Broken Age, Part 1: the reconsideration

In my last post, I’d said that I’d been struggling to stay engaged with Broken Age, the long-awaited, Kickstarter’d 2D point-and-click adventure game by Tim Schafer and Double Fine.  And I went off into some tangents about my personal feelings towards the Kickstarter process, and whether or not I was still interested in adventure games in general.  (That discussion, unfortunately, did not quite get to the point where I could find a way to include a link to Old Man Murray’s immortal classic “Death of Adventure Games”, so I’m including it here simply because I can’t not include a link to it if I’m talking about adventure games.)

I’d mentioned that I’d reached a point in both stories where the path was no longer linear – I’ll try to avoid spoilers here the best I can, but basically in Vella’s story I’d reached the 2nd (“cloud”) town and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, and in Shay’s story I had been given a set of three urgent tasks but no real idea how I should tackle them.  I found myself feeling a little intimidated, I suppose, and when I get intimidated I sometimes tend to shut down, as opposed to persevering.

Well, it turns out that all I really needed was 24 hours to clear my head and come at these things with fresh eyes, and I ended up finishing both stories (Shay first, then Vella – which, now that I think about it, is probably the best way to do it) shortly thereafter.

Broken Age’s puzzles (such as they are) aren’t necessarily difficult or obtuse; your inventory is relatively small, and most of the time your objects interact with other objects in ways that make sense.  (As much as I dearly love Grim Fandango, there were a number of puzzles that simply broke my brain in half – I’m remembering a puzzle in the first act involving bread crumbs and an inflatable balloon.)  I suppose I was intimidated simply because when it comes to classic adventure games, I like to get things right, and I keep forgetting that there’s no real way to achieve a fail state.  At the end of the day, there was really only one puzzle that I couldn’t figure out without the help of the internet (i.e., using the crochet needle to trick the Weaver into going to a forbidden destination – I knew the crochet needle was involved, but I couldn’t figure out the solution – and in fact I still can’t, because the walkthrough I used didn’t actually explain why it worked).  Everything else was, for the most part, relatively straightforward.

What I really want to talk about, of course, is the cliffhanger at the end.  I won’t, of course, unless we take this into the comment section below.  Suffice it to say, I think it’s a pretty neat trick – and when I think back on certain elements of Shay’s story, there’s quite a lot of telegraphing – and now I absolutely cannot wait for Part 2.

Beyond that, the game is an absolute joy.  Marvelous voice acting with a very charming and witty script, outstanding art direction, a beautiful and evocative orchestral score.  This is, in fact, what I was hoping for when I backed this thing in the first place; I’m glad I finally came around to appreciate it.

Weekend Recap: Nintendo, Broken Age, a lack of fantastic newness

1.  The big news story on Friday was Nintendo’s horrible, no-good, very bad earnings report, and the subsequent discussion, hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth on the big sites and Twitter was more or less focused on how Nintendo can turn things around.  I sometimes feel like I’m the wrong person to comment about anything Nintendo related, being that I never had a Nintendo system as a kid and so I don’t feel any particular pull towards the company; and yet, now that I think about it, I think I might very well be the perfect person to comment about what Nintendo needs to do.

*  This sounds insane, I know, but the first Nintendo-built hardware I ever owned was not an NES, SNES, Gameboy, Super Gameboy, N64 or Gamecube – it was, in fact, a DS.  And I mainly bought it for Nintendogs, thinking that my wife might get a kick out of it – we were dog-less at the time, and I thought it might help scratch that itch.  The DS was a great system by the time I got my hands on it – it had a really diverse lineup of games, and those games seemed to take full advantage of the DS’s strange setup (which, ironically, made the system feel less strange the more you played with it; in fact, the DS probably helped pave the way for the acceptance of the “second screen”).

I bought (and then regretted buying) a Wii; I bought (and enjoy, sorta) a 3DS; I have absolutely no desire to buy a WiiU.  I have no desire to buy a WiiU because: (1) there hasn’t been any significant new first-party IP in years, which means that if you buy a new Nintendo console you know exactly what you’re going to get, which is a bunch of Mario-themed games, a Zelda, maybe a Metroid, a Super Smash Brothers, and that’s more or less it, and so if you don’t really care about those franchises, there’s nothing to look forward to; and (2) there is no third-party support at all, which makes the prospect of owning just a Nintendo console incredibly limiting.

New IP is a risky business, of course, and considering that there are still rabid fans for their existing franchises, it seems like the best thing for Nintendo to do is stay the course, continue iterating and reiterating on what the fans already know and love, and hope that one of them does really well.

The lack of third-party support, though… that’s the killer.  (That’s what ultimately led to the death of the Dreamcast – once EA stopped putting out Madden and the rest of its sports titles, that pretty much ended other third-party prospects.)  Because if you (like me) don’t particularly care about Mario or Zelda, there’s literally no reason to own a Nintendo console – nobody’s porting their games over, and the ones that do don’t really know how to take advantage of the WiiU’s peculiar hardware.  (With the notable exception of ZombiiU, of course, which is a game I haven’t played.)

I won’t pretend to know anything about game development, but even I can see that Nintendo seems to be operating in some sort of tech bubble, wholly unaware of the innovations made by its competitors.  One only needs to look at Nintendo’s online services to figure out just how behind the times they are.  This Eurogamer feature written by an anonymous third-party developer goes into some pretty jaw-dropping detail about how difficult it is to develop a WiiU title, from a wide variety of angles – there’s one quote in particular, though, that’s been attracting a great deal of attention:

The discussion started off well enough and covered off our experiences with the hardware and (slow) toolchain and then we steered them towards discussing when the online features might be available. We were told that the features, and the OS updates to support them, would be available before the hardware launch, but only just. There were apparently issues with setting up a large networking infrastructure to rival Sony and Microsoft that they hadn’t envisaged.

This was surprising to hear, as we would have thought that they had plenty of time to work on these features as it had been announced months before, so we probed a little deeper and asked how certain scenarios might work with the Mii friends and networking, all the time referencing how Xbox Live and PSN achieve the same thing. At some point in this conversation we were informed that it was no good referencing Live and PSN as nobody in their development teams used those systems (!) so could we provide more detailed explanations for them?

That’s bad enough.  The developer’s conclusions about the WiiU’s failure, though, seem to mirror my own:

[…]I’d like to highlight some interesting points that have been on my mind recently. Firstly, third-party support. Do you remember all the hype surrounding the Wii U launch? All those third parties showing videos of existing games that they were going to bring to the Wii U? Whatever happened to a lot of those games?

After the initial flurry of game titles a lot of the studios quietly backed away from their initial statements and announced, with minimal press, that they were in fact not going to make a Wii U version. The reasons behind a particular title not appearing on the Wii U are all pure speculation, but I personally think that a combination of:

  • Previous development experience using the toolchain and hardware put off development teams from making another title on Wii U.
  • The technical and feature support from Nintendo were lacking for third-party studios. There was a feeling internally that if you weren’t a first-party development studio, you were largely ignored by Nintendo, as we were superficial to their profits. Internally developed titles would save Nintendo and we were just there to add depth to the games catalogue.
  • The sales figures for the Wii U console were not looking that good soon after launch. There was a lot of confusion in the general population around the launch as most people thought that the Wii U was some kind of add-on to the Wii, they didn’t know that it was a new console. This lack of awareness probably contributed to the console not getting off to the start that Nintendo would have hoped and put off studio from developing on the hardware.
  • Nintendo also fell victim to bad timing. A few months after the console launched the next-gen hype train stepped up a gear as Sony announced the PlayStation 4, with Microsoft joining the fray a few months later. Don’t forget that many of the larger studios would have known about the hardware months before it was announced, well before the Wii U hardware actually launched.

So, these larger studios had a choice. Would they develop a port of an existing game to a console with limited capabilities and limited market penetration? Or put their teams to work on developing new features and concepts for the “real” next-gen consoles that were going to be launched that year? When you look at it this way, the choice isn’t that hard.

[…]

Doubtless, the first-party developers at Nintendo will make the hardware sing – they always do – but the situation looks grim for those of us in third-party development, with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware. So where does that leave the Wii U?

I didn’t mean to quote so much!  The whole article is worth a good read and does a great job of articulating the myriad of problems the WiiU faces, if reading about such things is something you’re interested in.

2.  As for me:  not a lot of gaming for a 3-day weekend.  I basically inched along in Broken Age and sped through a bunch more AC4 on the PS4.

I am… having trouble staying engaged in Broken Age, sorry to say.  It’s beautiful and charming and witty and very sweet, of course, and so that’s all wonderful, but… I don’t know if it’s the game, or if it’s me, or what, but I’m just not feeling all that inclined towards staying with it.  I’ve reached a point in both stories where the path for each story has become somewhat non-linear, and I suppose not knowing what to do next is a little intimidating.  (I felt the same way at various points in Grim Fandango, for what it’s worth, and I love the hell out of that game.)

I’ve only supported 3 things on Kickstarter; a friend’s film project, a second sequel to one of my favorite films of all time (Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool), and Broken Age.  There’s been lots written about Kickstarter and the psychology of donations and the service’s various up- and down-sides (this Kotaku feature is but the latest), and that’s all well and good; I supported the things I supported because I’m fans of the creators and wanted to see their work succeed.  I don’t necessarily feel “ownership” over these projects; in the specific case of Broken Age, I didn’t want to watch the making-of stuff, or see anything about the game’s development, because I wanted the experience to be unspoiled.  All I did was to give them the money I’d have given them anyway, except that in this case I was helping the game actually get made.

So I don’t necessarily come to the game with unusual expectations, is what I’m trying to say.  That being said, I have high expectations for anything that has Tim Schafer’s name on it, because I’m a huge fan of his and most of everything he’s ever made has been something I’ve enjoyed greatly; funding the game on Kickstarter wouldn’t have changed that.  Getting a chance to play a new game in Tim’s old creative wheelhouse should be something special and celebrated.

Perhaps it’s simply that I don’t enjoy old school point-and-click adventure games the way I used to, no matter how lovingly crafted they appear to be.  Even with Telltale’s recent resurgence in games like The Walking Dead and the Fables game, I’m not drawn to them the way I might’ve been a few years ago; I can’t explain why, other than that I start to get fidgety and anxious after a while.  I suppose I should explore this in depth at some point.

In any event, yeah – I’m a little over an hour into Broken Age.  The girl is in the cloud town; the boy has escaped his room and is making further plans with the wolf guy.  Normally I’d feel OK in writing a “First Few Hours” post at this point in a game, but where Broken Age is concerned I feel like I should play through this first half before making any formal declarations.  And like I said above, right now I’m having trouble staying involved in the game, and I don’t know if that’s my fault or the game’s.

As for AC4… well, I’m playing it primarily because I want to feel like I didn’t waste my money buying a PS4.  I kept almost downloading Battlefield 4 and Need For Speed Rivals and then chickening out at the last minute, mostly because I don’t want to spend $120 on games that I’m playing simply to have something to play.  Fortunately, AC4 looks and feels so much better on the PS4 than it did on my PC that the experience is largely positive; and if it feels repetitive, well, I am finding that I’m going through it a lot faster (because I know what I’m doing).

My rental copy of Battlefield 4 shipped today; that should arrive by Thursday, and so I’ve saved $60.  I’m not sure if I’m going to wait for Need for Speed, or keep my rental queue clear for Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.  I’m maybe inclined towards waiting for Tomb Raider, because (as with AC4), it’s a game I like a lot, but more prettier.