Should Games Be Skippable?

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!)

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6 thoughts on “Should Games Be Skippable?

  1. Fernando Cordeiro says:

    Why the possibility to skip would make Mass Effect 3 a different kind of game? I can also skip chapters in books and movies without ever raising the question “What kind of book/movie is X?”

    The quote article is from Nightmare Mode, btw, not Games Nightmare….

    • craigbamford says:

      Thanks, just fixed the name issue.

      Sure, you can skip bits in a book or movie. But most people tend to agree that someone who does that before they’ve read or seen the thing the first time is being a bit ridiculous.

      I do see games as a bit different, though. They depend upon guided interaction. If the player doesn’t have the context for their actions, it’s nearly impossible to make that guiding happen. They won’t know why they should care about reaching the targeted area before the timer reaches zero, because they won’t know that (say) the bomb’s going to go off and blow up the city.

      The drama and tension that’s supposed to help motivate players is out the window. All you have left is completing the level for the sake of “completing the level”. That’s valid enough, but there isn’t much of a payoff. And if you’re skipping combat too, there really isn’t any sort of payoff at all. It’s just a nice run through some pretty scenery.

      No tension, no drama, no motivation, no context, and very little payoff sounds like a terrible game to me.

  2. Liore says:

    This was a good post, but I disagree with your final conclusions.

    “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.”

    Clearly you play Mass Effect for reasons that are almost completely unlike why some of my friends play it. (Which is okay, because we’re all different people!)

    To many of my friends, they play FOR the dialogue trees. That is what they care about almost to the exclusion of everything else. The player’s role to them is not shown in the shooty bits, it’s in the interaction between characters. It’s in the relationships, the plot twists, part where Shepard tosses off a sassy line. They don’t see levelling as improving their combat skills, but as a way to mark progression through the story.

    Personally I’m kind of in the middle — I could have happily skipped a hallway or two in ME2 because I’m easily bored, but I generally like both combat and story. The option to skip, though, would have made many of my friends MORE invested in the game and their character, not less.

    • craigbamford says:

      Thanks for the compliment on the post!

      I understand the desire to get through the damned combat and just get to the next bit of story. I’ve had that issue since I started playing narrative-driven games, and that was a LONG time ago. (I had that reaction to Phantasy Star!)

      But I don’t necessarily believe that it would lead to greater engagement. I know that people believe it would, and they may even be right, but the various elements of a good game work together, not separately. Just as the narrative adds context and tension to the “pure gameplay” elements, the narrative elements are made more meaningful and more rewarding because there’s an element of achievement to them.

      It’s a bit like leveling in World of Warcraft. Sure, people complain about it. They want to get to level cap right away and go raid. But it’s all that time spent developing your character that creates the all-important investment in a persistent character that’s at the core of a good MMO. Without that investment, raiding just won’t be as satisfying, because the improvements and achievements will go towards an avatar that you just don’t care about.

      People’s individual “Shepherd” characters work the same way. (She’s even persistant!) They care about their individual Shep because of the things they’ve done with them. I think that that does include more than just dialogue choices, but exploration and combat as well. It all fits together, and breaking it apart makes for a weaker whole.

  3. Pete Davison says:

    I, too, get something of a bad taste in the mouth when people talk about playing, say, an RPG and skipping cutscenes. As far as I’m concerned, the primary draw of a JRPG is the spectacle on offer, not the endless level grinding and sidequesting — if I want that, I’ll play an MMO. (That said, games should be designed so that if you balls up a boss fight, you shouldn’t have to watch a long cutscene again. Final Fantasy XIII and Xenoblade both handle this well — FFXIII allows you to “retry”, which cuts to the main menu, allowing you to reequip characters and set up new Paradigms, while Xenoblade takes an almost MMOish approach by respawning you at the last checkpoint, restoring the boss to full health and letting you simply charge straight back in and try again without any of that pesky exposition.)

    It’s good to offer flexibility, but often in attempting to pander to everyone’s whims, you end up pissing everybody off to one degree or another. It happened to a lesser extent with the original Mass Effect. RPG fans thought it was too shootery. Shooter fans thought it was too RPG-y. So the balance was changed in Mass Effect 2, and still no-one was happy. Mass Effect 3 tries to please everyone — I’m just concerned that in trying to do so it will compromise the integrity of the original design. We’ll see.

    Look at it this way: when you read a book, look at an artistic work or listen to a piece of music, you don’t get to change it from what the original creator(s) intended. 🙂

  4. I agree. When you look at the skeleton of what a game IS, from the very inception of video gaming, we have an objective that takes some sort of skill and problem solving to achieve. Everything from Pac-Man to Space Invaders to Zelda to Mass Effect, it is our intellectual merit and our superior fine motor control that allows us to feel like we BEAT a game. Isn’t that what everyone says? We say “I finished that book,” but we say “I beat that game.” Great writing is great (hooray for tautology), but your progression through the plot of any game needs to be based around your success at manipulating the exquisitely wrought game mechanics to produce the desired result! The point of a video game is to present a challenge. How difficult or easy that challenge is… well that’s up to the player and the difficulty setting. I think Deus Ex says it best: The difficulty levels are as such:

    Tell Me a Story.
    Give me a Challenge.
    Give me Deus Ex.

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