I feel like this sort of thing should go without saying, but I’m not exactly a great fan of this idea that you can skip whole sections or who mechanics of games. The whole thing comes from a misinterpretation of what one Bioware writer, Jennifer Hepler, said, but it looks like people are taking up the torch. From Nightmare Mode:
It’s the same with conversations. We can skip those. When we can’t skip conversations it’s worth a point’s demerit on a standard ten point scale, almost invariably, more if the reviewer has to replay sections. It’s hard to imagine taking a game where you can’t skip conversations seriously.
So why can’t we skip combat? Why, because that’s the fun part of the game, Hepler haters say! Except just like how Doom‘s control scheme made some players queasy with rage, for some people the combat isn’t the fun part. Just like I’m sure there’s someone out there who can play Doom without getting motion sickness, someone out there wants to enjoy the story of Mass Effect without having to scream at their allies about how to flank a giant mech. Game developers have tried appeasing this demographic by adding in easy difficulty settings, but even those can be a strain on people. Guards kill me in Deus Ex: Human Revolution on easy all the time (warning: worst stealth player ever here). Game developers write complicated treatises on how to make people not quit playing a game instead of looking that answer in the eye: if people want to keep playing, and are being stuck behind barriers, then you give them the option to remove the barriers.
Nintendo’s already done this with its Super Guide feature, and it hasn’t ruined Mario. You can go play New Super Mario Bros Wii right now and completely ignore the fact that the game can play itself. Rayman Origins has exactly the same feature, and no one’s going to damn it because it lets a less skilled player beat a level. What these features, like Mass Effect 3’s “Story” mode, do is they remove barriers. They let people play video games the way they want to while letting you play your game in a way you want to.
Here’s the thing: I don’t actually like this idea that people should be able to skip any and all plot bits in a game. (Which is usually what people are talking about when they’re talking about “conversations”). Those parts are there to set up the context and motivation for play. And, yes, context and motivation for play matter; part of the reason why people are such huge fans of Valve’s games is because they do a really good job of setting up context. Portals 1 and 2, Half Life 1 and 2…all of those have bits that you can’t “skip”, but they’re bits that everybody remembers and everybody loves.
Sure, you can’t skip the Tram Ride at the beginning of Half Life. So what? You shouldn’t. And they aren’t alone in that. Modern Warfare starts off with an unskippable “cutscene” (albeit a first-person one) where a middle-eastern president is being carried to his execution. It’s not a test of skill in any way. It’s just plot and context, like a cutscene. And yet Infinity Ward made it so that you can’t skip it. Again, so what? It drives home a point that sets up the context of the rest of the game.
But it gets worse when people start talking about skipping combat. I’m no great fan of the fact that games are primarily about combat. It shows that the medium has a long way to go. I really enjoy it when games move away from that. It’s one of the reasons I’m into adventure games: they usually aren’t about combat.
In the case of a game like Mass Effect 3, though, combat’s pretty much the core gameplay element. Every meaningful decision in the game that doesn’t tie into the dialogue trees feeds back into combat. Levels? Make you more powerful in combat. Stats? Combat. Powers? Combat again. Squadmates? Generally, combat. Weapons and armor? Yep, combat again.
Excising combat from the game doesn’t mean you’re just taking out one part of the game. It means you’re taking out the vast majority of the player’s role in the game. All you’re leaving behind is dialogue trees.
That may be acceptable…but since you can skip those too, it just raises the question: what kind of game is Mass Effect 3, exactly? What are its core mechanics? Is it just a realtime CG spectacle with optional game bits?
That doesn’t mean the game should be brutally difficult. There should be difficulty levels, and the game’s difficulty curve should be gentle enough not to punish players for not knowing things that the game hasn’t taught them yet. A newbie to the genre, or even to gaming, should be able to beat the game on the easiest setting, and feel that all-important sense of mastery for having done so.
Just giving them a fast-forward button is no answer, though. It just feels like an excuse for lazy, terrible design.
(Edit: By the by, I’m not planning on using this blog to get into big ol’ arguments with people about games and whatnot. I want to be a wee bit more proactive instead of reactive here, since it’s so easy to just end up treating a blog like your own comments thread for other peoples’ writing. This was just something that I wanted to get off my chest.)
(Besides, getting into big honkin’ arguments is what Google Plus is for!)