Thoughts on Busywork in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Criticism

My fiancée and I have been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. There’s a lot of material to cover there, but one thing I wanted specifically to write about is the superfluity of busy work. The game is overflowing with drab little sidequests, as has been pointed out by many people. It’s unusual, because it is so at odds with what the game sets out to do, and what it excels at. Bioware is at its best when writing interactive character-driven scenes with looping dialogue webs. This is where these games shine. No one is playing these for the combat, which is typically mediocre but serviceable, or the overall storytelling and plot, which leans towards the cliché. So it is a little baffling that Dragon Age: Inquisition places such an emphasis on a more Assassin’s Creed approach to open-worldbuilding by filling the world with progress bar heavy sidequests.

I was thinking about this when I saw Mike Laidlaw, the Bioware Creative Director, speak at recent NYU Game Center event. While the discussion was wide ranging, he did speak to this issue, albeit indirectly. While talking about some of the design goals they had, he stated the pacing they had in mind was something like the following (paraphrasing from my recollection): For the plot-advancing main missions, there is a gate of “power” required to unlock them before the player can proceed. How do you generate power then? Well, by however you want to play! You can unlock power by doing really combat-y sidequests and killing stuff, if that’s your fancy. Or by exploring regions and claiming things. Or by gathering crafting materials and fulfilling requisitions. Or by completing your companions’ quests and deepening relationships. And so forth. The goal was to allow the player to have the freedom to advance the story with the gameplay they most enjoy.

If that was truly the purpose behind the way the game is structured, then the implementation of it is almost laughably naïve. Because the game does not structure “Power” as a gating mechanic, but as a currency. The message to the player is not “You want to do this cool mission, but you need to make your army stronger, so go gather 20 power, however you want to!” Rather, it’s more akin to: “You gather power by doing all of these things. Spend power to unlock missions!” That inversion critically changes the dynamic for the player. It means power is something to be hoarded, and is spent to unlock content. So, players aren’t encouraged to just do enough side activities to unlock the next mission, but rather, to go and do all the side missions. This is what the reviewers are complaining about, the compulsion to fetch every item, deliver every widget, kill every ram, and so on. By rewarding the player for doing so many different things, it is implicitly telling the player to do all of these things. It runs too contrary to experience otherwise- why would a game give us 100 things to do, if it didn’t expect us to do them all? If it didn’t think doing them all was fun?

Now, I’m aware I have certain biases in that I have decades of play experience that inform my expectations about a game. So maybe this “you’re only meant to do some of the busywork” approach is really meant for more casual gamers and new audience members Bioware is hoping to attract. Besides the inherent condescension in that line of thinking, I have a hard time believing the game is trying to court new players, since it seems actively hostile to non experts. It throws gameplay concepts at the player very rapidly, and makes only the most cursory efforts to explain how its systems work. It has no tutorials. No hardcopy manual, or even one in-game: instead, it’s on a website somewhere. Tool-tips are available only on the loadscreens. There is simply no way this game could seriously be intended to cater to people unfamiliar with the genre or series.

So, if not naïvety, and not for casual players, then another explanation is that the piling on of inane activity is simply intentional. Perhaps Bioware is merely aping what it believes is a successful element from other open worlds. They have explicitly cited Skyrim as an influence. But if so, then in cargo-cult fashion they’ve copied the form but not the reason. Skyrim had mountains of inane quests too, but they were mainly given by NPCs, and felt grounded in the world. That contrasts sharply with Dragon Age: Inquisition, where the vast majority of these quests are given by disembodied pieces of paper. Only a few come from “characters”, which is ironic given the game’s focus on people otherwise.

It seems like a solution in search of a problem- if you feel the need to force the player to do other things before continuing the main game, maybe those other things aren’t substantial enough? Ironically, you could remove the power mechanic altogether, and most people would still do all the extraneous quests. So, I’m not sure whether the design goal was really to create a plot-gating mechanic that could support any playstyle, though it does explain what is otherwise a surprising miss for the game. Ultimately it doesn’t matter too much though. I should be clear that we’ve been really loving the game, and there’s a reason we’ve clocked something like 70 hours in it and aren’t even close to finished. But when we look back on it in the future, we’re going to remember key moments and decisions we made. We’ll remember seeing the hero of the last game come by for a cameo, we’ll remember Sera’s jokes, Dorian confronting his father, and the judgements we passed on the defeated. We won’t remember all the inane padding the developers felt was necessary, or one hopes, were forced to implement at the behest of some misguided executive.

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Treasure Adventure Game: Diamond in the Rough

Criticism

First off, I’m going to be discussing some spoilers here, so please don’t let me ruin for you the wonderful sense of discovery in playing Treasure Adventure Game. It’s a side-scrolling platformer that’s a sort of Zelda/Metroidvania type game, where you explore the world and solve puzzles. Go play it now, it’s an amazing indie title and you won’t be disappointed!

2014-07-24_00003Ok, glad you played it! Now, I can normally be quite harsh in my criticism, and I have a stern word or two to say about TAG, but the game itself manages expectations: It’s a free title, so it’s hard to begrudge it very much, and it has an “About” section where it lays out an adorable message from the creator, pictured to the right. I find the creator’s story personally inspiring, and Treasure Adventure Game is clearly a labor of love. And an inspired one at that: though described as a ‘love letter’ to games of the past, this is no nostalgia romp. It plays with and challenges some genre tropes in ways that I found very exciting.

2014-07-27_00001The game hits all the right notes when it comes to platforming/exploring: You jump about and explore a pixel-y landscape that’s filled with obstacles, NPCs, puzzles, etc. The game world feels surprisingly alive. First, it’s huge. I kept thinking I had reached the end of the map, but was surprised there was always another island to reach, which is a wonderful feeling. Getting around this truly massive landscape can occasionally feel tedious when you need to backtrack, but it’s a small price to pay for getting to explore such a lovingly rendered world. Secondly, it has some curious detail elements usually absent from similar games: it not only has a day/night system, but also has a weather system, and a wind system, and a full calendar and lunar cycle system. Not all of these matter to the same degree gameplay-wise, but it helps make the world feel like a real entity you’re exploring, and I appreciated their inclusion.

I was also impressed at the originality in the locations. In a game like this, you expect to hit all the usual clichés: the forest level, the lava level, the ice level, yadda yadda. And indeed, it does touch on some of the usual elements, like a pyramid level, a jungle level, etc. But you don’t generally expect the giant floating graveyard island level, the psychedelic mushroom people level or the underwater factory level. I thought some of the set pieces felt really fresh, and showed true creativity in the world building and level design. At times, the game really captured the feeling of exploring somewhere inherently new, which really drives home the central theme of adventure.

2014-07-28_00007The story itself hits some great notes as well. Even if the ending is a bit of a disappointment, it provided a great narrative underpinning to the exploration adventure and had some great twists. It was actually love at first sight for me: the opening narration relates an adventure that precedes the main game, and its shown as sepia polaroids. It’s a great setup and it makes it feel like the protagonist’s adventure is just one story that exists in this world, rather than the world existing purely to tell his story. The game tasks you with finding twelve magical artifacts, and I loved that these useless treasures were the stereotypical tools a game like this would have: the magic feather, the magic sword, the magic ring, etc etc. But the tools that we collect over the course of the game are the sail, the flashlight, the bottle, or the cannon. Fantasy genre tropes are very difficult to subvert successfully, but I loved how Treasure Adventure Game felt like its own thing. It’s really the perfect syncretization of the classic games it’s referencing, and the modern and unique perspective of its creator. For instance: early on I noticed little grey swirly things on each island, and correctly surmised this would at some point be a fast travel system. However, I imagined it’d just be a warp-gate style affair, I could never have guessed the system would be “Putting dimensional rifts in a bottle to access a bizarro black and white alter-dimension where it’s easier to travel.” Likewise, with the diving bell, I expected you’d only be able to dive at predetermined points. The realization that the overworld’s entire ocean has a bottom is stunning. As someone who plays a lot of games, I think I’m fairly difficult to surprise, and I was delighted at how often Treasure Adventure Game succeeded in truly surprising me.

2014-07-22_00003There are a few off-beats though. The art is serviceable but somewhat inconsistent, and the music is fine but repetitive. These misses are easy to ignore since it’s largely the work of a single person. Harder to ignore are some of the “Nintendo hard” elements, which ranged in severity from “That was way too tough but I feel good for beating it” to absolute controller-throwing fist-waving “What the fuck, game!” rage. Take a look at the screenshot on the left: to get to that little pot (which contains a miniscule amount of coins), you need to do three jumps with no clearance, which requires perfect timing. Ok- a tough jumping puzzle. If you mess up and fall, you can’t actually jump high enough to get back to where you started. Instead, you need to do a lengthy walk around the level to return from above. This seems like a bizarre message, in that it says that playing the game is itself a punishment. While many of the platforming challenges felt tough but fair, too many felt openly hostile to player- like requiring 20 lines of un-skippable dialogue while restarting difficult boss fights. The technical term for this is total horseshit.

2014-07-25_00003There are some design issues here, and it doesn’t succeed for me as a platformer (a good lesson in how to have a soul-crushing difficult platformer while still being fun, Super Meat Boy is a master class), but as a Metroidvania exploration game, it really is top-notch. When I finished it, I felt that sort of brief sadness you get when you finish a great book or game, the regret that the experience has come to an end. Hopefully I’ll get to enjoy the whole experience again: the creator is expanding the concept into a more fully realized game called Treasure Adventure World, and I’m excited to see how it progresses.

Thoughts on Full Bore

Criticism

Today we’ll be looking at another debut release from an indie studio, Whole Hog Games’ puzzler/platformer/boar simulator Full Bore. To provide a little more structure to my thoughts, I’m going to try to organize my discussion into sections:

Or, as fans call her, BoarShep

Overview
In Full Bore, you control a boar as you explore a pixelated and puzzle-filled environment. I had a good feeling right from the start about Full Bore, since the first thing the player is tasked with is choosing between playing a female or male boar. This has no effect whatsoever on the game, but it shows the developers are cognizant that not all players are male, and would perhaps like to control Hildi rather than Frederick. A nice touch!

The game consists of solving puzzles in order to explore the game world, which in turn advances the plot and reveals more background information about the world. Though the game looks like a platformer, the boar you play is unable to jump, which greatly complicates how you navigate the world and makes exploring feel different from other visually similar games. Also, it seems like it might be a Metroidvania type game (it’s about exploration, it has puzzles, pixel graphics, etc), but it’s totally not, and maybe confusingly so. In most games like this, as you explore you come across things you can’t get past, and you return later when you have the right tool. In Full Bore, you never get new abilities and can solve most everything as soon as you come across it. I wish this had been made explicit somehow, since I skipped things thinking “Can’t solve that, maybe I need some doohickey I’ll get later.” It seems silly, but if you’re breaking a central trope of the genre you’re in, I think it’s wise to signal that to the player somehow.

Narrative
Full Bore’s story uses a parallel structure of the player advancing the plot Hildi is experiencing while simultaneously letting the player learn more about the backstory. It’s not an original structure, but it’s used in so many adventure games because it works so well. Thematically, I also liked the line it walks between magic and technology: It’s a post-apocalyptic setting with sci-fi elements, but with some mysterious magic-y elements. It’s a great deal heavier, storywise, than the light visual style might imply. It reminded me of Adventure Time in both those respects. I found the backstory elements interesting, and loved whenever I came across a new Exposition Dispenser (notes, books, computer consoles, etc). The plot in the present is pretty weak by comparison: it begins as a throwaway premise to solve puzzles (getting gems), grows into a series of weak justifications to get you to go from one place to another, and eventually picks up into something more interesting as you go along. The story in the present also comes to loop in the backstory elements as well, of course. Also, I adored the moments in which the story unfolds through purely visual scenes- Full Bore is at times content to show, not tell, and storytelling without words like that is impressive.

2014-07-22_00011There’s some dissonance between the themes of the story and its cute talking animal characters, which while used for dramatic effect or humor in the aforementioned Adventure Time, here seems to just lean too heavily on the player’s suspension of disbelief. I thought the weight of something heavy like mankind’s extinction was undercut by the cute talking pigs, though not ruinously so. Call me jaded, I guess.

Mechanics
The puzzle elements of the game are essentially a twist on the age-old Sokoban, which is a conceptually deep well many designers draw from. Since you’re unable to jump, and can only move horizontally or diagonally up, the puzzles consist of pushing and destroying blocks to reach objectives. There are different types of blocks which behave differently to being pushed or destroyed, and introducing new block types as you advance is how the game compensates for the limited novelty of the underlying puzzle.

2014-07-22_00009 Since every puzzle can be reduced to a series of branching decision paths, they can usually be solved via a search tree approach (“Ok, first I have to do this, then I can do this or that, so I’ll try this first, then…”). Occasionally the puzzle elements interact a novel and unforeseen way, and those rare moments provide great “A ha!” solutions. While there were some that I felt super smart for completing, I more often felt they were either much too easy and therefore tedious, or far too difficult and thus frustrating. No puzzle game can please everyone since people have different aptitudes, but on the whole I think I’m dumber than the intended audience and found myself giving up frequently. Also, while most puzzles can be approached very leisurely and contemplatively, there were occasional aberrations that required running and quick reflexes, which I found unwelcome and out of place.

2014-07-22_00008

Worse than an NYC Subway map

Whereas an abstract puzzle game can have “levels”, Full Bore has a game world you explore to encounter puzzles. This is a bit of a mixed bag. Navigation is aided, somewhat, by a map and warp gate system (which has a great narrative payoff), but I found navigating the game world to be a chore when you needed to get somewhere specific. Exploring felt great, and the game has lots of tucked away areas to reward looking around. But getting from A to B, perhaps to backtrack to try an earlier puzzle, was painful. The two mechanics here, puzzle-solving and exploration, are too much in conflict: when you want to solve a given puzzle, getting there is frustrating, and when you want to explore, an intractable puzzle can prevent progress. Especially for some of the larger areas, trying to find a puzzle you might have missed was far too annoying for my tastes, and I was more likely to just skip them rather than try to find my way back through the twisty map system.

Art Direction
2014-07-22_00005Full Bore has a great faux-retro pixel style. In contrast to Wizorb, which used a very traditional pixel art approach, Full Bore has a more modern take. It’s pixel art, but not obsessively so, as it uses modern lighting, shading, and animation techniques. I found the art style visually engaging and it was used consistently to accentuate the narrative themes. So levels are bright and cheerful where appropriate, but at other times moody and foreboding. The game really benefits from such a well executed mise-en-scène.

This atmosphere is assisted in turn by the music, which is really top-notch. I think music in games only rarely rises above the level of “Is not a nuissance and provides aural cues to the player”, but Full Bore’s does a wonderful job. The music is enjoyable in its own right (a sort of ecclectic mix of musical styles that creates a unique feel), but each track was well tailored to the accompanying levels. The quality of the compositions is such that it even excuses that the band who created them has the ludicrously sophomoric name of ‘The Adjective Plural Noun’. Get it, get it? Like all band names are always… ah, nevermind.

Ludonarrative Consonance
2014-07-22_00006 If you’ll accept the reductive premise of looking at a game’s narrative, audiovisual style and mechanics separately and on their own merits, let’s now look at how these elements work in concert.

On the whole, I think Full Bore’s elements come together very cleanly. The narrative themes concern science and exploration and delving too deeply, and the mechanics too are about puzzle solving and exploring, and the art and music bolster both these fronts- so far so good. During its best moments, Full Bore really is something special; atmospheric, fostering a sense of discovery, and making the player feel a part of an interesting experience in both imagination and practice. That’s difficult to pull off! Solving puzzles to open up new areas isn’t a new idea, but it’s used effectively, and the artwork and writing ensure you want to keep exploring. Technically, there’s nothing about pushing blocks around that relates to the narrative (in the same way that, as an example, Braid’s puzzles are directly linked to its theme), but its an original spin on block-pushing and it works well enough, and it does reinforce the largely subterranean setting, I suppose.

There are aspects of Full Bore that work against one another though, or that could’ve been used to better effect:

The nominal objective for solving most puzzles is to get a gem. Why do we want those, in-universe? For some handwaved reason that doesn’t matter. I had the most fun solving puzzles where the objective was a doorway. The reward was getting to see somewhere new. I solved puzzles to get gems because, mechanically, that’s what the game asks me to do. I think either having the puzzle objective matter in some meaningful narrative way would be an improvement, or, having all puzzles lead to doorways. That might not be feasible practicably speaking, but it’d create a stronger convolution between story and game.

While the art style does a great job amplifying the story and sense of exploration, I think it detracts from the puzzle elements. Full Bore’s narrative world and its puzzle/mechanic world are the same thing, which is fantastic and some ways, but can lead to confusing visuals. Take this screenshot:

2014-07-22_00010To the immediate right of Hildi are dirt and stone blocks you can destroy/move, but that path does not lead anywhere. Above her, past the blue material, are more dirt and stone blocks, but those cannot be interacted with, they’re just scenery. To the lower right are dirt and sand that do lead somewhere. The use of puzzle-blocks, so to speak, as background-blocks creates interesting and consistent visuals, and each level was designed with obvious artistic care. But mechanically, it’s maddening! It’s never clear if something is part of a puzzle, or just background, or if maybe it’s background for now but later you’ll find some other way to get there. I really love that the world that exists narratively is the same one we solve puzzles in, but having ‘puzzle-blocks’ the player can never touch seems like a design misstep.

Lastly, I think there’s some ludo-ludo dissonance, so to speak, as well. Mechanically, we solve puzzles and explore an environment. When things are going well, this works great- you solve some puzzles, see new places, good time to be a boar. But when you get stuck on a hard puzzle (which as I said, happened to me frequently), the best thing to do is to step away from the game. I found whenever I came back later, I’d approach the puzzle in a new way and solve it. But that had interrupted the sense of exploration, and I had forgotten where I was or what I was doing. Puzzles and Exploration are great together when they’re both perfect, but if either are anything short of that they really detract from each other.

Conclusion
For a first-time game from a young studio, I think Full Bore is really solid. I’m able to nitpick some faults largely because the game is so charming overall (…and also because I’m great at nitpicking), and it’s a great example of how the mechanic and narrative elements of a game can come together for a better whole. Also, the mole people were cute.

Thoughts on Wizorb

Criticism

Look at those pixels!

In general, I don’t particularly like games that feature some narrative theme painted over an unrelated mechanical base. Robert Abbott wrote once about how animating Chess, by say making the knights come alive and charge into the peasant pawns, can’t be called an improvement. I agree with this, but despite my prejudice, it’s hard not to be charmed by Wizorb, the 2011 debut project from Tribute Games. It’s just Breakout, but it has a cute 8-bit RPG veneer on top. It’s clear no one sat down and thought, “How can we best mechanically represent the awesome power of being a wizard? Maybe pong?” Nope- it’s clear the pitch here began and ended at “So, it’s Breakout, but with a cute 8-bit veneer on top.” And while as an idea that’s not inspired, and neither is the execution, it’s still a diverting experience for a short time.

The production value is really quite high- the animations, the menus, the cinematics, etc etc, are all lovingly done in a convincing retro style. It’s also not using the increasingly common faux-pixelated style, wherein it looks pixelart-esque, but employs lots of modern shading and animation tricks. No, this is believable as a NES game, or as an arcade cabinet from the early 90s (though not exactly, since it probably uses too many colors or whatever). I feel the retro style is being used here to good effect- it gives a fun and oldschool feel to the game, which is appropriate, since the core mechanic of Breakout is almost 40 years old. But does the narrative veneer here improve the underlying game? I actually think it does, though it doesn’t go far enough. Breakout is fine as an abstract game- you have a paddle, you move it about, and hit blocks. It’s the game of trajectories! With Wizorb though, the standard paddle is replaced with your magic wand, as the protagonist Cyrus is presumably a graduate from one of the lamer schools of magic. The blocks are replaced with 8-bit crates, bushes, enemies, etc. The power-ups mostly feel natural as well; you build up magic which you can use on a fireball spell to destroy one block, make the ball go through obstacles, etc. You can also spend magic on some sort of whirlwind spell which alters the ball’s speed and trajectory, but it was too finicky to use well so I never did. There are also cute power-downs, like a blob of evil goo (what.) that slows your paddle down, and you get rid of it by shaking the paddle back and forth- that’s delightful design.

A cute RPG town, but to what end?

The RPG elements feel a little tacked on at times though. During stages you can collect coins, which you can spend in bonus level shops to buy upgrades like increasing the size of your magic wand (which is an awkward a phrase to type as I’m sure it is to read), or buying extra lives. These elements don’t quite hit home for me, but they’re not bothersome. The method of accessing bonus stages though- via hard to reach doors with bonus keys you collect- feels like a nice marriage between Breakout and the RPG setting. There’s also a home town that you can repair/upgrade, though I’m not sure what the benefit of doing so is. It’s surprising there aren’t more RPG features- I expected to level up my wizard guy for powers, like different spells, faster paddles, the ability to see a dotted line projecting where the ball goes (the skill would presumably be called “Wizard eyes”), I don’t know, something. What’s the point of affecting an RPG art style if you’re not going to use RPG game elements? There’s also an extremely thin story as well, which feels like another missed opportunity- why add narrative trappings and characters if you’re not going to use them?

Even if underused, the RPG elements are charming. However, it doesn’t stop the core mechanic from feeling stale. I mean, it’s just Breakout, with no surprises: you hit a ball with the paddle to destroy blocks. Beyond the aesthetic changes, there’s remarkably little innovation going on here, just the usual fare- the paddle can be slower or faster, longer or shorter, the ball can get faster, and presumably there’s a multiball power somewhere, because there’s always a multiball power. As a result, to me it felt incredibly tedious. A given area has 13 levels, and I struggled to get through them just because the underlying game is just such an old hat. An old hat, with the same unrepaired holes: a game of Breakout starts out fun and chaotic, but getting the last few blocks is always time consuming and not particularily fun. That’s on full display here- level after similar level, waiting to hit that damned last crate. There is some innovation going on here though- the boss fights in particular are breath of fresh air to the well-worn premise, and are executed well. But those moments are few and far between, and the interim is just too boring to trudge through.

I feel bad ragging on Wizorb so. It’s an indie game and was very clearly made with love. The art direction and music are great, and the theme is more or less consistently executed throughout. But that doesn’t stop it from being just an RPG gloss on a stale game, and it’s a shame more thought wasn’t devoted to either the gloss or the game.