Choose Your Old Adventure

Crowdfunding was supposed to transport video games to strange and exciting places. Instead it took them back in time.

Screenshot of Broken Age.
In its finished state, Broken Age is as much about the Kickstarter phenomenon it initiated as it is part of it.

Image courtesy Broken Age

To paraphrase a bit of Internet wisdom, experts agree that pop culture was at its peak when you—yes you—were 12 years old. Most of us never escape the spell of the things we loved when we were young, letting the romance of childhood play linger long after the rest of the world has moved on. And sometimes, when given the chance, we throw money at anyone who offers to bring those delights back. It’s rarely money well spent.

Lately, those hoping to resurrect past pleasures have found an ideal platform in the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The most notable of them may be Tim Schafer, a charismatic designer of adventure games who developed a cultish following thanks to classic titles like Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts. The point-and-click computer games for which he is best known—slower-paced, often very funny, puzzle-based experiences—have largely faded into obscurity since their peak in the early 1990s. Facing flagging sales, publishers turned to other, more popular genres, forcing Schafer to do the same.

In February 2012, Schafer and his studio, Double Fine Productions, took to Kickstarter in an attempt to reverse the trend. Explaining in his pitch video that publishers would laugh him out of the room if he went to them with an idea for a product like those that made his reputation, Schaffer proposed using Kickstarter “to make a fan-funded, old school adventure game.” The project would, he explained, be accompanied by a serialized documentary. “You know how they say you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made?” Schafer asked. “Whether it goes well or all goes to hell, we’re going to show you everything.”

The campaign was an immediate and overwhelming success. On Kickstarter, projects are only funded if they meet their initial goal, meaning that if they come up short they get nothing and the site lets backers keep their money. Taking a bold risk, Double Fine set its target at $400,000, five times more than any game had received at the time. Where initial press was skeptical if enthusiastic, the fan response was unprecedented. The game met its initial target in hours. By the time the campaign concluded in March, it had raised more than $3.3 million.

In the wake of Double Fine’s Kickstarter success, a host of similar projects appeared on the platform. There were continuations of long-dead franchises, remakes of other adventure games, “spiritual successors” to neglected classics, and more. Many emerged triumphant, some of them even exceeding Double Fine’s astonishing numbers.

The Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter—along with the other campaigns that had sprung up around it—promised a new way of doing things. A scene in the first season of 2 Player Productions’ documentary series about the making of Schafer’s game finds the jubilant designer addressing his staff, just after funding for their campaign closed. “If you’ve ever been told that you’re part of a niche market, if you’ve ever … when you were a kid had your favorite TV show canceled or heard about your favorite band getting dropped by their label for not selling enough,” he begins, “now you know that [big companies] can’t do that anymore. You can choose.”

Many in the tech press and the gaming world shared his excitement. In Popular Mechanics, Scott Neumyer flirted with the possibility that Kickstarter was the “future of games.” Gamers who had weaned themselves on the medium’s classics, he wrote, “have grown up and they want a little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of fun, and a way to show their kids and friends the types of games that made their youth so much fun.” Others went further still, suggesting that it heralded fundamental changes to the gaming industry. No one was arguing that more traditional funding systems would disappear completely, but most seemed convinced that the Kickstarter model was here to stay.

Today, it’s not entirely clear that this enthusiasm was warranted. Since 2013, only a small handful of crowdfunded games have managed to surpass the million-dollar mark. Tellingly, many of those that have approached it are based on existing properties, classic genres, or are from long-established creators. If Kickstarter is the future of gaming, the future of gaming is grounded firmly in gaming’s past.

Schaffer remains largely undaunted. “I think crowdfunding is here to stay,” he told me shortly after the final release of his finished Kickstarter game—now titled Broken Age. He acknowledged that “nostalgia trips are part of” the model, but said that he was hoping crowdfunding would mature in time. Brushing off the more muted interest in recent Kickstarter campaigns, he suggested that “people want to see the success of the first generation of Kickstarters” before they would be willing to commit that fully again.

If so, the coming months will be critical. Virtually every successfully funded campaign from that first wave of enthusiasm has now been released. Schafer’s project remained outstanding longer than almost any of its fellows. Running short on capital, Double Fine released the first half of the game in January 2014, hoping to drum up funds to help the company finish the remainder. It took Double Fine more than a year to complete the second half, which finally became available earlier this week.

In its finished state, Broken Age is as much about the Kickstarter phenomenon it initiated as it is part of it. To some extent, this is a consequence of its development process. When I spoke to Schafer, he acknowledged that he had included more difficult puzzles in the second half after backers complained that the first half was too easy. Likewise, as he had promised in the initial pitch, Double Fine incorporated feedback and ideas from its supporters into the final product. This kind of interaction between developers and players is novel, and for Schafer, it was considerably more liberating than obeying the more rigid dictates of a publisher.

More importantly, though, Broken Age’s narrative sometimes seems to be commenting on the difficulty of making games in a format that rewards the old and blinds itself to the new. Throughout both halves of the game, players switch between the stories of two characters. In the first, a young woman named Vella escapes her village after her family tries to sacrifice her to a massive monster called Mog Chothra. Attempting to save others from her fate, she explores a seemingly primitive fantasy world in which congenial cultists tend to bird nests in the clouds and talking trees insult hipster lumberjacks. In the second story, a teenager named Shay explores a lonely spaceship whose maternalistic computer insistently infantilizes him. Their seemingly distinct worlds collide at the end of the first act, though the protagonists remain separate until the conclusion of the game, when they finally meet.

When we first encounter Shay, he’s stuck playing a series of childish games built for him by his ship. Though the computer refers to him as “commander,” his control over these simulations—in which animate stuffed animals take the places of the imperiled aliens he’s supposedly saving—is minimal. His routine is the same each day, his adventures proceeding as if on rails—literally in some cases. Though Schafer laughed when I suggested that Shay’s life sounds a lot like the mainstream gaming industry—a business fixated on sequels and other safe investments—he acknowledged that I might not be that far off. Much as Schafer and his Kickstarter compatriots sought to break free from a world of the turgidly familiar, Shay longs for new adventures.

Ultimately, however, those new adventures may simply be old ones with a fresh coat of paint. Both Shay and Vella spend most of the game fighting to protect a simpler more childish world, one that has “the appearance of an interactive storybook,” as Christopher Byrd puts it in the Washington Post. These characters are attempting to break free from the doldrums of youth, but are nevertheless defending a world colored by childhood’s palette. Meanwhile, a deeply sinister sentiment underlies the futuristic elements of Broken Age’s story. In its final moments, the game suggests that it might be possible to close the gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, building a bridge called today. But before it can do so, it fades to black and its credits roll.

Writing for Rock Paper, Shotgun, John Walker describes the finished game as a disappointingly failed coming-of-age narrative. “What had seemed like a build-up to a really smart exploration of … the struggles of teenagers in abandoning their childhood[s] to accept their adulthood[s], is revealed to be an extremely [patronizing] adult perspective of an adolescent outlook,” he writes. In a follow-up article, he grumbles that what could have been a thoughtful meditation on maturation turned into “some dumb thing about funny looking birds and evil space aliens.”

Though other reviewers have been less harsh, their complaints help to explain Walker’s. As many of them point out, the game is almost too committed to the form of the old school point and click adventure. The Verge’s Andrew Webster writes, “It feels padded with tedious, and often annoying puzzles that can leave you scratching your head.” In Wired, Chris Kohler similarly observes, “Broken Age resurrects all of the key features of classic 1990’s adventure games: Gorgeous artwork, a fascinating storyline, funny writing, and puzzles that don’t make any freaking sense.”

Profoundly committed to the fan base that had funded them, Schafer and his team were true to the past, and true to a fault. In the second episode of the documentary series, still early in the game’s development cycle, Double Fine’s Ron Gilbert, one of the creators of point and click games, worries over this very point. Adventure games “need to evolve,” he says, “but they need to evolve in such a way that they don’t lose the spirit of them and … what made them so interesting to people.” Ultimately, that spirit arguably proved more important to them than the impulse to evolution.

Much the same has been true of the other Kickstarter projects. Some of them, like the role-playing game Pillars of Eternity, are excellent, but all are so committed to their retro vibe that they can feel unwelcoming to those unfamiliar with their source material. Broken Age makes it clear that Kickstarter is best at producing synthetic time capsules.

If, as Walker holds, Broken Age fails to tell the coming-of-age story that it initially promised, it may be because Kickstarter is poorly positioned to help the medium mature. In many ways, Broken Age is a delightful game: The art is lovely, the music is rich, and Schafer’s writing is as lithe and clever as ever. But it also provides exactly what it promised, and what it promised is a new version of something old. While Kickstarter can support exciting new properties—Schafer expressed enthusiasm for the as-yet-unreleased Night in the Woods, for example—it’s better at giving us what we already want than it is at producing new desires. And while drawing on older forms doesn’t preclude innovation, the most thrilling games are often those that willfully confound expectations instead of playing to them.  

“The full act of growing up,” Schafer told me, involves “taking responsibility for that power that you’ve got,” forcing you “to actually deal with the consequences.” Schafer’s Kickstarter success brought a kind of power, but it also entailed a new responsibility to those who had lifted him up. If the game’s characters don’t manage to grow up, it may be because gamers aren’t ready to let go of the medium’s childhood—or their own.