The Two Conflicting Acts of Broken Age
I think Broken Age has got to be the game I’m most confused what to think about. Back in the day, I gave some money to its Kickstarter campaign, at the time known just as Double Fine Adventure. And when Act 1 got released, I was absolutely blown away. It was amazing. Though, because my save files were somehow lost, when Act 2 was released I didn’t play it. That is, until I got recently the final backer reward – the collector’s box for Broken Age. It prompted me to binge the full game from start to finish. And… let’s just say, Act 2 is not as good as Act 1, both narrative-wise and gameplay-wise. And that’s mildly putting.
I’m so disappointed by Act 2 that I think I’ve spent 3 or 4 days constantly complaining to everyone I know about it. Yeah, this is a matter of opinion. So this post I’m not going to talk about my thoughts on how the character arcs set up in Act 1 weren’t fulfilled, or how Act 2 jumps the shark with a bunch of strange twists or motivations. But I do want to discuss what I think are glaring design issues with the game, Act 2 specifically, and why they’re such a big problem. Be warned, there will be spoilers!
1 – Puzzles start getting based on player knowledge, not character knowledge.
In Act 1, you don’t need to switch to the other character to figure out how to get past the obstacle that your currently selected character is facing. Everything is based on character knowledge.
However, in Act 2, after Shay and Vella switch places and environments, this principle gets thrown out the window. There’s a number of puzzles where to solve something as Shay, you need to find information that only Vella learns/knows, and vice versa. The biggest culprit of this are all the robot rewiring puzzles (I think there’s about 5 of them?) where one character knows solution to the rewiring or how to rewire a robot in a certain way, but it’s the other person who needs that knowledge to do something.
The big issue with this is not even the fact of such puzzles existing (though the rewiring puzzles in particular are annoying as hell), but that it was introduced in the middle of the game. Broken Age tries to hint that there’s some special vague connection between Shay and Vella in Act 2… but it just doesn’t work because of how jarring these types of puzzles are after playing through Act 1.
2 – Puzzle logic changes.
It doesn’t help that the logic one needs to use in Act 2 is much different than the one that has to be used in Act 1. While in Act 1 the inventory is still essentially a ‘vague limitless place behind the back of the character’, the principles are more grounded to reality, even in fantastic environments.
For example, there’s a town located in the clouds. And you need to bring some heavy golden eggs to one location. But they’re so heavy that you instantly fall through the clouds if you’ve got one of those eggs in the inventory (you can’t die in the game, so you’re taken back up to where you fell from, but the egg is not in your possession anymore). So you need to get some special shoes that spread your weight across a bigger area.
As you can see, while all this happens in a fantastic world, there’s a sense of physicality to it, and the logic not only makes sense to us, there are characters who can explain to you some of it if you ask them.
Compare it to Act 2, where you need to make a giant python a part of your inventory as it’s a solution to a puzzle (and you do so by letting it strangle you until it’s tired and can’t do anything more). Now, I think the obstacle on its own was quite clever. But in Broken Age, it doesn’t fit.
The moment when I accidentally stumbled upon the ‘solution’ to that puzzle because I was stuck and just didn’t know what else to do was so frustrating to me, because after playing the game for several hours I didn’t even think about this as being one of the possibilities. ‘Oh I’m just gonna walk around with a huge live snake that tried to kill me and will probably do so again.’
3 – Puzzles are unstructured.
I think that Act 1 of Broken Age very cleverly handles its puzzle structure (and therefore – narrative structure, as these things are very interconnected). First: you aren’t just thrown into a big open world, areas open up bit by bit, allowing you to properly learn the current situation and what you need to do and what can be useful later. Then, the puzzles and goals are very smartly divided into long-term, intermediate and short-term goals that the players use to build connections.
Let’s take for example a section from Vella’s Act 1 part. She’s in a cloud town, wants to kill Mog Chothra – that’s the global long-term goal, her motivation. Her intermediate goal is to get out of the cloud town. We find out how we can do it – by breaking a platform holding a huge ladder into the sky, making that ladder go down to the ground. And now players start building more short-term connections – okay, to do that we need something heavy. We find out that golden eggs are heavy. Now we need to find several of those eggs and bring them to that location. But we can’t hold them without falling down through clouds. Now we need to find out how to not fall down through the clouds. And after that we can go through the whole chain of puzzles, completing the intermediate goal, feeling good about ourselves, and expanding the playable space (by unlocking a new area) and getting another intermediate goal to which we build short-term connections. You never really have too many things to do.
Now let’s compare it to Shay’s Act 2 part which happens in the same gameplay space where Vella was in Act 1. So you get a global goal – repair a ship that crashed a long time ago. And as soon as you get that global goal, you get five intermediate goals at the same time – that being each element you need to fix the ship. And all those intermediate goals are spread out through the whole already opened area (each intermediate goal having a bunch of short-term puzzles connected to it), and you can’t even use your pre-existing knowledge as the whole context of what’s happening in the world has changed, so you need to rediscover it all over again.
So if Act 1 carefully handles how you build logical connections to know of your goals and advance through the game and the puzzles… Act 2 just throws everything at you, while also changing the logic and nature of how the puzzles are set up and used.
4 – Puzzles don’t push narrative and world building as much.
In Act 1, puzzles are very deliberate in a sense that they either advance the narrative or help with world building. Using the same section examples from last point, let’s say the golden eggs – they’re not just some golden eggs, they’re given out to older more senile birds living in the cloud town who’ve lost their real eggs or didn’t have one in the first place (but think they do). Not to mention that the final use of the eggs is a ‘take that’ subversion acted upon a cult leader’s offering space. Getting shoes to spread the weight shows how people live on the clouds. But you also learn more about Mog Chothra, get subtle hints about the forthcoming twist, and advance your goals further.
In contrast, while Act 2 also has these kinds of puzzles, there’s also a lot of obstacles just for the sake of there being something to overcome. Like the pH 7 puzzle. You need to do a bunch of actions to raise pH of a solution used to fix the hull of the ship to EXACTLY 7. That… is absolutely useless and not interesting information. And there’s quite a lot of that in Act 2.
But… the truth is, all these criticisms, they can work out as valid design approaches. The problem is that Act 1 had one overall direction and vision, and Act 2 clearly had a different one – making a very sudden switch in terms of what kind of a game you’re playing. And that creates inconsistency, because you now have to replace all the logic and principles that you’ve been using previously, and the transition is not smooth at all and feels very frustrating. The game is not one whole anymore.
Maybe this has to do with some of the feedback after Act 1’s release. Even though the general reception was very positive, there has been plenty of comments that it doesn’t feel enough like a classic adventure game. Though, honestly, that could mean anything. And yet, it seems clear to me that the developers tried to act upon the feedback. But it doesn’t work out I believe.
Broken Age would’ve been a much better game and a wholesome experience if Act 2 followed the same direction and vision that Act 1 did. The developers could infuse Act 2 with just enough classic adventure elements to be consistent with the vision and try to please the fans, but they totally changed tracks instead and the final product is… disappointing.
All that said, I don’t regret backing the game’s Kickstarter. And Broken Age is certainly historically significant in how it changed the Kickstarter space, as well as approach to Kickstarter, and also showed different pros and cons of that funding system. And I want to thank Double Fine for the game, and for the collector’s edition box reward that was sent out. I will proudly keep the Broken Age box on my shelf, even if I do like the full potential the game showed in its Act 1 more than the final result shown by Act 2.
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