Whether or not you’ve played Double Fine games like Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, you’ve probably heard of the company’s outrageously successful Kickstarter campaign. Last year Double Fine shattered its crowd-funding goal of $400,000 by raising an unprecedented $3.3 million of publisher-free money from fans over the course of a month. Double Fine received the cash on good faith that it would deliver a classic, 2D adventure game like the ones the company’s founder, Tim Schafer, worked on at LucasArts in the ‘90s. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle.
Up until now, the only public glimpses of Broken Age have been reserved for backers of the project. A documentary team, 2 Player Productions, has helped Double Fine maintain transparency on the project via episodic updates. Team members also post exclusive content like concept art or production schedules in special forums. The game’s groundbreaking path through development has lent a unique significance to the project. The gaming public has seemingly latched the potential success of the entire crowd-funding model to the game, and Double Fine’s reputation rests on what it does with the fan-generated funding.
Now the developer is ready to show the game off and give gamers something tangible to hang their adventuring hopes on. I visited the Double Fine studio in San Francisco to play Broken Age and chat with Schafer and producer Greg Rice.
[This article originally appeared in Game Informer #241]
Takes the Cake
At the start of the game, players choose whether they want to play as Space Boy or Sacrifice Girl (these are placeholder names; Double Fine hasn’t nailed down the characters’ names). Both are teenagers trying to break out of the questionable everyday routines that have been forced upon them. Space Boy’s tale starts on a spaceship where daily tasks are coordinated by a coddling AI, and Sacrifice Girl’s story begins in a beautiful village that hosts a grisly ritual. Players can switch between the two characters’ separate stories on the fly.
Sacrifice Girl wakes up on a hillside to her sister calling her back to her hometown of Sugar Bunting. A surprise party is waiting for Sacrifice Girl when she arrives back home. She has been selected for the Maidens Feast, which sounds pleasant enough at first. Everyone is vague regarding what the celebration entails, but they assure her that being selected is a major honor. Sacrifice Girl is fitted with a beautiful dress, which attendants begin lathering with cake frosting. Being decorated may not be direct cause for alarm in a town of confectioners, but then she’s plopped into a gigantic, ball gown-shaped cake. The Maidens Feast is actually a ritual sacrifice to the gigantic beast Mog Chothra, and Sacrifice Girl is the main course.
Broken Age’s heroine doesn’t fit the mold of your typical video game damsel, so I asked Schafer where her inspiration comes from. “One strong influence is [Hayao] Miyazaki’s movies, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Kiki’s Delivery Service,” he says. “They have strong, young, female characters [who are] very resilient and resourceful. It’s not a big deal like in Brave. Even in the trailer for Brave she’s like ‘I want my freedom!’ and she’s fighting against all these things. In Miyazaki movies it’s more understated. She’s not making a big deal out of it. She’s just a strong, independent-minded girl.”
Naturally, Sacrifice Girl questions why Sugar Bunting goes through such great pains to appease Mog Chothra year after year instead of fighting back. Her radical inquiries don’t win over any allies, so she takes matters into her own hands. From here, players explore the saccharine village, talk to its denizens, and solve a series of puzzles leading up to a confrontation with Mog Chothra. I won’t spoil what happens, but eventually Sacrifice Girl rides off into the sky on the back of a big, friendly bird named Jesse. The day is brighter for our leading lady, but she may have doomed her hometown with the monster’s terrible vengeance by breaking tradition.
Above: Watch the teaser trailer for Broken Age.
Head in the Clouds
My hands-on time with the PC version of Broken Age begins after Jesse drops Sacrifice Girl off on a beautiful settlement among the clouds. The painterly, pastel world of Meriloft is filled with nests, eggs, and the people that tend to them. Jesse settles into a large nest nearby, but she’s agitated because somehow during the rescue flight she lost her own egg. A quaint shop is set up near the top of the cloud where a young girl cobbles specialized footwear. A guidepost sits in the center of the cloud, with signs that read Tree, Tram, and Elder pointing in different directions. I click toward two characters standing beneath the sign and Sacrifice Girl trots across the clouds’ surface, kicking up fluff. Dillydallying too long on the cloud makes her sink, so for now I deliberately walk between solid platforms.
One of the colonists introduces himself as W’lter. These cloud-dwelling people appreciate lightness in all forms, even when it comes to the letters in their names. Sacrifice Girl shocks W’lter and Ch’t with the tale of her defiance against Mog Chothra. Meriloft has a Maidens Feast of their own, and they can’t comprehend why anyone would harm the hungry creature.
Navigating through these conversation options feels identical to chatting up the humorous NPCs of Schafer’s past games. Players choose from a selection of questions and answers on the screen to uncover hints or obtain useful items. The deeper you dive in conversation, the more enjoyable talking with the quirky characters becomes.
“Dialogue trees are always one of those things in adventure games where I wonder if it should be done a different way,” Schafer says. “People have done this in all kinds of different ways, but I want this game to have the elements that were promised to the Kickstarter backers.”
After chatting with W’lter and Ch’t, Sacrifice Girl learns she must discover the location of the monster’s next sacrifice, infiltrate that feast as the chosen maiden, and find a weapon to fight him with. As in classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Full Throttle, players can tackle this to-do list in any order. But first we need to figure out how to walk across clouds without sinking.
Sacrifice Girl visits the cobbler’s shop north of the sign and begins chatting her up. After a brief conversation, she accidentally causes the shoemaker to drop her cobbling knife. Guilt-stricken, Sacrifice Girl hands over one of her few inventory items: a frosting knife. In traditional adventure-game fashion, she gets something in exchange for her kindness. An oversized pair of feathery cloud shoes falls into my inventory. They’re too big for our heroine, but the cobbler promises when Sacrifice Girl hits 40 she’ll appreciate a comfortable pair of shoes.
The people of Meriloft have a symbiotic relationship with the local bird population. Not only do they look after their avian friends’ eggs, they also theme their own Maidens Feast after them with ornate bird cages (literally cages shaped like birds). Sacrifice Girl encounters a maiden who wasn’t plucked from one of the festive cages littered around the sacrificial territory. The would-be offering has a backward case of Stockholm syndrome – being passed over for the ritual has shaken her confidence. Since the dejected damsel won’t need them, she offers her pink cloud shoes to Sacrifice Girl – a perfect match. Now she can carry around larger objects on her head – like the big, golden eggs scattered around the area – without immediately dropping through the clouds. But don’t worry if you do, because helpful patrol birds automatically interrupt your fall.
Of all the elements of older adventure games that haven’t aged well, dying and getting irreversibly stuck top the list. Players won’t have to worry about either in Broken Age. Unlike Maniac Mansion or Sierra’s King’s Quest titles, progress won’t be halted by unexpected fatalities or players painting themselves into corners. Double Fine wants your wit and curiosity to be the only things standing between you and success.
|Delivering on a Kickstarter Promise|
Developing a game solely with crowd-funded money is a new proposition in the video game industry. Pioneering comes with its own discoveries and difficulties, which Double Fine and 2 Player Productions are capturing in a documentary series. Episode 7 of that series reveals that the developer is on course to overspend on the game’s $3.3 million budget raised via Kickstarter.
Broken Age was originally planned to be completed in April, but according to the documentary the schedule has been extended until September. The costs of a lengthened development have forced Double Fine to search for more money. Double Fine still welcomes supporters that missed the Kickstarter deadline, but in the documentary Isa Stamos, director of product development, affirms that the studio either has to dramatically increase funding or reduce the scope of the game. In Episode 8, Double Fine’s vice president of business development, Justin Bailey, reveals that profits from the release of Brütal Legend for PC will almost entirely feed into Broken Age.
Despite the desire to stick within the confines of the Kickstarter money, Double Fine is facing the reality many developers face in the middle of production. Facing setbacks and asking publishers for more time or money is common in the video game industry, but possibly going over budget with loads of crowd-funded money is new territory.
“I think that it’s also important to keep in mind that there are other impacts besides just funding the game,” says producer Greg Rice in the documentary. “If we now go get a publisher for this game, it like suddenly voids everything we’ve said about the project and everything we’re trying to do.”
“Ultimately, the number one decider on the schedule is when we feel like we have a game that we’re proud of,” Rice says.
Schafer echoes that sentiment.
“Most of the backers I think would be unanimous in saying they want a great game,” Schafer says. “They’re trusting me to use the judgment of how much to cut that still makes it a great game, and they don’t want us to cut more than that.”
Rice also says that budgets are dynamic, meaning Double Fine hasn’t technically run out of Kickstarter money yet. “Budgets are live documents,” Rice says. “They’re our best guess at what the expenses on a game’s development will look like, but as the game’s design ferments and the realities of production unfold, we constantly re-evaluate things and adjust. It’s a process that’s really common to game production and one we’re not unfamiliar with.”
Above: Watch Game Informer's Tim Turi visit the Double Fine office in this clip of the Double Fine Adventure documentary from 2 Player Productions.
Navigating a Puzzling Situation
With a suitable pair of cloud shoes on Sacrifice Girl’s feet, I’m prepared to explore Meriloft. I head back to the central area and visit the other branching paths.
Double Fine is making a rich, beautiful world it wants players to take time exploring, but the developer respects your time. While backtracking used to be an accepted way to explore expansive game worlds, it has become a dirty word in modern game development.
“There’s always backtracking in adventure games, but ever since Full Throttle we’ve done that thing where you can double click on a door to get across a room really fast,” Schafer says. “If you make it that you can get across the world really fast after you find out what to do with that golden egg and you get there quick, that’s when I think it’s okay to backtrack.”
This feature comes in handy when trying to piece together one of Meriloft’s many puzzles. Writing about Double Fine’s clever puzzles is tricky without giving them all away, but I’ll give you the gist. I scoured the misty world for valuables to offer a deity, which earned me a meeting with an enlightened priest who has an idea for how to harm Mog Chothra. I put one of Isaac Newton’s laws to work via another too-generous offering on a rickety altar, granting me access to a forest below with trees that produce tasty sap. I also gained access to Jesse’s lost egg by intentionally plummeting through the clouds a few times and exploring the roots of a big fruit tree growing into Meriloft.
One of my favorite puzzles – and also one of the simplest – involves a retractable ladder, a high ledge, and the oversized cloud shoes. The accessibility of Broken Age’s gameplay became apparent while solving this puzzle early on. In the PC version, dragging the cursor to the bottom of the screen causes the inventory to pop up. From here, you can try dragging the ladder towards the ledge. A subtle glow indicates that the ledge is interactive. Sacrifice Girl props up the ladder and starts climbing, but she and it both fall through the clouds. Let’s try that again. Opening up my inventory once more, I drag the big cloud shoes onto the ladder, which combine to create a new item. I drag the stylish new ladder onto the ledge, and she begins climbing again. The additional footwear prevents the ladder from sinking through the clouds. Once on the ledge, Sacrifice Girl gains access to a tram that leads to the city of Shellmound, where the next Maidens Feast takes place.
A Pioneer of Point-and-Click Adventure Games Departs
Ron Gilbert, creator of Maniac Mansion and The Cave, recently left Double Fine. We asked producer Greg Rice how that might affect the game.
“We’re sad to see Ron go, but it won’t change much on Broken Age,” Rice says. “Ron wasn’t working directly on the game, just acting as advisor/consultant/old wise man. He’s promised to still make time to play the game and give us feedback when we ask, so the game will still benefit from that.”
Playing on a tablet is slightly different. Players still tap and drag objects the same way, but scanning the environment for interactive objects is changing. Double Fine is experimenting with a mechanic where players glide their finger across the screen on the hunt for points of interest. The protagonist would then chase after the cursor in this mode. This solution sounds feasible, but Double Fine is still discussing its implementation. I can confirm, however, that the game looks great on the iPad’s high-resolution display.
Some adventure game fans may balk at how Broken Age simplifies interaction, but Schafer reminds us that the genre began reducing extraneous options years ago. “We used to have words on the bottom of the screen, then we replaced them with icons,” Schafer says. “Then Full Throttle was full-screen, and you’d pick your verbs with this kind of verb-wheel. Then with Grim Fandango you could pick up and examine an object. But more and more with modern adventure games, like Machinarium, there’s a general -interact-with-object command.”
Don’t think the streamlined interaction means you can breeze through all the puzzles. Double Fine is still debating whether to incorporate a built-in clue system. “That’s one of the things I liked about Tim’s old games,” Rice says. “The writing is so good that you want to listen to it all and hear what they’re saying. It should be giving you the hints there.”
The Meriloft section of the game isn’t finished yet, but at this point in development Schafer’s writing does a great job of steering you in the right direction while coaxing out a smile. Sacrifice Girl’s story continues past this point as she explores other locales on her quest to stop Mog Chothra. While she’s busy kicking convention in the face, another soul is experiencing his own rite of passage.
Pod Bay Bores
The other side of Broken Age’s story involves a young boy (called Space Boy for now) alone on a spaceship. A motherly AI watches over him, automates his day-to-day necessities, and plans distracting kiddie tasks to give him a sense of accomplishment. The ship even has a fake, Fisher Price-style control console designed to give him the illusion of piloting through space. Though the AI is oblivious, Space Boy has outgrown the childish trappings, which shows plainly on his disinterested face.
Schafer cites sci-fi stories like Moon, Solaris, and others as inspiration for Space Boy’s isolated existence. “I love stories about people alone on spaceships,” Schafer says. “It’s just a weird fantasy of mine. Just like the computer taking care of everything or automated systems. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Sunshine.”
The early bits of Space Boy‘s story involve enacting this nursery school rigmarole and experiencing the life he’s lived for years. The AI, who refers to Space Boy as Captain Sweetie, arranges a series of themed adventures that were probably thrilling when he was eight. One such trip takes us to Spike Canyon, a cartoonish mountainside where a runaway train is speeding a group of Space Boy’s screaming stuffed animal friends to certain doom. The player must somehow make a giant sleeping mountain stick out its tongue as a bridge. Other pretend crises include an avalanche in Ice Cream Valley or a distress signal from the vessel Friendship Circle, where we see the aftermath of a “hug attack.” Hidden among one of Space Boy’s juvenile tasks is an opportunity to hack the ship’s controls and break free of the cycle.
Given the parallel nature of the Space Boy and Sacrifice Girl’s coming-of-age storylines, we believe their paths will cross in the end. When asked for confirmation, Schafer coyly says that they might.
“By saying that they might and being cagey about it, I’m kind of saying they do,” he says. “So maybe they don’t. No. They don’t. How about that? What I’ve always said is they’re trying to navigate the space between them. It’s a little vague.”
No matter how the pair’s stories play out, Broken Age is shaping up to deliver more than just a new, old-school adventure game. The slice of the game Double Fine showed me is still early in development, but the seeds for something special are there. The placeholder dialogue recorded by the staff made me chuckle – a testament to Schafer’s writing. The aesthetic style is already stunning without the final touches, and looks sharp in high definition. Double Fine still has work to do, but if Broken Age stays the course we’re all in for a treat.