Like many people, I was excited about the Double Fine kickstarter. The potential for creators like Tim Schafer to help revive the point-and-click adventure game genre was something I could get behind. After a few years of waiting, the Double Fine game titled Broken Age has had its first half released. As a backer I was able to play through an early copy and listen to the game’s soundtrack. For this game, Double Fine brought in game composer Peter McConnell. McConnell has previously worked with Tim Schafer on games like Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, and Brutal Legend. Since this is only Act 1 of Broken Age, this is technically only the first half of the soundtrack. When Act 2 comes out later this year, there will undoubtedly be more music and a second soundtrack.
Now because the main appeal to games like Broken Age are the story and the areas you explore, I feel a minor spoiler warning is due. With most of the soundtracks that I review, I like to take into account how the music relates and works within the game. The music can certainly stand alone and be critiqued for its own merits, but its interaction with the game is still an important aspect. Because of this, I will end up discussing certain sections of the game and that may spoil minor plot points or reveal parts of what you will experience in the game. I promise that this review will not contain any major plot spoilers or solutions to puzzles. However, there are inevitably things that may give hints or details about portions of the game. The very names of the album’s tracks can even give things away. So following the jump after this paragraph, I will be going into potential spoiler territory. Read on if you dare.
One of the first aspects of the music that really draws you into the game is the use of live instruments and musicians. The entire soundtrack is performed with orchestral instruments, with a few exceptions. This adds a layer of emotional depth that simply can’t be achieved by sample libraries or synthesized orchestral instruments. This is especially true with the instrument solos on this album. Like many adventure games, there is a lot of emphasis on the individual characters you control and interact with. The focus of mostly small ensemble pieces helps build a sense of intimacy with the character’s story and surroundings.
The beginning of Vella’s story opens with the tracks “Vella Wakes” and “Face the Cupcakes.” The relaxed pacing of the music and the gentle melodies in the woodwinds help produce a pastoral and idyllic setting for Vella’s hometown of bakers. Meanwhile in Shay’s story the music opens with the piece “Time To Get Up Little Spaceman” featuring gentle arpeggios played on the celesta, with melodic material provided by the strings. Much like Vella’s opening section, the music in gentle and calming. The music’s mellow atmosphere helps set up the central conflict for the characters and their environment, where both characters are trying to escape the paths that destiny seems to have chosen for them. Shay is tired of being trapped by an overprotective computer AI and Vella is conflicted about sacrificing herself to a monster for the sake of tradition. In both cases the music aids in solidifying the relaxed mood of the status quo that the characters are trying to break from.
For the other areas of the game the soundtrack does some genre jumping. Vella does a lot of traveling in her story, so naturally you will hear a wider variety of music in her sections. These range from upbeat caribbean music in “Shellmound Festival,” featuring steel drums, to pieces like “Was That East or West” with a more folk/country sound, featuring acoustic guitar. One of the highlights for the music in Vella’s story is the track “Cloud Colony Arrival.” Although very brief, it’s a triumphant and uplifting piece that builds up a wonderful moment in the game.
With Shay’s story taking place on the spaceship, the music sticks with the innocent and more childlike celesta music to establish the overprotective environment that he’s trying to break away from. Another genre of music is introduced when he meets Marek, a mysterious character who offers Shay a chance at some excitement and freedom. When meeting with Marek and carrying out your plans the music switches to a stealthy jazz genre. Pieces like “In the Situation Room” are written in the style of a spy or heist film, which keeps things interesting in terms of audio and the story. You’re never sure who Shay can really trust in his world and the contrasting tones of the music helps add to the ambiguity.
One music motif that continues to emerge throughout the soundtrack is the celesta arpeggio that is introduced in the opening of Shay’s story. It can be heard in some of Vella’s tracks like “Maidens’ Feast,” and “Mog Chothra.” The use of this motif in both Shay’s and Vella’s stories allows for some audible suggestions that their adventures are connected, which is something that only becomes clearer as the story progresses. It’s a subtle element to the music, but an effective one that adds to the game experience for those who can spot it.
I can’t finish talking about this soundtrack without mentioning the efforts of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a group from Australia that provided music for the soundtrack’s larger pieces. The standout piece for both the orchestra and Peter McConnell is undoubtedly “Battle at Shellmound.” I won’t say anything about how the track is related to the plot beyond what the track name already reveals, but it’s definitely a highlight for this soundtrack. The piece works perfectly at building tension and energy for the gameplay that it is accompanying. The brass section in particular is a real standout feature in this track and the back and forth interactions between the brass and strings really helps create an exciting moment in the game.
The Broken Age OST, like the game itself is a well crafted work. It provides a perfect backdrop for the characters and the worlds that they inhabit. The use of live instruments adds to the music’s emotional impact and brings another level of polish to an already beautiful game. The small ensemble pieces feel intimate and personal, while the larger pieces have a grand and powerful sound. It will be interesting to see where Peter McConnell takes the music when Act 2 of Broken Age is released later this year. If you are grabbing the game when it comes out this week, I highly recommend grabbing the soundtrack as well. The Broken Age OST can be purchased on Bandcamp or bundled with the game on Steam.Tags: Broken Age, Double Fine, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Music, Peter McConnell, Reviews, Soundtracks, Tim Schafer, VGM, Videogames