Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dave Critiques - Broken Age: Good characters can trump bad puzzle design


Hey hey folks, this is a critique on Broken Age. As I will be discussing it in depth, there will be spoilers. If you are worried about that sort of thing, please stop the video, play the game, and then return later. For everyone else, let’s continue. This will be an interesting video as I wrote my critique alongside my first playthrough in 2015. Now returning to the game a year later to acquire footage for this video, I find my opinions quite different. Let’s see how much of the following writing becomes new material.

I get the feeling that a lot of people didn’t get what they were expecting with Broken Age. When Double Fine went to Kickstarter to fund an old-school point and click adventure game, that’s pretty much all the information that we had, alongside knowing that the head of Double Fine Tim Schafer is responsible for some of the classics of that genre. Like many other people, I gladly donated to the project, and before we all knew it, it was funded, and then some. We all waited to see what kind of adventure game classic would be created.

To be fair to Broken Age, Act 1 has the hallmarks of a classic point and click adventure game. Oh yes, to those unaware, the game was split into two acts as they went over-budget. Act 1 was released in early 2014, while Act 2 came out in early 2015. Now in mid-2016, I have played through both acts again.

Act 1 has got a lot going for it. Memorable characters in a very unique setting, straightforward puzzles with just the right amount of silliness, and a cliffhanger ending that really gets us thinking about the time we spent with both Vella and Shay. One wonders how a girl hunting down a Cthulhu-esque monster and a boy trapped on a spaceship controlled by an overbearing mother simulation that has him rescuing beings made of yarn collide at all. The great thing is they don't, not until the last moments of act 1 at least.

Their stories are completely separate. I initially played through Act 1 without a walkthrough (a rarity for me and adventure games these days). Even though I got stuck in Vella’s story, during that time I completed the entirety of Shay’s story seeing if there was something that could help me before returning to Vella to work out a solution. It turns out I had just missed picking up an important inventory item. Boy was my face red! I was going to make a joke about the fruit I had to pick up, but it was a peach, and not an apple, so that doesn’t work.

Playing through Act 2 a year later, I used a walkthrough, to not only power through Act 1 again, but to get through Act 2 as painlessly as possible. Who would have thought that even with a walkthrough that would not be possible? Although perhaps it was a fault of the walkthrough’s explanation. Returning to the game this time around, I only used a walkthrough when I got stuck (forgetting how a puzzle was supposed to be solved). I was dreading aspects of Act 2, such as the claw puzzle, the knot puzzle, and the final puzzle where you have to rewire the hexipals to complete various tasks. The first two were annoying, though not as bad as I remembered, and the final puzzle was actually quite easy if you take proper notes and set yourself up in the right way. Those that may have read my critique in 2015 will know that I spent many large paragraphs complaining about elements of the final puzzle alone, from having to write down notes to not being able to understand the hexipal wiring with the walkthrough I was using. I believe I almost gave up on the game. That’s how bad it was. Maybe I’ve just mellowed out a lot over the last year. I mean, I think writing notes down for any game is one of those really fun experiences that not enough people get to experience. It’s kind of taking elements of the game out into the real world in a tangible way.

I still think some of the puzzles needed better signposting, but here’s an observation I made during this playthrough. I often use walkthroughs for adventure games and find myself evaluating the puzzles after I go through the solution, seeing if I would have been able to solve the puzzle on my own. Well, without a bit of trial and error or thinking on the problem, you actually never get to see if the game has enough hints to lead you towards a solution on your own. This became apparent during Vella’s section of act 2 when after using a walkthrough to help get the hexipal to the control room, I continued using the walkthrough afterwards. One of the dangers of even looking at a walkthrough for any game is that it weakens your resolve to run back to it anytime you come across even the smallest pocket of resistance. There’s a puzzle about keeping the central orb of the ship cold, otherwise it will overheat and explode. The walkthrough has you filling up a space helmet with ice cream even before you enter the orb station. After putting the orb on ice, I felt dejected, because with a little exploration, I could have easily come across that solution myself, and I deprived myself of the accomplishment of doing so.

I still think changing the rules of the two stories being separate in act one creates a lot of unnecessary confusion and frustration. How is the player meant to know there is nothing more they can do in one story at this point in time? Yes, just like I swapped stories in act one when stuck, there are probably many who did the same in act two, but you can’t rely on that. Maybe I missed the cues because I was following a walkthrough, but the timing of when to switch from Vella’s story to Shay’s seems arbitrary.

Good characters are at the heart of good storytelling, and I enjoyed my time with all the personalities of Broken Age even more this second time round. Broken Age excels as an adventure game if you consider adventure games a prominent storytelling genre. This is because the best puzzles are based on the characters as well. One hallmark of the genre is always a puzzle where you act horribly to make someone’s life miserable, all to achieve a goal. The microwave and toilet puzzle on the airline in Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders comes to me when I think of this. With this in mind, my favourite puzzle in Broken Age is Vella acquiring yarn in the train mission room of the spaceship. So much so that I posted the sequence on my channel after I played through it. It’s delightfully cruel, and the punchline of the whole ordeal has me laughing out loud. Almost as much as trying to create a tree joke.

Act 2 contains some of the better character moments, and it’s all to do with the payoff. You meet these characters briefly in Act 1, and the year that passed between the release of both games, I really looked forward to meeting them again. Shay and Vella are vastly different people, so there is extra joy in how they react to these characters. I loved revisiting them this time, and I imagine I will enjoy visiting them in the future, obtuse act two puzzles aside.

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