The great thing about Steam in 2019 is you’ll never run out of choices. The bad thing about Steam in 2019 is navigating it’s tremendously overstuffed storefront is a lot like scouring some forgotten trash heap where finding a diamond in the rough is the proverbial needle in a haystack. Now, more than ever standing out from the pack is innumerably hard. It must be twice as rough on the worlds indie developers who presumably spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen wondering how on earth they’re going to raise their game above the trash. Are we really populating the world with anything meaningful or do we just add to the human excess that is the internet? That’s the question Broken Reality is posing to us.
Broken Reality is a new game from Chile’s own Digital Media Triad set in the gaudy pastel pink and blue landfill of web 1.0 – the trash and garbage of AOL-era internet rendered as a 3D world, replete with old meme’s, misspelt popups, glitches in the matrix and heaps upon heaps of glossy, reverb-laden vaporwave. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Digital Media Triad‘s work as mere visual gimickery… and it sort of is. But the view is so well realised that the gimmick had me smiling a whole lot. The bright, gaudy aesthetic clashes with glitches and imperfection; visual afflictions slashing across the 90’s era trash, piled miles high into the air. Characters populate the world in a sort of Soulsesque malaise: unsure of their purpose and nihilistically void in their mission statements. A mountain of excess and colours and broken pixels garnished with poorly constructed pop-ups and malevolent malware. Broken Reality won’t feature on Digital Foundry anytime soon, but the aesthetic is a success of art over fidelity on all levels.
Luckily, it isn’t just an aesthetic. Broken Reality arrives at a funny time, actually. It’s a walking simulator, arriving a good few years too late to be relevant among the usual Dear Esther/Gone Home hall-of-fame but it doesn’t need to be. Broken Reality is less about walking around a world and looking at stuff and more about slowly unravelling each of the locales in a faux-Metroidvania fashion. Tools you collect at the start of the game help you to explore and navigate the world. You get a “liker” (mimicking Facebooks like button icon) to like popups and obstacles blocking your path (which subsequently moves them out of your way.) You get a camera with an Ocarina of Time styled eye of truth lens to help unlock new doors and a rainbow coloured mouse pointer that helps zip you across vast expanses of the map like a magical hyperlink. The maps are full of little hidden details, small minigames tucked away in tight corners and, of course, memes. In a way Broken Reality solves one of the walking simulators biggest existential questions – how do you make a game about walking and looking more interesting without resorting to hyper-masculine violence, without degrading and mulching the game down into RPG mechanics? Well, here it is. You create a beautiful world worth exploring and make it a joy to uncover. You make the game itself about uncovering every nook and cranny of the map.
And much of that stays the same throughout the game. You are occasionally bestowed with upgrades to those tools that add an extra dimension to a few puzzles, even offering opportunities to backtrack across previous maps to uncover extra hidden paths, but it daren’t stray outside the confines of the formula for too long. Indeed, most of the maps outstay their welcome ever so slightly by a puzzle or two, and some of the meme’s and jokes don’t entirely stick the landing. Sometimes goals aren’t exactly clear either and as a result, the ebb and flow of each level is hurt, even with the presence of a quest log. Natural progressions between maps or puzzles are sometimes left up to dumb luck, resulting in aimless wandering for a few moments before some poorly explained puzzle finally clicks in your head. Broken Reality occasionally groans and creaks under the walking simulator moniker, wanting you to remain immersed in the aesthetic but too afraid to quietly nudge the player and tell them where they need to go next.
It’s ironic that a game about the extreme excess of our digital age is somewhat buried under piles and piles of digital garbage on the Steam store. But part of the joy of playing and reviewing video games is the chance to signal boost something from the mediocre doldrums to somewhere it actually deserves to be. Digital Media Triad’s excellent Broken Reality should be that game. It’s a commentary on capitalisms digital excesses and it’s a piss-take (and a celebration) of how we use that internet, both past and present. It brings these elements together under a gorgeously glossy soundtrack (that I desperately wish they’d release so I could listen to it) and it marries the Metroidvania with the walking simulator in such a fantastic way. Broken Reality may not have anything to say about how to fix our internet, or how to fix our obsessions with social media, but it does enough with what it has. It’s a hilarious, albeit brief glimpse into the shimmering waters of our own digital selves.