I Had Strings, But Now I’m Free… There Are No Strings on Me?
Is it possible for point-and-click puppets to develop real complexity or true freedom? That’s the puzzle at the heart of Kickstarter hit Broken Age.
By Laura Miller
Illustration by Victor Kerlow
(Double Fine Productions)
Vella, one of two main characters in Broken Age, is the sort of girl I loved reading about when I was a child: wisecracking, intrepid, and independent-minded. The first time I started up Broken Age, a Kickstarted revival of the 1990s graphic adventure game, I naturally wanted to play through her story first. I hoped to relive both the literary crushes of my girlhood and the hours I once whiled away pointing and clicking through still images of strange scenery and rifling the imaginary desk drawers of equally imaginary people. Nostalgia permeates Broken Age, in the fat, creamy, tactile lines of its picture book–style art, its gentle humor, and its simple, goofy puzzles. This is a game for people who played the Monkey Island series in their early teens and want something similar, if a shade more sophisticated, to share with their own kids.
I should issue a disclaimer: I never made it through a Monkey Island game. Despite my long-standing enthusiasm for the adventure genre, I didn’t want to interact with cartoon characters, and the broad, yucks-and-groaners humor of the series made me roll my eyes. Prowling the lonely, wind-brushed and watery landscapes of Myst and Riven, hunting for clues to whatever catastrophe lay in their pasts, was more to my taste. The inhabitants of those worlds, if seen at all, were always fleeing the player, ducking into hiding places or vanishing from hologram screens. The designers at Cyan would never expect you to click dutifully through a list of prefab dialogue with a flimsy character who resembled a refugee from a bargain-basement Hanna-Barbera series.
Vella’s not like that, though — honest. Writer and director Tim Schafer (a Monkey Island veteran) and his team finesse an impressive range of emotion out of her basic, ovoid face and scarecrow limbs, plus the writing in Broken Age is polished and witty. There’s a moment when she confronts, with a mock growl, a vexing bird that has blocked her progress: “Yes, it’s me: your worst nightmare!” When it flies off, she says, “Wait, stick around to get your comeuppance!”
In the tiny drama of a person exaggerating, for the sake of her own amusement, some inglorious, mundane aggression, a real character was born — in my imagination, at least. I came to genuinely like Vella, the way we like characters in books or movies, by whatever alchemy they start to resemble real people to us, with lives that extend beyond the frame of the story being told. Making us believe in the unreal is the spell that good storytelling casts. As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, the word “spell” once meant both “a story told and a formula of power over living men.”
But like a magic spell, a story has its own power: The pleasure of a good story is largely the pleasure of surrender. Games operate by different rules, and only a fool would expect them to work the same way. Is Vella’s half of Broken Age the story of a heroine who questions the long-standing beliefs of her culture and hatches a plan to save her people from a monster that demands human sacrifices? Or is it the story of someone — the player — who figures out how to put feather shoes on the feet of a ladder and trick a talking tree into barfing sap?
The first story calls for moral and physical courage, the second for wacky ingenuity, and the discrepancy between the two creates a nagging dissonance. The problems faced by the characters, particularly Vella, are at odds with the themes of the puzzle-solving, and that contradiction counteracts the efforts to make us believe that any of it matters much.
Because we tend to identify with great fictional characters, we often forget that what makes them feel real to us is the fact that they are not under our control. Like actual people in the world around us, they do and say things we know they should not. Macbeth murders his king, Carmela Soprano stays with Tony, George Bailey contemplates killing himself in It’s a Wonderful Life. They fascinate us precisely because they seem free, even as they are, like any invention, the slaves of their creators. The illusion — the spell — that fiction creates is the conviction that these people might do anything or go anywhere, and that anything might happen to them.
In a game like Broken Age, who has that freedom? The player, a bit, but certainly not the characters. The player, at the very least, can switch between Vella’s story and that of Shay, a boy raised in safety and boredom aboard a spaceship. Both face classic coming-of-age dilemmas requiring that they break out of routine behaviors and a blinkered perception of life and its possibilities. Shay has been coddled by an ultra-motherly computer to the point that he desperately craves any activity that promises real consequences. His naïveté makes him vulnerable to a deceptive helper whom the player instantly recognizes as having ulterior motives.
Neither Vella nor Shay can do anything unless the player commands them. Absent such direction, they stand around, aimless and inert, like dangling puppets whose ability to simulate living creatures vanishes the moment human hands abandon their strings. Sure, they can talk to other characters, some of whom are charming or intriguing (a hipster woodworker named Curtis is a standout), but only if they speak lines from a short list of options.
What the writing, art, and plot of Broken Age do to persuade us that Vella and Shay are people with some say over their own fates, the gameplay undermines by proving again and again that they are things. This is not to say that video games are incompatible with character and story. But for me, the most effective and immersive fusions of interactivity and narrative have been first-person explorations that make the player’s own encounter with the game a tale of discovery. The goal is to learn who the other characters are and what they have done, not to move them around like helpless chess pieces. The best adventure games resemble detective fiction, which as a rule contains two overlapping stories: the story of what happened and the story of how the detective finds out what happened.
These games tend to be eerie and tragedy-haunted, like Myst or Gone Home, whose only puzzle involves finding out what caused the disintegration of the main character’s family while she spent a year abroad. Others, like Year Walk — which uses puzzles to lure the player into identifying with a character who, it gradually becomes clear, has committed a terrible crime — expertly manipulate the player’s desire to escape into the landscape on the screen. The Path allows you to play as six female characters of varying ages as they walk through the woods to their grandmother’s house. Each encounters a different hazard whether she sticks to the path or wanders into the trees, and together they form a surreal, archetypal rumination on danger, fear, and gender.
Broken Age was funded by a record-setting Kickstarter campaign that pledged to revive the point-and-click adventure game. Backers and fans got what was promised and more, even if some were disappointed to find no obscure, absurd puzzles that left players stuck for days. Instead of the broad comic caricatures of the Monkey Island series, Vella and Shay are figures with real psychological weight and problems, however candy-colored and whimsical their worlds.
And who knows, perhaps when Double Fine releases the second act of Broken Age next year, Tim Schafer and his colleagues will have figured out how to integrate the challenges required for a player to complete a game with the meaningful choices that every truly convincing character must make to finish their story. It’s a puzzle worth solving.