Someone is telling you a story. It has you on the edge of your seat. Every word is like another tug on the line with you on the other end, hook, bait, and all greedily choked in your gullet. It’s a doubtless, quintessential sign of being totally enraptured. And then they stop. What is your reaction?
Surprise, yes; anger, I suppose. Those are the emotional responses, but what is your reaction? “What happens next?” Or maybe “what happens to them?” It’s a difference that sets apart two important facets of the experience: the storyteller and the story. When you ask what happens next, you’re asking because you just want to hear more. Anything. Whatever happens, it will be good because the person telling it to you is good.
When you ask about a character, it means you’re invested in more than the moment-to-moment jollies of being spun an entertaining yarn. There’s something deeper that you’ve connected with—a theme, a backstory, a person that reminds you of someone back home—and you need to know that your hopes can beat your fears. There’s trepidation, an apprehension in your asking as you realize this may not turn out the way you’d like, but you can’t help but ask. (I guess we’re all a bit self-sabotaging in that way.)
It’s the difference between a want and a need; do you just want to hear more or do you need do hear more? It’s a contrast you examine every day. You want to eat another burger but you don’t need to unless you want a heart attack at the age of 20. You don’t want to say sorry but you need to make amends. You want to hear a great storyteller keep telling a story but you also need to hear that everyone is okay in the end.
I’ve been thinking about that reactionary split since finish Act 1 of Double Fine Productions’ Broken Age. It is standard Tim Schafer, which is to say it is superb. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, and it’s strange. That is a man who has an unmatched ability to remind you of what it’s like to always think “what if,” what it’s like to never forget how to be a kid. It’s a pretty fantastic game, and you should probably play it.
But when it was over, I asked myself, “Well, what happens next?” I started to think about why I asked that. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I know there’s a second act coming out later this year to put a bow on Shay and Vella’s story. Maybe it was because I have a habit of asking pointless questions. But really, it’s because Schafer is an incredible storyteller.
He ginned up a world of psychic children fighting within their own warped minds. He made us laugh alongside a travel agent for the dead. He even kept us rapt with a biker gang in the dystopian future. He is without a doubt a storyteller to measure all others against.
Those games, though, didn’t have something they needed to say so much as something they wanted to say. Broken Age, however, actually had a message, a thematic examination of defiance, fealty, and expectations. Shay is part of a mission he doesn’t understand, living a life he doesn’t want, and doing things he doesn’t want to do. Vella is, well, about to be eaten by a giant monster and everyone else seems pretty chill with it.
These are two immensely interesting setups. What happened to Shay’s world? How did he end up on his spaceship by himself? Where the hell did Marek exactly stowaway if the ship doesn’t ever seem to stop? And what about Vella? Why did her village stop being warriors if there’s a big monster regularly attacking them? Whose bright idea was it to start doing Maidens Feasts? There is obviously a lot going on in the Broken Age universe, but we don’t get much of it.
Strangely enough, though, we don’t mind all that much because Schafer manages to tell a great story. Rather than answer those questions that build up Shay and Vella as people that we care about—the same questions that end with us asking “what about Shay and Vella” instead of “what happens next”—we keep getting distracted by questions too immediate to be ignored.
Like how is Shay going to rescue civilians from an avalanche. Or how is Vella going to get that bird to help her. Or how is Shay going to trick the navigator. A talented storyteller can do that. A talented storyteller can make you forget all the whys and make you wonder the hows. But we get enough of the how from Wikipedia. We end up caring because we get the why, because we understand the reasons behind someone doing what they do.
We don’t, however, get much of that. Vella is against her being eaten, sure. But why? No one else has a problem with it, so where exactly did this categorically rebellious notion come from? I totally agree with her, but I don’t know why she would be right there with me from the beginning. Shay has a similar problem. We inherently align with him because we find his days as boring as he does. But if that’s all he knows, there’s really no reason for him to yearn for what he doesn’t know exists. They’re both well in Plato’s cave.
It struck me, though, that it may be because Broken Age is broken into two separate acts, separated by some indeterminate amount of time. As a single cohesive story, it would work well to establish a character and then spend the second half following through the setup. But when it’s broken into two parts, they both need to be as gripping as the other. In the traditional format, though, that would mean we spend Act 1 going up the roller coaster and never coming down—cooking the steak but not eating it.
At this point, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that Broken Age as a whole will be a step for Schafer to start making points and relating thoughts and emotions rather than a good story. Act 1 already is a departure, skewing towards drama with highlights of humor rather than throwing a multitude of jokes your way and seeing what sticks. I just hope Act 2 ends with me saying “I needed that” instead of “I wanted that.”