Broken Age’s subtle twist on storytelling

Ten minutes into Broken Age, I was stuck.

This is the kind of adventure gaming I miss.

Broken Age is a new game from Double Fine Productiuons that’s available, currently, only to Kickstarter backers. With a budget of 3.3 million dollars, they’ve produced an adventure game with a kind of quality that hearkens back to the days when the SCUMM emulator was the king of the point and click genre.

That being said and it currently being 2014, seeing something like Monkey Island 2 today would be a step in the wrong direction. While the old games produced by Lucas Arts were great, we want to see new games with new conventions taking the stage.

Broken Age‘s strengths lie not in the kind of wacky humour of Day of the Tentacle or the instant classic-ness of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but in the serious qualities the game wades into. It asks characters to question everything they’ve known while forcing them out of their comfort zones, and it also asks the player to help them along in their quests with a kind of dramatic irony.

There’ll be more on this below, but be warned a few spoilers might be ahead.

Vella challenges ridiculous authority

"Up For Grabs" the text feels more sexual than it should, and less than you'd hope.

“Up For Grabs” the text feels more sexual than it should, and less than you’d hope.

Vella is a young woman living in the small village of Sugar Bunting, and today is a special day.

Every fourteen years, Sugar Bunting, along with many other villages, prepares for the Maiden’s Feast where young women are sacrificed to a monster called Mog Chathra. Vella is one of the girls about to be sacrificed.

For many it’s an honour to be devourved by the beast. Even when faced down by the imposing giant with its red eyes and horrifying tentacles, the girls bade on the monster to eat them… it’s a ritual that ingrained in their society.

Unlike the young women up on the sacrificial stage, Vella doesn’t want to die, she wants to fight. Unbeknownst to her, Sugar Bunting was once home to a clan of warriors who fought off Mog Chathra. Through bloodshed and death, they fought on resulting in a lot of suffering, but they never gave into the creature’s demands like they do now. As Vella’s grandfather says, this sacrifice nonsense made the town go soft.

Look at how tough that guy looks.

Look at how tough that guy looks.

The sad part of the ritual is that Vella’s grandfather even tries to stop it from happening. Her first quest is to find a ceremonial knife that he mother needs to cut a cake, and under the stern gaze of her grandfather you almost feel guilty for duping him into giving it back.

Throughout Vella’s half of the story you encounter this “Don’t ask question, do as you are told” kind of mentality present everywhere. From the lumberjack in his cabin scared of trees, the girls in the fishing village unable to question their imminent demise, the guards of the temple still believing in a long-dead god, and even Vella’s parents sacrificing their daughter without a fight, there’s a kind of forced hands-on-ears conflict all characters suffer from.

What the game gives its protagonist(s) is the ability to choose what their fate is going to be. They aren’t forced to accept their inevitable demise, and the freedom to do what they want results in actual revelations about the world. What the game is trying to get the characters to do is act out of character.

If only she did.

If only she did.

For instance, think of Sugar Bunting’s ritual sacrifice as a play on the Minotaur in Greek Mythology without all of the weird bestiality involved with it. Youths and maidens were thrown into the beast’s maze to appease Poseidon, a god that rose out of the ocean not unlike Mog Chothra. In the myth, Theseus, this badass dude with a sword, goes to Crete and meets Ariadne who he falls madly in love with. Upon hearing about her being tossed into the maze, he saves her i.e. damsel in distress.

Vella, tired of being in the damsel in distress, takes it upon her self to cut loose from her sacrificial role and to find her own solution to the problem. There’s no one coming to save her from Mog Chothra, but she needs help. After this she goes on her own Hero’s Journey finding special items to help her walk on clouds, meeting Pendleton Ward, and eventually someone from another age who is willing to help her defeat the monster.

What Vella’s character is all about cutting off traditions for new ideas. Screw being a helpless damsel, let’s just get out of this deathtrap on my own. Up in the clouds, she defeats a semi-evil philosopher who has an ironclad grasp on his followers, down on the ground she challenges a pretentious hipster to his beliefs on the meaning of art, and at the end of her section she challenges the very tradition that she has been born and raised to believe.

Mog Chathra is no longer this evil devourer of virgins, he’s a beast that can be destroyed, an old way of thinking that has to be reworked. Young people like Vella have spent too much time being told what to do, what to believe, and how to act for too long. It’s a challenge Shay, the game’s other protagonist, faces.

Superstitions kept villagers out of this room for nearly 300 years, but not Vella.

Superstitions kept villagers out of this room for nearly 300 years, but not Vella. She challenges her world’s closest thing to a god.

 

Shay’s id and ego tango

Listen to mother.

Listen to mother.

Is everything your mother tells you true?

It’s with a half-hearted kind of effort that Shay gets out of bed. His mother, a floating head in a computer monitor, gets him up, washes him clean, feeds him breakfast, and sends him out into the universe to save the world from peril as the hero he is groomed to be.

An avalanche of ice cream has covered a village, a train is careening ever-so-slow off its tracks, a ship has sent out a distress signal in desperate need of hugs, and a growth on the ship wants to give you a present…

These are hardly what anyone would call distressing situations, and with the same kind of depressed effort Shay gets up in the morning to perform the same stuff his mother forces on him. It’s the same “Shut up and do what you’re told” kind of mentality that fills Vella’s world, but think about it this way: Shay has been alone for years. This is all he knows about the world, and the kid-sized decor makes you think that whoever built this ship serious didn’t think things through.

They probably should have found a way to prevent growths like these.

They probably should have found a way to prevent growths like these.

What strikes me about Shay’s story is the role dramatic irony plays. This literary convention works by giving the reader a look ahead into what’s really going on. For example, anyone who knows how to speak Arabic will have the entire surprise revelation (though it isn’t much of one) ruined if they watch the first Iron Man movie.

In the film, Raza, who takes Tony Stark hostage, sends his contractor a video making his demands a little more demanding. The viewers get the see the video, and the speaker explains pretty much everything that’s going on.

Right from the very start, the player knows something isn’t right on this spaceship. Shay has been on this ship doing the same thing everyday for years, and only when the player comes along is the peculiar nature of his existence come to light. Even when Shay is able to escape from the humdrum repetition he suffers through everyday, he’s confronted by another deception that he believes, but the player simply has to go along with.

Damn you wolf in... wolf's clothing.

Damn you wolf in… wolf’s clothing.

Down below decks is the guy up there in the photo above. Marek’s his name and he helps Shay take on some more adult quests. Instead of having to save the fluffy friends from ice cream avalanches, Shay is sent to the Space Weaver and to new systems where he has to save little animals using a kind of virtual claw game.

While Shay’s taking on these new challenges with vigor, he’s still being told what to do. Throughout his side of the story, he’s sent on quest after quest without first questioning why he’s doing it. Even though he’s able to challenge the matriarchal power that controls him, Shay is conditioned to do what he’s told. However, the authority that controls him begins to break down as he diverges from his hero’s quest.

Instead of simply doing what Marek wants, Shay continually tries to save every animal on the screen. When Marek asks him why, Shay keeps telling him it’s just what his gut wants him to do. But is it? Surely the ship and Marek are smart enough to see that he’s revolting even in his own little way. Being told what not to do, for a young rebel like Shay, is almost reverse psychology. He even tells Shay that there’s a galactic war raging outside and that his mother is being too overly protective of him, but why?

Has there even been a trust-worthy wolf in literature?

Has there even been a trust-worthy wolf in literature?

What Shay has to contend with is a struggle between his conditioning and natural desire to rebel against his parents. Much like Vella, Shay wants to question, he wants to challenge, he wants to point and click. Marek is a wolf, a go-to villain in folklore and fairy tales. Even as an enabler of his freedom giving Shay a much needed respite from his mother, he still acts as a patriarchal authority figure telling him what to do.

What Shay has around him is a constructed reality. To what degree is entering into spoiler territory, so continue onto the next page if you want to find out a little more.

Shay and Vella’s connection

Broken_Age_Shay_and_Vella

Shay and Vella are linked in a way that goes beyond the end of the game’s startling revelation.

This connection has to do with how each character interacts with authority. Though from completely different genres, worlds, races, and degrees of technological sophistication these two protagonists find themselves inexorably linked to one another through a struggle to do what they want. They’re both young people questioning the world around them for the same time and they’re both coming up with little more than shrugs from the authority figures that surround them.

Mog Chathra can be defeated; mother isn’t always right. What both characters are experiencing is the equivalent to a child’s ability to say “No” to something for the first time in their lives however dangerous it is to refuse authority. And that’s what Broken Age is all about.

Although Shay’s mother provides him with protection from the outside world, there’s something wrong and a galactic war seems to be raging. Although everyone believes being a sacrifice is the greatest honour the world has to offer, it’s the last thing Vella wants to do. Giving her self up to Mog Chathra means saving her village from the ravages of a monster, but she still rebels against the long-held traditions of the town.

They are characters who are young and finally wanting to escape from the bullshit being fed to them.

This is really the beauty of Act I of the game. As the character begin to realize there’s more going on in the world, it all suddenly comes crashing down when they meet each other face-to-face. How this happens, I will not say. There are some revelations that you really have to experience first had.

***

Overall, Broken Age is an amazing example of the tradition of awesome Double Fine has kept up over these long years. Although the game is only three hours long, it certainly gives you at least three blog pages of thinking afterwards, which isn’t bad for a point and click adventure.

The connection between Vella and Shay is really what sold the game on the first playthrough. While some reviewers might comment on how easy the game is compared to the old SCUMM games, I actually enjoyed having a seamless time playing for once. There’s nothing worse than having to go to a strategy guide to find a solution and nothing better than being pulled into a story.

Overall A+, but let’s just hope Double Fine double times it to get us the next act.

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