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Hands On: Broken Age

Coming Of Age

It's finally here. Well, if you were a backer. After almost two years since Tim Schafer kickstarted Kickstarter as one of the primary tools for funding independent videogame development, the Double Fine Adventure, Broken Age, is in players' hands. With $3.3m raised, from 90,000 backers, and a year and a half more development than they planned, the first point and click adventure Schafer has made in twenty years will be out proper on the 28th, but the "beta" is with the backers today. Double Fine have asked both backers and press to hold off talking about most of the game until that latter release date, and it'll be interesting to see how that goes. But for the moment, here are some early impressions of the first stages of the game.

Edit: Splendid news. Double Fine have lifted the embargo, and we'll be able to bring you our review very soon.

Broken Age is beautiful. It's unquestionably the first thing you'll notice. The aesthetics are entirely unlike anything you may have been expecting from Schafer's Burtonesque mind, altogether more soft, gentle, dare I say it, cuddly. Looking as though it were hand drawn in delicate pastels, then animated with storybook papercraft, the game is immediately resonant of a lavishly illustrated children's picture book.

It takes this theme even further if you choose to begin playing as Shay (performed with incredible restraint and subtlety by Elijah Wood), a teenage boy living on a spaceship that looks as though it were built by Fisher-Price. Mothered by a computer called Mom (perfectly voiced by Jennifer Hale), Shay appears trapped in a playpen designed for a two year old. His response is complex, a tension between infuriated and miserable by this peculiar existence, and reluctantly accepting of it, Stockholmed into the laughable series of "adventures" he's given to do during his days. Rescue a runaway train in a magical snowy landscape, free some creatures from an avalanche, investigate a mysterious object on the ship's hull, or find out what is troubling another set of sock-woven cuties. Each is insultingly simple, and overtly cute - designed to delight a toddler, but infuriate a boy becoming a man.

Or you could choose to start playing as Vella (you can switch back and forth between each character at will), a young girl being prepared for something called the Maiden Feast. Her family are thrilled, with the exception of her grandfather, preparing her for this big day. A coming of age day, with a party, cakes, close family, and the immediate threat of her gruesome death in the maw of a giant monster.

In a vaguely more modern take on the "put the virgin in the volcano" story, Vella is one of a number of young teenage girls in the village to be competing for the dubious honour of sacrificing herself to sate a beast that would - they believe - otherwise destroy them all. Vella instantly defines herself with her repeated demands to know why they can't just fight the monster. You just don't, she's told. Shut up, put on your pretty dress, and hope you get picked to die.

Both stories see their protagonist trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation, and both looking to find the thread they can pull to unravel it, escape from it, and define themselves as distinct from their parents. It is, in short, about being a teenager.

There's definitely an oddly sparse feeling regarding interaction. While it was somewhat inevitable that this would be a single-click-style adventure (no options for look at/pick up/lick/etc, but just a single ubiquitous cursor), it's odd how it's implemented in this beta build. That with which you can interact changes the cursor to an obscure circle thing, standing for "click on it and something will happen". It certainly lessens the sense of your direct involvement, and more of your role of clicking to advance the script, but then this is fairly standard in adventures these days - especially those that have ambitions to be released for iPads.

The only other option is using inventory objects on things, and here it's very strangely clumsy. Instead of moving the cursor to the bottom of the screen, or scrolling the mousewheel, or anything that we're used to, you have to click on a little icon in the bottom left corner to have it pop up. A small thing, but a weird obstacle for no appreciable reason. Then objects must be awkwardly clicked and dragged onto the screen. It all reeks of a game designed for tablets, with a real lack of consideration for the core platform of PC. I hope they can find time between now and the 28th to give more thought to how everyone's been playing adventures on PC for the last decade or so.

What I've seen in that first hour is very promising. Beyond the controls, everything feels very carefully thought about. And while perhaps some will be a little disappointed by the lack of a more overt wackiness that they might expect from Schafer, you can see how Broken Age is part of a natural progression for the creator. From the slapstick extremes of the sublime Day Of The Tentacle, through Grim Fandango's slower, more considered tone, to Psychonauts' underlying sorrow, Schafer's personal stories have become increasingly invested with a sense of honest, hopeful melancholy. If you continued a line on a graph from those previous projects, it would trend toward the tone of Broken Age.

Whether it succeeds at exploring these themes, whether these ideas of seeking identity as a young person continue to be explored in a manner that would do this opening justice, I do not yet know. I've stopped playing to write this at the point where Double Fine have asked people to keep a lid on things. This means that the 90,000 people who are getting a copy of this game today can go on to find out for themselves, but we're in the rather ridiculous position of not being able to describe it. It's not clear who Double Fine thinks this is helping, since the one thing they need more than anything else is for those who didn't back the game to want to buy it ahead of release. Let's see which major gaming outlet snaps first, eh?

So instead of being able to say, "we recommend you buy this game!" we're instead forced to say, "we can't tell you if this game's any good or not." The games industry, ladies and gentlemen.

Still, I can tell you that this first hour is promising, and that I'm very much looking forward to continuing. I really hope mouse controls can be properly implemented before the official release, but they're not a dealbreaker. It is, unquestionably, a beautiful, charming project, and one that's come from the heart.

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