The Meh-ness of DA:I

What is wrong with Dragon Age: Inquisition? DA:I appears to have many of the right ingredients to make a satisfying game: a broad open world with different regions, characters, factions, some decent dialogue choices… And yet, much of the experience of playing DA:I resembles watching paint dry. What’s wrong with this game?

A few things, at least.

First, Bioware went with the most generic, least interesting overarching plot they could have to tie together an open world game: there are generic defined demons spilling out into the world from portals throughout the world! Please, explore the countryside, interact with the often nonplussed locals, and close these portals whenever you might feel the inclination! It’s a pretty shameless rehash of Oblivion, made still more generic by the fact that none of these demons are interesting in the least. DA:O had demons, but it did a nice job of characterizing them: they had personalities, they sometimes gave people what they wanted to get their way, and they illustrated a somewhat sophisticated, nuanced approach to a demon-haunted world. DA:I (as far as I can tell, almost 20 hours in) lacks all of these niceties.

Second, the “open world” is not much of an open world, by modern gaming standards. First, the regions themselves are pretty weak: Oh, here’s a vaguely French region! It rains a lot in this other part of the world! Wowee, forests and wild animals! But more than that, because of the way that gameplay and fighting work (more on that shortly), you’re always tied to your camps, the generic Inquisition, and the dry-as-dust plot. You can’t just stock up on potions, head for the hills, and go exploring: healing potions have to be restocked in your camps, you can’t rough it by resting out in the wilderness, and regions have to be unlocked by fulfilling the missions of the Inquisition. Even unexplored, difficult bits of territory are blocked by impassable landscape and near-unbeatable enemies. Skyrim is far from perfect, but it occasionally gives you the experience of coming upon extremely difficult enemies, seeing them before they see you, and then backing away very, very slowly (or getting seen and swiftly killed). For a nominally open world game, DA:I is annoyingly railroaded.

And finally, the gameplay and combat. The other sins of DA:I could be overlooked if it weren’t for the sheer boredom of its gameplay and combat. Tanks get some tweaking: tanks get armor when they successfully taunt enemies. As little sense as that makes from any logical perspective (and wargaming grognards are surely spinning in their graves), it does make combat with a tank a bit less annoying. That said, it’s the only tweak to a system that has little to recommend it. In DA:O, the choice of which companions to bring often presented interesting tactical options: bring Wynne along to play defense, or play all-in offense with AoE heavy hitters? Furthermore, many of the characters from DA:O have personalities and tactical roles when you meet them. The “characters” in DA:I largely lack any such niceties beyond their basic classes, which means Vivienne could be either a offensive badass or a defensive force; which role she might prefer or be better at, I have absolutely no idea. If the game is going to give you utterly generic NPCs, why stop at four? Why not allow the flexibility that comes with full, D&D-style parties?

Carefully defined tactical roles are unlikely to be a concern, however, because the difficulty level of the game is broken: most combats are entirely too easy on normal difficulty. The next difficulty level up does not change the character of combat much, but means that you’re going to burn through your (limited) potions and maybe see an NPC or two get knocked out in the fight because of their idiotic AI. This seems like a minor flaw, but a core feature of mainstream RPGs has been taking a character from impotent rat killer to demigod (or god– cf. Morrowind): how did they miss that?

Furthermore, DA:I eschews the dragon shouts and perks that add flavor to the experience of Skyrim and the modern Fallouts. But the broken difficulty level means that any time thinking through skills and specializations is wasted: who cares if your tank can tank incrementally better? Who cares if your mage has a slightly beefier attack?

If the tactical system weren’t hugely tedious to use, you might want to manage combat a bit more carefully. Overall, though, it’s best to just turn the difficulty level down and get through the combat as quickly as possible.

My feelings for this game don’t rise to the level of hatred; like a lot of Bethesda games, it pretty clearly represents an effort to split the baby, with some pandering to the market, a handful of things for Bioware diehards, and some experimentation around the edges. It is surely disappointing, however, especially in a franchise that had a lot of potential at the beginning.

Why Twitter has lost; Or, against brevity

In the wake of the rumors that Twitter was going to up its character limit, I started spiffing up my Twitter profiles: I added a few photos, started adding people to my various lists, and even started using it a bit more. Then, of course, it seems that those rumors provoked such a backlash within the hardcore Twitter community that Jack Dorsey was forced to shelve any modifications to the format. Here we have, in a nutshell, the reason that Twitter has lost: it’s utterly unwilling to make any modifications to its established product that might make it attractive or useful to those who aren’t already committed users.

For better or worse, for example, I’m friends with a lot of colleagues on Facebook. This is annoying– sometimes I just want to post something silly or random, and it’s annoying that I have so many professional colleagues mixed up in my FB. (And yes, I know there are ways to tweak that, but who has the time?)

In a way that’s only rivaled by a very few high quality email listservs, Facebook is the place I go to hear what people in my field are talking about and working on (and from a usability standpoint, it’s actually easier to skim and follow discussions on Facebook than in my Gmail). My colleagues make comments about work they’ve been doing, share fellowship, grant, and job postings, pose questions, and generally take advantage of the fact that we’re all working on our computers N hours a day. My colleagues from grad school have a really phenomenal little group that often contains very specialized questions: requests for bibliography, questions about translations, and the like. It would be nice, in some ways, if some of these discussions were on Twitter: we could draw on the breadth of Twitter’s userbase, have discussions in real time to a greater extent, and get away from some of the ickiness that attaches to FB (and perhaps bring in people who stay away from FB because of said ickiness).

But just as a for instance, I was messing around this morning with looking at the character length of these discussions. These aren’t Tolstoyan ruminations or Herodotean digressions: most of these discussions are sparked by a brief, sometimes humorous comment someone has made about their work or something they’ve found in their research. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of them are over 140 characters. Even just setting up the necessary context for many of these comments takes more than 140 characters. The only comments by my colleagues that fall under the 140 character limit are quick, humorous, and usually relate to popular culture (and so don’t have anything to do with professional communication at all).

Let’s be clear here: these are professional writers, and ones who’ve had a lot of success, too. These are people who write books and articles, and who and communicate for a living, who– as their posts make clear– are constantly engaged in the process of moving their ideas from insights to well crafted arguments, and for a variety of audiences, too. The argument that these people are incapable of concision and brevity strikes me as completely off base. (I make no such claims about my own capacity for brevity, however.)

The reality, I think, is that Twitter works great for subjects where everyone knows what you’re talking about: if you’re just railing about the latest idiotic or offensive thing that Trump has said, or some piece of celebrity gossip (and we all do), you don’t need any context. If you’re have something to say on subjects that require context or nuance, forget it.

But it’s not just that: I’m frequently astonished at how often Twitter falls down at its core functions: many, many times the most salient or compelling quotation on the news just won’t fit into 140 characters: I found a great analysis of some of the religious freedom legislation that’s been going through legislatures around the country a while ago, but the best quotations from and the core insights of the article just wouldn’t fit into 140 characters, and so I never ended up posting that analysis.

The result is that other services are eating Twitter’s lunch. Facebook, as I said, is pretty standard for a lot of scholars in my field. People in visually or design-oriented fields make a lot more use of Instagram than they do of Twitter. But it’s more than the fact that people self-select into platforms tailored to what they do instead of Twitter: it’s that these platforms are constructed in such a way that allows for novel kinds of use, and meaningful discussions beyond (and perhaps in spite of) the intentions of the platform’s designers in particular. I was surprised by how much substantive discussion there was on Instagram, for example, after the Freddie Gray murder and the unrest in Baltimore, and in a way that totally changed my feelings about the platform. Facebook allows for (even if it does not always brilliantly facilitate) real moments of connection: a friend going through medical difficulties, contact after a long period of disconnection, political debate that (sometimes) goes beyond kneejerk reaction. (And these are just things that have happened to me in the past week or so.) Every time I’ve tried to recommit to Twitter, I’ve had the opposite reaction: a lack of users beyond a narrow band of journalists, technology writers, and bots; friends with accounts who never post anything (and whose tweets get lost pretty quickly in the maelstrom); and, above all, the utter lack of any meaningful contact or communication through the platform, and the sheer disinterest of the company in fostering it. Twitter’s decision to stick with the current design of their broken platform may keep its users in the short term, but will do little to win anyone else over.