This isn’t about the unfair treatment of professionals who dare to voice unconventional ideas. We won’t discuss here the specifics of ugly incidents making the rounds online lately. Comments that stray into that turf will be deleted. This post is about what it’s about: considering a compelling and somewhat riling idea. If, by considering it this way, I seem to be endorsing this notion, then good. I am.
The Mass Effect 3 demo convinced me to preorder the game. It was largely the multiplayer component that convinced me not to wait a month or two to buy the thing, when I’d have time to play the thing in a dedicated sprint. The multiplayer demo is a lot of fun with three or four cohorts facing down Cerberus thugs together on alien worlds. The equipment packs, delivering randomized bonuses won with in-game loot, represent a terrific little device, combining the joy of random treasure tables with the alluring mystery and surprise of trading-card booster packs. I like it more than I expected to and don’t want two months to be leveling up my Infiltrators, Soldiers, and Engineers with my friends. Good job, demo.
Meanwhile, the single-player demo did one thing well above all—one thing in particular that convinced me this was the Mass Effect campaign I’ve been looking forward to most of all: it let me diminish the role of the intricate combat dynamics in favor of the unfolding story. With one little menu choice at the beginning of the game, ME3 gave me the option to choose which single-player experience I wanted, selecting between Action, Role-Play, and Story. I chose Story. When the finished game comes to my home, I’ll choose Story again.
It’s not that I don’t like ME3’s shooter action—I’m really excited about the story-light multiplayer element—it’s that I don’t want my ability to take in the tale of this climactic installment to depend on how good my shooter skills are from day to day. Sometimes I play games to study them, sometimes to overcome them, sometimes just to browse them. I’m a game tourist, as we say, in a lot of ways.
If I could skip combat encounters in some games, I would. I’d skip the jet-skis-and-explosive-barrels section of the first Uncharted every time. I’d skip over certain boss battles in various games, just to see what else the developer has in store in the game’s level design. I’ve been slow to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution because I dread the boss battles I’ve heard about and fret that I’ll get hung up on a spec-testing shooter puzzle when what I really want to do is see how my other decisions play out over the course of the game.
So, when it comes to the idea of video games with skippable combat scenes, I am in favor of the option. Not every game should implement that option and I have a pretty broad definition of “skippable,” personally, but I think it’s fine for games to have this tool in their kit. I’d finish a lot more games if I could accept a measure of defeat and progress rather than quietly, hopefully shelving games and then never getting around to finishing them.
In this post at Rock, Paper, Shotgun—“Escape! Escape! Embracing Skippable Combat”—John Walker makes his case for optional combat in video games.
With the success of achievement-driven gameplay, I don’t get why this should be a big deal. If I don’t play out that combat sequence in your game, deny me the achievements and the cool multiplayer skin as a reward. Do not deny me the ability to stay conversant in your game.
If I can’t get past this or that boss battle in your shooter, and the thing ends up on my shelf with the hope that I’ll get back to it “one day soon,” my interest in your franchise is probably suspended. I am less likely to buy Shooter Agent 3 if I didn’t finish the second one, because I’ll feel like I’m behind or subject to spoilers or whatever. Give me the option to press on in your game, despite the satisfaction of having slain Megaboss #2, and I am still in your customer base, buying your stuffs. This is good for both of us.
I grant you, this doesn’t work for all games. I probably shouldn’t be able to skip ahead some number of character levels in an MMO, for example. That’s an integral element of the game’s form. Gatekeeping in the form of difficulty spikes and combat puzzles, I argue, is only integral if that is all your game is offering. If your game’s story is worth telling, why restrict access to it only to those with the patience and the knack to time rocket blasts or batarang throws or jumps? The alternative is to winnow the audience for the latter-half of your game experience to a smaller and smaller percentage of people with time to devote to frustrating battle sequences.
Players can already dodge through cutscenes and dialogue options with a minimum of investment (and that’s fine), button mashing until they get to the next fight scene. This is a legit way to play some games. Those games say, implicitly, that the story is an optional element and the fighting is the meat. That is great for games in which the fighting is the meat. For games in which exploration and character interaction are either equally meaty or even meatier, does opting out of a fight scene somehow disqualify an experience as a game? Especially in games (especially hypothetical future games) with robust and engaging character interactions, it does not. It only changes the retail shelf where the game presumably gets filed.
Some such levels work almost as well as multiplayer experiences, be they deathmatch environments or co-op challenges. We get to choose what order we play multiplayer maps, and which maps and modes we play, why does a campaign have to be so rigid? If you’re going to button-mash through conversations anyway, why even play the maps in pre-arranged sequence? Because the story of the game still means at least something to you, I imagine.
In Actual Play
Consider some of the ways this can work. Let’s take an imaginary Uncharted sequel as an example. In those games, the characterization, the banter, the cinematic quality of the levels and storyline is a big part of the appeal, in addition to gripping, compelling action-adventure sequences that make you feel like a capable action hero as you progress.
Let’s imagine that Uncharted 4 features an especially daunting combat sequence in which freakishly accurate snipers and ham-fisted galoots fight you atop a burning semi-trailer on a mountain highway. It’s a handsomely rendered, important sequence in which Nathan Drake successfully steals back an artifact he’ll use to solve puzzles in the next level. Okay? You try the sequence a couple of times, getting frustrated at the way snipers execute you during what you think should be a hand-to-hand brawl on the careening truck. You get frustrated. You just want to move on, achievements be damned. But the game developers want you to understand how you get the artifact, so you’ll know where it came from in the next level.
You pull up the menu and opt out of the fight. The game, then, jumps to the next cut scene, written to explain where the artifact came from (ELENA: “Nate! I can’t believe you got Ratigan to give up the artifact!” NATE: “Gah, my back. He didn’t exactly hand it over, you know.”) and to set up the next puzzle sequence (SULLY: “Well, now that we’ve got it, let’s get it to Ireland so we can open that so-called wizard’s tomb.”).
Or, even better, the game AI takes control of Nate and fights through the sequence for you, in a bare-bones example of play, skipping certain great and optional stunts (accessible only by live players) but keeping the game flowing. This creates the effect of watching a terrific action sequence—a fun experience in its own right—without awarding you coveted achievements or the prize of getting Nate to knock a galoot into the bed of a passing dump truck (a cool stunt worth its own achievement). But at least the game keeps going.
The Identity (and Quality) of Games
This renders some games into interactive movies but—and this is key—only for those players who enjoy interactive movies. If you don’t want an interactive-movie experience, play all the fight scenes. The letdown of a computer-controlled fight scene is its own disincentive to the segment of the audience that cares in that way.
For some games, who cares? The Uncharted games are right on the edge of interactive-moviedom already, and thank heavens! They’re great at it. For many other games, though, fight scenes aren’t the interactive decision points they might seem to be. They’re possibility spaces with some lingering consequences (like what kind of ammo your Health you have remaining at the end), but often the outcome of the game doesn’t turn on these things anyway.
If the fight scene has to be won for the game to progress—and it is likely to turn out the same regardless, like when certain characters are scripted to survive or die—it’s not a decision point in the game anyway, it’s a miniature puzzle box or sandbox with gatekeepers at the exit. “Kill the bad guys in this sequence with any combination of guns, grenades, and melee attacks you like,” the game says, “but you can’t see what’s next until you kill every one of them.”
Is that what makes a game a game? Is it the gatekeeping?
If I put a new movie into my Xbox, I can jump to any chapter of it I like, watching just the fights or the FX sequences or whatever, in any order I like. When I get a book, I can read the first and last chapters and then give the thing away, if I want. Only video games say “You cannot see the ending until you play with these toys and also do these chores I have set out for you.”
Is the barrier between player and progress in a story the defining feature of a video game? Really? For one, that would imply that story matters more than some would care to admit—and in an age when single-player campaigns are more and more often regarded as vestigial organs—so I don’t think that’s it.
Is it that possibility spaces, and the defining gameplay inherent in them, are often not about the gameplay experience and the decisions made within them, but that the incentive of unlocking the next level has been mistaken for the very purpose of play? Do we play game levels and face down boss battles not because they are fun but because they are fun-like, fun-adjacent hurtles validating our exposure to the next bit of fun?
Instead of being fun, all the way through, do we feel games need to be punctuated with checkpoints and barriers between fun play spaces so that we can brag and strut about the progress we made?
Challenge and the thrill of overcoming it can be a vital component to the fun and satisfaction of play. Not opting out of combats secures that option for players who want that, on any given day they want that, and the option to skip headache-inducing chores that get in the way of my fun do not threaten the validity of your in-game achievements. What is your achievement really worth if we all had to earn it anyway on our quest to see if Drake and Elena would get back together or if the magic city was real?
In fact, the gatekeeper methodology of video-game design is imposing a linearity on the work that may be stymying development of the medium. Real branching level design hardly exists.
Consider a shooter campaign in which levels were packed with narrative but playable in almost any order, in which every level had a cogent and compelling tale to tell. (Maybe a few levels unlock for beating other levels—the options are all on the table.) The decisions of play wouldn’t just be “Which gun do I use to slay this zombie?” but the very order in which the levels unfold, triggering gameplay questions like, “With the ammo I have left, dare I brave ‘The Haunted Oil Rig’ level?” Achievement-driven players can boast about how they beat a tough level with just the starting gear or stealthed through an environment meant for gunfights.
Developers, think of the metrics you could collect on what people are replaying, what they want to relive and experience again, what options they’re trying out. Think of everything you could glean about why your franchise is popular, what could surprise people in a new installment, what you can safely skip next time, etc. You could offer three new levels with a new ending—a whole new possibility branch!—as DLC.
And, if some players want to just watch the ending cutscene of a given level, so that they can understand the story of your franchise, what’s the big deal?
The quality of the experience should be the lure that entices people to play every part of your game. Getting through a tough game, for the achievement of having done it, is still as much a triumph as getting through that languid novel or drawn-out television series for the sake of completeness. If a game is good, people want to play more of it.