A Decade of Broken Age: A Game-Changing Milestone for the Gaming Industry

Exciting games are undeniably a significant phenomenon worldwide. Cinematic adventures have long been popular, particularly since Telltale Games first emerged and started acquiring licenses for massive franchises. However, the traditional point-and-click style of games spent years in obscurity, and the commercially underwhelming release of Grim Fandango in 1998 signaled the end of an era. Nevertheless, the modern age has brought Monkey Island back in full form, a series of Broken Sword sequels and remasters, and even a highly praised fourth installment of Syberia. This is an opportune time to revisit Broken Age, a game whose first act was released a decade ago and undoubtedly played a significant role in the revival of its genre.

Broken Age is inseparable from its Kickstarter origins. Some members of the development team at Double Fine recently discussed the launch of the Kickstarter with Game Informer, and their focus was primarily on that part of the process rather than the end result. This is understandable given that they were taking a huge leap, one that generated a massive response. Asking gamers to support the creation of an old-school adventure seemed like a gamble in 2012. Game Director Tim Schafer was already a major name in the history of adventure games, and Double Fine had created a couple of cult classics like Psychonauts. However, the point-and-click genre had seemed “inactive” for many gamers for over a decade. The outpouring of around $3.5 million dollars during Broken Age’s Kickstarter campaign took the developers and the wider industry by surprise.

However, Broken Age has also faced lingering negativity from gamers, which for a vocal minority has turned into bitter resentment towards figures like Schafer. Some criticism is valid, as the project isn’t always engaging and sometimes lacks the scale of its predecessors. Nevertheless, it’s a one-sided criticism that overlooks the many wonderful aspects of Broken Age, from its timeless visuals to the consistently amusing writing, especially considering that its budget was only a fraction of that of its contemporary blockbusters. The game has been created with passion that shines through almost constantly. This passion has also given a much-needed boost to a genre that backers clearly hoped to revive.

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It’s fantastic to see point-and-click adventures once again an important part of gaming discourse, not only for the fervent fans but for players whose attention might typically be elsewhere. Gamers of a certain age grew up with adventures, from text-based games to LucasArt’s forays into three dimensions, but many people coming of age today wouldn’t have been born when LucasArts released its last game. The success of Broken Age has not only allowed for long overdue sequels but has also led to the remastering of classics like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. These classic titles are no longer relics sought out by the nostalgic or curious, but are more accessible than ever to gamers across different devices.

This is not just a reflection on the impact of Broken Age, but also an appreciation of a truly exceptional game. Amidst all the drama about whether it delivered on its early promises, there has been plenty of critical acclaim. It’s a pity that there was so much pressure during its development: proving crowdfunding’s potential, reviving a beloved genre, and living up to Tim Schafer’s legacy. The last was perhaps the greatest challenge, given that his work – from The Secret of Monkey Island to the aforementioned Grim Fandango – has been defining for many people. It’s unfair to burden Broken Age with all that weight since it has so much to offer on its own terms. Ambition is interwoven throughout the entire game, and the execution is perhaps even more impressive a decade after the initial release.

2024 shows the story as more relevant than ever in its exploration of worlds where adults are deliberately isolated from reality and young people are desperate to assert themselves. It focuses on two playable teenagers: a girl named Vella who lives in a fantasy world where teenage girls must ritually sacrifice themselves to a roaming monster, and a boy named Shay who is alone on a spaceship (apart from AI and robots) and is forced to live a sterile, risk-averse life. These struggles mirror our world, where society seems willing to let future generations suffer while simultaneously limiting their choices with helicopter parenting and overbearing government. The fantastical framing of their tales allows for serious messages to be explored without leaving gamers feeling browbeaten or depressed.

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Schafer’s narrative is driven by meaning, and wit and heart are present at every turn. Each character, no matter how minor, has a distinct personality and enjoyable dialogue, making the game feel like a celebration of people in all their variety. It’s frequently humorous as well, whether from Shay’s high-pitched talking plushies or a knowing response from trying to combine a couple of random items. The script feels like a return to 1998 in the best way possible, with today’s serious, cinema-styled protagonists replaced by quality writing, and with humor that seems absent from the modern gaming landscape.

It’s also wonderful that the story puts women and people of color in prominent roles. This never feels forced or token representation, but rather a natural reflection of the world in which we live. Schafer’s creation feels full of a range of different people with different behaviors, and perhaps this is also a logical outcome of the nature of adventure games. Adventure games are made much more compelling, as per life, when there’s variety in the people you meet. However, there’s also undoubtedly credit due to Schafer, who clearly has plenty of natural curiosity, evidenced by his previous adventure as one of video gaming’s first major portrayals of the Day of the Dead.

While there are many elements that carry on from Schafer and Double Fine’s illustrious history, this is a uniquely beautiful game. Its slightly abstract 2D characters and environments are stunning to look at, being rich in color, detail, and energy. It probably feels more alive than a 3D counterpart. The success here in creating a vibrant, living world surely must have influenced Ron Gilbert’s decision to give a similar style to 2022’s near-universally praised The Return to Monkey Island.

Production values are generally very high for the game, and one of the particularly obvious areas is the star-studded voice cast. They seamlessly integrate into the game, however, and feel like voice actors first and celebrities second. It’s a testament to the respect that Double Fine has for their own work and that the actors working with them share, for the game not to bend around actors like Elijah Wood and Jack Black. Having such big names involved in such a professional project, though, lends an extra bit of credibility to gaming for people on the industry’s edge. One of the biggest upcoming adventures this year is Open Roads, and it seems unlikely it’d have Hollywood names like Kaitlyn Dever and Keri Russell without this showcase of how well it can work.Image #3

Of course, it can’t be ignored that Broken Age is literally a game of two halves. We’re marking the 10th anniversary of the first act, as the second dropped a year later, with the latter, unfortunately, being received less favorably. Wit and charm still flow throughout the game, but its back half reuses assets, doesn’t move the narrative much, and is bogged down by illogical puzzling. Perhaps most unflattering is that transition from amusing, simple puzzles to opaque ones. It feels like a slip backwards from a modern point-and-click to the frustration that marred some of the genre’s heyday. Together, these issues feel like a game retracing its steps due to the disappearing budget, which undoubtedly added to the frustration for backers.

The apparent controversy surrounding Broken Age is simply the result of being a Kickstarter project, with gamers investing not just their expectations but also their own hard-earned cash. Various aspects rankled, from Monkey Island head honcho Ron Gilbert leaving Double Fine to the variable quality of the end product. Many of these issues would normally be hidden behind closed doors, leaving the developers not just grappling with this unique form of funding but also with how to handle fans feeling semi-legitimate anger. It’s clear that development could have been handled differently, yet the level of criticism aimed at the team doesn’t feel fair given the challenges they faced.

Ten years on, the drama of the game’s development seems mostly of historic interest. It’s a game with flaws, certainly, but this feels like a minor detail when there’s so much charm, a compelling story, and a genuinely unforgettable cast of characters. It begs to be replayed and appreciated more than once. Its optimistic view of young people – and everyone’s potential to pull together – is a message that can’t be stressed enough in uncertain times. Most of all, the hardworking team behind it is worthy of recognition for the AAA quality work they put in despite a budget dwarfed by the industry’s biggest names. Broken Age now deserves to be appreciated for its many merits and the fire in its belly that still powers the industry today.

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