Arguably no Kickstarter project has embodied the highs and lows of crowdfunding as much as Broken Age—an adventure game by veteran developer Tim Schafer and his studio Double Fine. It raised a record breaking $3.3 million after it appeared on Kickstarter in 2012, but has suffered a turbulent production process ever since. Some fans were faithful, others impatient, all waiting to see the kind of charming experience only Schafer could deliver.
But Broken Age is finally complete.
Broken Age is an adventure across two acts—the first of which came out last year, and the second part, which was released today. It is a game about Shay, a lonely boy determined to tear away from his monotonous environment, and Vella, a hot-headed girl driven to seek vengeance against a gigantic monster. The player switches between the two.
Taking a cue from a previous Schafer game, Day of the Tentacle, there are many puzzles that cannot be completed by only sticking with one character. Schafer describes these puzzles, where instinctively doing the obvious is the fastest route to a dead end, as requiring "lateral thinking"—a term he throws around like a catchphrase.
"You have to have a really clear problem, like trying to get over a gorge, and a clear motivation, like there's a bag of candy over there, or a bag of money," Schafer said. "Money and candy, maybe. And then there is a space where you can explore solutions to it, but the most obvious doesn't work. There's a period of confusion, but it's kind of pleasant, because you know you should be able to figure it out. Then there's a big 'ah-ha' moment where it all clicks together in your head. You feel like, of course! I should have gotten it the whole time."
People flock to Schafer for his signature mindbenders, and cherish their memories of his 1990s LucasArts games like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango. It's why in 2012, when Schafer asked for $400,000 on Kickstarter to make a new adventure game with no setting or title in mind, backers rocketed the campaign to nearly $3.3 million within a month. This was a new experience for Double Fine and Schafer, who had never launched a crowdfunding campaign before, and a new experience for a lot of players, who usually don't get to see this side of game development.
It was even a new experience for Kickstarter. This was Kickstarter's first huge bonanza— the first campaign to break a million had it not been for an iPhone dock shortly before. It quickly earmarked the site as a new creative model, risks and all. Today, Double Fine Adventure remains one of Kickstarter's most successful game projects. But the execution and timeline of the game, which would become Broken Age, turned into a source of stress for Schafer. The original funding goal, $400,000, was immediately reallocated toward producing the perk prizes for backers. The original release date was October of 2012, that same year, which was long, long ago in case you haven't seen the calendar lately.
One of Schafer's other signature touches are vivid, quirky worlds. Grim Fandango was a noire Mexican underworld, Psychonauts set in a summer camp for telepaths, and Brutal Legend took place inside a Mercyful Fate album cover. Broken Age takes place in two environments, one a space vessel full of deceptive yarn-covered secrets, and the other a fantasy land divided into themed kingdoms, a little like Adventure Time (in fact Pendleton Ward voices one of the locals of Meriloft, a city of bird nests).
What's special about Shay, Vella and their world is that the two are often miles apart, and it isn't inventory items or typical cause and effect they share but knowledge, small clues, an odd remark or a photograph, that solve the other person's mystery.
"It made me think about who the player is," said Shafer. "Shay is Shay. Vella is Vella. Who is the player? What we've always used as a metaphor for that in adventure games is that the player is the intuition for the character. Almost like a compulsion. That's why adventure game characters act that way. They have an urge to pick something up, and when they won't they'll say why, like they're answering to their intuition. In this case the intuition is passing between Shay and Vella. You're a shared intuition, and who knows what that means. But it's probably something super deep and artistic."
It's one of the most endearing things about Broken Age. While its universe isn't as grand as some of Schafer's LucasArts releases, it demands a similar spatial attention that draws you in. Oddly, it's an aspect completely absent from Broken Age's first part. The second act, grander and more interesting, makes the first feel like a demo.
Splitting the game in two was one of the many controversial aspects of Broken Age's development, one of the loudest signs things weren't going as planned. Repeated delays led to mounting questions from fans, though any of the game's backers could stay in the loop with 2 Player Productions' ongoing documentary, Double Fine Adventure, which at this moment stretches over 20 hours. Schafer admits he wishes he made these videos public earlier on to curtail internet anger.
"We took all this money from people. We couldn't really say 'Hey, see you later! We'll call you when it's done!'" said Schafer. "We once had a big Scrooge McDuck pile of money, but then everyone started taking money away to pay for food and rent."
As seen in the documentary, the honeymoon ends quickly after the end of Schafer's Kickstarter campaign. As different members started to sit down and plan things out, it became horrifyingly clear that the scale, the budget, the timeline and the expectations weren't syncing. Meetings became dire. Compromises were made.
It can be an exhausting drama. Sometimes it feels like watching your parents argue. Employees come in and out, hard decisions are made, and things happen in Schafer's own life. In the later episodes Schafer experienced problems with his gallbladder. I've had those issues, and moments where Schafer starts to coil, sit down and try to busy himself with clutter on his desk sent me reeling back to compromising memories of pain on bus commutes.
"We had these little bumps along the way," said Schafer, "but we dealt with them and fixed everything. It's tough, because a lot of the flack that we got about the game and how long it took, we normally wouldn't have gotten any of that at all, because normally they wouldn't have known until three months before the game got pushed out. There's a lesson that suggests we shouldn't have told anybody. But I don't think that's the right lesson. The point was to be transparent and share this experience with the world. Hopefully that will turn out to be a good thing in the end, something worth all the hate mail."
Usually, production happens deep within a fortress, but Broken Age was a rare opportunity for the public to see just how long and how expensive creating a game can be.
Nothing about Broken Age was decided upon until after the Kickstarter campaign, allowing for the game's backers to have more influence on its direction. So while some of Schafer's initial goals were unrealistic, having those expectations change is utterly realistic. Schafer promised me that most of the games I've ever played had slipped their schedule at some point.
Somehow, deep down inside, I knew Schafer was going to use the word "elated" when I asked how it felt to have the final product release. Elated seems like his kind of word. "I feel elated," he said, decadently like a peppermint candy cane. Broken Age, in full, is out, the game many poured their money into, and even more poured their hopes. It's a new world from the mind of Tim Schafer. Funny, lush, soothing and strange. Challenging, charming, frustrating and rewarding. And full of lateral thinking.