For those who’ve somehow missed the news, Tim Schafer and DoubleFine went ahead and raised a then-unprecedented amount of money on Kickstarter and made a point-and-click adventure game. Schafer has since expressed some reservations about the whole wisdom-of-the-crowd approach to game design, the gist of it being that people who’ll get excited about rebooting a neglected genre will naturally tend toward small-c conservatism regarding that genre. Those who were invested in whether or not Broken Age was going to have a verb coin clearly “weren’t looking for a reinvention of adventure games.”
But hey, as of this week, at long last, Broken Age is out. Or rather, the first half of it is out. The rest is coming as free DLC “later this year.” So even if I were in the business of reviewing stuff in the traditional sense, I would be in no position to review this game. I don’t know how (or whether) the game’s narrative threads and (kind of brilliant) thematic setups will pay off.
But for those who didn’t back it and aren’t sure about buying it, let me say one potentially helpful thing: Broken Age has moments as resonant and bizarre as those in The Dream Machine and Kentucky Route Zero, those other, also episodic, less expensive-looking revivals of the point-and-click genre. To me, that’s reason enough to celebrate.
Because look: I wasn’t worried that Schafer and Company would use a verb coin. That wouldn’t have bothered me. What would have bothered me would be them retreading old ground in terms of subject matter or setting. What I love about games in general, and Schafer’s stuff in particular, is that they take me to places I couldn’t have expected. Lungfishopoli and whatnot.
It’s hard to explain how important those moments of sheer strangeness were to me when I was a kid. They said, the world is a thousand times more exciting, dangerous, infuriating, and worthwhile than you’d realized, kid, and also, a lot of what people will expect you to take for granted in life is absurd and dangerous, so watch out for that.
Those are two of the most important messages that any kid can receive.
So to demonstrate that that strangeness and wonderment are alive and well in Schafer’s latest, I’m going to go ahead and spoil the first ten minutes of the game. Just the first ten minutes. Because all that stuff about being a kid, and realizing that the world is big, and starting to wonder about your place in it? That’s not just me reminiscing. It’s also the main set of themes in Broken Age.
OK. Broken Age follows two kids, Shay and Velouria, whose stories you can freely switch between whenever the mood takes you. Shay lives on a space ship, under the care of a mercilessly infantilizing computer. It feeds him, it clothes him, it sends him on fake adventures where there are no stakes and nothing hurts, and it talks down to him in a pair of condescending parental voices. Shay wants out. Shay wants to be an adult.
Velouria’s troubles are—a bit more urgent than that. Her story picks up on the morning of the Maiden’s Feast, wherein she and three other girls from her village are going to be ritually sacrificed to some kind of ill-explained Lovecraftian horror by the name of Mog Chothra. Velouria (quite understandably) wants to fight the monster instead of appeasing it, and her grandfather’s all for that, but the rest of the family views her protests with contempt, annoyance, or sad-eyed resignation. This is just the way things are.
What follows is a scene as indelible and valuable as it is arch and unsubtle, as Velouria works to escape from her fate while her four fellow sacrifices argue over who’s prettiest, and who therefore most deserves to be eaten alive by the monster—utterly self-negating, intensely shallow, and distressingly unperturbed. (Did I mention they’re all dressed as cupcakes?)
The game speaks with a clear, angry, absurdist voice: Being treated as an adult and gaining agency is an urgent need for everybody, but holy shit, are the stakes of it ever higher for girls. For girls, it’s not just a question of dignity. It’s a question of survival. It’s not just about being seen as an adult. It’s about being seen as human (rather than as a cupcake) in the first place.
Today Lili asked me, “Who does Princess Peach save?” Is now a good time to tell her everything that's wrong with the world?
— Tim Schafer (@TimOfLegend) May 27, 2012
I know that Tim Schaffer has a daughter, and I’ve seen “the dadification of games” before. But who knew dadification had a righteous side? It’s encouraging to see a dad-designer take on his daughter’s point of view, rather than merely venerating and narrativizing alpha-dadness.
Nobody can be sure whether Broken Age will all hang together—not until Act 2 drops. But that cupcake scene is something I won’t soon forget. And if I’m being honest, moments like that live much longer and more vividly in my memory than overall narrative arcs or rubbing-things-on-other-things puzzles. Those are nice, of course, but they’re not the reason I’m excited to play a game Tim Schafer had a hand in making.
Whatever it still has to say about the uncertain future of Kickstarter—and regardless of whether it’s as good as Grim Fandango or whatever—in my estimation, Broken Age has already proven itself a worthily weird creation.