Friday, February 7, 2014

Broken Age

The adventure game genre is famous for being one of the very first major genres of PC game, and the mainstay for a while during the mid 1980s through mid 1990s.  The genre is also famous for producing some of the most famous and beloved games of all time, no small number of which are associated with Tim Schafer, the designer of Broken Age.  When he announced that he was going to eschew traditional development models and crowd-source a new adventure game for the modern age, fans came out of the woodwork to shower money upon him – no small feat to get over $3 million when you haven’t even finished a proposal yet.  Then came the inevitable development delays and cost overruns, finally culminating in the game being released in two parts, one now and the other (hopefully) later this year, completed with (hopefully) funds from selling the season pass.  But if you buy it, you'll eventually get the whole thing.

But I’m not necessarily complaining about that; after all, I got the early version of the game since I was also doing some money-showering back when the Kickstarter campaign was ongoing.  So I knew that I was pitching $15 into a bucket that might get me something cool or might not; let other people argue over the money and business plan side.  The question that I will tackle is:  should you rush to your Steam client and order this thing?  To which I answer:  weeeeeeeell.  Maybe.

First, more background.  To the uninitiated, adventure games can be sort of odd.  They’ve always focused more on storytelling and puzzle-solving rather than twitch gameplay, more like a novel or an interactive story than a traditional “game”.  As a rule, they don’t have that much replay value unless you’re really into the story or the performances, and they’re also somewhat formalized in terms of the playing experience.  Typically in anything post 1990 you’re expecting voice acting, and probably really good voice acting.  Given the high up-front costs and the somewhat limited replay/multiplayer potential, it makes sense that the genre has faded into something of a niche market these days. 
Various sorts of people have been predicting the death of adventure games for years, but they seem to continue on regardless.  There are a couple of well-regarded American developers like Telltale Games and also quite a bit of action in Europe, with developers such as Daedelic making really great efforts.  For my money, Daedelic’s Deponia trilogy is right up there with any adventure title ever made, and I’ve played quite a few.  I also understand that there’s still something of a market for these sorts of games in Asia, but there aren’t as many puzzle elements and more of an interactive novelization paradigm.  There’s also the fact that adventure game elements have tended to trickle into other sorts of games of all genres over the years.

Back in the day, when adventure games were king around these parts, there was competition between two different schools of thought.  The first and traditional sort was exemplified by Sierra On-Line, but the idea itself goes back to the very first text-based adventure games like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In those sorts of games the idea of the player actually winning the game was treated as something of an affront to the developer.  You’d need infinite patience or something like clairvoyance to beat some of these games, and you could render your game unwinnable easily and without warning.  For example, in King’s Quest VI, your character can visit an island at one point, and you had better find and pick up a scythe on your first trip there.  You have to visit the island again in order to beat the game, and if you haven’t done a couple of tasks first (one of which requires the scythe) then you’ll be killed upon your return with no way to avoid it and no indication of what you should have done differently.  This was not an atypical situation to find yourself in, meaning that hint books were an important secondary income source for adventure game companies.  Given the sort of people who were early adopters of computers, the fact that these games were so mean and impossible makes sense.  And by that I mean that these people usually had puckish senses of humor, a lot of attention for detail, and outright contempt for people who couldn’t keep up.

The second school of thought has eventually won out in modern adventure games; unless the designer is deliberately making a retro game to troll the audience with cruelty you can be relatively certain that you won’t be able to screw up your game beyond repair and if you can die at all you’ll know right away.  This style was popularized by the LucasArts adventure game division and therefore partially by Schafer himself, who was of the opinion that games should primarily be about fun, and the player shouldn’t be penalized for inquisitive behavior.  Therefore you can try absolutely anything you want, just to see what will happen.  It seems a little odd that there should have been a dispute as to whether game designers should treat their audience without disdain, and so the fact that Schafer's side won this argument isn't that surprising.  Schafer’s games of this era include such gems as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango.  All of his games have featured outlandish characters, tricky puzzles, and excellent storytelling.  I would personally put Grim Fandango in the very top tier of games ever made and this is not a minority position.  Unfortunately it wasn’t commercially successful, and also marked the end of “mainstream” adventure titles.

Given Schafer’s track record, it makes sense that there was enthusiasm behind this project, and also that there’s a lot of incentive for people to say that it’s another masterpiece.  I’ve been reading some other reviews and they are generally positive to very positive; nonetheless, there’s a sticking issue that affected my view of the game and that everyone also seems to be having:  the game is short, and it’s easy.  Tycho over at Penny Arcade mentioned this in his review, but also did a bit of a meditation on whether “too short” is even a fair critique of a game at all.  And this too is a reasonable question; for instance, the original Portal is probably about the same length and it’s generally considered as being just about perfect in every way.  And it’s certainly possible to stretch out a game with some stupid padding just to get the playtime up, in fact it happens all the time and it is super annoying.  So not doing that is a positive.  But in the end, a game has to be a game.

The game follows the adventures of two main protagonists – Shay and Vella, both about 14, which turns out to be pretty significant later on.  Shay lives on a spaceship; he is apparently the sole human occupant, and it’s designed around meeting his needs.  The ship is run by a mostly benevolent but somewhat smothering AI who refers to herself as “mom”.  (Incidentally, every single bit of voice acting in this game is fantastic, but Jennifer Hale as the voice of the AI is the best of all.)  The ship has various entertainment modules revolving around semi-autonomous yarn robots, and they give Shay “important missions” to do every day.  Unfortunately these missions are designed for maybe a four-to-eight year old and are just as clearly designed to keep Shay occupied and not messing with anything important.  His increasing boredom with and resentment of his condition is to be expected.

Vella lives in the town of Sugar Bunting, a location for bakers, and is about to be offered up in sacrifice to a horrible Cthuloid beast called Mog Chothra which appears out of the ocean every fourteen years or so.  How she in particular was chosen isn’t especially delved into; it’s considered quite the honor by everyone in the town, including her parents.  Even the other designated sacrifices claim to be okay with the situation, and considering that they believe their town will be destroyed by a vengeful Chothra if they don’t go through with it, perhaps it’s not too out of line for them to consider themselves heroes.  Nonetheless, Vella thinks maybe fighting the monster is a better plan than just offering up human sacrifices to it.  I approve of her mettle.  Unfortunately, her story just isn’t as coherent.

You can choose which character you want to follow at any point and you can switch if you get stuck, or just want to.  Despite some teasers throughout it’s not entirely clear how these stories relate until the very end, though.  I chose to play through Shay’s story first, which if you were asking me is probably the way to go.  It’s actually quite well done – Shay gets the opportunity to maybe go outside what the AI would approve of and even possibly escape, but the person he’s taking advice from is obviously not 100% trustworthy.  It is not clear whether Shay’s being manipulated for someone else’s ends or if this is just another phase of keeping him occupied, and as the game proceeds it becomes clear that he’s not being told everything that would be good for him to know.  And after I’d completed his segment and then Vella’s I really had to go back and reinterpret stuff, which was nice.

Vella’s segment is probably slightly better in terms of puzzle design, but the story is much less focused.  She wants to fight the monster, which everyone tells her is nuts.  But she perseveres.  Unfortunately she perseveres without any particular plan, and then at the last second a monster-killing weapon falls into her lap without any indication that something like that was even possible.  I will give it some points for actually being a plot-relevant reveal.  She is surprisingly unconcerned that she may have caused the deaths of everyone she knows or cares about, though, and so are the other townsfolk she runs across.  I have to wonder why I have to take it seriously if no one else around seems to be.

Anyway, game design.  Adventure games have always revolved around picking up items and using them on other items, and that’s the case here too.  Unfortunately there aren’t really that many items, and the solution to puzzles is usually glaringly obvious.  At one point you’re asked (as Shay) to accomplish three tasks, which is a mainstay of adventure games as well.  But it turns out you can just go and accomplish them right away, which is not how things typically work in a game like this.  Usually that’s the point when the game branches out and makes you do a bunch of sub-goals before you can do what you want, and then when you do you get that feeling of accomplishment.

As a specific example of questionable puzzle design, there are at least four items that you obtain by simply talking to other characters and getting them handed over.  I’m not necessarily advocating hoops for hoops sake, but expecting you to complete a task for the character first or solve another puzzle beforehand is not unreasonable.  For a game that has such limited inventory in the first place, I kept having the same feeling that Shay does in his ship – that this is some sort of hand-holding adventure game that is not really respecting me.  That feeling is hard to overcome.

So I’m in the position of saying that this game looks and sounds awesome, but is by no means the renaissance of adventure gaming.  I even liked the reveal at the end, and I will definitely finish it if and when the second half is released.  If this was a movie, I'd watch it; the plot and characterization is quite intriguing.  But I really hope that there’s a little more puzzle and a little less movie going on in the conclusion.