by Stephen Totilo

Laura, Chris, and Jenn—I merely asked if a great video game must impress us so much that we’d play it twice, yet now we have Chris and Laura rethinking whether a game they each gave 70 hours of their lives to was worth playing once. How perverse this medium is that those of us who love it are left wondering if it just gave us a great new experience or merely robbed our life of a few days. But it’s not the nature of a video game to be easily consumed, and some of the best ones spar with us. If a game makes me want to pull my hair out, it wasn’t necessarily a bad game. In fact, it might have been excellent.

Compare the other great forms of entertainment. Most music or literature, for example, isn’t designed to defy its audience, to require learning and skill and mastery to get to the end. Some great works do, of course. Most video games, however, do push back. They push back for the reasons non-gamers might expect: They can be full of tough bad guys who are hard to defeat, replete with races that are challenging to win, stuff like that. But they can also be tough the way that learning to use a new camera or computer operating system can be tough, because the interface is poor and in need of a new iteration next year. That, I believe, is the new Dragon Age’s problem. Here’s a game that plunges players not just into a fantasy word in need of saving—but into nests of confusing, counterintuitive menus that make upgrading one’s sword or mixing potions about as fun as defragmenting a hard drive.

There was much hubbub a few years ago about the ending of Dragon Age studio BioWare’s previous game Mass Effect 3. Many fans were incensed by what they felt was an insufficiently thorough ending, one they felt didn’t proportionately take into account the many decisions Mass Effect players had made across the trilogy of games. These fans complained, and BioWare eventually decided to release a revised, expanded ending—which spawned new complaints from fans defending the sanctity of authorial intent. I found the complaints about the complaints to be absurd. Developers have tweaked and patched and improved the gameplay tuning of games for ages—made this too-powerful gun less powerful, altered this multiplayer mode to make it more competitive—so why in the world would a video game’s story be beyond post-release tinkering? To say it was, I wrote at the time, would be to say that story was more important than gameplay, and we know how I feel about that.

All of which is to say: Let this serve as my call for BioWare to do a major overhaul of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s time-wasting menus. My God. If you’re going to “fix” Mass Effect 3’s ending, fix the menus of your new game, please. Dragon Age: Inquisition needs to feel a bit more like Game of Thrones and a bit less like Microsoft Excel.

One explanation for gaming critics’ zeal for small, polished indie games is that blockbuster games are still too often released in substandard states. A publisher the caliber of EA shouldn’t be releasing a game that has such bad menu systems as Dragon Age’s. EA wasn’t alone in that regard in 2014, nor was it even the worst. Major publishers regularly release games with poor interfaces, abundant bugs, and modes that, in the case of Microsoft’s and Sony’s twin fall debacles, Halo Master Chief Collection and Driveclub, respectively, are so busted that they eventually need to be apologized for. Perhaps this will be one of 2014’s gaming legacies: a year when blockbuster game publishers were embarrassed into exerting higher quality control, such that, come 2017 or so when we answer the siren song of a new Dragon Age, we will find a game that works well and doesn’t waste our time.

A final thought: I know that 2014 frustrated many people who love video games. In many ways it was a bad year, light on great games and heavy on unkind behavior. The year has certainly left its scars, but I leave you with what the year left me with: a wonderful discovery.

We may tolerate a fair amount of unpleasantness on this frontier of entertainment, but we also regularly turn the bend to discover new wonders. Late last month, for example, I discovered a mobile and tablet game called A Dark Room. Laura knows about it already. All of our readers should. It’s a game that treats graphics about as seriously as Chris’ beloved J.S. Joust … that in unexpected ways asks you to think about life and values in a manner Laura would appreciate … and that, for the sake of the Jenn Frank household, doesn’t require virtual reality goggles to enjoy. It is simple, beautiful, and occasionally disturbing. It is a gameplay game with a surprising amount of story to it. It is adapted from a 2013 Web-based game and is one of 2014’s best. Enjoy, Video Game Club. See you all in a year.

Leave a Reply