I haven’t done a ton of gaming on my PC lately. It’s not for a lack of games—I have access to a lot of new releases for testing purposes—or for a lack of hardware—there are literally crates full of graphics cards in my office. It’s not even for a lack of free time, so long as I’m not crunching away on another time-sensitive TR review.
No. My problem is that, these days, big-budget games are stuck in a rut.
As graphical fidelity has grown and development costs have ballooned, originality seems to have atrophied. Most of the new releases out there feel like carbon copies of their predecessors, with similar gameplay, similar level design, and similar stories. I’ve found that to be true whether one looks at multiplayer or single-player. In action games, single-player tends to be especially bereft of variety: you shoot some bad guys, hide behind cover to heal for a second, move on to the next area, watch the cut scene, rinse, repeat. Multiplayer sometimes get spiced up with co-op or expansive, vehicle-laden maps, but basic gameplay doesn’t vary all that much.
Indie games have proved to be a good way for people like myself—those tired of cookie-cutter shoot ’em ups—to scratch our gaming itch without boring ourselves to death. I’ve grabbed a number of fun, experimental indie titles on Steam, like Race the Sun, Dyad, and Gone Home. In terms of originality, they’re worlds better than Call of Duty XLVII: Ghost Strike Team At War. But by virtue of being indie, they also tend to be saddled with low production values. Lack of funding tends to limit scope and quality in ways that, at times, can be disappointing.
So, is there a way for big budgets to feed originality rather than destroy it?
Perhaps Kickstarter is the way to go. Last month, a friend of mine told me about Broken Age, a project led by Tim Schafer, one of LucasArts’ former adventure game gurus. Shafer and his team asked for $400,000 to fund a “classic point-and-click adventure,” and they wound up with $3.34 million in pledges. That larger-than-expected windfall allowed them to build a game with killer art and top-notch voice talent, with folks like Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Pendleton Ward on board.
Last week, I sat down to play the first act of Broken Age. (The second act is coming later this year.) I made it last a couple of days, logging about four hours of play time in all—about what you’d expect from a blockbuster shooter’s single-player campaign these days. And for the first time in forever, I had actual fun playing a big-budget game.
In Broken Age, you alternate between the roles of Shay, a teenage boy who’s apparently alone on a spaceship full of overbearing robots, and Vella, a teenage girl from a coastal village where tradition calls for her impending sacrifice to a giant, Miyazaki-esque monster. There’s no apparent connection between these two characters at first, though the game lets you switch between them at will. Sick of talking to Vella’s grandmother about the monster? Step into Shay’s shoes and explore space a while. As the story progresses, however, the game offers up small hints about how Shay and Vella’s destinies are linked. More becomes clear during the act-one finale, which left me honestly (and pleasantly) surprised.
As far as gameplay mechanics go, Broken Age should be immediately familiar to any fan of LucasArts classics like Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. It should be easy enough to pick up by someone uninitiated, too. In that respect, I suppose one could make the case that Broken Age is just as cookie-cutter as Call of Duty—just with a multi-decade gap between cookie cuttings. Here, though, gameplay mechanics are very much incidental. They’re simply a delivery vehicle for the game’s top-notch writing, voice acting, and art.
Playing Broken Age feels surprisingly like watching a Pixar movie or an episode of Adventure Time. The humor is universal, likely to amuse kids as much as the older and more jaded among us, and the delivery is extremely polished. Modern shooters may feel like cut-rate action movies, but Broken Age doesn’t feel like a cut-rate cartoon. Hearing Wil Wheaton play a lumberjack terrified of talking trees (which, as it turns out, are real), or listening to Elijah Wood argue with a spaceship AI who calls him “sweetie,” you never get the sense that you’re wasting your time with sub-par entertainment. On the contrary, I would often sift through dialogue trees to make sure I didn’t miss out on any punchlines.
I’ve heard some folks complain that Broken Age is too straightforward, that its puzzles are too easy to solve, and I suppose that’s true. Someone with half a brain and some experience with adventure games probably won’t get stuck on any of the puzzles, at least not for very long. I certainly didn’t. But you know what? That’s okay. For me, playing Broken Age was about enjoying the ride, not about being challenged or validated. I love puzzles in the right context—I’m a big fan of the Myst series—but I’ve never enjoyed contrived riddles in point-and-click adventures. They’re often frustrating to solve, and they get in the way of the story.
Unchallenging as it may be, Broken Age feels like a breath of fresh air amid all the brown-and-gray levels, assault rifles, and overwrought military themes. And it gives me hope for future Kickstarter projects.
This path may not be easy for other indie developers to follow. With the funding drive that led to Broken Age‘s creation, Tim Schafer appealed to the nostalgia of a whole generation of folks—and he offered absolute expertise in the genre. (This is the guy who made Grim Fandango.) Few others in the industry can make such a claim. At the same time, there are other industry veterans like Tim with potentially great ideas that wouldn’t fly with major publishers. I’d love to see what someone like, say, Tom Hall could do with three million bucks and complete creative control.
More to the point, Broken Age has shown that a Kickstarter project can blossom into a high-quality piece of interactive entertainment. The more projects like Broken Age succeed, the more studios will feel encouraged to pursue unorthodox ideas. And I think that’s a good thing.