Skip It: Combat, Barriers, and the Identity of Games

Posted by on Feb 24, 2012 in Creativity, Design, Video Games | 13 Comments

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.

Here’s mine.

Audience Slicing

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.

 

13 Comments

  1. Anne
    February 24, 2012

    Agreed, agreed, agreed. I would play more games were this the case.

    I feel like game companies have gotten so focused on their core demographic—the people playing their games NOW—and are so worried about offending that group that they won’t risk making changes to please more people that aren’t their core.

    Reply
  2. Nikchick
    February 24, 2012

    This is especially interesting for me because of Kate’s habit of watching hours of gameplay clips on Youtube. She enjoys watching people with crazy skills take on the mega-nightmare boss fights without having to try it herself, she enjoys watching people with no skills share their disastrous failures (Leeeeeroy Jenkins!!), she enjoys listening to all the multiple variations of the deep dialog in games like Dragon Age without having to choose and re-play for every possible option. None of this stops her from playing or from holding her own with the boys, as her recent tour through Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer demo proved, but she plays on her terms and those terms include delving as deeply as she cares to into stuff that’s not directly about pressing buttons and beating bosses. When the game itself can’t or won’t deliver she’s looks elsewhere, whether it’s Youtube or fan fiction or Deviant art.

    Reply
  3. Will Hindmarch
    February 25, 2012

    Thanks! I’m genuinely curious what games would and would not benefit from building this option in, but as a design choice, I certainly think this tool should be on the workshop table.

    A great argument has been made that key action sequences should contain vital narrative elements if a game is well designed, and that’s true! Yet, still, if defeating a foe was doable with a menu selection or button combo rather than a 30-minute trial-and-error combat puzzle, I’m sure we could still deliver that necessary narrative component while denying achievements, imposing a Health or ammo cost, or something else.

    Lots of new design wrinkles and opportunities to be had from riffing on the notion of skippable combat, I think.

    Reply
  4. Matt Willard
    February 25, 2012

    My main problem is that when you think “game”, there are certain connotations that go with it. There’s a degree of personal involvement in undergoing the challenges within it. I wouldn’t classify combat as a mini-sandbox or obstacle, it’s part of the definition of a game. If you just want a story, really, why are you loading up a game to begin with? By trying to design games to accomadate people who don’t actually want to play said game, it weakens the game’s ability to target the people who want to approach the game from an actual gaming mindset.

    It’s not a bad thing that combat or gameplay isn’t skippable. That’s the whole point. A game fills a certain niche and trying to expand that niche ignores the niche’s purpose and weakens the strength of fulfilling that niche. Games do not have to cater to everyone’s tastes at once. That’s why genres and other media exists – to appeal to those tastes. And that’s perfectly okay. If you don’t want to play a video game and want a story, get a book or a DVD. Don’t ask a media trying to provide a different focus to adjust just to fit you.

    Reply
  5. Tony
    February 25, 2012

    Matt – I don’t think that’s true any more. I think there’s a merging or an emerging element of gaming which is pure storytelling. In the same way that table top roleplaying games had rules-heavy and rules-light variants. Amber was a diceless roleplaying game, which as a result, encouraged or required storytelling as a way of solving issues. The current versions of D&D are essentially computer games in paper form, where everything has a dice-based resolution or specific skill.

    There’s no combat as such in text based adventures, so why not essentially provide a text based adventure type experience with all the visual flair and voice acting that goes into ME3?

    Especially if it can be done alongside providing the middle-ground gaming experience as well? I actually think the best thing to happen to ME3 is the ability to skip all the dialog and play it as a shooter. I won’t, I want the dialog, but it’ll increase the market penetration of the game I have no doubt, because some people don’t want that pesky dialog.

    I like the combination of combat challenge and dialog, but I want my friends to experience the same story I do even if they don’t like taking out robots at 400 yards with a sniper rifle quite as much as I do.

    Reply
  6. Sooz
    February 25, 2012

    How would offering more options weaken a niche? Games can very easily be considered a particular type of storytelling, and if one is created to tell that story (and not specifically for, say, challenging a player with combat puzzles) it seems like it’d be a good idea to make the story accessible to everyone and leave the other stuff to the 100% completionists.

    It wouldn’t even remove bragging rights, since achievements give the opportunity to show off that you’ve actually gone through the “gatekeeper” rather than skipping it.

    There really doesn’t seem to be a good reason not to offer the possibility to skip combat, unless the combat is the main attraction for the game.

    Reply
  7. blackcoat
    February 25, 2012

    @Matt Willard – well, using ME2 as an example, there are two fully fledged games that don’t involve shooting at things in the larger game. There’s the exploration of the galaxy, finding little things, etc, and the dating sim/upgrade tree for your peeps.

    Now, I beat this game on Insanity a while ago, so I’m just replaying it for the story (and because I picked up all the DLC). And I’ll be damned if I want to go through that sort of effort again, just to be able to play the other two games, which require not button mashing, quicktiming, etc to be able to pull off.

    Reply
  8. Lauren
    February 26, 2012

    @Matt Willard: “If you don’t want to play a video game and want a story, get a book or a DVD. Don’t ask a media trying to provide a different focus to adjust just to fit you.”

    Couple of points on this:

    Wanting to skip some fight scenes isn’t the same as not wanting to play video games.

    Reading a book or watching a movie is fine if I want to be told a story. Playing a game means I’m participating in the story. Sometimes I want to get out there and kill interent dragons. Sometimes I want to hang around in camp and talk to the members of my party and see how the decisions I make affect the outcome. You can’t really do that with books/DVDs unless you’ve got a stack of Choose Your Own Adventure titles.

    Also, while some video games do have tie-in books and movies, not all do. Which means if I want that particular story, in that particular world, looks like I’m playing the game.

    I can see skippable content being easier to implement in some gameplay genres than others. For example, I don’t like real time strategies. Won’t play Civ or StarCraft, though I’ve heard StarCraft has an amazing story. Would I buy one of those if I could skip all the building and resource-gathering and get right to the cutscenes? Probably not.

    On time and money spent: I’m awful at jumping puzzles and sniper shots. If I’ve invested 20+ hours in a game, but can’t get past that one damned gimmicky boss fight (whose mechanics I’ll never see again for the rest of the game), having the option to skip past that would be keen. It’s frustrating to invest 20+ hours (and $50+) on a game only to get to a point where I either throw myself at one fight over and over again for hours or I walk away, story unfinished.

    Will some people want to skip all combat? Sure. That doesn’t lessen the experience of the person who beats the game on nightmare mode. The idea of certain achievements only unlocking if you DO play through the combat is a solid one. I didn’t Kill All the Manz, therefore I don’t get the credit for doing so. But I still get to see how the story unfolds, which makes me more likely to buy the company’s next game. Which means, when my dollars are added to the hardcore player’s dollars, the company is more likely to be ABLE to make the next game.

    Making games more accessible to more types of players sounds pretty win-win to me.

    Reply
  9. Will Hindmarch
    February 26, 2012

    Something occurring to me: The notion of “skipping” combat may be unnecessarily loaded. The actual-play situation might benefit from looking at it as opting out of a combat, rather than skipping it completely, and accepting certain ramifications for doing so.

    If a game only continues if a combat is beaten successfully (a pretty linear mode, that), then opting out of it necessary means players get all the benefits of success without even trying the combat sequence out*, but if a combat can turn out more than one way in a game—so that perfect success is different from barely succeeding is different from failing—then opting out of the combat is still a gameplay choice: you accept something less than total success in exchange for progressing to the next sequence and seeing if it’s more to your liking.

    This is the combat-sequence equivalent of mashing the button to get through in-game dialogue really quickly—doing the minimum in your area of disinterest to keep the game moving and get to the next thing you find fun. If it’s fair game for dialogue sequences, why not for combat sequences?

    So, when I say “skip combat,” keep in mind that for some games that might involve skipping it outright while, for other games, it might actually be part of the gameplay. You might lose a certain amount of ammo or healing potions or a multiplayer bonus or auto-success tokens or whatever to hop over a battle that’s causing you trouble. Opting out of a battle, or trading a degree of success for a measure of progress, can be actual gameplay.

    Thus the word “skip” might get phased out and the notion that no combat == no gameplay disintegrates.

    *(I’d like to think that people would try the combat before they skip it, if the game’s well designed, but why even skipping it outright might be okay is something I’ll tackle some other time in more depth. But if the worst-case scenario is that somebody pays $60 for an interactive movie while someone else pays $60 for 10-20 hours of single-player campaigning, and you both get the multiplayer, I don’t see the big deal.)

    Reply
  10. Will Hindmarch
    February 26, 2012

    Glad to see more talk on this subject. Thanks, y’all.

    Matt, thanks for writing. I appreciate you coming by to share your opinion on this. I don’t fully understand your position, but I’m happy to get the chance to talk about this in greater depth so I can come to understand the counterpoint.

    Reply
  11. Shervyn
    February 26, 2012

    So at first I thought, “but that challenging gameplay is what video games are all about, otherwise it’s just a movie.” and then I thought about it some more and realized that If I just paid $60 for this thing, I should be able to go through it as I wish.

    This is a really awesome concept.

    Reply
  12. Linkification » L’esprit d’escalier
    March 2, 2012

    [...] Hindmarch explores the idea of being able to skip combat the way you can sip past dialogue in some games over at [...]

    Reply
  13. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    I feel that the difficulty slider is one way developers try to make games more accessible, allowing you to basically “skip” a sequence by making it really easy.

    Like we see with Mass Effect 3′s “Narrative” mode.

    It works because ideally, i think a videogame should do the business of gameplay and story at the same time, like say the narrator in Bastion, or the half life series’ avoidance of true cutscenes.

    So if a videogame transmits story seamlessly through gameplay (which i think is the unique aspect of this medium), then skipping is not so great, but a difficulty slider that can be adjusted for a particular sequence is a great, and pretty inexpensive, solution.

    Reply

Leave a Reply