Broken Reality

I’ve been enjoying having the time to explore new video game worlds again after the recent release of Expressive Space, and going forward I’ll be using this blog to lightly document the more memorable virtual spaces I encounter.

This month brought a pleasant surprise in the form of the vaporwave first-person exploration game Broken Reality, created by Chilean developer Dynamic Media Triad and released in 2019.

For anyone not in the know, vaporwave is an internet genre of music and visual culture that both celebrates and satirizes 1990s computer culture and consumerism. The music uses slowed-down and distorted samples of elevator music and smooth jazz, recreating the sensation of hearing it over store speakers in the 80s and 90s, while the visual culture is a maximalist collage of old computer icons, palm trees, bright colours (often cyan and hot pink), and Greco-Roman statues (as one might find in tacky Vegas-like malls). The ambiguity around whether the genre romanticises or satirizes capitalist excess leaves some with a bad taste, however in a period of “doomscrolling” it offers a refreshingly upbeat A E S T H E T I C.

Screenshot of the mall area in Domo Paradisso.
The mall area in Domo Paradisso.

Broken Reality, at least at first glance, is vaporwave spatialized: its memorable environments collage elements of internet visual culture, while its soundtrack relies on the genre and adjacent ones. I entered this world expecting a shorter satirical experience and was surprised to discover an enjoyable full game spanning multiple areas (it took me around 8 hours to complete). In contrast with the many walking simulators that place most of their emphasis on storytelling, offering very few ways of interacting with the gameworld, Broken Reality gives players a range of tools for exploring deeper into its world. Overall, it’s a great example of how to create a compelling non-violent first-person game where you do more than just walk around.

The game begins in Domo Paradisso, a mid-sized island full of the aforementioned vaporwave visual tropes, and the place where Broken Reality eases players into its mechanics. The first of these is a score/currency, Likes, which can be acquired by picking up glowing thumbs-up emoji strewn around the world and by clicking on parody ads. The basic interaction tool is the “Liker,” your own thumbs-up emoji. Shortly after this you are given a camera, and you can get more Likes by taking photos of camera icons around the world that are visible when looking through the lens. In later parts of the game the camera receives two upgrades that help you solve invisible puzzles and find hidden objects.

Screenshot of the Axis Plaza area.
Memphis colours and patterns in Axis Plaza.

The next tool is the “bookmarker,” which lets you place a bookmark anywhere and then teleport back to it from somewhere else, allowing for some interesting spatial puzzles later on. Following this is a katana, which lets you cut through walls of pop-up ads and access new areas, and the “hyperlinker,” a grappling hook that you shoot at rainbow pop-up windows to be pulled towards them. Since players aren’t able to jump, the hyperlinker allows the game to have platforming segments without the dreaded frustrations of first-person jumping puzzles.

Lastly is the “Jr. Shopper” credit card, acquired in a mall area and used to get more likes out of ATMs and to purchase items in stores for fun. Stores function as little mini-games; making a first purchase starts a combo timer, and the next item you’re supposed to buy from the store’s inventory is shown, and you need to find and purchase it before the timer runs out; higher combos give more likes. As you purchase items the game shows your credit card debt getting higher and higher, which is very much in accord with vaporwave’s ambiguous celebratory/satirical view of consumerism.

The guest quarters on the Love Cruise.

After gaining all of these items in Domo Paradisso you meet the server admin, who opens a portal to the next server, a hub area called Axis Plaza. He also warns you to be careful who you trust, and cryptically notes that “the basis and source of this world has been corrupted for a long time,” adding some narrative intrigue to what has otherwise been a light exploration game. I won’t say more about the game’s story here, but it does slowly gain some shape as you move through the game’s different areas.

From the hub server players can explore other areas such as the virus-laden Aquanet, the retro Love Cruise, and urban Geocity, solving puzzles, completing quests for NPCs, and exploring the nooks and crannies of each server to collect more Likes and pass through barriers requiring a certain degree of popularity (total number of Likes). At the end of this sequence the game provides the player with a quest of collecting 25 hidden pyramids throughout the servers they’ve visited, and doing this unlocks the final part of the experience.

The GeoCity area in Broken Reality.
The GeoCity area.

Warning, spoilers below:

If you haven’t played the game yet and think you might, I would recommend that you stop reading now. This final section stands in harsh contrast to the generally relaxing experience of the game up to this point, taking players into a dark and creepy area of the internet as they try to get the heart of the network. The puzzles and platforming suddenly become quite hard, and the atmosphere is dark and bloody, though there aren’t explicit horror elements since everything is quite pixelated and ambiguous.

In some ways this area is my only gripe with the game, simply because of how strong of a tone shift it has from the rest of the work (even though there’s something fitting and clever about an internet-themed game forcing players to eventually enter its darker corners). It’s clear the developer sought to really push the limits of the game’s mechanics and give players a final challenge, however since Broken Reality doesn’t have a false ending before this segment, it would feel quite unnatural to just stop playing upon reaching this. A false ending would have been a perfect compromise, since more casual players could quit the game with at least some closure (and perhaps watch the rest on youtube), and anyone wanting the challenge could push to the end.

Summing up, Broken Reality is an enjoyable take on how a visual and musical aesthetic can be translated into a virtual space. Its world is true to the vaporwave atmosphere that it takes as inspiration, and its varied gameplay mechanics keep the experience feeling enjoyable and interested as one dives deeper into the world. A sequel is currently in the works, Broken Reality 2000, and I’ll be hoping it builds on the many strong points of the original.