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.

Thoughts about Fallout: New Vegas

It’s too bad that Fallout: NV had such a rough launch, because after playing it a bit in recent weeks, I am coming to think that it is, in fact, a better game than Fallout 3.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, VATS quickly unbalanced the gameplay in Fallout 3, and they’ve made it a riskier tactic in Fallout: NV, which adds a nice layer of complexity to the game. The factions in Fallout: NV are better. The Legion is a bit monochromatic, but they make pretty great villains all the same. The Fellowship of the Apocalypse is a nice faction; it’s nice to have an unaligned faction, it really fleshes out the world, I think. There’s a good mix of humor and darkness in the game– a lot of things that are funny but also melancholy, and a number of amusingly random things, like Creeper in Morrowind. FO3 had some of all of this, but the humor felt unearned and just wasn’t funny a lot of the time.

I think a big part of it (at least at this point) is simply that it feels like a real place. Fallout 3 started to feel samey and uninteresting as a place after a time. (This may be an accurate reflection of the DC suburbs, however.) Much of Fallout: NV feels like a place, or approaches that feeling more than Fallout 3. It’s funny how your sense of place works, though. I have a much stronger sense of place in a lot of IF than almost anything else. A close second is Morrowind, and all of the distinct kinds of landscapes they managed to cram into Vvardenfell. (I can remember the surprise of coming upon Suran and Telasero for the first time, or running around in Vivec– those felt like real places.)

As with any Bethdesda game, there are definite kinks. For one, it’s silly that the game as shipped has so many invisible walls, particularly given that one of the joys of the game is simply exploring. It kills that joy to have to find a decent mod to be able to explore in an organic way. The encounters can be randomly difficult, it seems: most of the encounters on the main quest line seem pretty easy, but random encounters seem surprisingly difficult (though maybe that’s a kink of the leveled encounter system).

To talk a bit more about quests, NV opts for a somewhat unhappy compromise between the open world of previous Bethesda games and the elaborate quests and writing of a Bioware game. The problem, however, is that the game doesn’t actually have the extensive railroading that makes Bioware quests run smoothly. I was just trying to play through the ‘Beyond the Beef’ campaign, and came up with a whole series of ways to break the quest, many of which resulted in the PC and important NPCs getting killed. This kind of thing breaks the immersion of the game, for one, but it also means that the ethical/role-playing dimensions of the game are limited or constrained. A GM would be able to see or determine what you are trying to do and the ethical balance you as the player are trying to strike, but the computer is just confused. It’s funny to think back, though: Morrowind was a gem of a game, but the quests were largely very simple, very rudimentary fetch quests. But the simplicity of these quests meant that interacting with the world was largely uninterrupted by constantly trying to figure out how to run a particular quest.

Random bits

Things that have caught my attention recently:
C64 SID music (as in the excellent compilation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq9ZZ8zilDw ) How did I not know this exists? And is often so good? (h/t to Jimmy Maher’s excellent blog.)

Similarly: the Cygwin project. How nice it is to have a *nix terminal in Windows (especially if you alias some Windows files in Cygwin)! This is totally something I’m going to install on every computer from now on.

New EMA – pretty fucking rad.

The DM Genie – I was already excited looking at the screenshots of this, but then I saw the ones where you can simulate the weather… damn.

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, me, and the physical world

I was really quite excited when SSFIV:AE went on sale on Steam a little bit ago. I’d been waiting for it to go on sale for a while, and so I snapped it up.

My favorite fighting game, to be honest, is still Mortal Kombat. It’s a fairly simple game, and I played so much of it at such an impressionable age that I’m still pretty solid at it. But I’ve messed around with emulated versions of it, and it’s disappointing– one of the really satisfying things about the MK series on consoles is how snappy it is. The emulated games are fairly sluggish, by comparison, which defeats the purpose, I think. As I see it, one of the satisfying things about fighting games– and about a lot of video games, more generally– is that they let you get into this rhythm, you get a sense of flow.

So back to SSIV:AE, to fast-forward a couple of weeks. I’ve been putting in time, regularly, at practicing. I’ve found the character I prefer, have gotten a sense of his normals, learned his specials, am working on his ultras (and his super, to a lesser extent), and… I’ve plateaued. I’m still just a bit above mediocre– better than someone who’s playing it for the first time, but not great– and not even progressing, really. I’m depressingly inconsistent on his ultras, even though they’re something I’ve been working on a lot.

This isn’t a surprise, though. At some point, Nietzsche talks about how the body can have a sense of humor. One of the humorous things about my body is that it has these ironic ways of reminding me– much as I hate it sometimes– that I’m most suited to living in my head. I get filled with wild pride, or I start fantasizing about becoming a physician, and then I drop something while I’m trying to make tea, an activity I do on a daily basis. These things remind me of the frailty and flaws of my physical existence, as talented as I occasionally feel at other things.

I think I would have had a different childhood, and a different life, if I had been better at video games. I would have been the one playing, rather than the one watching. I would probably have played more, and read less; been attracted by the reality more, and the possibility less. There may even be something to the thought that I would be inclined to action, rather than reflection and abstraction, if the things that shaped my relationship with the physical world had played out differently.

Role-playing epistemology

One of the persistent problems of running a role-playing game, I think, is having to mediate between different levels of knowledge. Having new players who don’t know the rules is a problem, but it’s one that is resolved rather quickly as they get used to things– that’s not really what I’m talking about. The bigger problem as a DM is that you have all of these conflicting levels of knowledge about what’s going on in the game.

For example, if a party comes across an abandoned chapel in the woods, one of the PCs has to come to the realization that it’s a chapel to Corellon Larethian (e.g.) where it could just as conceivably be a chapel of Ehlonna. As a DM, you have a dilemma. The in-game mechanism is simple and reasonable; the wise cleric in the party does a Knowledge (Religion) check, and finds out that the chapel belongs to Corellon Larethian (i.e. is told by the DM). In addition, there’s also a level of common knowledge the players need to move the story along.
It’s lame and immersion breaking to have the DM tell the whole party, ‘No, you know, Corellon Larethian, the god of the elves (hint, hint– remember the elf you met earlier)’. And it’s also lame if one of your players steps out of character (even though she’s playing a half-witted orc rogue) to point out the obvious elven character of the chapel.

One solution is to keep such specialist knowledge out of your story. But part of the fun in DMing is playing around with the lore and giving your story arc deeper resonances.

I imagine there are a number of ways to resolve this problem, but I came up with one while I was walking home today. One could give each player something akin to a course packet, with photocopies of relevant sections from whatever source texts you’re using. This allows you to use whatever source text you like (instead of having to keep to the well-beaten path), or also to interpolate things the DM’s written to give texture and content to the fictional world.

This gives all of the players a common pool of knowledge to draw from, and allows each player to mediate between their level of knowledge and that of their PC.

Media: Game Publishing Economics

This is a little old, apologies if you’ve already read it, but one of the news articles (http://games.ign.com/articles/708/708972p1.html) on the Codex was this IGN article about the economics of game publishing, something I’ve wanted to know more about for a while.

As the game industry grows up, I’d be curious to see someone compare it with the movie business. One is tempted to blame the decline of once-noble franchises on an increasingly stodgy industry…

Role Playing

There’s an interview (http://consumer.hardocp.com/article.html?art=MTA2NCwxLCxoY29uc3VtZXI=) with Ken Rolston of Bethesda up at some random website I’ve never heard of. It’s always nice to find someone’s an RPG true believer.

“Rolston: I had once dreamed that roleplaying games would transform culture. I expected roleplaying games to take their place alongside literature, drama, and cinema. It didn’t happen that way, perhaps just because it is so much more work for users to produce a narrative than to consume one — or perhaps because crafting narratives as a hobbyist is of interest only to a limited number of people. I’m only a little disappointed, though. For a small number of people, roleplaying games have become a uniquely satisfying pastime, perhaps even occasionally a vehicle for exploring the human condition.”

I think people who play role playing games and take them seriously know what he’s talking about; there’s a feeling you sometimes get when you’re like, “whoa, there’s something powerful going on here.” It’s that feeling that keeps you coming back, that makes me hope I’m still playing when I’m three times my age.

I enjoy computer role-playing games well enough, but even my favorites don’t come close to a good session of PnP role playing. The older you get and the more experiences you have, it gets harder to enjoy a computer role-playing game– no matter how sandboxy its sandbox. Your experiences, who you are, what you believe– these things just make PnP playing richer and better. It’s amazing stuff. If you’re in the club, you know what I’m talking about.

Even so, I think Rolston is unrealistic in his expectations. Things that are popular are either crass and undemanding, or fads. People make meaning for themselves apart from the whirl of popular culture.