I never got around to reviewing Hypnospace Outlaw. It’s one of my favorite indie puzzle games out there, but I’ve also done speedruns for it and that leaves me with an odd perspective on the game; one that I find ill-suited for writing a review. So I was surprised when I then ran into Broken Reality. A different puzzle game also set in a surreal homage to early-internet culture.
Broken Reality is set inside a fictional VR-based social media program, managed by the supercorp NATEM. Users can socialize, share photos, make purchases, gamble, even eat food… somehow. What content you can access is dependent on how popular you are on the platform, which is indicated by how many likes you got.
In that sense, Broken Reality is a satire on social media pulled through the filter of retro internet nostalgia. Facebook in VR is of course a modern take, but instead of shiny visuals and modern web-design, everything is technicolor and tacky. Walls are decorated in pop-up ads, menus are designed to look like old web browsers, and references to old design practices are everywhere. Shitty gif images are used as high-class decor, for example, and birds are actually flying email logos.
The world is weird and often surreal, which Broken Reality embraces completely. It loves to be weird. Characters always speak vaguely, animations are strange, level transitions come with a seizure warning, it’s wild. And I like it for that; the visual style is exactly what drew me to the game to begin with.
Initially the game is fairly open-ended. You explore a level looking for likes to pick up from the ground, take pictures to increase your clout, and empty the shops with your credit card. You also meet characters who need your help, through which you begin to discover that not all is well in this digital world. Viruses and hackers run rampant, criminals operate freely, and some servers are barely holding up after not being maintained by anyone in forever.
Your journey quickly turns into a mission to set these issues right, mainly through completing missions and solving puzzles. You have an arsenal of items for this purpose. For example, with the hyperlinker you can pull yourself towards advertisement screens to accommodate platforming. The camera can be used to expose secrets, the bookmarker leaves behind an icon that you can teleport back to, and the sword can cut through virus.
The platforming and puzzles were quite fun, but don’t always stick with the game’s theming. You’re often just doing random jobs for people or making it through platforming challenges with little context. This is most obvious in the Geocities level, where you could be excused for forgetting that this was a game about internet or social media at all. You’re asked to clean up trash, perform chores for criminals, and find the missing members of a band. There’s a few computer-related jokes tucked in there, but those are only small touches.
Another issue is that the game’s storytelling is very unsatisfying. Levels lack a sense of pay-off, as you spend hours working through their jobs and puzzles, only to just leave right after. There’s no sense that you’ve achieved anything special or progressed a story. Again in Geocities, you put in all the effort to run chores, just so you can enter a building, grab a minor upgrade for the camera, and then leave.
When you do get story progression, it’s all vague and too distant from you. Characters talk about the platform’s past and its creators, but none of that relates back to you in any tangible way. Eventually you get charged with the job to “collect the keys” which unlock the final level, where you are then encouraged to do “something”. After some grueling last few challenges, the game then peters out on an open ending that left me feeling particularly sour.
The premise and artstyle for Broken Reality were nice and I did have fun exploring its weird world. It also controls well and I had fun overcoming the puzzles and tougher platforming challenges. On the other hand, it’s not very good at executing on its ideas and the story is too threadbare; certainly when compared to Hypnospace Outlaw which handled its IT-inspired plot so much better. Broken Reality is still worth a playthrough for its delightful weirdness, but it’s sad to consider how much better it could have been.