A lot has been said on the horrible reactions to Jennifer Hepler comments on games and how she’d like a “skip button” for particularly tedious combat sections. Leave it to horrid “mysoginerds” (I don’t who to credit for that one but props) to take this relatively innocent comment and turn it into a poster child for the “downfall of gaming”, with an (un)healthy dose of sexism added for good measure. Plenty of websites covered this story in details (Kotaku, Destructoid and the Border House to name a few), so I don’t have much to add to this discussion. What I’d like to talk about is Hepler’s idea of a “skip button”. It’s not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination (remember the debate surrounding NSMBW’s Super Guide). The discussion around this notion was muddled by the entire context it grew out from. Still, it’s worth noting that the Border House did a great post exploring the pros and cons of such an idea and led to a great discussion in their comment section. I decided to explore the implication of a “skip combat button” without making it about a story vs. gameplay debate, although it is probably impossible to remove that aspect completely, or about who’s on what side of the debate.
The first important distinction to make is between combat and conflict. The latter is at the heart of every stories and games. You cannot have a story without a conflict of some sort. The difference is that combat is only one of the ways to resolve a conflict, and even then, combat can be a variety of things. Other ways to resolve conflicts in games are dialogues or puzzles. To skip combat is not skip gameplay, it is only wanting to skip a particular way to deal with conflict — one overly present in modern games.
Let’s dig a little deeper and look at why one would want to skip combat in a game and why this may be the real issue here. For the sake of this example, we will call the average platforming action in a game like NSMBW and Rayman: Origins their way to resolve conflict, if not to say their equivalent of combat. It is also important to note that those games have very little to no gameplay beyond this. Their stories and narratives are also very simple, mostly told through cut-scenes and texts.
Question: would you skip the platforming sections in these games in order to get to more story? I think it’s safe to assume that most would say no — but why? There are two simple answers to this: a) it is the only thing there is to do in those games and more importantly, b) it’s fun. With that in mind, let’s look at those “skip buttons” these games gave to the player. Rayman: Origins gives the player the option to skip a specific section of the level if he dies multiple times trying to pass it. Something similar happens in NSMBW. After a number of tries a green block will appear and, if the player hits it, the game will show him a small video tutorial of how to beat this level, but without any of the secret coins. The game will then ask the player if he wishes to try himself again or just skip the level.
I feel like this is the good way to make a “skip button”. If you leave them the option to skip gameplay even before they try the gameplay section, they will never get better at it and miss a great percentage of the game. Don’t give the option at all, and you risk loosing your player due to frustration to a section they can’t get pass. NSMBW does a great thing because once it’s clear that the player has difficulty pulling ahead, it lets him rests for a while and shows him how to do it, then giving him the option to skip or not. It’s the simple concept of teaching someone to fish instead of giving him a fish. This is a very specific case though, and the deeper issue may just be that a lot of times, the fish simply sucks.
This reflection actually came from The Pause Button’s blog post about this issue and how such a “skip button” for gameplay is inevitable. One paragraph particularly caught my attention:
“There are any number of perfectly justifiable reasons why someone would want to skip all or some of a game. Maybe it’s too difficult (I’m looking at you, God of War blade wall), maybe it’s too boring (I’m looking at you, 50% of Final Fantasy 13), maybe the gameplay just isn’t worthy of the storyline (I’m looking at you, every god-forsaken minute of Heavy Rain). And beyond all of that, who’s to say that simply “I want to experience the story but don’t want to play the game” isn’t a good and justifiable reason for the functionality to exist? “
The bigger issue isn’t that there are no ways to skip those sections, but rather that they are so hard, boring or badly designed that you want to skip them. If the gameplay around those sections were more interesting and engaging, you wouldn’t want to skip them, or at least not right ahead.
I’ll come back to this in a bit, but first I want to tackle the last sentence of this quote. I think it is simply wrong. Putting aside that most stories in games aren’t worth that much, why would you buy a game if all you want is the story and no gameplay? That’s like saying “I want to experience the story but don’t want to read the book/see the movie / watch the play”. If you absolutely want to experience the story without playing the game, “Let’s play” series on Youtube are perfect for this, in the same way a book or movie resume will give you the important parts or their stories. I don’t see how making games semi-interactive movies (more than some of them are now) or semi-interactive texts would make games better. That’s just giving up on the idea of interesting and engaging games and gameplay and making them some distractions that take away from stories. I feel like this could become a dangerous crutch.
An easy, but maybe paradoxically utopian, way to solve this conundrum would be to make sure that people don’t want to skip the combat, or any other form of gameplay, from your game. If relying on a limited gameplay is too risky, like platforming in a Mario game, another option is to give players more options to approach conflicts. As we’ve seen, conflicts can be resolved in different ways. If some people feel that combat can be tedious, leaving them the option to talk their way out of the situation or sneak around the problem will give them an opportunity to forgo fighting without feeling the need to skip the entire gameplay section so they can see the next story bit. Games like Skyrim, Hitman or Deus Ex: Human Revolution do this to great effect. Making gameplay an integral part of your story can also be a way to make both aspects even more gripping.
What is important to remember is that a “skip gameplay button” wouldn’t be needed if people wouldn’t want to skip gameplay. While giving the option to skip a section of the game after a few tries is a good thing, we should be asking developers for better gameplay, not just some way to skip it. I wouldn’t want to see a tool used to ease people into games become a crutch for bad design.