Saturday, January 18, 2014

What Broken Age is Trying to Say

After almost two years of waiting, we finally have Broken Age, the hot-mess of a Kickstarter campaign that earned 825% of it's original asking price. About a year after development, Schafer announces that they're having to split the game in half because they ran out of money. They would release the first half on Steam's Early Access program, then use proceeds of the sales from the first half to fund the second half, to be released for free for those who have the first half. Just a few days before launch, they change it from Early Access to a Season Pass, but still split.

People weren't necessarily pissed about the release schedule of the game, but rather, outright enraged. Tim's "business practice" of taking in nearly $3 million more than what he was asking, eating it all up for a point-and-click, then asking for more money through the sales of the first half of the game. To all, it was very questionable; why take all this money, then need more? As a recent (selective) admirer of Tim - since BrĂ¼tal Legend - I've never noticed it before, but apparently, this shit happens all the time with him, which is why no big publisher wanted to touch this game: it was rife with potentially bad karma.

If you keep reading beyond the break, please keep in mind that I spoil the fuck out of this game, so if you read further, you're either a complete badass and just don't give a shit, or you've beaten the game. Either way, you've been warned.

Regardless of your stance of the man and how he makes games, the games he does make are fantastic, and Broken Age is one of them. The game does start with giving you the chance to either start playing as either Vella or Shay, in an almost seemingly pre-industrial setting, with Shay in some sort of spaceship. Regardless of how you start, you end up at the same ending, making it a bit of a ruse. I chose to play as Shay, and after the droll of his life of just waking up, downing the same crappy cereal, and having to (re)play these manufactured missions that "mom" has drummed up such hype and emergency behind them, it's almost boring for the player. "Ice cream avalanche" and "aftermath of a hug-attack" were enough to make eyebrows raise on my face, and I was almost ready to switch to Vella, or just quit the game altogether.

After playing through the four, very quick missions (and cramming on the space bar to skip the repeated dialogue), I ended up seeing an opportunity in the one mission that wouldn't leave the list of available missions: the "runaway" train. I raised the bridge, let the train come down the last hill, and quickly pulled it back up, allowing them to crash into the spikey ravine below. Then something goes very dark...

Shay started laughing.

I watched as he was moments from death, ready to leave the boring monotony of his typical "day to day" life. I've seen that same emotion in my own life, living the same thing day in and day out, with nothing exciting to push you forward; finding a way to break that cycle is nothing more than your typical "sweet, sweet release." Of course, "mom" planned for this, and the spikes are nothing but foam. After landing, you encounter Marek, a bipedal fox, asking you to meet him later if you're ready for something new.

Meeting up with him that night, you discover he wants you for a rescue mission: distress signals are lighting up across the galaxy, and he needs you to save them. You reach the first destination, and save two of the three victims, before Marek demands that you leave; Shay doesn't want that, and needs to save the last one. Marek forces your hand, and leaves before an enemy ship takes you down. The next destination, Shay takes command, and ends up rescuing all of them. The last creature gets a bit funky, and you end up dropping them. The final place, you get to the last one again, but you end up being attacked by some force, which causes your ship to go down, and Shay is knocked unconscious, and you leave him outside the ship's hull, with his helmet knocked off.

* * *

You then pick up as Vella, who is about to take part in some sort of "coming of age" ceremony. It is quickly revealed as a village's sacrifice to Mog Chothra, a sort of god that demands sacrifices at each annual pass, or the village is decimated. During the event, you decide to get a case of the fuck-its, go ape-shit on god, and begin to attack him. You hi-jack a bird, and ride it to a neighboring village, who Mog has already been to, but chose to not take one girl, for whatever reason. Leaving this area, you find another village, but has yet to be visited by the Mog. This village also has a shrine dedicated to the Dead Eye God, and after gaining entrance to it, you find someone who looks to be in their 40s...dressed just like Shay.

He quickly finds out he's been cryo-frozen for 300 years, and is part of something known as Project Dandelion...the same operation as Shay. Vella has been so fixated on a weapon to take down Mog, that they figure a way to reverse the workings of this ancient ship to attack it when it comes around. When it finally does, you end up using the death ray against it, and take it down. Out of the gaping maw of the down creature stumbles Shay, in all his glory. Shay and Vella get in to a brief tussle, then end up swapping; Vella is trapped in the Mog, and Shay outside of it.

* * *

It's quickly determined the meaning behind the name of the game, "Broken Age," and I was able to pull three different meanings of this name.

Both Vella and Shay are trying their damnedest to break the tradition of their daily routines, that they end up risking their security and lives for the bettering of themselves. The "age" that they both live in are also shattered - or broken - when each characters inadvertently swap settings; Vella in a spaceship, Shay on this Earth-like planet.

It wasn't until a few hours later in the car driving to dinner that the final understanding of the name dawned on me. The first galaxy that he "saved" people from was the cloud city of Meriloft, where the one girl left behind was the one entity that Marek demanded Shay not rescue. The next one was Vella's, where after rescuing the last one, the ship began to be attacked. This was Vella making her voice be heard, and not be eaten alive. Finally, your last trip, resulting in the ship going down after it takes a massive hit, was Vella attacking the ship with the reworked death ray from the Dead Eye God's temple. Shay, thinking he was rescuing people inside a spaceship, was actually a worshiped and revered god that ate girls as part of a ceremonial ritual to save their respective towns.

Shay's ship was Mog Chothra.

My understanding of the name of the game was breaking our perception - the gamer's perception - of what the game was truly doing, and what it had been making us do. Shay's story was us mindlessly following orders, completely unaware of what was truly happening. It was very close to BioShock's own "Would You Kindly" mantra, yet you knew you were killing people in Rapture; you were told you were rescuing those from these villages. Shay, rather, was told he was rescuing people. You can see this as gamers blindly following a directive, simply because we're told to. Vella, on the other hand, was suffering the repercussions of those actions, and trying to do what she could in her limited power to right the wrongs. Shay represents gamers doing things without a second thought, while Vella represents those who question what's considered "tradition."

Now, I know you'll be thinking "Shay was fighting to break tradition!" While true, he ended up doing the same thing he had been doing: another goddamned mission. The only difference here is that, rather than rescuing fuzzy-wuzzy creatures made of yarn, he was rescuing digital representations of creatures. Vella truly broke tradition; she didn't just eaten up by another monster, she "killed" the creature she had been taught to worship and willingly sacrifice herself to, and didn't go off to sacrifice herself to another creature.

As Shay, it had us inside the monster, purportedly rescuing these helpless creatures. As Vella, we were playing the one that had shaken up the monster to the point of retreat. One side, we were told we were rescuing. On the other, we were fearing for our lives. It was all a case of "it depends on your point of view". Were we rescuing, or surviving? Don't even get me started on the Dead Eye God's temple, as, while I originally thought it was Shay, turns out to be a completely different person, but fighting for the same "purpose": to find a new home.

Broken Age, for that complexity, is a great game, one that should have shipped as an entire package. Act 2 shouldn't be that far behind, but jesus fuck, I can't wait to finish this story.