Sunday, February 1, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Simultaneous Success and Failure of Black Flag's Streamlined Systems!

After nearly a year of pussyfooting around, I finally finished Assassin's Creed: Black Flag on my last week of "vacation."  It was time consuming, but not because it was especially difficult.  Assassin's Creed: Black Flag is easily the most accommodating of the Assassin's Creed titles I've played to date, a far cry from the first Assassin's Creed rhythm-puzzle style of play, which required fluidly moving in and out of combat, and punished minor mistakes with swift and merciless desynchronization.  No, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag's accommodating nature was actually the aspect of it that gang-pressed me into doing something I almost never do with a game: tracking down every collectible to get a 100% completion rating.

Don't get me wrong, my OCD is often tapped by games and wrung into a kind of strange aberrant productivity that propels me to try the same stupid task over and over again in the hopes of unlocking some kind of meaningless achievement or bonus item I don't need.  But usually there's a ceiling to it: the shitty "shoot around a wall" puzzle in Wolfenstein that I have to solve to find that gold, requiring an hour of trial and error, is going to lose me.  I just don't care about gold that much, the puzzle structure is too obtuse, and I want to hear the next hilariously bad piece of dialogue coming down the pipe in the main story.  I'm going to have to solve dozens of other poorly designed puzzles while I play as well if I want to get that sweet, sweet 100% feather in my hat, which means fewer jokes-about-sex-with-a-Polish-woman per hour, and more controller-snapping frustration infiltrating my good-enough shooting.  Fuck that!

Black Flag curtails this boredom by making all of its achievements more or less achievable, out of the box.  Some of them take more work than others - one in particular, requiring me to kill two people who only stand together very briefly at the start of their patrol pattern at the same time, required the interdiction of a guide - but for the most part, they're all laid bare.  Collectibles are highlighted on the map.  What's more, "Accomplishments," which were gated in previous Assassin's Creed games, are also highlighted from the get-go.  Not only can I see where I need to go to get all the sweet, sweet collectibles out of the box, I can see what I need to do to unlock cheats, costumes, and other stuff I know I'll never use.  The end result is a kind of amplification of my instinct to chase shiny things in video games, a propulsion towards readily accessible achievements: if I can see an end goal in sight, I can tackle it, and I'm a lot less likely to be discouraged if I have to beat my head against a wall to do so (and I did, quite a few times).

There's also a great deal to be said for how well-designed Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed titles have become.  Black Flag is a remarkably well crafted game, and the puzzles reflect how the intuitive controls that have been in place since the first title in the series have finally been matched with level design that actually permits players to apply the same intuitive principles to navigation that they already apply to movement.  If I see a challenge on my Objectives readout, or a collectible hanging in mid-air, I can usually see a path to it in my environment, or get a sense of how a path will emerge if I keep moving around.  That's a far cry from the first Assassin's Creed's wacky "flag system," which required me to explore areas I'd never explore and do things I'd never do, or even consider doing, to find items I didn't really need.  Black Flag marks a laudable movement away from the hard-core notion that exploration is its own reward: it codifies it to draw players into new places, and then lets players to take in the scenery if they like.

And holy shit, the scenery!  I actually spent a half-hour one night sitting on top of an ancient Mayan ruin, staring out into the ocean.  There was nothing to be gained by doing so, no achievement on the docket, though I had been drawn to the area by a collectible marker on the map.  It was just a beautiful sight, and it gave me a chance to reflect on just how amazing the world that's been crafted around me in this game could really be.  That's the real power of Black Flag: it's not that it can compel me to collect random bits of light, it's that it can compel me to collect random bits of light while making me feel like I'm being rewarded just for navigating the environment.  To someone who grew up playing Everquest on a broken 3D-add-on video-card that interpreted the entire landscape of the game as white polygons flushed in pink shadows, the fact that a developer has created an environment I take in with the same intensity I apply to a painting is insane.

But it is a painting, in many ways.  Artists worked hard to design those areas, and make them into beautiful, functional works.  The effort is hardly new, it's just that the quality of the finished product has improved so dramatically and completely that here, at long last, is an environment where I can sit and take in not just an image or a character or an object, but a world.  The medium of games has always aimed at accomplishing this, it's just been striving against invisible barriers along the way.  Black Flag surmounts them without apparently trying to do so - in aspiring to craft an immersive landscape, they so fully succeed that I can immerse myself and simply inhabit a space if I choose to do so.  At one point, I found myself sailing a great distance without using travel mode, taking in the sounds of the sea, tacking against an oncoming wind, the same way I would in a real sailboat.  The end result wasn't tedious or awkward.  It was wonderful.  It reminded me of sailing with my dad, and it actually made me understand the process of tacking against the wind more fully.  Inhabiting this virtual world, full of cute little shortcuts, and avoiding those shortcuts, made me understand something sailors have been doing as long as they've been sailing.  I could do this, mind you, but I didn't have to.  If I wanted to, I could just move the ball forward by disabling things like "wind impacting sea travel," or I could just open up a map and press X over the map icon I want to travel to.

And therein lies the rub: Black Flag arguably streamlines itself too well.  Most of the story missions are easy, particularly if you ignore the optional objective requirements.  You can breeze through some of them in five or ten minutes, which makes the story often feel less like a narrative frame, and more like a kind of checklist: killed this guy, killing this guy, will kill this guy.  Occasionally the pace slows down, but it happens in fits and starts: some missions will pass in swift, violent fugue, others will drag on with conversation set against beautifully realized landscapes.  The very ease that made me seek out every last chunk of collectible love in the game feels off, somehow, when translated into narrative structure.  I find myself missing the kind of drawn-out carriage chases and pope-fights of Assassin's Creed 2's definitive revision on the series.  Instead of taught chases through ancient ruins, I'm permitted to circumspectly stroll around the outskirts of them until, poof, stab in the neck, cutscene, memory-reset.

I think I might be alone in lamenting this change.  Assassin's Creed has always been an ambitious series with some remarkable heft behind its gameplay and environment design, but the first game consisted of missions that involved long periods of buildup that most players found unpleasant.  I say most players, because I never felt that way: to me, they were raw catharsis, the opening movements of a dance I learned in my youth that I stumblingly perform without thinking, again and again.  Every entry in the series has dedicated itself towards balancing these disparate elements: AC2 made the story missions more character driven, and broke up the pattern that the first Assassin's Creed's limited mission types imposed on play.  AC3 made the landscapes and models of play more diverse by making dedicated play in fully realized non-urban environments a staple of the series, instead of a break from play-as-usual, and made its story missions into more scripted, individuated sequences.  Black Flag is a step back from that script-heavy production, in one sense, but in moving away from those longer, more directive mission archetypes, it's generated a framework that allows it to streamline things that are, I think, sometimes best left drawn out: character development, narrative development, and dialogue all exist partially divorced from play in Black Flag, occurring largely in cutscenes, or in long sequences of naval travel.  That is not to say that I especially liked following people down the streets of Venice while carrying a box, but I did enjoy bantering with a slaver as I chased him across the rooftops of Jerusalem, uncovering the complexities of the plot he was a part of through his taunts.  I miss the space for that sort of banter to occur, and that's exactly what Black Flag, with its superlative streamlining, the same superlative streamlining that permitted me to dig through every inch of the game world, has eliminated.

I'd lament the loss further, but I can't bring myself to linger.  There's just too much other amazing shit happening in Black Flag.  And then there's Unity, floating on the horizon of my backlog, inching closer with each tack.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents:Upon Finishing Dragon Age: Inquisition!

It finally happened.  I finally finished Dragon Age: Inquisition.  And it was glorious.

It’s unusual to dig into a game franchise that manages to act as a referendum on previous entries in a series.  Often additional titles are just expansions on a concept, and adjustments made to previous titles are more in the vein of retcons than genuine narrative shifts.  Even a good game, with great sequels, like Bioshock and its ratty little step-children, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite’s Burial at Sea episodes, has trouble pulling this off.  The disconnect between Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Burial at Sea is readily visible. There are seams joining each title, struggling to connect narratives that simultaneously intertwine and diverge from previous chapters.  Burial at Sea did its honest best to put the threads together, but in doing so it lost Bioshock 2, and skewed the timeline of events for the first Bioshock significantly – essentially, instead of building on what came before and shifting it subtly to wholly alter a player’s perception of events, Burial at Sea rewrote chapters of Bioshock, generating a “behind the scenes” sort of narrative that, at times, significantly altered the original game’s timeline.  I say this as someone who loved the narrative behind the Bioshock games tremendously, someone who started writing SNS, in large part, because of Bioshock. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. It’s how sequels usually unfold through the uncertain mist of development cycles.  Designers can’t assume that they’ll get three games to tell a particular story in.  They can’t plant seeds that will take seven years to sprout.  If you get an opportunity to tell a new part of the story you started in another game, that’s awesome, but you can’t build a title from the ground up on the presumption that you’ll get another chance to build up your mythos over multiple titles.

Unless, apparently, you designed Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ll be avoiding spoilers as much as I can, which actually isn’t that hard. In a real sense DAI is insulated against spoilers. Many of the events that I’d be spoiling in my game might not happen in yours at all, not just because of choices you made in this game, but because of choices you made in the first or second game, choices you have to exactingly enter into a lovingly designed spreadsheet online if you want them to stick.  You can make some pretty intense adjustments to the narrative before the game even starts, and that’s without even considering the impact of Dragon Age 2 and its various DLCs, which further cock up the broth.  The strength of Inquisition isn’t that it finds ways to use these choices or engage with them: it’s that it finds ways to make them critical to how the narrative unfolds. The outcome of a sidequest from the first game changes the entire central storyline of Inquisition, adding and removing characters with a remarkable narrative flexibility.  Major plot points from previous games are referenced as well, and things like how you concluded Origins have a major impact on how events play out, but that’s considerably less impressive to me than generating a set of nested questlines that allow a side character most people forgot from the first game to effectively cripple one of the toughest foes you have to fight in what is effectively a series of optional dialogues.

That’s the impressiveness that Dragon Age: Inquisition brings to bear: it doesn’t just make some choices significant.  It makes nearly every choice significant in some sense.  Threads left dangling from previous games reconnect and resolve in new, strange ways.  Characters long since departed pop up and shift the balance of power in a way that simultaneously rewrites the story you’re telling, and iterates on all the things you’ve done before.  I’m deliberately avoiding specifics here, but I will say that Dragon Age: Inquisition accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of taking Dragon Age 2’s “outskirts of larger events” plotlines and shaping them into something central to the overarching stories criss-crossing Thedas.  Blights, or the idea of Blights, come into focus as the centerpiece of Dragon Age’s overarching narratives, and are codified and reiterated on in Inquisition in a way simultaneously honors the events of previous games and rewrites them, but not by shifting what actually happened within them, the characters you guided through them, or changing the tone or motive behind previous actions. DAI takes pain to even get the level of snark you used in previous games to stick. Instead, it rewrites events by giving you new context, not just on events you’ve seen transpire, but on the history that led to those events.

Inquisition is, in a real sense, a game about what came before.  If video games are fundamentally an artistic medium dedicated to letting us inhabit worlds, then DAI is about giving us an active hand in forging that world as we explore it.  Because here’s the thing: all the choices you make still matter.  Barthes would cream his jeans at this level of narrative malleability, about the simultaneous construction and deconstruction not just of text, but of metatextual and interpretive elements as well.  Dragon Age’s narrative simultaneously forms around you even as it reshapes and acknowledges what came before.  For a dumb action game about fighting a man covered in tumors with some nasty vocal fry, Dragon Age: Inquisition manages to be impressively smart.  Even the smallest, least interactive choices I made, things like deciding who would help guide a cart of turnips through the Deep Roads, ended up having a major impact on events – I lost a potential ally by sending diplomats on a journey I should’ve sent shifty scouts on, a woeful turn of events and, as such, my Inquisition ended up with no allies from Orzammar.

The stress of those stakes made it emotionally exhausting to play sometimes, to say the least. I spent nearly three weeks braced on the edge of the last two story quests, waiting for an opening in my life to say goodbye to all the choices I’d made and watch the world I’d built finish unfolding, and a good portion of that time was spent waiting for seemingly minor quests to play out on the War Table.  But that wasn’t a bad thing, not at all: after the dust settled and I finished watching the “Where Are They Now” of my friends in Thedas, I immediately sat down and rolled up three new characters, so I could play through the game again, and again, and again, testing outcomes and watching the world unfold from new perspectives.  I really want to see what will happen when my Tal-Vashoth mage shows up at a dinner party with his Tevinter boyfriend, or how the other Elves will respond to my hard-nosed Dalish warrior-peasant carving a path through the world.  I want to see the world again and, more than I ever did previously, make new choices in it, so I can see how those choices will play out. 

I’m even thinking about replaying Dragon Age: Origins from the start, with all the DLC at long last, to see how that will change things.  I’d need to create another character on my EA profile, play with a notebook in hand taking notes on how quests resolve, and spend around 300 hours from start to finish moving from Origins to DA2 to Inquisition (and I already wince at the thought of playing Dragon Age 2 again) but the thought of seeing all of these narratives unfold again excites me.

Inquisition is, in a very real sense, what Bioware wanted Mass Effect 3 to be: it’s a game about the sum of one’s choices coming home to roost.  But Dragon Age has always been the richer series, the more malleable environment, filled not just with choices, but with the context and consequences of those choices.  Perhaps it’s a product of how we, as “readers,” are used to engaging with fantasy: we like to sit down and drink in worlds, absorb fine details and nuance, and see how things play out.  Even the most ham-fisted piece of franchise fantasy has always had the power to bring a world to life, something even the most artful science fiction often struggles with.

Perhaps I’m being reductive; this goes well beyond genre.  Inquisition trumps Mass Effect 3 not because it has better written codex entries (though it does) or because it has better gameplay (I’m not sure it does).  It’s not that Mass Effect 3’s world felt small, or insignificant, or half-formed.  It’s that the choices you made felt strangely compartmentalized and binary, like tick boxes on a form for saving the galaxy.  Dragon Age, as a series, has never been about that easy binary.  It lives in the gray, in the human aspect of how story emerges.  It’s always played with the idea that it’s tough, nearly impossible, to please everyone, or to know what the right decision in a given moment is.  But it’s also rewarded players for investing themselves in that environment, not just with a gripping narrative that ripples out of the game into some of the better written Codex and Journal entries I’ve seen in a title to date.  It rewards them by really making players feel like they’re part of telling a story, their story, concealing variables beneath deft writing and naturalistic dialogue, permitting players to explore options and fully understand the decisions they’re going to make, and, in the end, actually delivering on the promise of multi-chapter storytelling by making a final scene that casts the entire series in a new light without dishonoring any of the choices that have brought you to that point.

That’s no mean feat.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Returning to Castle Wolfenstein!

America loves Nazis.

That might sound odd, but hear me out.  Nazis exist in a state of extreme cultural duality: they're simultaneously a symbol of profound evil, and yet the caché of their iconography continues to captivate the like of fetishists, designers, and weirdoes in general.  Then there's terrifying absolutist philosophy, which still enjoys global support, often, ironically, from the very people whose attempted extermination was carried out by the most fervent ideologues of the Third Reich during World War II.  Skinheads, swastikas, knee high boots and tight fitting pants populate the world with alarming frequency, but that's not exactly what I'm talking about here.  There will always be strange people on the fringes of society, strange and loud people who have extreme ideas and want to impose them on others.  America's love of Nazis doesn't fall into this category.  See, we love to hate them.

Nazis are a ubiquitous villain in American culture, to such an extent that we can barely separate the idea of German people from Nazis.  A friend of mine came back from Europe recently and he told me about seeing an elderly German couple sitting at a table in Denmark.  He couldn't get the idea that this old man had once been a young man and, most likely, had been either a Nazi or a member of the Nazi Youth.  My friend was angry as he talked about it: he was appalled by the fact that this man, this man he didn't know, whose very Nazi-dom was mere supposition on his part, a man who, if he had been a Nazi, or been associated with the military of the Wermacht in any way, may or may not have been involved in things that were considered war crimes, was walking free, seven decades after the war ended.  I tried to explain to him that, while many people in the German military during World War II were appalling people, many were just soldiers who, in their mind, were fighting for their country, and the idea seemed wholly new.  The idea that someone who was once called a Nazi could be anything close to human was alien to him.

That's the power of Nazis as villains: the very notion of someone potentially having been a Nazi raises our hackles, makes us look at people we don't know as monsters.  It's a strange relationship to have with most of the population of a nation, but that's our situation.  Nazi remains a potent epithet all over the western world, invoked to describe people who range from co-workers we disagree with to people who have different views than us about the integration of Friends into Netflix's digital catalog.  Part of our cultural identity as Americans is hating Nazis, an element so ingrained that even the most flag-burny, planting-flowers-in-guns-y peacenik hippy will shake their fist and spit in the face of someone they consider a Nazi (though people who self-identify as Nazis complicate the matter).  That raw, surging hate is powerful.  It can unify disparate groups.  It can encourage dialogue between parties who would otherwise be irreconcilable.  It can be tremendously fun.

And so I arrive at the point of all this: Wolfenstein: The New Order is a shitload of fun.

This might seem like an obvious statement.  The Wolfenstein games are synonymous with fun.  They essentially invented the First Person Shooter genre, and they've managed to remain more or less unchanged over time, no mean feat in a world where feature creep is constantly edging into First-Person Shooters, but they've never really been my cup of tea.  As a young man, I'd always turn to Call of Duty for my Nazi-killing fix, zombie and regular flavor.  But Call of Duty has become less and less about World War II over time, and I've had to look for new places for that delightfully addictive Nazi-killing formula.  The New Order is a fix for me, and not because it's a particularly good game, or because it's especially well designed.  It's neither of those things.  It has plenty of issues, some of them quite basic: it relies on ill-defined stealth mechanics that are sometimes absolutely necessary and, on other occasions, are inexplicably inapplicable.  Some of the levels are linear and fun, and some of them are ill-designed script-fuck-fests where completing objectives is less about playing a game and more about intuiting what a designer wanted you to do during a particular action sequence through a series of piquant trial-and-error suicide runs.  It also plays with emotional stakes and decision making in a way that's unintentionally hilarious, asking you to choose between the lives of characters you barely know within seconds of meeting them, begging you to emotionally invest yourself in characters and then killing them off before they've said more than three sentences.  The stretches of New Order between Nazi kills are a combination of unintentional hilarity and frustration as I try to discern just what the designers want me to do, while pushing past the over-broad emotionality they constantly impress on me.

But man, those Nazi killing stretches.

All the Nazi iconography in the game has been kicked up a notch.  Storm-troopers all have masks obscuring their faces, and the only way to take them off is to shoot them in the head, transforming their balaclava masks into red and white skull smears.  Attack dogs have been made into mechanized beasts of war, more machine than mammal.  Hell, half the enemies are giant black robots who dump bullets into the air all over the place at me.  Only a handful of enemies have exposed faces, most of them inhuman caricatures, scarred up, blonde and blue-eyed with mean looking faces.  The first "boss" you kill has a fucking eye-patch.  A god damn eye-patch!  That's The New Order in a nutshell: every ounce of humanity has been drained out of these Nazis.  They've created a breed of Super-Nazis, and holy shit, are they ever satisfying to kill.

The spot-on art design is, in a sense, a saving grace: New Order's shooting play is actually a little bit weak.  Some of the guns are a little iffy and same-y, and an attempt to combine the popular first-person cover systems of more contemporary games with the mad-cap run and gun play of FPS classics has gone slightly haywire, resulting in a camel of a game that feels just a little bit off when the chips are down, a little imprecise even as it seems to hit its target.  It's not bad, it's just not great, but you'd never know it, because killing Nazis is just so much god damn fun.

And that's telling: killing Nazis, even moderately humanized ones who write letters or seem upset about war, even cartoon Nazis, especially cartoon Nazis, with their inhumanity made gross by designers, is incredibly fun, and this game, with all its minor failings, is making me smile each time I load it up with the raw power of its Nazi killing.  Right now I'm braced on the edge of the last mission in Dragon Age: Inquisition, trying to mop up weekend challenges in DAI and MWO to get my "free shit," and finishing up grading my Winter class, and this game, with all its mediocrity proudly on display, still has me coming back, watching every dumb cutscene, running down every stone hallway, dual-assault-rifles blazing as I cut through rows of Nazis, laughing uncontrollably. 

That's the power of the hate Americans have for Nazis.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Getting Social with Dragon Age: Inquisition!

As loath as I am to write another piece about Dragon Age: Inquisition, I can’t help myself.  As work forces me to meander through the game at a snail’s pace, and illness and anxiety slow my progress dramatically as well, I find myself examining the granularity contained within each sweeping story mission, otherwise relegated to a rapid “one and done” of drunken play in days of old, now a drawn out week-long experience as I tease out sessions of play between typing up responses to student work and flattening my ass out on Nyquil to try to shake my latest unfortunate ailment.  The latest issuance: a mission whose primary orientation is social interaction, a mission whose primary risks all involve social interaction, and whose achievements rely heavily on getting me, as a player, to break the patterns of exploration and interaction I’ve previously conditioned myself to engage in.

I’m talking about the somewhat infamously buggy Orlesian ball sequence from the main plot. Conceptually, it’s a fascinating gesture to the mechanics of Dragon Age: Inquisition: what if, instead of making combat and exploration the primary mechanics through which a player progresses in an area or through a story arc, players were asked to, first and foremost, engage in social activities.  What if exploration, usually a laconic pleasure in DAI’s sweeping, gorgeous landscapes, had a ticking clock set alongside it, demanding that you quit pressing V and get back to the party?  What if combat occurred roughly as often as conversation normally does in this configuration?

Would Dragon Age still be Dragon Age?  Would it still be fun?

The answer to the first part of that question is an undeniable “yes.”  The feel  of DAI’s world persists in and out of combat, and generating a framework wherein your primary mechanism for interacting with the world is social rather than, let’s politely say, kinetic doesn't change that.  Quite the contrary: sometimes the layering of detail that presents itself in DAI's frenetic bouts is lost in the fray.  By mounting the delivery systems for world building outside of that interaction developers give players an opportunity to test their understanding of lore, and invest themselves in that understanding of lore as a mechanism for success, you're giving them more an opportunity to drink in the rich texture of the world you've created, which is an unequivocal "good" thing, and far from alloying the sense of place that makes Dragon Age: Inquisition a Dragon Age game, it gives them a heretofore unheard of opportunity to soak in that world without necessarily having to spend hours upon hours in the codex.  The answer to the second question is more complicated.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is, at its heart, a descendent of Halo, in the way that every game that followed Halo drew from its infamous design ethos: present players with fifteen seconds of fun, and present them with repeated opportunities to find said 15 seconds of fun, and your game will be a rousing success.  The brutal efficiency of that mindset has given us some wonderful games, some terrible games, and overall industry focus on moment to moment experience, rather than overarching qualities like atmosphere, pacing, or the kind of grand "experiential" gameplay that many classic games of the gaming silver-age built themselves on.  This isn't a hard fast rule, and many titles have combined serious world-building with ever-grander Halo-style gameplay oriented design: Dragon Age and Mass Effect are both wonderful examples, as well as shooters like Bioshock and Left4Dead, that take the high octane cycling that Halo introduced and add rich, textured level design to tell complex stories that unfold gradually as players engage with that 15-seconds-of-fun mechanism.  It is simply impossible to say that Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn't compose itself under this ethos: the gameplay moves quickly, with engagements resolving themselves in a minute or two, at most, and often unfolding in an enjoyably repetitive fashion.  What's more, DAI is actually quite good at managing its fun in these quick little battle chunks: the game plays reliably, and when unexpected things happen (like bugs) the outcome is usually enjoyable: a hitboxing error might make an enemy impossible to hit, prompting players to use new tactics to eliminate him, or a physics glitch might hurl a giant into the stratosphere before making him crash to the ground.  In cases like this, there's no real long-term negative impact on one's enjoyment of the game, even if the conditions are baffling or, in the moment, frustrating.  The focus on development, and the focus of the game, is on that combat mechanism.

When it's removed, you begin to see just how slipshod much of the surrounding material is.  The Orlesian court sequence relies heavily on two things: the dynamic population system that DAI uses to integrate sprites into an occupied map working correctly, and DAI's locative script system firing correctly so that player location and action map appropriately to the game's expectation, and direct and clear feedback on those fronts can be given to players.  DAI's dynamic population system has been a problem for me since day one: literally, the first day I powered up and started the game, immediately after finishing the tutorial, I walked through the streets of Haven and tried to schmooze with my old friend made new Varric, only to find that he wasn't at the position marked with his face: his sprite had failed to load.  I walked around for a bit until he spawned, but the end result was infuriating.  The Orlesian court sequence has the same issue, doubly exacerbated by sections that rely on a kind of "ticking clock" system, and a density of events that makes it nearly impossible for a player to track what's going right or wrong without a checklist of intended variables in hand.  I spent half an hour trying to get an NPC to spawn so I could interact with him briefly to elevate my court influence.  One twenty second conversation took up a vast amount of effort, not because it was a challenging event, but because NPCs seem to spawn almost randomly for me in DAI.  This isn't a new problem, but the Orlesian court sequence really showcases just how problematic it can be, and how thoroughly it can curtain a "socially minded" gameplay event.

And then there's the scripting: while Bioware has certainly gotten better, the scripting in DAI is still fairly buggy by the standards of other developers.  It's not as bad as, say, Baldur's Gate 2, where I taught myself hex so I could modify variables to try to complete Jaheira's romance, but it's still fairly bad.  When I go into side areas, events seem to trigger almost randomly: sometimes there's a bell system that gives me an opportunity to gain or lose influence, sometimes there isn't.  Sometimes a basement area in the library stops the clock on my influence decaying as I spend time away from the party, but sometimes it doesn't.  There's no reliability which, for all its occasional glitchiness, the combat system manages quite nicely, and so I feel less like I have my fate in my own hands, and more like I'm enduring the caprices of an unseen robotic overlord imbued with emotion, which has made it intensely irrational as it adjust to the sensation of "feeling."

Of course, all this bullshit doesn't keep me from enjoying the conceit of the Orlesian court, and the social interactions, when they work, are actually a lot of fun.  Using my character's trademark snark to deflect the questions of scheming nobles instead of piss off uptight party members is fun, and it makes me feel like the personality I've chosen has a real impact on the game.  I'm interested in playing a blunt character now, just to see how her coarseness will effect interactions in Orlais.  And the fact that so many interesting bits of lore, and interesting characters from the world of Dragon Age, are populating this space adds a great deal to the experience.

So, is this "social gameplay" experiment perfect?  No.  All of the problems with Dragon Age: Inquisiton are, if anything, amplified in this new setting.  Is it worth playing?  Thoroughly, though a lack of transparency and the utter unreliability of the game system you're interacting with make for some intensely frustrating experiences, upon occasion.