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Dragon Age Inquisition – What Went Wrong?

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On paper, Dragon Age Inquisition was everything that Dragon Age II wasn’t. It was huge, massive and epic. It had original characters, a road story and a traditional fantasy quest.

No one could accuse it of just reusing the same bunch of locations. The Frostbite engine brought Dragon Age Inquisition close to something resembling an open world (though still with no day and night cycle) and many of them were stunningly beautiful. Even more gorgeous were the interiors of castles and fortresses. The Elven and Orlesian art were particularly amazing.

There was also an epic story. You weren’t poking around doing fetch quests in the same city for 5 years. Instead you were doing fetch quests across a vast landscape. But there was also the traditional struggle between good and evil.

So what went wrong?

1. Icon vomit – EA decided that the future was Assassin’s Creed. So all games must be AssCreedified. Bioware didn’t suddenly decide to listen to fans. They were under orders to make their own Assassin’s Creed game. And they did.

Dragon Age Inquisition was much better than the Assassin’s Creed games. You never have to follow around eavesdropping on an NPC. But it was full of the traditional AssCreed icon vomit.

DAI went crazy for collectibles. Collect tiles, collect shards, solve puzzle maps, collect gears, collect collectibles, collect icons. Worst of all, the shards and gears were door keys. And door keys were a design gimmick that died with Doom.

Some of these were voluntary, some were required to gain access, but even voluntary icon vomit is still icon vomit, it changes how the game is played and gets in the way of the story. If your landscape is filled with icons to clear, it’s not a magical place.

2. Story fail – The original Dragon Age had a good balance between a personal story and the larger struggle. Dragon Age II mired players in a boring personal story with no larger struggle. Dragon Age III is all larger struggle.

DAI had plenty of characters but most of them felt bland and lacking in depth. The central character is defined by his leadership of the Inquisition. And that means constantly being complimented to death. Personal growth is meaningless. The choices are between being polite or rude.

Worst of all, DAI Mass Effects you, dumping you at the center of a huge organization (while still having to do all the work, including micromanaging it) with strongholds you can get lost in. It’s epic, but also epically boring.

Between the icon vomit and micromanaging all the social and political tasks of the Inquisition, Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel legendary. It feels like a job. CEO meets RPG.

Does anyone really want to play a game running an organization like The Inquisition?

And the story itself feels cut and pasted from a hundred other RPGs. It’s practically the story of Elder Scrolls Oblivion right down to rushing around shutting down portals to the demon realm. You’re even playing the “Chosen One”. Bioware throws in all sorts of twists and turns, but it’s not really enough.

3. None of It Matters – You can shape the Chantry or the Orlesian Empire, though you don’t much see the impact of that, and this time your choice between mages and templars actually matters. Somewhat.

The enemy is purely evil and insane. Even when it isn’t, you’re not allowed to talk your way out of misunderstandings. Instead you have to fight.

Bioware likes to pretend it gets gray areas, but all the story gray areas don’t change that you’re not allowed to play the game in shades of gray. Instead you go from pointless fight to pointless fight to cutscene. It doesn’t matter what’s in the codex if the only acceptable solution is to cut off the other guy’s head. That was the problem in Dragon Age II.

It’s still the problem.

The judgement scenes are a nice idea, but the original Dragon Age did it much better by just forcing you to confront the question of how to deal with nuanced villains. It made the game feel like a paperback fantasy novel.

Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like a great engine with a lot of disconnected attachments that take you out of the story. And it gives you very little access or control over the story.

Dragon Age asked you to make personal decisions about how to save the world. Dragon Age Inquisition sets out to do the same, but somewhere along the way it again abandons player agency. Instead it flatters your ego and throws you into a simplistic story full of job tasks and fetch questions, pointless customizations and empty exchanges, instead of real decisions with consequences.

And it was a close thing.

Corypheus was always the wrong villain for the game. Solas was the right one. Instead he’s being reserved for a possible sequel. But Solas is the kind of personal nuanced villain Dragon Age Inquisition needed. Corypheus is the classic unhinged villain, a ranting egomaniac who wants to destroy everything to get his way. He has to be destroyed. But Solas wants to reshape the world while committing terrible crimes along the way.

A better game would have asked you what crimes you were willing to commit to stop him.

Unfortunately Dragon Age Inquisition wasn’t that game.

The Force Awakens is Bad Billion Dollar Fanfic

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Star Wars The Force Awakens is the same movie as the first AbramsTrek, a well-acted and well-directed jumble of fan service and incoherent story. J.J. Abrams and his team are good at milking nostalgia for the characters and look of a classic franchise. But all those callbacks and character moments are just paint on the hood of the same exact disposable incoherent CG fest that everyone else is making in which nothing makes sense and nothing matters.

The Force Awakens is a remake pretending to be a sequel. And it’s not a good remake. The Force Awakens marries the incoherent meaningless stories of the Star Wars prequels with a better class of acting and direction. If you ever wanted to see what the prequels would have looked like if they were made by a good director who panders to franchise fans, instead of tossing them aside for kiddie merchandising, the Abrams Wars movie is it.

And that’s all it is.

Harrison Ford is swapped out for Leonard Nimoy, doing his duty by passing the torch. But he’s just there to watch the brash young cast go through the motions of playing around in a theme park recreation of classic sets and moments.

The stories for Abrams Trek and Abrams Wars are so bad that they could be fanfic. But normal fanfic usually makes more sense. In Star Wars and Star Trek, the characters served the story. In Abrams Wars and Abrams Trek, the stories is just an excuse to bring characters together to remind fans of the original movies and shows.

It’s not all Abrams’ fault. But he somehow keeps making the same soulless movies that have no substance except to exploit the nostalgia and goodwill of someone’s else work.

The only thing that sets their stories apart from bad fanfic is the money and the cast. J.J. Abrams uses both to the maximum, squeezing out callbacks and references even when they don’t make any sense. And especially when they don’t make any sense. But he isn’t recreating Star Wars. He’s the kid who comes home from the theater after seeing Star Wars and makes up a Star Wars-like story in which there’s an even worse Death Star and a lamer Darth Vader, built on the biggest cliche in Star Wars fanfic and even its Expanded Universe, and some kids fighting to stop them.

And while Abrams’ fan service and callbacks look like shows of respect, they’re the prelude to covertly trashing a franchise. Abrams Trek I climaxed with the destruction of the entire Star Trek canon. Abrams Wars is moving toward those same objectives.

Abrams movies conceal their hatred for the original material they’re looting with a facade of respect right before they slip the knife in. Underneath all the flattering tributes is jealousy. As a director, J.J. Abrams hasn’t created anything new. He mashes up other people’s work and adds incoherent updates. He wants to be Spielberg, but he has no storytelling skills. He’s a good visualist, but like Zach Snyder and many other younger directors, a terrible conceptualist. He can capture the look of Star Trek or Star Wars, but not its substance. His movies play with big toys, but there’s no story behind them. There are character moments, but they don’t add up to anything bigger than the individual moment.

J.J. Abrams can bring in money for studios, but all he’s doing is turning bad fanfic into cutscenes for some video game that will never be made.

Can Justin Lin Make Abrams Trek into Star Trek?

The strange thing about the Star Trek Beyond trailer is that it actually looks like TOS. Justin Lin has talked about watching the original series and you can see it on screen.

It’s the first movie since Insurrection and ST6 that isn’t obsessed with an attack on Earth. Instead the crew crashes on a bleak planet. There are strange aliens, conflict and resolution. That’s a whole lot of TOS episodes right there.

Just having a movie focused on an alien planet, instead of another race to save Earth is already closer to Star Trek.

I don’t know the plot so maybe I’m completely wrong. But with Abrams back to his first love of Star Wars and Simon Pegg doing more of the writing than Transformers hack Roberto Orci, Star Trek Beyond might actually be closer to Star Trek than to Abrams Trek.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is Lazy and Shitty Pandering. That’s Why it’s a Success

Ready_Player_One_coverErnest Cline’s Ready Player One is a YA Novel for middle aged men about a horrible dystopian future in which cities are being nuked and everyone lives in a giant MMO run by Will Wheaton, Cory Doctorow and the ghost of a dead Steve Jobs knockoff while listening to songs from the 80s.

Cline, a “spoken-word artist”, is a professional geek. Like Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. That means he’s a medium talent hipster frantically pandering to other hipsters who work in advertising, but buy Star Wars toys that they play with while drinking craft beers.

Hipsters are earnestly cynical. That’s Ready Player One, a pile of shameless fan service that starts its pandering on page one and never stops.

Ernest Cline panders to pals who can help him promote his novel. Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow run his future MMO where most of the book takes place. John Scalzi is listed as one of the greats of Science Fiction between Roger Zelazny and Jack Vance.

He’s equally shameless about pandering to his audience. Ready Player One is mostly set in a giant virtual reality holodeck that’s equal parts D&D, EVE and World of Warcraft. It’s named OASIS and in this future world, which is cyberpunk without the punk, everyone spends their time leveling up. Unless an evil corporation named IOI or OIO or something stupid like that gets its way and makes everyone pay a monthly fee to play the game.

Cline could have just left it at that, but then Ready Player One wouldn’t have been a hit. Pandering to teens who think that a WOW fee hike is the worst thing in the world doesn’t get you a Spielberg deal. So even though Ready Player One is a YA novel complete with a whiny teen protagonist who lives on his own, is unpopular at school and has a crush on a girl, Ernest Cline took aim at the manchild demographic by dumping in 80s nostalgia.

If you know anything about Ready Player One, you know it’s all about 80s nostalgia. Ernest Cline does the least bit of work on worldbuilding that he can get away with. (Everyone’s poor, except the rich, there’s climate change, also cities getting nuked, now let’s reference three 80s movies.)

The plot has the inventor of OASIS, a Steve Jobs knockoff whom Cline admits in the book is a Steve Jobs knockoff (you know you’re derivative when you not only copy a character, but your description all but admits he’s derivative) run a contest to let anyone who solves his puzzles inherit his company and all of OASIS.

Since Jobs 2.0, a guy named Halliday, is obsessed with the 80s, The puzzles require watching War Games, playing classic arcade games and recognizing 80s references.

Cline describes Halliday as autistic and into geeky things, but he’s much more into John Hughes movies and generic 80s pop culture. Probably because Cline is. So Halliday becomes an obsessive nerd who collects SF and fires employees who don’t recognize a cartoon, but is also into Duran Duran, John Hughes movies and Heathers. He even lectures the protagonist on spending less time on the internet and getting out more.

(It’s a YA novel, even if it’s targeted at middle aged men, so it has to end with the main character learning and growing.)

The plot is predictable. He panders ruthlessly at every opportunity and the worldbuilding is hardly there. Even when he reveals the identity of Aitch, the character’s best friend, she’s a black lesbian because Cline has to check as many fake social awareness boxes as he can in one character.

And Cline is bad at characters. He’s bad because he doesn’t even try. Everyone is one note. The villain, Nolan Sorrentino, a game designer working for the evil IOI or EIO or IOO, could have been drawn as a more compelling villain with a little subtlety. Instead he twirls his mustache and acts like the dumbest hammiest villain in a bad movie.

The evil corporation brought back slavery and controls so much of the country that it can kill anyone who gets in its way, but will honor the results of an internet contest.

It’s all like that. The teen heroes are aided by a Wozniak knockoff. The main character falls in love with Art3mis because she’s a girl. There’s zero subtlety or depth.

OASIS, the center of the book, is a ridiculous mashup of the internet and an MMO. GSS, the good corporation running it, makes users pay to travel beyond its portal. The heroes are fighting to protect a system where you have to pay to visit websites. People put on goggles and gloves to visit chat rooms. It’s all lazy, stupid and played out.

But while Cline may not get worldbuilding or any other aspect of writing, he does understand pandering, which is why Ready Player One is such a hit. It’s bad SF wrapped around a YA novel wrapped around a ton of 80s nostalgia making it the perfect BuzzFeed book.

Don’t think of Ready Player One as a novel. Think of it as fourth wall fanfic, a book about people mentioning the things you like. It’s unboxing the novel. It’s BuzzFeed lists with more of a plot. It’s that guy linking to people more popular than him in softcover.

It’s absolutely shameless. And that’s why it’s successful.

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