The Broken Age of games criticism
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Broken Age, formerly Double Fine Adventure, is for many the definitive Kickstarter game. It is for me, certainly; it's announcement in March 2012 was the first time I paid attention to Kickstarter as a viable platform for launching games. It was the first time I got excited about a game that only existed as a concept, a promise. It's the first time I dumped $60 into a game I wouldn't get to play for more than a year, for rewards that promised to be awesome but were just that at time; promises.
And now, finally, the first act of Broken Age is sitting on my computer, my early investment allowing me access a couple of weeks before the official January 28 release date. If you backed the game, you're probably playing it right now. If you didn't, you're probably sick of people talking about it already. It's okay. There's only a few weeks to wait. You'll make it.
At the time of writing I've only had time to play about an hour of the game. There are plenty of reviews out already that attest to its overall quality, and it's widely accepted that Double Fine have delivered on their original promise. Broken Age is good. But what struck me as I started the game was that this was a gaming experience I'd never had before, something unique to the relatively new crowdfunding scene.
This is the first commercial game that I feel I've been involved with. The first game where I feel like I have an actual investment in its success.
I should be clear; I've not actually been involved in the development of the game at all. I've not been active on the backer forums, I've not partaken in voting on any of the features of the game - that was never really why I backed the project.
The real reason that I backed the project - other than wanting to play another Double Fine adventure game, of course - was to witness the development process. I wanted to see inside Double Fine, to get an idea of how a studio I have a ton of respect for goes about building a project like this.
And I got that, thanks to the stellar documentary produced by 2 Player Productions. Currently 13 episodes and who-knows-how-many hours long, it's a polished piece of work that's more than justified the money I spent backing the game in its own right. I hope that when its complete the documentary will be made available for non-backers as well, as it's by far the most intimate work on actual videogame development I've seen, and should be viewed by anyone who's ever wondered how these videogame things we play actually get made.
Thanks to the documentary, I've been able to watch Broken Age develop from scribblings on Tim Schafer's notepad to the finished (well, half-finished beta, anyway) article sitting in my Steam library. I've watched the characters develop from rough sketches to concept paintings to animated models. I've watched scenes blossom from a series of post-it-notes to interactive environments. I've watched Tim go through several different facial hair configurations and one juice diet.
I feel like I've gotten to know the people working on the project, even though I've never met any of them. I've watched them come up with ideas together, watched them get excited about new ideas, watched them get psyched when things were going well, watched them get tense when time or money got tight.
And this means I enter the game itself with an unusual amount of empathy. I'm not playing a game that I've just seen an announcement trailer and some press coverage for; I'm playing a game that I've watched come to life over a year and half. When I'm walking around an environment and interacting with the scenery, I'm aware of the decisions behind the placement of that scenery, why the basket sits here and the beam of light goes there.
For the first time I can look at the elements of a game and put actual human faces to them. I know who designed them, what the thought process was behind them, what decisions were taken with them and why.
I'm aware that the experience I'm having with the game is totally different to that of someone who simply purchases Broken Age at the end of January without this intimate insight into its development. It's a point of view completely unique to the crowdfunding model of development.
And it makes it very hard to be critical of the game. I want to love the game because I've seen how much effort the developers have put into it, I've watched individual people agonise over certain decisions, and I can empathise with having to make those decisions, so I want those decisions to have been the right ones.
Now I'm not a game critic, so I'm allowed to love Broken Age for whatever reason I damn well please. I can enjoy it for pure sentimentality, its objective quality be damned, because that is, in a way, what I paid for.
But I know there are game critics who are also backers of the game, and this must make their jobs quite difficult. I wonder how many of the reviewers behind the current crop of reviews are also backers, and have followed the project as closely as I have these last few months. I wonder if this has impacted their reviews of the game at all.
I know I'd find it much harder to try and objectively review Broken Age after the proximity I've had to it's development - even if that proximity is only simulated by the internet. It's like when a friend asks me to read something they've written - it's hard to be objective about a work coming from someone I know and like. I'm automatically biased towards it, because they're my friends, I know how hard they've worked on it, and I want them to be successful.
That's how I feel about Broken Age. I want the game to succeed because I've watched people I've come to like and respect sweat blood over it. If I was charged with writing a review of the game, I'd struggle; I'd be too aware of my inherent bias.
This would be more of a problem if Broken Age hadn't delivered on its promise. By all accounts, and certainly my own limited time with it, the game is a success. We can all breathe easy and enjoy the game, whether that's for its objective quality or down to our own sentimentalities.
But it raises some interesting questions about games criticism in the age of Kickstarter. We're going to start seeing more and more of these high-profile crowdfunded projects bearing fruit this year, projects that people have had both financial and emotional investment in for months before they can actually play them. In some cases, these will also be the people who get to voice a critical opinion on these games once they're released.
How much proximity to a project is too much - when does investment in a project run the risk of muddying a critical opinion? Should backers be prohibited from writing official reviews of games they have helped fund? Or, conversely, are we to take this new level of investment in a game as part of the product, and should the reviews reflect this?
Luckily for me I stopped pretending to be a videogame critic years ago, so I don't have to answer these questions. I get to go and play Broken Age and be as biased about it as I like. To the game critic community; you guys have fun working this out. I'm out - there are dialogue trees just waiting to be navigated.