Broken Age is an insightful critique of video games’ potential foibles. It examines the worst stereotypes of the medium: “Are games childish?” and “Are game a waste of time that distracts us from the needs of the real world?”.
The new point and click adventure game from Double Fine Productions, focuses on the two protagonists, Shay and Vella. There’s a great mechanic in the game which allows the player to switch between Shay and Vella’s stories on the fly. Shay is the protagonist trapped on the Bassinostra, a life vessel from his dying planet. Broken Age questions games by using Shay’s artificial missions as an analog for video games. In the trailer for Shay’s half of the narrative, he explains that the Bassinostra’s computer, has been “sheltering me from the conflicts raging throughout the galaxy, the injustices I could be fighting, but the ship would never let me put myself in danger”. Shay’s half of Broken Age is about escaping from the unwelcome shelter of those safe constraints.
The start of Shay’s story establishes his growing disgust with the artificiality and blandness of the life he leads and the fake adventures the computer builds for him. Everything is provided for Shay on the Bassinostra; the computer even crotchets little Yarn Pals which join him on the “missions.” It quickly becomes apparent that these fake adventures have started to grate on Shay. The missions are empty challenges without real threat or real conflict. One rescue mission requires eating through an avalanche of ice cream and another has Shay fending off a “hug attack” from the cutesy yarn creatures. On that adventure, anything the player examines with a click gets a derisive response of “Fake” from Shay. Understandably, Shay feels the pull of a quest with real consequence.
The game’s colorful hand-painted look, especially in the Bassinostra, is closest in style to a children’s storybook. The character that wakes Shay up to the broader world, Marek the fox, would fit in any storybook. Marek offers him a chance at fighting real evils: “When you tire of child’s play, when you’re ready for real danger…come see me.” In the game’s trailer Shay says, “It’s time…to put aside childish things”. The quote is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT): “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” Broken Age is a coming of age story which shows Shay putting away the childish missions and stepping into a greater battle.
Are video games, like Shay’s fake missions, just a childish thing adults ought to put aside? C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” He noted that to fear appearing child-like as an adult is actually a sign of immaturity. We should be wary of hiding our videogames merely on account of popular perception that they’re childish.
The important matter, then, is how we respond to and how we balance our play. In Broken Age, the computer has lost all touch with the felt-needs of the world in her desire to protect Shay. Rather than engaging Shay or spurning him to his real purpose, the fake missions only coddle and insulate him. Later in the game, when Shay has learned about life outside the ship, he asks her, “Computer, were you aware the universe is at war? And that helpless creatures are being terrorized by ruthless tyrants?” The computer’s response is telling: “Ooh, that sounds like a fun new game! I’ll talk to the Yarn Pals and get that set up for the next round of missions. Would you like that?” Faced with a real problem, the computer can only think to “gamify” it; she wants to safely simulate the conflict but not to truly confront it. Shay’s sheltered life aboard the Bassinostra demonstrates the dangers of unbalanced escapism.
Although Broken Age raises significant questions about games, it does not condemn them. Its second protagonist, Vella is on a quest to destroy the monster, Mog Chothra. She awakens a frozen spaceman, Alex to aid her. Alex was sent away from Loruna, the same planet as Shay. Many players may have missed that this NPC was voiced by and modeled after Harmonix developer, Alex Rigopulos. For observant players, the anachronistic placement of a real-life game developer into the world underscores what he says. Like Shay, Alex has become dissatisfied with his meaningless existence on the escape vessel. Yet, he finds greater adventure aiding Vella. He admits, “You know what? The whole time I was on that spaceship, all I really wanted was to be as useful as I feel right now.” Just a hint of real conflict was more meaningful than years aboard the ship. Alex even modifies his ship, the very thing which trapped Shay and Alex in fake conflicts, as the means to help Vella take down the monster. Alex’s journey is a narrative of escapism being used for a greater good.
In the epigraph to his dark fairy tale, Coraline, Neil Gaiman paraphrased G.K. Chesterton thusly: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten”. Broken Age is just this sort of fairy tale. The game’s title alludes to the broken world where many characters have forgotten who they are. In this first act of the game, they take steps toward a riskier and greater story. Broken Age encourages players to engage in conflict in a real world full of dragons.