Broken Age has a storied history, beginning life as the aptly-but-not-so-poetically-named Double Fine Adventure. After a well-documented development cycle, it eventually transformed into the two-part storybook romp it exists as today. While “Act Two” of the tale isn’t yet available, Double Fine’s release of part one is an outstanding adventure game, even if it is a bit of an easy one.
Your first act as the player is a choice between one of the game’s two leads: space-bored Shay or rebellious baker Vella. Choosing either isn’t a binding choice, since you’re free to swap between them at any time and will eventually need to clear both of their stories.
The outset of Vella’s adventure sees her blessed with the “honor” of being one of several young maidens chosen to be gussied up and offered as tribute to the marauding monster Mog Chothra. Turns out, Mog’s a member of a species who take to massacre when their voracious appetite isn’t slaked by regular sacrifices. Frustrating for both Vella and the player is that most folks don’t have a problem with the arrangement — in fact, they’re perplexed by her suggestion that they fight back and kill the beastie. In contrast to this whirlwind of danger and madness, Shay’s circumstances are about as unbearably mundane as life in a spaceship filled with adventure simulations can be. Each day of his life is replete with nothing but patronizing repetition and boredom, and in that way, his journey serves as an excellent foil to Vella’s.
Vella and Shay themselves are masterfully written and voiced, like every other character in the game. Shay’s voice actor, Elijah Wood, brilliantly conveys the bored-but-hopeful tones of an adolescent faced with the incessant monotony of the everyday. Masasa Moyo, though, steals the show with her depiction of Vella. Each line of her dialogue oscillates effortlessly between graceful kindness and sharp-tongued sarcasm and wit. The few hours I spent with her were easily some of the most memorable I’ve ever had in gaming, and her nuanced portrayal handily seats her alongside some of my favorite characters of all time.
All of the characters’ stellar voice performances are backed up by one of the best adventure game scripts I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in years, one that manages the incredible feat of balancing a hearty dose of humor with a hefty helping of heart. There aren’t immediate connections between their two stories, but the overall narrative is thematically linked and resonant. It is one tinged with rebellion and of young people desperately trying to escape the inescapable expectations of the world around them; expectations that they continue to live up to and perpetuate the status quo. The other characters they run across in their journey are both endlessly endearing and confoundingly stubborn, each further fleshing out this bifurcated world and its singular emphasis on preserving the norm.
The puzzles, while not mindbenders of any kind, are fun and often serve as punchlines in their own right, but the focus here is very squarely on character interactions, which are plentiful and always entertaining. All of the proceedings are couched in the papery warmth of an art style that seems to have jumped straight off the pages of children’s book. Characters bob and bounce around the screen in a wholly charming fashion, and it’s hard not to smile as you come across each one. Peter McConnell’s score effortlessly accompanies the visuals and voice acting, rounding out what is easily the most consistently excellent presentation I’ve seen in a modern adventure game.
There are a few tiny caveats: having the story cut off midway is disappointing, it’s a bit too easy to back out of a conversation by accident (just click anywhere but on a dialogue choice), and it’s probably the easiest adventure game this side of Telltale’s various series. None of these detract much, though.
Playing through Broken Age was a joy; the story’s themes ring true for anyone who’s ever been young and felt stifled by the expectations of the world as they grew up, and they’re wrapped up in wonderful, funny characters I can’t wait to spend more time with. This game is a breath of warm and welcoming air that made me feel nostalgia for a home I don’t remember forgetting, and one I hope the release of act two will let me return to once more.