With crowdfunded games there’s a risk of backer involvement encroaching on the game’s design, but Broken Age isn’t full of jarring in-jokes (at least, none that I noticed). One of its best characters, however, has backers to thank. A throwaway originally conceived for an early engine test, Curtis the Lumberjack was written into the game after backers expressed their love for him—and Broken Age is better for it. Convincingly voiced by Wil Wheaton, Curtis is a paranoid slacker who fears the trees surrounding his cabin have it in for him. Knowing his origin ahead of time I feared he’d seem shoehorned in, but he’s smoothly integrated into an encounter with Vella as she’s on her way from one Mog Chothra pit stop to another. Curtis ended up my favorite supporting character in Act 1, responsible for some of Broken Age’s most random and refreshing humor. (He has a new schtick in Act 2, but I’ll admit I didn’t find this incarnation quite as funny as his original paranoia.)
In many ways, Broken Age feels like an adventure game from a bygone era, but it definitely doesn’t look like one. The unique 2D graphics make Shay and Vella’s surroundings look like paintings come alive. Some scenes are beautifully atmospheric—I especially liked Sugar Bunting’s Maidens Feast setting, with the mist skimming the water and birds flying in the distance. Others, like pretty much every room on Shay’s space ship, are sprinkled with details that are fun to see even if you can’t click on them. Certain scenes and characters are more detailed than others, as if handled by different artists whose styles don’t quite mesh, but overall the art direction is original, imaginative, and enhances the wonder of discovery.
The characters have heads jointed to their necks, arms jointed at their shoulders and elbows, etc. so each body part moves independently. This system allows quite a bit of motion without requiring that each sequence be painstakingly hand-animated. Characters’ heads turn, their bodies bob around, their shoulders shrug, their knees bend, and their arms gesture and wave, all with an effect simultaneously fluid and jerky. Faces are skillfully animated to show emotion, especially on characters like Vella with big, expressive eyes. The world is always in motion, but even so it feels intentionally flat, like its people and props have been cut out of paper and arranged with stop motion techniques over a painted backdrop. Intermittent close-up views, parallax scrolling, and cutscenes help to contribute dynamic movement and depth, but in the end it’s more like South Park than a Disney film (or Curse of Monkey Island, for that matter). For the most part I liked it, but I felt this specific visual style didn’t allow the highest-stakes moments to be amped up quite as strongly as the story deserves.
Voice acting is excellent, the standout being former hobbit Elijah Wood as Shay. It’s rare to see Hollywood talent in an adventure game, and this is one example of crowdfunding at work: Wood, a fan of adventures, was also a backer. He’s a perfect fit for Shay, his voice lilting and easy to listen to with a nice balance of adolescent cheekiness and wide-eyed excitement. (I especially loved his fumbling delivery as he gets the hang of Harm’ny Lightbeard’s name.) Vella, voiced by Masasa Moyo, is also a character I loved listening to—her insistence that Mog Chothra must be taken down in spite of the naysaying around her is earnest and endearing. We hear these two characters the most, but they head up a talented cast that really has no bad performances. Okay, Shay’s squeaky stuffed animals did make me cringe, but that’s part of the joke.
The parallel stories are set to a great orchestral score composed by LucasArts alum Peter McConnell. The music reflects the locations and situations: from light and playful as Vella explores a village in the clouds to deep and sinister in the presence of Mog Chothra; from twinkly during Shay’s weightless space walk to suspenseful as he sneaks through the ship on his first “secret mission.” Certain recurring themes even give clues to how Shay and Vella’s stories intertwine.
Broken Age’s controls are traditional point-and-click, nothing fancy. While I have no qualms about Double Fine’s decision not to revive SCUMM-style verbs, initially I wished the smart cursor were a little dumber. Hotspots are unlabeled, and the cursor (a simple circle) doesn’t indicate what action is available, so you can never be sure until you click what you’re directing Shay or Vella to do. In Act 1 this never got me into trouble, but it could be disconcerting. (In Act 2 it didn’t bother me at all; maybe I’ve gotten dumber in the interim?) Most screens have three or four hotspots to interact with—fewer than I wanted, but only because it’s easy to want more of a good thing. Broken Age is a rare game in which almost everything you try yields a unique (and often witty) response. Trying things that obviously won’t work just for the joy of hearing what Shay or Vella has to say about it is part of the fun.
The inventory, which you’ll use often, is a hidden tray at the bottom of the screen. To open it, you must first move your mouse down to that area, then hover over an arrow that appears when you’re close. It’s not difficult, but not quite intuitive. Fortunately, you can assign the opening of the inventory to any key you choose, and mapping this to my right mouse button took all the thinking out of it. To use an item, you can either click to select it, or drag it out of the inventory and into the environment.
There are eight save slots, any of which can be assigned to hold an auto-save in a process that’s not entirely clear. I managed to accidentally turn off the auto-save when starting Vella’s game, then got it working again, but the same confusing message that led me to do this could easily make you overwrite your auto-save without realizing it. You can also save manually, which I did in addition to auto-saving, quickly using up my slots. Additional slots may not technically be necessary—it’s not as if the game leads you down any dead-end paths—but people who grew up with the Sierra and LucasArts games might feel anxious without them. (I know I did!)
My time with Broken Age was relatively bug free, save for a few crashes to the desktop. Besides the awkward remote control puzzle, the only issues that really distracted me were an incongruity near the end of Act 1 where Vella knew a character’s name before he told her (muddying what I thought was going on in the story), and the logic sequence of the final puzzle, which reset itself in an unintuitive way if performed incorrectly, making it feel like a contrived do-over rather than a natural consequence of failure. That kind of took the wind out of the grand finale but the closing cinematic saved it, bringing tears to my eyes as the parallel stories that have been developing for so long finally reached a joint conclusion. As someone who’s been following the Double Fine Adventure since the Kickstarter launched in February 2012, through its highs and lows, I felt like I’d reached the end of a long journey too, one I’m glad to have been on.
In the video that started it all, Tim Schafer waxed nostalgic for a type of game he hadn’t had the opportunity to make since leaving LucasArts. The pitched project with its lean $400k goal would have been a very different adventure than the one we got, but even with its higher budget and ensuing delays, Broken Age has retained a dreamlike quality that makes it feel like a game from a different time or a different world. When I evaluated Act 1 fifteen months ago, I closed with this: “Every aspect of it has been lovingly crafted, which might just be why it’s the best traditional adventure I’ve played in a long time.” Having now played the whole thing, I feel the same. Broken Age is a unique game with an unparalleled origin story that deserves to go down in adventure game history. As a backer, I’m proud to have made a small contribution to help it exist; as a fan, I’m thankful to have played it. Whatever happens next for Double Fine, I sincerely hope this is not Tim Schafer’s last adventure.