modern computer games just have way too much going on

So I got Dragon Age Inquisition as a present for myself for getting through the  bulk of my job applications. It’s the first  time I’ve bought a computer game that wasn’t on sale in a long time. So far there are some things I like about it (the world, the graphics, the art direction, the music) and some things I really am aggravated by (the terrible camera, the user interface in general). I am enjoying it overall, after having gotten past the lousy tactical camera, at least mostly. (Seriously, what is the point of a tactical camera if you can’t zoom out enough to see everyone involved in a battle? Ugh.) But what it really has me thinking is that computer games are just throwing in way, way too much stuff.

Take this game. It’s pretty conventional as far as contemporary RPGs go: you have a little band of adventurers, you wander around killing orcs and such, you find loot, you gain experience points and levels, you get more badass, you kill stronger creatures. It’s a very story-heavy RPG with a lot of reading and dialogue, which I like, but those core mechanics are similar to most other RPGs. The thing is, there’s just layers and layers of stuff to  do and find. In the game, you’re trying to gain territory and influence for your particular faction. So you go out and find predetermined places where you can build camps, expanding your influence. When you set up a new camp, you get a requisitions officer who gives you a list of materials they want you to get and stuff they want you to build. You also have to go around and find these rifts, where you kill bad guys and then use your unique magic power to close the rifts. (You are some sort of Chosen One, like the protagonist in every other video game these days.) You also find these skulls which you look through, and if you look hard enough you reveal these shards, which you then have to go and pick up. I don’t even really know what the shards do. You also find these mosaic pieces, which I definitely don’t know what they do. You also find these weird places where you, like, put down some sort of staff and claim that territory, I guess? It’s weird because you are already claiming territory with the camps, so I dunno. You also find these puzzles which are based on constellations. This is all in addition to the typical RPG stuff– there’s all of the weapons and armor and monsters to kill and figuring out which magic sword is best and choosing spells from a skill tree and fetching milk for the little old lady whose son’s corpse you’re going to find in the woods with a letter for her and a pendant which gives you +3 charisma. It’s the full, triple-A RPG experience plus all the other stuff.

All the other stuff, inevitably, includes crafting, because there is nothing video game developers like now but shoehorning crafting into  every conceivable game. I think eventually all new games are going to coalesce into a single game called CraftQuest. By crafting I mean mechanics where you have to go around collecting junk with which to make more junk. Apparently, video game developers are under the impression that what the average Joe wants when he gets off a long day of work is to enjoy the sweet escapism of living the life of a cobbler. Crafting is in like literally every game and genre now. There’s crafting in third person action games like Tomb Raider, RPGs like DAI and Skyrim, first-person shooters like the Far Cry series, MMOs like World of Warcraft…. They’re all the same basic thing. I can’t tell you how many games have directed me to hunt some form of ungulate so I can get its leather and a rib bone in order to make a papoose for carrying more grenades, or whatever. Only really you always have to kill, like, twelve yaks and four birds and a crocodile. It’s endless. And the complexity! I mean in Dragon Age I am dimly aware that I can craft both weapons and armor, but also improve the armor I already have, which is on a different system than just making new armor I think, and also there are runes which are involved somehow, which are all very different. I’m coding in R nowadays to do natural language processing but I’m utterly baffled by the complexity of these crafting menus. Oh, and you need to make potions. By getting recipes. And trolling the woods for these very specific types of berries. Constantly.

It’s all a real buzzkill, in so many games. You’re always some sort of badass on some sort of badass adventure, but you spend more time finding the right kind of beaker to hold the sap of the TumTum tree so that you can make a potion which you’ll never use. I tried Far Cry 3 for a bit and despite being this dude with a flamethrower on a revenge quest I spent like 90% of my time stitching together goat hide to make some sort of knapsack. It’s a drag, man.

This does not even get into the weird battle map deal in this game, where you order personality-free automatons to the digital boonies to, like, seek out the blessings of the minor nobility so that you can earn some sort of prestige points that are totally inscrutable. Like literally you look at a map and these guys are like “I should go talk to this dude,” and so I click “OK Bob” and then they computer is like “he’ll be back in 20 minutes” and in 20 minutes I get a little notification that’s like “5 more cool points for you!” It feels totally arbitrary and made up and dumb. Why am I doing this? None of it is animated or makes me feel like the story is moving along. I’m not doing anything. It’s like the developers thought that what I really wanted was the experience of being a middle manager. I expect the next Dragon Age will just have you populate cells on a spreadsheet.

There’s more different kinds of symbols on the map than there are in a Chinese dictionary. I have no earthly idea what half of them are for. There’s big arrows and little diamonds and grayed-out exclamation points and question marks and solid gold exclamation points and question marks. There’s something that looks like a little temple and Xs marking every spot and something that looks like the eye of Sauron. I’m totally baffled by it. I end up feeling like I have less information after I look at the map than I had before. I feel like I’m learning calculus.

The thing is, none of this is unique to Dragon Age. It’s not even particularly bad in that regard. The last game I played a significant amount of before this one was Assassin’s Creed 4. It’s a good game, a really fun pirate adventure with great graphics and some fun mechanics. But it’s also an endless laundry list of tasks. It’s got all the crafty craftiness your grandma could desire, every zone a veritable Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. You gotta do the typical hunting to get the raw materials to make your own clothes, because when you’re a famous pirate captain you still have to sew your own vests, so you tromp around in the swamp shooting monkeys out of the trees with a blowgun. You have to upgrade your swords and your guns and your clothes. Your boat has got like a million things to upgrade, both in terms of how good it is and in terms of pure aesthetics. There’s all kinds of jimjaws and treasures you have to discover. There are songs you chase along the rooftops, people to pickpocket, board games to play, brawls to get into in bars. There are these animus fragments, which are just like sparkly floating things they want you to collect so they can force you to shimmy up trees. There are these vantage points you have to reach to unlock new parts of the map, which are always populated by an eagle because realism. You have people to assassinate, being that it’s about assassins and all, but there’s also all kinds of faction missions that get you, I think, keys that open locks that get you a special suit of armor. Which is separate, if I remember correctly, from these Mayan-inspired artifacts you get  by solving puzzles. You dive underwater with primitive scuba gear and, like, wrestle sharks and shit, when you aren’t sailing around looking for dozens or hundreds of guys on little life rafts like the USS Indianapolis just went down in the Caribbean in 1600. It’s exhausting. I know for a fact I’m leaving like a half-dozen things out, here. And I’m not even talking about the actual story, the actual quest.

And that’s not even to mention a very similar mechanic to the weird battle map junk in Dragon Age. See, you can capture ships, which you can then send on voyages around the map, where the mechanic is literally “this ship has a 75% chance and then you’ll get 150 monies,” and then you send the ship and then a couple hours later it’s like “your ship came back! Have some points!” Why am I doing this? Why is this fun? What is the purpose? Oh, and there’s also this whole dealie where you also live in the present day and go to work in some goofy software company and take part in weird corporate politics, because when I think of compelling gameplay, I think of chatting with Marge from HR.

I know a lot of people would respond to this by asking why I’m complaining about more game. And I get it– some of this stuff, you can ignore. But there’s so many beeping alarms and endless notifications and nag screens that it just drains my interest. I get wanting more content, but at some point, you’re sending the message that you don’t actually trust your core game to provide enough entertainment. When I play Dragon Age I just want to cast wingardium leviosa and kill goblins and shit. I don’t want to worry that I haven’t sent an emissary to sweet talk Lord Steve in a castle they never bothered to render. When I play Assassin’s Creed I want to do era-inappropriate parkour on the rooftops of some ancient city. I don’t want to hunt in the forest for an upgrade to my needlepoint set so that I can knit some new hat. Let me play the game, dudes.

I’m just saying: sometimes less is more, you guys.