Tim Schafer’s games have a tendency to put universal questions through a childlike filter. He poses setups that we’ve wondered and tucked away. What does it look like inside my head? What if Halloween costumes were more than costumes? What would a world inhabited by nothing but matryoshka dolls be like? But they’ve always been what ifs, flights of fancy made material. In Broken Age, he has made a beautiful game full of humor and whimsy that asks the single most important question a child can ask: why?
This is just about the first act of Broken Age, the game that told everyone the Kickstarter pool was nice and warm and waved thousands upon thousands of developers to jump in with them. It tells the dual stories of a young girl named Vella and a young boy named Shay. Vella lives in a baking town called Sugar Bunting, one of many towns in this world that pay regular sacrifices to a monster called Mog Chothra in the form of young women.
Vella, however, doesn’t get the point. For everyone else, they view it as a great honor to be selected to be put in the Maiden’s Feast, and an even greater one to be chosen by Mog Chothra by way of actually getting eaten (some girls actually do get passed up). Even Vella’s family recognizes they’ll be losing a daughter, but her sacrifice will be worth it to keep their village safe. But Vella would really rather fight back.
Shay is in a similar situation, though not identical. He lives day in and day out on a spaceship under the control of a severely mother-like computer system. With nothing but his safety and health in mind, it feeds him nutritional paste, but with his happiness in mind, it also concocts ridiculously hammed up “missions” to save Yarn Buddies (exactly what they sound like) by eating through an ice cream avalanche or surviving a hug attack.
Neither of them is happy with where they are in life: bowing down to the whims of others. It’s not that it happens at all, but rather that it happens without question. They are told that’s how it’s always been done, or that you need to respect it without understanding it, or that it’s what’s best for you. And it doesn’t matter that it is good or bad or anything; it only matters that they have a question and no one will answer them.
It’s such a childlike notion of asking why, but Broken Age puts its importance in the light. Without asking why, or asking if there’s a better way, maidens get eaten up with too much pomp and circumstance but little reason why. A boy’s life is put in a jar and lost on a shelf, contributing nothing and learning nothing. Children ask why the sky is blue and we learn about Rayleigh scattering and diffuse sky radiation. Vella and Shay ask why we do what we do and we learn about ourselves.
The entire game is built around the idea of children and their seemingly impossibly light interpretation of the world with such a heavy question. The art is just stupidly gorgeous, bringing to life the dozens of hand drawn books your parents used to read to you at night. The bright and colorful worlds you ginned up in your mind have been made real by art director Lee Petty, animating in such a delightfully bouncy and happy way.
More than that, the characters are just sublimely made human and yet more jubilant than anyone you’ve ever known. Not just Vella and Shay, but even the teleporters on Shay’s ship are infectiously happy to take you away somewhere. Vella’s sister is having the best day of her life because she just downed six cupcakes and finally got to tell someone.
Of course, that’s all to say that 1) Schafer’s impeccable ability to characterize outlandish mindsets and psychologies into grounded and approachable roles is here in full force, and 2) the voice acting is just superb. Elijah Wood as Shay is fantastic, his naturally ethereal yet puckish voice ideal for Shay’s space-bound innocence and combination resigned-rebellious view of his lot in life.
Masasa Moyo as Vella is equally great. Moyo manages to make even the lies Vella sometimes tell sound like they come from a place of absolutely no ill intent. Her earnestness makes Vella simply sound like someone you would want see succeed for no other reason than having a passion (even if this passion happens to be self-preservation).
And Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Jennifer Hale all obviously do a wonderful job as well, but the true highlight for me is David Kaufman as Marek, a mysterious fellow you’ll meet fairly early on into the episode. He just has the perfect shady, subversive, I’ve-got-an-agenda-but-I’m-not-telling-you timbre to his croaky voice. I couldn’t wait to get back to interacting with him just because I knew I would get to hear him again.
Getting back to major story beats actually took less time than I was expecting. The interactions of the game are very much a traditional adventure game as originally promised, but the puzzles were never to the level of pounding your head against a wall, hoping a fortune would rattle loose from your head and tell you the solution. There’s no hint system to speak of, but you’d never need one anyways. The puzzles were crafted just so to take some very hard thinking and logical elimination of possibilities but never dipping into Hulk-rage status.
The problem is, though, that this first act ends so abruptly. It ends in a logical and appropriate place, but it leaves so many things open to be addressed (or unfortunately forgotten) in the subsequent episodes. Marek kind of withers away from a major role to nothing, and Vella leaves more than a few characters hanging. That’s kind of par for the course in an adventure game (causing chaos to serve your own needs and leaving before you see the aftermath), but the sudden cliffhanger is still a bit startling.
It doesn’t change the rest of the experience one bit, though. Act 1 of Broken Age is still an amazingly charming, beautiful, and lighthearted display. It shows that Schafer still has it within him to take something you’ve long forgotten how to do—imagine this, ask that, be a child—and turn it into a game. It’s a game that invites curiosity and then celebrates it. Ask me why you should play Broken Age. I think you just got the answer.
+ Stunning art and animations that make your brain want to play
+ Voice acting talent is simply amazing
+ Orchestral score is catchy as fuck
+ Reminds you to ask why and reminds you to laugh
– Abrupt ending also makes you ask why but without an answer
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Broken Age – Act 1
Release: January 28, 2014
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Ouya