I’ve been wanting to play Broken Age for a while. I grew up on point-and-click games, with their obtuse puzzles and incessantly quirky characters, and never really migrated to anything else. Grim Fandango was a particular childhood favorite, so knowing Tim Schafer was involved was a huge draw. But when Broken Age came out to underwhelmed reviews, I worried that I was looking back at Tim Schafer’s work with rose-tinted glasses, that it couldn’t live up to my hopes. I was right – but not for the reasons I expected, and I’m still glad that I gave the game a chance.
As I begin, I’m offered the choice between two characters: Shay, a teenage astronaut on some freaky futuristic spaceship that seems to be training him for something; or Vella, a baker who’s about to attend the deceptively named Maiden’s Feast in honour of some big tentacly monster named Mog Chothra. Being the loony liberal feminist nightmare that I am, I obviously go with Vella, the black female character (score one for diversity yay!).
Spoiler alert: I retract that score pretty quickly. The first puzzle I encounter involves searching for a ceremonial knife so Vella’s family can cut a cake and she can go be sacrificed to the aforementioned giant monster. Yep. I mean, there’s all sorts of things wrong there. For one, I’m not very keen on the fact that my first actions as a player will be to help Vella towards her own demise. But that’s the thing with point-and-clicks – you really don’t have a choice. As someone who’s usually all about sticking with a story all the way to its conclusion, this does not sit well with me. Still, there’s a game to play, so off I go, merrily setting about what is essentially glorified ritual suicide.
When I actually get to the Maiden’s Feast, there are all these girls dressed to the nines and clamouring for the giant sea monster to kill them – and of course the skinny ones are picked first even though that doesn’t make sense because they’re supposed to be food, but screw logic and yay restrictive beauty norms! So now there are girls being grabbed by a tentacle monster and devoured alive while I’m busy working out some silly puzzle that involves spraying someone’s hair with fizzy water and then offering them a towel so I can steal their food in order to coax over a large bird.
This cognitive dissonance only gets worse when I’m told that if Vella isn’t sacrificed to Mog Chothra, then the beast will destroy her town and eat every one of its residents. This means that the escape I’m working towards will cause Mog to kill Vella’s entire family while I’m off playing the rest of the game, which makes all the faffing about I have to do aggravating, alarming, and a pretty unpleasant reflection on Vella’s character. At one point I even ask someone I come across whether they want help tidying up. Vella – your entire family, everyone you’ve ever known, is probably being slaughtered by an evil monster right at this moment, and you want to help this rando with a bit of spring cleaning? What the hell is this!? The worst part is, if I leave the game idle for a few moments, Vella wraps her arms around herself and looks completely dejected. This is a tiny girl in a torn dress wearing no shoes, but the storyline and mechanics put her in a position where I wanted to give her a slap instead of a hug. It’s not a nice position to be in.
Point-and-clicks are not fast games. Everything is fiddly and usually slightly ridiculous, so unless you have a very quick puzzle, giving the player a sense of urgency is actually pretty detrimental. All I can think about is getting back to save Vella’s family, so instead of being amused by the clever satire in the rest of the game, I’m just frustrated. At one point I find myself wandering around offering peaches to everyone I meet to solve something or other. I can’t even begin to describe the frustration of knowing you’re supposed to be saving countless people from a horrible death but instead you’re stuck offering fruit to strangers.
That exasperation only mounts as the game continues. Why are you making poop jokes with this random hipster, Vella? You’re supposed to be saving your family from Mog Chothra! Why are you attacking this sentient tree with an axe? This makes you as bad as Mog Chothra! Wait there are two girls who STABBED OUT THEIR OWN EYES for a god who doesn’t actually exist and turns out to be a guy who thinks the locals are annoying? That might actually be worse than the fact your family is, right now, being eaten by Mog Chothra!
Mercifully, Vella is not the whole game, and at one point the narrative forces me to switch to Shay. Even though I’m pretty grumpy that the white boy is the one to change my mind about the game, I’m willing to forgive this because the twists the story takes from this point are fantastic. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s almost enough to make me forget about Peachgate. Almost.
Shay’s story starts with him travelling through space on a ship that looks like it was made by Fisher-Price. Any kind of danger I encounter soon turns out to be an adorable game which, after several goes round, coupled with Shay’s obvious displeasure at feeling trapped, starts to come across as some kind of Orwellian nightmare for kids. Tonally it’s the exact opposite of Vella’s story – there’s no crisis to run towards, only tedium to escape from, and along with a premise that doesn’t rely so heavily on stereotypes, Shay’s side of things is a lot more fun to play. Trying to work out how to break the cycle I’m stuck in at the beginning of his story does get a bit annoying, but I find the story such a delightful mixture of cute and creepy that I forgive the game easily – which says a lot after how much Vella’s side wound me up.
Well, almost. Even Shay’s storyline wasn’t safe from my inner SJW. It gets a little tedious when the male character gets to do all the fixing things, all the science-y things, and the female character is mostly responsible for making life more difficult for everyone. Sure, eventually Vella gets to build a bomb and punch a dude in the face, but these feel like token gestures. It doesn’t even make sense that Vella would know how to make a bomb – she’s a baker! Honestly, if they’d just switched the genders and ethnicities of the characters I’d have been a lot happier (same goes for you, Jurassic World!).
And it’s not just the main characters. The ‘rogue robots’, diamond-shaped machine creatures that have gone feral, are designed with feathers and war paint. Now, I’m sure no one at Double Fine was thinking ‘lolol Native Americans are savages!’ but still, that’s a pretty lazy way to represent wildness. It’s just kind of sad when a game builds this wonderful, well thought-out world and and instead decides to run with casual racism. Maybe I just spend too much time on tumblr, but if a game is making me think about my post-colonial white guilt instead of, you know, actually playing the game, then something’s gone wrong. This isn’t just a ‘my gosh let’s be politically correct!’ thing. It’s more of a ‘I’m tired of so many game developers being unoriginal’ thing. I’m used to most media I consume being at least a little passively sexist and racist – I just wish that games this interesting and original could avoid that pitfall.
While I hope for better from Double Fine in the future (so looking forward to the remastered Day of the Tentacle), Broken Age isn’t a bad place to build from. It’s far from perfect, but because of the masterful twists in the storyline I’m probably still probably going to bankrupt myself buying up the rest of their back-catalogue.