Developed by: Double Fine Productions
Published by: Double Fine Productions
Available on: Android, Linux, iOS, Mac, Ouya, PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita
From a distance of almost two years – and a least a couple of billion dollars in sales – it might be hard to recall the many who wondered if “Grand Theft Auto V’s” triple character structure would work. Sure, previous video games allowed players to sink into the role of different characters at particular points in a story. But prior to “GTA V’s” release in September of 2013, there was something chancy about the idea of interweaving multiple protagonists’ story arcs into a game and permitting players to see them through at their own pace.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how this setup allows for more emotional and reactive possibilities within a given space. Switching between characters naturally encourages reinterpretation. Just as no one expects two people walking down the same sidewalk to think alike, multiple protagonists provide players with different scopes through which to observe a virtual space.
Though its operating budget was but a fraction of the amount that Rockstar spent on “GTA V”, Double Fine Productions’ “Broken Age” is another noteworthy game that tells a story from contrasting perspectives. It drew media scrutiny well before its first concept art was approved. The original goal set for the project on Kickstarter on February 8, 2012 was $400,000, but it blew past that mark by pulling in $3,336,372 from 87,142 backers by the time the drive ended on March 13 of that year. You can watch Double Fine’s founder Tim Schafer, comically attempt to stuff a gigantic check into an A.T.M. and have people scatter money over his body in the documentary “Double Fine Adventure!” which chronicles the production of the game.
Before the launch of its Kickstarter campaign the San Francisco-based company was on shaky ground, financially. Many, if not most, of the games that Schafer has written and directed have won their share of acclaim and not a few have inspired fans to get tattoos of his creations. Yet, his cult status hasn’t translated into huge commercial success. At one point in the documentary, he says that he feels partly responsible for the decline of the point-and-click adventure genre owing to the fact that the critically lauded “Grim Fandango” failed to meet monetary expectations. (A remastered edition was released earlier this year.)
As so often happens in game development, once production on “Broken Age” got underway it became apparent that the project would cost more than anticipated and take longer than the six to eight months the team had initially forecast. As a result of developmental pressures, the game, which was always intended to be appreciated as a whole, was split into two acts. Act 1 was released on January 14, 2014. Now, the recently released Act 2 brings the story to a close.
The company’s decision to not include an episode recap means that some fans may feel compelled to retrace their steps through Act 1 to re-familiarize themselves with the game’s world, which has the appearance of an interactive storybook aimed at those who no longer look forward to someone reading to them at night.
This aesthetic fits nicely with “Broken Age’s” coming-of-age story about two teenagers, a girl and a boy, who shuck off their parents’ expectations and take their first steps beyond the confines of the worlds in which they were raised. Vella is the daughter of a family of bakers who live in the pastoral community of Sugar Bunting. Every fourteen years or so the community holds an event called the Maiden’s Feast where the residents take pride in offering up their daughters for sacrifice to appease a race of monsters known as Grand Mogs.
When Vella asks why the townspeople don’t band together and fight the monster, she is casually rebuked for questioning how things have always been done. To wit, one of the pageants eager contestants boasts that their ancestors considered everything a long time ago so they would be spared the hassle. (In this way, the game’s portrait of small-scale conformity is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.”)
High above in a spaceship is Shay (marvelously brought to life by Elijah Wood), who plays an inadvertent part in the Maiden’s Feast. Shay is the epitome of a pampered young man. Every day, several mechanical devices anticipate and attend to his every need. Meanwhile, his parents check in on him regularly via large video displays. Ironically, Shay views them as computers. Act 2 casts them in a more empathetic light as hard working adults. Shay’s self-realization takes a classic path, moving from passivity into action. Over the game his countenance changes as he evolves from a state of listlessness to engagement with the world around him.
What unites the children of both families is that their parents have bought into myths of self-sacrifice. How this is so, I can’t really say without uncorking too much of the plot. I will say, though, that the villains pulling the strings are an alien caricature of the one-percenters – all arrogance and entitlement.
Schafer should be praised for creating a story that is full of memorable characters and punchy lines, like the talking spoon that says, “once more into the milky breach.” The game’s dual character structure diminishes some of the frustration that comes from dealing with the you-say-quirky-I-say-frustrating puzzles for which he is known. Personally, I found hopping between Vella and Shay akin to performing a mental refresh. Though there were plenty of puzzles with outlandish solutions that left me unimpressed by their logic, my grousing never caused me to lose sight of the fact that “Broken Age’s” esprit is charming enough that I could imagine returning to it again.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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