Yesterday I got to visit my hometown and spend the day with my family. It isn’t much of a vacation as I had a project that I needed to finish. I work furiously on my Macbook while my 9-year old sister Cameron plays flash games on the family laptop right next to me. The game she played required the use of the arrow keys and I notice that she navigates them with only her index finger, adding in her thumb if she needs to use two arrows at once. I raised my sister on consoles games, and she played games on the old iPad I passed down to her, but I realize that computer games are new territory for her.
Not wanting to waste the little time I have left to spend with her, I ask Cameron if she wants to play a game with me and she jumps from her seat and stands next to me. I load up Broken Age–Double Fine’s return to the point-and-click genre–and start a new game. On my own file, I’m deep into the game. I struggled for hours to get to that point and am curious to see how far my sister’s wit and patience will carry her. Prone to frustration, I’ve seen her give up on many video games long before she’d given them a reasonable chance before.
Broken Age is a children’s book come to life. The world is beautifully imagined with its hand-painted textures and vibrant animations. Add that to its charming characters and its Disney-esque storyline you get a game that is perfect to expose my sister to. The game begins with the two characters laying in their own respective worlds divided by a split screen. My sister looks at the girl in the game with dark skin and curly hair and exclaims, “That’s me!” That struck me. I’m glad my sister can closely identify with the main character in the game. Vella is smart, independent, pretty, respectful, but isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. She is a good role model for Cameron and it makes me happy she relates to her.
I give her the mouse and tell her to click on the person she wants to play as first. She clicks on Shay, the male character, and we begin his story. I completed Shay’s story on my own file and with great difficulty I might add. I don’t tell Cameron this. I set it up as if we were both discovering the game together. She clicks on different things and begins to learn the mechanics. Click on an important object and it goes into your inventory; drag the item to a point of interest and the character uses it to progress the story. Easy. I guide her through the early puzzles and ask her questions like, “Do you think Shay is happy here?” to see if she is grasping the underlying themes. For the most part, she doesn’t and that’s okay. In the beginning I hold her hand and give her hints frequently, but I ease off and let her wrestle through some of the puzzles. I don’t let her get frustrated though. I don’t want her to give up. Any part of the game I severely struggled with in my own file, I jump in with an “I have an idea!” and complete the puzzle for her just to move things along.
I leave her to play alone while I look for food around the house. “Brother!” she yells. “I’m stuck!” I assure her that I know its hard but that she’s doing really well. I check in on her later to find she is in a confusing part of Shay’s story. I suggest trying out Vella’s story instead and she agrees so we begin the fair maiden’s journey. Vella’s story tackles deeper topics like questioning traditions, the potential danger of cults, and even environmental issues. I doubt Cameron is interpreting any of this directly, but I’d like to think that by listening to and watching these things play out, she’s learning something. I leave her alone to go buy Chinese take out for the family. I get back and she has made considerable progress. At this point I’m more shocked that she’s been playing for over 2 hours than the fact that she got so far. No game has ever engaged her that much before.
I sit back down with her and we tackle it together. The puzzles in the stage she’s at require a bit more critical thinking and more steps to solve. Also the backtracking is a pain in the butt, so I take a more active role in her decision making.
“Why are those people able to survive in these conditions, but you aren’t?” I ask playing coy.
“They all have this item.”
“Well we need that too then don’t we? Do you know where we can get it?”
“No. I’ve looked everywhere!”
“You need to talk to everyone.”
“I did, brother!”
“Have you talk to her yet?”
“No. Hey, I found it!”
She eventually meets a certain character and it makes me happy that I get to tell her that it is voiced by Jack Black. “Oh yeah! Now I can hear it!” she squeals. Playing the game with her, I see things I didn’t see in my first play through. Through the dialogue, more clues are given to the player than I initially realized. Seemingly meaningless details have a way of being the answer to the riddle you can’t solve. I also notice how the dialogue and character interaction changes a bit based on the order in which you solve puzzles.
Eventually we catch up to the part of Vella’s story where I am on my personal file. This is where things get interesting because now for the first time I’m not the hero. We’re equals. Cameron and I now have to rely on each other for progress and we suggest things to each other. Sometimes she grabs the mouse from my hand and starts clicking on things. When I have a fit of inspiration I grab the mouse back. This continues until we beat the game.
We clock in at around 4 hours and despite having a huge project due the following day it feels like time well spent. I was impressed by how she was able to solve some puzzles so much more quickly than I did. Playing Broken Age with my sister is the most intimate time I’ve spent with her in recent years. It exposed both our strengths and weaknesses. This experience took me back to the summer when Cameron and I beat Rayman Origins with 100% completion. We literally played every day that summer until we beat the entire thing and I’ve never felt closer to her. We’re so different in a lot of ways, but we can connect when we play video games together. I will always be thankful for that.