Form Over Function: I’m Going to Buy Video Games a New Vacuum Cleaner

The day I bought my Playstation 4 I also became the proud owner of a Dyson DC49. It's their - possibly the world's - 'smallest, quietest vacuum cleaner'. You can almost fit it in the palm of your hand. Now, I’ve always wanted a Dyson, let us make that clear from the off, lest I build up the following introductory anecdote to an unfairly inflated stature. For me they are the perfect product for our consumption-led society: functional to a fault and reassuring expensive. They are the kind of thing even an aged Yorkshireman could get behind, such is their exquisite balance of monetary outlay and usefulness. Upon returning home I carefully laid both products beside one another on the sofa and quietly surveyed the fruits of my wanton spending. I then gleefully opened up my new vacuum cleaner, pieced it together and cleaned my flat. I got to the PS4 an hour or so later.

Dysons are great.

When I was young my family had a Hoover upright. It was made entirely of beige and brown plastic, except for the - also beige and brown - plaid knapsack it had slung over its shoulder. This attached attractively to its hyper-80s frame with springs and a sturdy rubber band. It was very elegant. If you unzipped the swinging appendage - something I only did in secret, 'cos 'a Hoover isn’t a toy' - you’d be greeted with a dusty cavern containing the fragile heart of the appliance: paper bag. When not in use this just hung there looking a bit sad, but when the power was switched on the whole thing wheezed into life and inflated. (Much like the chest of the previously mentioned Yorkshireman upon the purchase of his new Dyson many years later.) This paper organ fitted snugly over a plastic pipe, but over time this connection became less dependable. So, to my memory, a length of bungee cord was introduced to stop the machine spilling its dusty guts all over the freshly cleaned carpet. Basically, before Sir James Dyson came along and actually thought about things, vacuuming your flat was a right pain in the arse. It was also ugly, unwieldy and just a little bit held together with sticky tape and string.

My Dyson, in comparison, just kind of works.

Every aspect of a Dyson vacuum cleaner is there to make using the device functional, simple and intuitive. I’m sure this is because the people who design them understand that cleaning floors is not, you know, fun, and so de-cluttering the experience of doing so might be pretty attractive to people. We are, after all, talking about a household appliance: if it doesn’t make a task easier surely it has failed, no? I also think they look lovely, though can appreciate how retro-futuristic grey plastic mightn’t appeal to everyone (because people are monsters).
Dragon Age: Inquisition’s level design is not at all like a Dyson. If anything, it’s a lot more like that old Hoover I went to great lengths describing for this fantastically elaborate analogy. While no single instance of the game’s worldbuilding is egregiously terrible, lots of its little niggles do threaten to gang up and pull its trousers asunder, revealing the soft ruddy buttocks of ‘prolly shoulda done that differently’.
The Internet’s dictionary quite rightly states that a hub is ‘a centre around which other things revolve or from which they radiate; a focus of activity’. To be quite honest Inquisition largely respects this time-honoured definition. It does so, however, only in the broadest of senses. Imagine, if you will, that we grab the most literal meaning of hub - that being ‘the central part of a wheel, as that part into which the spokes are inserted’ - and run, run, run with it. Inquisition's wheel would be all nobbly and rough; misshapen to the point of uselessness.  

Two such qualm-worthy issues are the game’s hub towns, Haven and Skyhold (my mind pronounces it Skyhooooooold with a bit of added reverb). These two locations are undeniably lovely, but treacherous towards the player. Haven is a pretty little hamlet resting defensively upon a hill, surrounded by wooden ramparts and banked on its sides by mountains and a lake. Skyhold is a more sombre affair, it being a big bloody castle sitting at the peak of a mountain, meaning it is strongly protected by both its environment and the gigantic walls that encircle its keep. Skyhold, by anyone's standards, is a pretty good place to organise a derring-do revolution from.

What neither of these places are good for is organising the playing of an RPG from. Both are littered with the sorts of things one needs to visit regularly - blacksmiths, shops, talkative allies etc. - but everything is so spaced out you end up traipsing about for most of your time. Travel to Haven, for example, and the smithy is a thirty second jog to the east, the shops twenty seconds north up the hill, and the town hall - where you receive missions, deposit plunder and converse with chums - is another twenty seconds after that. These handfuls of seconds start piling up rapidly though, because you’ll need to visit the village every hour or so in between adventuring. Every one becomes more of a chore than the last, as you endlessly tread the same paths over and over - and over again. Skyhold is the same but worse, as it is considerably bigger and things there are spread out over multiple floors (which your map can’t distinguish between) and behind numerous loading screens.

This, granted, is me being a right grump, but it's been said elsewhere: playing Inquisition is just overly bloated. I've encountered this type design elsewhere recently, with Destiny, The Crew and Far Cry 4 all needlessly tying frequently used services to physical locations. Narratively speaking, it makes perfect sense to make me load into a discrete location, run through a castle and then load into a room within that castle so I can check in with my advisors. But when this is an act I have to repeat a hundred-odd times throughout my time with a game it quickly begins to seem mean-spirited. Make me run it the first time, just so I can see all the wonderful bricks you've built around my war table, but then let my warp straight to it after that. Or, here's a thought, allow me to just pull up a menu and do my business when and where I please, thus saving me oodles of time.

Slogs such as this aren't artistic like, say, the lengthy corridor crawl near the end of Metal Gear Solid 4. They are merely examples of inconsiderate design. It was posited in numerous reviews of The Crew that it is a deliberately drawn out affair. Commentators pointed to its protracted levelling system, saying it was likely designed to artificially lengthen the game's lifespan by making progress painfully - even unfairly - slow. After all, you’re much less likely to sell your game - and not purchase extra content - if you haven’t yet finished it. Or so the logic may go. This isn't really for me to say, as I've only played a handful of hours of it, but what I have seen firmly pitches it in Ubisoft's current wheelhouse.

Ubisoft has become the master of creating games to a template. All of their big-ticket action releases over the last few years have adhered strictly to a formula of forcing players to wile away their time on handfuls of repeated tasks. In Assassin's Creed you climb towers and complete side missions to progress. In Far Cry you climb radio towers and complete side missions to progress. In Watch Dogs you hack radio towers and complete side missions to progress. In The Crew you drive up to radio towers and complete side missions to progress. The systems undeniably work - it was decidedly thrilling to see Assassin's Creed's world from up on high in 2007 - but repetition on such a magnificent scale kills excitement dead - beyond dead. It just becomes really demotivating.

All of these games are open world. This brings one to the conclusion that so much effort is put into making these landmasses that the games which actually takes place within them suffer as a result. Copy-pasted design, arduous slogs to progress and unfriendly and time-consuming traipses to perform the most basic - and often necessary - of tasks. It's difficult to paint any of these things in a good light. Maybe we've just reached a point where the rabid consumption of games on such a huge scale has led to companies no longer respecting their audience. If the games still sell - and they do, in huge numbers - can we really blame the Ubisofts of the world for making what they do, or should we really be looking to ourselves for the true target of our chagrin?