‘Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me –– of cafes, of music, of love… and death.’
The opening scrawl of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars (1996) sets a rather curious precedence. A delicate depiction of France that whilst forbidding, lack the theatrics expected of a video game. But it is precisely its non-conformity –– the middle ground between a written text –– that characterises the charming and unique adventure that follows. A rich blend of intricate narrative, memorable figures, gorgeous visuals and quite literally genre-defining gameplay: Shadow of the Templars birthed a franchise that earns a special place in my heart.
Of course, the multiplicity of said franchise is rather expansive. Broken Sword emanates from British developer Revolution Games –– and co-founder Charles Cecil –– who enjoyed some acclaim with Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The games, typically, focused on historical conspiracies within a 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ format and remain, to this day, Europe’s biggest selling adventure series. Spawning four sequels, Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997), The Sleeping Dragon (2003), The Angel of Death (2005) and The Serpent’s Curse (2014) –– with its third and fourth instalments briefly embracing a 3D engine –– the franchise is typically lauded alongside the popular LucasArts SCUMM titles.
But coinciding with the release of Duke Nukem 3D and Core Design‘s original Tomb Raider, Broken Sword began life amidst very different approaches to this medium. Its emphasis on hand drawn set-pieces, slow gameplay and dry humour make it not only incongruous within the video game trajectory at the time but even more so today. The relative subsidence of Point-and-Click adventures seems to cement this. Posing the question: what is its appeal and longevity?
Broken Sword, as a series, is something incredibly special. It’s much more than one or three award-winning titles and more than a product of its time. It’s also more than a mere robust point-and-click game. (Thought it is commendable) There is a far richer quality that surrounds its role as visual, jovial entertainment. This article is not a love letter to its first game nor the nostalgia it inspires today; but rather a look at the various threads the franchise has spun over the last twenty or so years. In short, Broken Sword has a certain approach: a humour, an intellect; an idiosyncratic choice of location, design and pacing that deserves attention, if not praise, that it often fails to attract.
Paris in Fall: Inventory screenshot from opening scene in Shadow of the Templars (1996)
In this grossest of generalisations, Broken Sword follows the escapades of American lawyer George Stobbart and French journalist, love interest and all round purveyor of sass, Nico Collard. The two cross paths in a number of fated incidents that bind them forever. In the Shadow of the Templars, a near-death experience finds them on the trail of the Knights Templar; a fundamentalist cult that sees the pair travel from Parisian catacombs to Syrian markets. The sequel bares a similar scale: with the pair caught in a Peruvian conspiracy for Aztec treasure and traverse the world as a result. Later iterations rekindle these undertones, exploring everything from dragons to Gnostic spiritualism. Without descending into plot details, the emphasis on exotic, hollywood locations with hidden doorways and temples-of-doom are a cornerstone of this franchise. Protecting the world from well-hidden weapons and cults features heavily, too. But all the same, these moments are always juxtaposed with everyday locations: cafes, hotels and construction sites. There is a humility that surrounds its more spectacular segments. It is, in essence, the series’ charm: how its protagonists become ‘accidental heroes’.
Unlocking the extraordinary within the ordinary is the crux here. It ties together both its narrative and visual components. Its gameplay follows the traditional ‘Point-and-Click’ format of using inventory items to solve problems; with a leaning towards an every day sensibility. Whether it be the pencil through a keyhole or similar pocket-lint trickery, there is something very honest, if not Macgyver-esque about it all. Dialogue shapes this further, with NPCs often alluding to solutions and ways to move the game forward. At time this can be more omniscient: how can I distract a police officer? Before descending into something far sillier. The officer clearly needs the toilet; perhaps the nearby fountains will get him to move? Such humour is always appropriately placed and never at the expense of story. Where the Monkey Island titles obviously strived for a more fantastical, outlandish tone, the Broken Sword games remain more reserved. They balance humour like any great text, to mediate the darker moments, without becoming farcical. It is, above else, an undeniably British approach.
Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon (2003) –– George and Nico become intwined with Arthurian legend in the franchises’ flawed but generally excellent foray into 3D gameplay.
In fact, the stories deserves greater attention. The mix of historical fiction, conspiracy and aforementioned normality is distilled rather well. The Neo-Knights Templar are reminiscent of an illuminati, freemason type group, but never feel too ridiculous for the subtext. As a historian, I find much of it rather digestible. That’s not to say fault-lines around the globe are harnessing the power of dragons; a power that will be exacerbated by a cult for world domination, but the build up is rather solid. The first title gives a wonderful, timeless insight into the execution of the Knight Templar by order of the Crown in 1314. The secrecy of their organisation is fitting and allows the player to journey across beautiful European and Asian locations as a result. By the third title, this pseudo-history is all the more acceptable. Revolution consistently embed their stories in a history that explores what is factually unproven but entirely possible all the same. In The Sleeping Dragon, which follows an Arthurian legend to Glastonbury, Revolution boast their British charm even further. It’s hard to imagine many developers venturing beyond Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in their internationally touted image of Britain. But here we see conversations about the BBC, the ‘rowdy’ music festival and the folklore that swaps the Somerset town. It all goes to serve the character of this franchise. Something that is exotic and exhilarating whilst retaining a personal, familiar feeling.
Manuscript in Shadow of the Templars offers exposition through ‘Point-and-Click’ format
Its approach to the past is important on a cultural scale, too. Broken Sword is not an Indiana Jones nor Tomb Raider adventure. The mysteries of old are not used as playground for idle action. The game entails signifiant dialogue –– excellently written dialogue at that –– which makes the overall experience somewhere between an interactive story and a narrative heavy adventure. The flagrant lack of guns and violence is most pertinent. This is not part of a child-friendly age rating, although I do not doubt that factors, but rather a gun-ho adventure simply wouldn’t work with the tone and direction. Henchman and antagonists often wield handguns, offering immediate death for George and Nico in gameplay. But there is little impetus for either party to stoop to their level. In situations where Lara Croft would simply shoot her way out; George and Nico use stealth, common sense and whatever objects surround them to avoid capture. Firearms represent an end-game for the pair, making such encounters deeply refreshing.
Arguably, this could be a reflection of its regional heritage. Without wanting to over intellectualise the point, note that British culture is less facilitating towards firearms and therefore less fitting with the ‘everyday life’ that frames these games. For George to take a shotgun to a cafe would simply not make sense. As a result, Broken Sword has a more tangible violence. We knock out henchmen and avoid gunshots, but we do not reciprocate their means. Primarily, because it wouldn’t be logical: these characters are not violent people. But more notably, it would lower the tension and momentum that the titles build. We need to fear for these haphazard heroes and align with their cause. Otherwise, the mountains of dialogue would become laborious.
Opening cinematic from Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997)
In other words, the dialogue that builds the character effectively compliments the gameplay. Indeed the strength of these titles can be credited to its well rounded cast and execution of such. George and Nico are defined figures who drive the qualities of the game. Stobbart is a stubborn, cocky protagonist but one deeply relatable. He is flawed, funny and his wise-cracks are not as sharp as he hopes. With Collard, we see a maturer flare, whose constant put downs make for a wonderful dynamic between the two. In later titles, the player bounces between these two characters, but what is important is that they remain recognisable throughout. They may not be immortalised in popular culture as previously noted tomb-raiders, but their depth outshines them all. It is also curious to note the criticism that the rather forgettable fourth instalment received for focusing on a new female counterpart. But all that said, the continuity between titles is well conceived. Gangster ‘Flap’, Museum curator André Lobineau and Police Sergeant Moue all make regular appearances in different titles. The games also have a penchant for easter eggs and internal jokes; poking fun at throwaway moments in early titles. More forgettable NPCs, from neighbours to the tourists George meets in Syria –– appropriately enjoying another vacation in its tropical sequel –– are scattered throughout the subsequent releases. Even the ghastly Goat puzzle in the first game makes for self-referential point about George’s irrational fear of the animal, nearly twenty years later. New characters are typically warm and interesting, but this continuity makes for a better experience. It threads the titles together whilst building a canonical universe of its own. Fan service or otherwise; this all contributes to the rich and unique Broken Sword world.
‘The Goat Puzzle’
As for the relevance of this world today? A number of points seem pertinent. Primarily, the first two games saw resurgence a few years ago thanks to an App Store remaster. Smartphones make ‘Point-and-Click’ games rather more ‘touch and click’, but such a launch gave a new generation an opportunity to play these titles. It did so to great avail, although I personally did not care for the ‘Director’s Cut’ additions. (Revolution decided to pull a George Lucas and add new chapters to their remaster) Regardless, the sentiment was well received. More recently, and all the more excitingly, the fifth title to the franchise has seen a unanimous return to form. Released from a crowd-funded campaign, Revolution were free to make both the title they and the fans wanted. The overall result was a two-part title –– a pragmatic result of its unique production –– but a ‘sword’ game that saw the beautiful hand-drawn aesthetics, effortless humour and familiar faces embark on a new era. Boasting 1080p renders and more meticulous animation, this return to 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ proves an unyielding quality to these games. The Serpent’s Curse is the most enjoyable instalment for many years. It’s also available across all next-gen consoles and formats, making a remarkable revival for a supposedly dying genre.
There is also some underlying poignance to this newer release. The title of this article nods to the curious artistic design of Broken Sword. The games were always torn between gorgeous hand drawings and the choppy, pixelated technology of the mid-late nineties. But it’s seemingly come full circle. It once commanded the middle-ground between text and gaming; now does so with unashamed confidence. It is no longer held back by trying to fit in with its rivals. Broken Sword has both a style and substance of its own: the product of two decades of engineering.
Deja vu: A familiar scene in Broken Sword V: The Serpent’s Curse (2013-14)
Above all else, the Broken Sword games are defined on their own terms. They have heart, wit and a truly personal approach to story telling. It has memorable character and remains the most British series I’ve played whilst forgoing a British protagonist. It also represents an effort to keep strong, to strive further for the perfect adventure game even in a world which fell for its pistol-wielding adversaries. When citing influential titles of 1996, few would look upon Broken Sword in the Call of Duty world. But is precisely that legacy that inspired this piece. For those who invested into this franchise, who stood by its curious middle-period and wanted more than mere remasters have found themselves rewarded beyond all doubt.
The Broken Sword games represent an integral part of my childhood; a growing desire to pursue history academically and an affection towards narrative-heavy gaming. But they also offer something far more profound. They are empirical proof that the flashiest, most expensive or trendy titles do not always attain longevity. That the more adventurous stories, the riskiest and more curious can be the most inspiring. That titles can hold intrigue well beyond exploring what passed as digital entertainment twenty years ago. It has been a precarious journey for this franchise, but its resolve and triumph is unquestionable. And I cannot wait to see where it goes next.