to all this haphazard fourth-wall-destroying peculiarity. But no, it turns out this was wishful thinking, and it was in fact just really bad writing.
So when Vella and Shay meet at the end, it’s not a moving moment as you might have expected from the game’s implication that there was to be a connection between them. It’s just two strangers, and indeed enemies, saying hi, and then the credits roll. Although, perhaps that’s fine. They are, after all, strangers. Thank God they didn’t actually fall in love on meeting or similar. But what’s not fine - or at least, what's not interesting or entertaining - is the complete abandoning of anything their stories were apparently about, replaced with absolutely nothing at all.
Because Shay’s arrested development is entirely abandoned, and because Vella is apparently just fine with having been essentially bred to be murdered, the game just isn’t about anything any more. This “broken age”, a time every single human being on Earth has experienced at least some version of, is miserably unexplored by gaming, and looked as though it might be given a touching, smart look at here. But it was in fact just a set-up for a really fucking stupid plot about genetically altered alien-looking people wanting some DNA.
Broken Age Act 2 is a poor game because of its terrible puzzles in repeated locations with little purpose. But the disappointment I felt playing it is so much more extreme because of its betrayal of everything it implied it would be about. Broken Age is, it turns out, not a game about the complexities of being a teenager, of the transition from childhood to adulthood, but in fact some dumb thing about funny looking birds and evil space aliens. And it’s this that most surprised and let me down.