Broken Age: A Different Take on the Hero/Victim Dichotomy

Image: Double Fine Games via Video Games Blogger

Genre: Point-and-click adventure/sci-fi

Synopsis: Vella is chosen for the honor of the Maiden’s Feast, a ceremony vital to the safety of the village. But something feels wrong, and Vella finds herself wondering if the way they’d all been taught to live is really the only option…

Shay lives an isolated life on a spaceship. It’s a safe life, designed to make him feel important, but that isn’t what Shay wants. He wants real adventure, the chance to do something that really matters. So he sets out to break the cycle that’s stifling him.

As Vella and Shay set out on their own personal adventures, the story slowly reveals how their paths intersect, and what it is that they’re actually fighting against.

Series: Stand alone.

Verdict: Absolutely amazing.


I finally got around to Broken Age–a milestone in video game and Kickstarter history–and it is fantastic. Great storytelling, great worldbuilding. Great comedic elements. Wonderful voice cast, including recognizable names like Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, and Wil Wheaton.

Our two protagonists each go on quests, one driven by a sense of adventure and the other by survival. They pursue their goals in vivid worlds, interacting with an assortment of colorful characters–sometimes helping them and sometimes hurting them, but always moving towards their respective goals.

As the first act unfolds, we have only guesses about how the two stories relate to each other, and the game provides us with fodder for theories. By the second act, we know how the two stories relate to each other. And it becomes interesting to watch the contrast in how Shay and Vella react to the same things.

For instance, Vella is dubious of a character that Shay trusts immediately. This character tells Shay what he wants to hear. Shay’s lived an isolated and sheltered life, without much exposure to deceit, so this makes sense. But Vella’s lived a life in which she hasn’t just questioned what she’s been told, or rebelled against it. She’s learned for sure that what she’s been told is untrue. So when this character tells her what she wants to hear, she still wants to wait and see what side he’s actually on.

Vella’s got a calm certainty to her. She wants to live, she wants her family to live, and she wants everyone in the other villages to live. All her life, she’s been told that all of these things aren’t possible. But when the moment finally comes, she can’t bring herself to accept that, and she sets about singlemindedly searching for a way to fight for everyone’s lives. Sometimes she leaves people worse off than she met them, all in pursuit of a larger goal, of stopping a greater threat. Her story is very much the hero’s journey, albeit one with a more unusual setup–of the intended victim saving herself and the other potential victims.

Where Vella’s conflict comes from an external source–the monster she seeks to stop–Shay’s conflict is more internal. He wants to live a different life than the one that he’s trapped in. He wants the opportunity to be a different person than he’s been allowed to be so far. Shay is well-meaning, but oblivious. He’s genuinely kind and wants to do the right thing, but he’s been raised as the center of his world and acts accordingly. He doesn’t perceive the beings around him as alive, or as individuals who matter. He wants to be the hero, but instead he’s throwing himself into situations where his assumptions are wrong, and making himself part of the problem.

Those are actually really interesting and unusual character journeys for these two. At some point, I realized that Vella’s story is about someone experiencing a problem firsthand, who knows it intimately and almost fell prey to it herself, searching for a way to save herself and everyone she cares about from that problem. And Shay’s story is about someone who walks into other people’s lives with good intentions and no real understanding of who they are, intending to be a hero, while only making things worse. It’s only once he starts taking his cues from those who’ve lived with these problems that he starts being useful.

It turns upside down the general hero/victim dichotomy that we see in many stories. And it leans on the notion that making real, positive change in people’s lives requires knowing them and understanding them, instead of just passing through.

It’s also really cool to watch the participation of the protagonists’ families in the second act. I love all of these characters, and I especially love watching them change and learn. Vella’s family is awesome, and I especially loved how her mother consoled one of the other maidens.

So yeah, loved almost every second of this game (excepting when I was flummoxed by especially confusing puzzles).


(Also spoilers.)

There’s an interesting aspect here, involving potential consequences of genetically engineering people to be “better” (which is a pretty timely concept, given the debate about CRISPR–I found this extensive interview conducted by Nature with scientists/ethicists on the topic, which manages to touch on an impressively broad range of concerns all the way from medical benefits to concepts of free will. The article is also great for a look at just how complicated genetics is.)

In Broken Age, removing everything deemed undesirable has made the resultant people more “delicate,” and some of those undesirable traits turned out to be important. And yes, sometimes a particular trait has both advantages and disadvantages to it–a common example is how the same mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia also confers resistance to malaria. This also plays into how changing people’s genetics to a “superior” template would reduce genetic variation, which would in turn reduce the species’ capacity for adaptability.

Having variety within the species is a great buffer against changing environments. If we deliberately remove variation from our species because we’ve decided something is better–first off, we’re relying heavily on the judgement of whoever actually gets to decide what traits should be altered, which will never be unbiased. And next off, we’re losing that buffer. Because the world around us is always changing. There will always be some new disease, or some other way that the environment around us changes. 

When a species has a lot of variation, and some change inevitably happens, it’s more likely that at least part of the population will incidentally have traits to help them either survive or thrive in that change. But if we’ve reduced genetic variation because we’ve decided on a genetic template everyone should have, and then a disease or something happens such that this ideal no longer seems so ideal…then the chances are lower that a subset of the population will have traits that will help them against this unforeseeable change. It’s a numbers game. There is no ideal in nature, there’s only survival, which often depends on adaptability. 

Favorite Quotes:

“Why don’t you just let go? I’m 85% sure someone would catch you.”

“I’m free! Free to cleave the infinite void of space itself.”

“If a girl ever asks you to make her a death ray, say no.”