A Double Fine Appraisal
And how was your meal, sir?
This review of Broken Age: Act 1 concludes a trilogy of thrilling budgetary reports:
A Double Fine Audit, 12/02/12: A snapshot of the money raised within the first 24 hours of Double Fine posting, and achieving, their funding target to develop Broken Age.
A Double Fine Accounting, 08/04/12: A final tally of the money raised once the closing the funding drive after achieving roughly eight times more than their original target.
Both posts have colourful graphs. So colourful in fact the maker of the graph maker software uses them as examples of excellently coloured graphs.
And now nearly two and a half years later I submit my one word Broken Age review: Underwhelming.
To explain just how underwhelming will take more words.
Point and Click…
This project was as much about the journey (an inside look at the development of a videogame) as it was about the destination (an underwhelming videogame). I gave Tusk our Screenie 2014 film of the year for this very purpose but Kevin Smith promised silly/scary and delivered silly/scary.
What did Double Fine promise? Well nothing too specific now I look back at the original funding page other than to “revisit Tim’s design roots and create a brand-new, downloadable “Point-and-Click” graphic adventure game for the modern age”. An old school point-and-click for a new school crowd.
The problem is that Broken Age is decidedly a new school point-and-click adventure game.
Old school adventure games evolved when text adventures were given a graphical interface. Rather than type in every imaginable verb into a text parser hoping to stumble upon the obscure choice of the game designer you “pointed” at a selection of verbs on a menu and then “clicked” on objects on the screen. The combination of verbs and objects meant, at worst, you clicked every combination hoping to stumble upon the obscure choice of the game designer.
That was old school. The later games eased the numbing pain of hearing the character mutter “that doesn’t work” at every wrong turn by providing you with verbal hints as to how sensible your choices were.
But a lot of the humour came from these “incorrect” choices. Like when you try to make Sam USE the character MAX to which he’d reply “I don’t like to indiscriminately use people”. I adore these old LucasArt games for their humour.
The mistaken evolution of modern point-and-click adventure games has been to consolidate all the verbs into a single button. They are in truth only click adventure games. The early Telltale episodic games did this but were often saved by great humour and ingenious concepts and conceits.
Playing Broken Age is like walking around a museum of static models and displays all equipped with a sole button. You press the button and something happens. Then nothing happens. Like its art style the world is flat and lifeless.
The puzzles are merely walking around the museum pressing buttons in a linear order. You unlock the covorkianzerbesh door by placing the covorkianzerbesh key in the covorkianzerbesh-shaped keyhole. The puzzles are often telegraphed so loudly and apparently that they barely register as puzzles.
Despite an interesting concept of split timelines/characters – one a lonely boy trapped in a spaceship by his artificial intelligence “mother”, the other a fairytale girl doomed to be sacrificed to a mythical creature – the performances are barely present. Lonely space boy is voiced by Elijah Wood and every utterance is a hushed, nonchalance acceptance. Its like his direction was to say everything in a polite but bored manner. The characters are just sadly devoid of any character.
After banging on about the humour in old school adventure games I almost forgot to address Broken Age‘s joke: I don’t think were any. Nothing funny anyway. Part of the problem is the speech options are displayed almost entirely in full before you select them. You can read faster than listen so there’s no surpise from the joyless delivery of the jokes. As before, the visual world is cutesy but similar void of visual humour.
The problem I have is the last ten seconds of Broken Age: Act 1 were ingeniously clever. Fiendishly clever. Brilliantly clever. An excellent ten second cliffhanger undeserving of such a bland four-hour experience that came before.
I want more of the story but none of the gameplay. With such lacklustre puzzles I’m tempted to read the remaining story on Wikipedia when it’s all said and done.
Good endings can save mediocre films but this is not the case here.
End of Here Report
Ultimately the legacy of Double Fine’s Broken Age will not be its quality. But rather their legacy will be in establishing and solidifying Kickstarter as a crowd-sourcing platform for videogame development, a viable alternative to traditional investment opportunities. Their legacy will be their acute business acumen.
It would be all the sweeter if Broken Age was any good.