Escape! Escape! Embracing Skippable Combat

By John Walker on February 23rd, 2012 at 4:41 pm.

Thanks Craig!

The argument was made by Jennifer Hepler six years ago. Back then the BioWare writer argued that if dialogue can be skipped in games, then why not combat?

Ignoring the hideous treatment Hepler has received this week, and we will be*, the argument remains a truly excellent one, and one I want to explore.

I enjoy combat in games. I play lots of games just for the combat, and if there’s a story attached then that’s a bonus. Clearly, being a right-thinking individual, I can’t stand boss fights, but otherwise rolling in the ruckus is lots of fun, and a huge reason to be playing games.

I’m also someone who adores narrative in games. That’s my first love in this pursuit and always has been. Growing up on text adventures, when the closest you got to combat was reading that it had happened, being told a tale is a massive motivation for my time spent playing games. Not an exclusive one by a long stretch – my fondness for action-RPGs, third-person combat, and Burnout Paradise ensures that I’m just as likely as any to shout “BLAH BLAH BLAH!” at talking characters as I search for which key skips their blather. Just let me hit stuff! Look at me – I’m varied.

If I’m not reviewing something, I’ll exercise that ability to skip past dreary, pointless dialogue. If it’s proved to add nothing to the game, or actively made me want to not like it, then it makes far more sense to Esc Esc Esc my way through and get to the next bit I enjoy playing.

So why can’t the same apply to combat?

What’s interesting is the primary response seems to be extraordinarily defensive. “But that’s not the point of the game!” they cry. “You may as well watch a film if all you want is a story!” And it’s not even the poorness of those arguments that’s the issue here. What’s so strange is that people are arguing at all. Because to say, “I would like it if combat could be skipped” is not the same as saying, “You HAVE TO skip all the combat in a game or we’ll kill your parents.” But the only rationale I can find for why people are so incredibly angry or upset by the possibility of Escape’s powers working elsewhere is because they’re perceiving it as an infringement of their own potential enjoyment of a game.

Which it is not.

The idea that someone would play the utterly brilliant Dragon Age and skip the conversations feels monstrous to me. Miss out on all the amazing jokes with Alistair? Skip over the scathing sarcasm of Morrigan? Fail to outrageously flirt with Zevran? Let alone not reading the Codex, and learning of the thousands of years of history that precede the events in which you’re taking part? But… but… BUT! That would ruin the game!

But then, just possibly, there might be one or two people who didn’t enjoy Dragon Age’s dialogue. No, really, there may. And for them, their time in Thedas is much better spent with the pause-based RPG combat, intricately controlling their band of characters with carefully balanced tactics, each member refined to the precise AI responses they desire, while improvising techniques amidst the frantic Hard difficulty battles. They couldn’t give a flying dragon plop if your influence on Alistair is causing him to have a crisis of faith, nor does their mind get filled with the consequences of Qunari invasion of Kirkwall. They don’t let it concern them, and they click straight through it.

So why can’t the person who just cares whether Morrigan will get one over on her mother, or if a dwarf can make it as a mage, have the same ability to hop past the parts that don’t interest them as much?

Yes, of course, if we were talking about Dragon Age specifically, it’s rife with reasons why missing combat would be problematic. But we’re not. We’re talking about games that haven’t been developed yet. Games that could throw out approximated amounts of XP for skipped battles, or whatever the particular shortfall might be, for the player who opts to jump forward to the next conversation-based quest. And we’ve not even considered the practical motivations – replaying a game to see what other narrative options were there would be much easier, and certainly more convenient, if you could just focus on the dialogue and make different choices.

To argue that removing the requirement to play all the combat in a game is to render the experience to being equivalent to that of a film is to completely miss the nuance of gaming. Beyond the sheer obviousness that try as you might, it’s awfully difficult to have an influence on a film’s ending, the simple act of clicking a mouse changes the way you experience the media. What about Visual Novels then? Aren’t they narratives you read and occasionally influence? Yes, yes they are, which is why I fully argue that they’re games. But let’s not get sidetracked there – that’s not the concern here. The point is, if my skipping a shitty boss fight, or hopping over a particularly frustrating combat sequence, to you means I’m making a game the same as a VN, um, so what?

That’s what’s so very mystifying about the argument. We don’t need to be having an argument! Because no one anywhere is suggesting that combat should be removed from games, and certainly not that anyone should be under any obligation to skip combat, why is there even a reaction at all? It’s like someone wanting to ban people from visiting Burger King because they pick the tomato out of their Whopper. They’re not forcing you to miss out on your tomatoey goodness – they’re just eating the burger differently than you do. Your burger stays just the same.

Deciding how other people are allowed to play games, or believing that other people playing differently is an affront to you, is mystifying. Such a solipsistic view of the gaming world is utterly without merit or value to you or anyone else. If people want to skip combat, you should get on with not caring at all.

Everyone pays for the game, and while we have no stinking rights of ownership, we do still at least cling to the right to play it how we choose. If I want to play Skyrim with a no-clip cheat on and walk through every wall in the game, I can. It would be a strange thing to do, certainly, but it wouldn’t be a problem for you. And if I want to skip all the combat in Torchlight and just read the quest descriptions, you’d rightly think me insane, but it wouldn’t make your enjoyment of the game change in any way.

I think skippable combat is a fantastic idea. I doubt I’d use it very often. I can imagine Deus Ex: Human Revolution being a lot more fun if I could exercise the right to skip its awful boss fights, and I certainly might consider it if I’m playing an action game with a frustrating difficulty spike I’d like to see the other side of. In fact, I find it utterly bizarre that we’re not allowed to jump to any chapter of a game when we first install it. We’re allowed to with films, and no one can stop you turning to the last chapter of a book. Goodness knows why you’d want to, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t.

Getting to the end of a game doesn’t need to be a privilege, earned through hard labour and toil. It’s something anyone can be allowed to do, however they wish. Sure, this “achievement” culture has broken some people’s understanding, and heck, take them away from me if I skip something – I’ll somehow cope. But I don’t see why anyone should be restricted from seeing any part of a game they’ve bought for any reason. And if skipping combat is a way to do that, then skip away.

PS. Massive thanks to @caterwail for linking me to this:

*We am not interested at all in discussion of the despicable campaign of hate directed toward Hepler in the last few days, and any comments about her will be deleted, and we’ll ban anyone we choose. It is NOT being tolerated. If we need to, we’ll just switch off the comments.

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510 Comments »

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  1. newprince says:

    Slightly off topic, but am I the only one that actually enjoys the combat from the last two Fallouts? Going through this thread is just pure hatefests on the gameplay. I mean, I do use ironsight and gun mods mods, but… to this day I enjoy doing a VATS shotgun blast to a poor soul’s face. Hmph.

    • fooga44 says:

      @newprince

      The problem with fallout is that there is too much dead space in the game where you are doing nothing but travelling and you get bored as fuck to get to the next place. Not to mention the easy combat. Bethesda’s games have always been slow as molasses and poorly paced. They cater to people who like to be bored to death. The actual combat in fallout is nothing compared to say serious sam 1. If you’re going to do an first person shooter it should pace the action well. Fallout does none of that really and coasts on modern gamers ability to tolerate huge amounts of empty space designed to waste time. Old school gamers don’t put up with that shit. Fallout 3 was average at best, mediocre at worst.

  2. Dan Lowe says:

    Forgive my not reading through all ten pages before posting this, at the risk of it being said already, but I’ve actually started lowering the difficulty on some games to get through them. If the game’s worth playing, I’d love to play it on the hardest difficulty or seek out the secret content (I played FFXII over 120hrs in three different playthroughs), but there are games where the dialogue and story are literally exhausting to get through, and many where major elements of the gameplay are exhausting as well. If lowering the difficulty means I can get through it quickly the first time, in hopes there’ll be something better in the next chapter, then I’m all for building that mechanism into the game at the very beginning.

    And as far as designing games for the environment and the immersion of a persistent world rather than the primary narrative and prescripted elements, I long for more open-endedness. The idea of a Virtual Reality Minecraft with real-world textures and seemingly infinite exploration — even without any central gameplay events and obstacles to get through — makes me want to crawl into a cryogenic tank and wake up in 25 years.

    I like games, I like playing very simple and short but plain fun games (I’ve been playing through Magicka repeatedly trying to make a perfect single-player run in under 4 hours), but longer games, the Skyrims and Dragon Ages are leaving a lot to be desired. There’s an Uncanny Valley to environment, too, and we’re quickly reaching it.

  3. Somerled says:

    Sounds like the old “Why do you cheat?” debates I used to take part in. Why do I cheat? Because sometimes I want to play a game in a different way. Maybe that’s more fun, or a different kind of fun, or just plain different altogether. Sometimes it’s fun to plow through the monsters, an unstoppable powerhouse soaked in the blood of my enemies. Hitting escape is “cheating.” Progressing in a different manner from someone else’s expectation.

    Then again, the bitch-storm that Alone in the Dark threw up from its skippable chapters … gamers are weird. And anyone arguing for progression as reward has strange priorities.

  4. psyk says:

    AH come on

  5. El_Emmental says:

    I wish more comedians were making sketches about video games, of course most them would be meh or plain bad, but simply imagine the few excellent ones we would get…

    Regarding the skip scene possibility, I’m fully okay with this, we shouldn’t force people to “play” through something they don’t enjoy at all before allowing them to enjoy another part of the game. We’re all here to have fun, let the fun be delivered in the most adequate way for each player.

    Regarding the skip feature as the way to replay a game to see the different outcomes or after losing your saves, I fully agree.

    In my case, I gave up on Zeno Clash and Company of Heroes after I found out the Steam Backup feature doesn’t include saves. Hopefully Zeno Clash later included a chapters unlocking system (based on achievements I guess), so I could finish the game easily.

    On the other hand, I need to replay Company of Heroes from the very start, 18 hours lost. Same with Fahrenheit, 7 hours lost. I really don’t want to do that again, at least not now. Time is too precious.

    • El_Emmental says:

      Regarding the skip as a difficulty-tweaking button, it’s an extremely useful tool. I always thought cheat codes were only made for that purpose.

      Like, someone get stuck at a specific part and really dislike that part, (s)he uses that cheat for that combat/chapter, then get back on playing the game.

      I did that myself a few times (out of the 200+ games I played, I needed cheats for a brief moment for approximately 5 games), and felt “phew, I’m really glad they added such cheats, that part was just crap, what were they trying to do”.
      I still had to use some trainers (= external small software, modifying some specific game values like health, ammo, items, etc) once or twice when there wasn’t cheats.

      nb: I think it’s pretty obvious we’re talking about single-player games here, online cheating (when it’s done to dominate other players – extremely rare cases of artistic/comedy cheating exist) is one of the worst thing ever happened to video games.

      I remember my cousin was stuck in the X-Files game (the interactive movie point-and-click adventure game from 1998), because there was a short FPS part and since he never played such games before, would always lose at this point (and the checkpoint wasn’t even close to that FPS part).

      => When we finally got to visit this cousin’s family, my brother, who had been playing several FPS for quite a few months then (Dark Forces on the Mac, Jurassic Park on the SNES (interior parts), Goldeneye on the N64), did that FPS part easily, and my cousin could finally finish the game. The skip button would have been useful and justified in this case.

      One might think “hey, you skipped difficulty/the game !”, first it’s up to the player to make his own decision, second you can’t force a player to face something that is out of his/her reach.

      I stopped playing some games (at least for a few months) because the game was “broken”, the game was just unbeatable unless I spent the required 4 to 6 hours on the same frustrating challenge to get it done. Think of Trials 2/SMB, without the fun of finally getting things done.

      Most of the time, it happened when I didn’t have the right weapons/items/not enough HP/mana and the last save/autosave was way too old.

      => Imagine you wanted to save that Full-Heal medkit (that you can’t loot) for later, so you continue, and once you’re down to 25% HP and close to the final boss you walk back, expecting your well-deserved medkit, and suddenly an invisible wall/collapsed alley/closed door prevents you from walking back to that medkit. You’re left with 2 choices :
      – restart the entire level ? (nb: if it’s possible ! no words can describe the stupidity of the “Continue / New Game” design)
      – try to fight that boss (who has area-of-effect/unavoidable attacks) with your 25% HP ?

      Such crappy situation happened to me countless times because I was “saving” HP pickups, you know, planning my HP strategy rather then using everything thrown at me.

      Same with refusing a new weapon (like a Sniper rifle), you later realize there isn’t any choice, you have to drop your good ol’ chainsaw/shotgun/machinegun to grab that sniper rifle when told, or you’ll face a wall few enemies later.

      A skip button would be the ultimate “fix game design errors” button. That error could be related to the game (= bad design) or specific to the player (= inadequate design), it wouldn’t matter : the skip button would fix it and everyone would be happy.

    • El_Emmental says:

      A “skip this challenge” feature is nice, but it’s just one possibility : “put this challenge aside, I’ll play it later (when I feel like it)” is an excellent example of an efficient variant.

      We often see “casual gaming” and flash games as games without anything to bring to “real” games, but the “skip this level” function, often limited to 3 or 5 levels, is amazing :

      a) You get to play later levels, getting better at the game during the process.

      b) If you didn’t understood how to do a specific task (like rocketjumping, shooting weakspots, or using the environment) in the first challenge requiring that task, you might get it at the second challenge.
      * It’s exactly the same with learning how to read/count/etc:
      => there is no methods/exercises working for all kids/persons, you need several different approaches/POV to “cover” most people.
      => if you don’t let kids/persons try other exercises, they’ll give up on the entire lesson.

      c) You’re greatly rewarded when you come back to complete skipped level.
      => The skip tokens suddenly become a currency, a value : Should I spent a token on that level, or should I try harder ? Should I try that previous level again, since I really need to get that skip token back for the latest level ? The skip button is now letting you estimate your own skills and how much you value your efforts in finishing a difficult challenge.

      It’s extremely gratifying, because you’re really seeing your progress, you’re no longer trying to keep up with the difficulty curve, you’re -really- getting better at this game, there is a much stronger accomplishment feeling when you finally finished the game, or even when you stop playing it : you made it to the 30th level (or the 5th chapter), so even if you didn’t went further, you truly managed to finish these 30 levels/5 chapters and got better at the game.

      It’s really important that games make you feel good about yourself, not through statistics or ranks, but through your self judgement, your self-built self-esteem. If you lost a mission or a multiplayer game but played pretty good, you won’t feel bad about it. My best gaming experience weren’t victories or defeats, they were interesting struggles and stressful moments during which I did better (according to myself) than usual.

      The skip button would then let you judge when the challenge is going to be an interesting struggle that should be faced, or just a dull pyrrhic victory not worth your efforts/hours.

      The “Skip” button is a brilliant leverage, it’s one of best game design tool not yet implemented in complex and difficult games, simply because everyone is afraid of its possible consequences.

    • El_Emmental says:

      Because the “skip” button isn’t an innocent little button sitting in the corner, for the few who will want to skip a small part of the game (be it combats or dialogues).

      It’s affecting the difficulty, the learning curve, each challenges, everything. With a skip button, the entire game design will be changed.

      – Wanted the players to learn a new tasks/skills at each new challenges ?
      ° The Bad => Now you need to make sure the game is still balanced and playable if you skip any challenges (even 90% of them). Harder challenges have to be axed, because people will skip them and won’t be able to catch up later.
      ° The Good => Now you need to introduce your new challenges through different ways, so (almost) everyone can get it.

      – Wanted to suddenly have a rather difficult challenge in your game, to wake up the player, to suddenly get a sharp rise of stress and action, precisely followed by a rather calm moment/challenge, to have a good rhythm ?
      (it is an extremely important element when you need to carry emotions, maintain interest and have interesting “action stress” moments)
      ° The Bad => Now you have to rework your entire planning (or nerf the audacious plan you had), or find a way to get a similar effect (cutscene ? written summary of the combat ? AI taking control over your character and playing out a scripted scene ?).
      ° The Good => Now your players can follow the game’s pace even if they didn’t completed some challenges, the momentum is no longer broken by inadequates challenges (= spending 30 minutes on something that should have only took 5).

      – Wanted your players to play more (stats show most people rarely get past 50% of a game), to build a stronger emotional attachment to the game, to get a stronger word-of-mouth marketing and more DLCs and sequels sales ? (and a better gaming experience)
      ° The Bad => Now you have to worry about finetuning your challenges so most players don’t skip them. The Man With The Money will ask devs to tune down the difficulty of these challenges to reduce the amount of skips, so people actually play the entire game and buy more game-related services/content.
      ° The Good => Now players get to finish games more often, even if they skipped some parts of it. The Man With The Money is rather happy (even if he never shows it), and will not axe as much difficult challenges as before, since it’s not preventing some players from playing the rest of the game (and buying sequels/DLCs/services).

      – Wanted to focus more ressources in the combat/dialogue/any part of the game ?
      ° The Bad => Now you can’t focus too much on something that can simply be skipped with a single click, depth is no longer a possibility.
      ° The Good => Now you can truly focus on these challenges, without fearing it will prevent some of your players from playing the rest of the game.

    • El_Emmental says:

      The problem with new tools is that they are never used to enhance the game experience on AAA games : the primary, main, almost only, objective is making money.

      Publishers will never greenlight new tools such as “skipping some parts of the game” without being sure it will be an immediate +20% positive investment, and you can’t get +20% without using a tool in the wrongest deviated way.

      This is why “gamers” are hostile to change, sure some of them are afraid of change, but most of them just don’t trust the video game industry.

      Look back at copy protections. DRMs. Sequels. How publishers are treating devs studios. DLCs. Pre-order incentives. Region-lock. Console ports.

      Then, can you still believe “they” won’t screw up the skip function ?

      Can you still believe the consequences won’t be much closer to “The Bad =>” examples rather than the “The Good =>” ones ?

      This is why change is no longer possible in the AAA/mainstream video game market, there is no longer trust.

      Sadly, trust is no longer needed to make money.

      It even became a merchandise, waiting to be consumed : any important IP or trusted developer is an opportunity to make some easy-cash with cheap shovelwares until it’s dead and buried, with early-fans trying to forget what happened after the first games.

      Even the skip button, in the hands of the current video game industry, will become another problem gamers will have to deal with, rather than a simple solution to various frustrating problems.

  6. Michael Dorosh says:

    How many combat-oriented games offer “combat’ that is both complex/challenging and has stakes as high as real world “combat” in any event? I remember sitting down with the telephone-sized manual for Falcon 3.0 decades ago, and learning about “air combat'; the stakes of not learning the multiple threats and tactics were, I suppose, death of a pilot character with any accumulated “accomplishments” though I frankly don’t recall the details. Compare to something like Rainbow Six, an extremely soft first person shooter where you can simply breeze through the campaign in a couple of afternoons, not touch a single option in the briefing and set up menus, and die multiple deaths with no real consequences other than a respawn with the minor inconvenience of having to spend perhaps two or three minutes going over the same ground. “Combat” in most games has no dire consequences, save for some games with optional “iron man” modes which will levy the appropriate penalties. Few games, no matter the genre, make you learn intricate or ‘real world’ tactics beyond a few different ‘funny moves’. The whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.

  7. Campaigner says:

    If it’s possible to skip combat then it should say casual, cheater or something like that in the end.
    And you should NOT get any achievements while being a wimp like that.

  8. PopeBob says:

    I actually haven’t a problem with people skipping combat outright. I do have a problem with Mass Effect 3’s version of “skipping” the combat, which entails enabling what amounts to godmode on your Shepard in Story/Narrative mode. Surely you could just skip to the talky bits, auto-pilot the fighting into a scripted bot stage or even just depopulate the world of enemies. But to give this illusion of combat is like that Penny Arcade strip about Mario’s Tanooki suit. It’s patronizing people who are bad at/don’t want to do the combat bits by lowering the hoop down to waist level and pretending it’s totally normal and legit. “You’re doing so good, consumer! Look how many enemies you killed!” “Oh, don’t shoot me Shepard! You’re SO STRONG~”

  9. Toothball says:

    There are a few RPGs out there that include automated battle options. Final Fantasy 12 was probably most noted for it, but the idea had been around for a while. When I first came across it, I was overjoyed to discover that rather than have to manually direct my party through every single inconsequential battle, I could just set them going and come back when the fighting was over. When a boss came up I’d take over, since those fights were more interesting and usually required a less brute force approach. Some of my friends though I was mad for doing this. They’d argue that I was missing the point of the game. I couldn’t see why they’d want to do all that fighting by hand.

    It has been said that if a game needs a run button, then movement speed is probably too slow. In an ideal game, the player would be having maximum fun through every moment of play. But as that game doesn’t exist, what’s wrong with allowing players to experience the parts they do like. Most often the alternative is that they stop playing and don’t come back. Who benefits from that?

    • fooga44 says:

      @toothball

      “I couldn’t see why they’d want to do all that fighting by hand.”

      Think about what you just said, imagine taking out all the combat from mass effect including boss fights, there is no game left, just a really bad movie and boring dialogue. When you take the interactive parts of the game away or have to skip them that means either 1) you’re a non gamer or 2) the combat in the game isn’t very fun which means the game itself sucks and game devs need to fix the game so participating in it is fun.

      Skipping combat means fundamentally you’re not there for the game but for the movie/story aspects, and at that point square should just be giving people like you a movie or you should just watch walkthroughs /w highlights of story on youtube and save yourself the $60 bucks.

      Whenever you are not participating you can substitute that with watching someone else play on youtube. Would you rather do that? I think thats genius thing for you to do since you find the participation aspect so boring.

  10. Dorque says:

    I know it’s an MMO and obviously you can’t really have skippable combat in it, but I’m still amazed that after three pages of comments, World of Warcraft hasn’t come up.

    Why, you ask?

    Well, WoW is a case study in difficulty blocking content.

    I’ll try to explain this from the perspective of those who are unfamiliar with WoW. Back when Blizzard released the second expansion, their first “raid” (i.e. end-game, max-level dungeon) was the only one for… oh… six months, give or take. The entire time, they were talking about ANOTHER raid that had been in development since before the expansion was even released: Ulduar.

    Ulduar was beautiful. The boss mechanics were unique and interesting. The dialogue was amazing. The graphics were stunning. And it took them somewhere between six months to a year (and maybe then some) to complete.

    They estimate that between 2-5% of players actually saw the whole thing.

    Millions of dollars worth of development time and almost none of their players even got to experience it. And this is in a lore-driven game world. I personally played that game for over six years, and I love the lore that started with the original RTS games – and I never saw the end of a story-based raid past the original release.

    Is it wrong that I’d love a “solo mode” where I could wander in and experience it myself? I don’t need loot or experience; I just want to see the story that my character is theoretically a part of and experience the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of development hours that I paid for.

  11. Turbobutts says:

    If you skip the gameplay of a game it becomes a book or movie. And if I want to read a book or watch a movie I read a book or watch a movie, not play a game. I don’t see how skippable gameplay is even a valid point of discussion. It’s rubbish.

  12. vitacia says:

    My god the autor of this article doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. I don’t want to tear the whole article apart, just commenting the final words results already in a Wall of Text.

    “Getting to the end of a game doesn’t need to be a privilege, earned through hard labour and toil. It’s something anyone can be allowed to do, however they wish.”

    Yes, there is an invention for people who just want to be entertained without doing anything for it: it’s called VIDEO. You can find VIDEO on your TELEVISION and homepages like YOUTUBE. VIDEO lets you enjoy something WITHOUT engaging in ANY interactivity. You don’t have to use your brain for VIDEO, you just LEAN BACK and WATCH.

    “But I don’t see why anyone should be restricted from seeing any part of a game they’ve bought for any reason. And if skipping combat is a way to do that, then skip away.”

    If you have a problem with a video game, there is something called “EASY DIFFICULTY”.
    I KID YOU NOT! Games had different difficulties FOR DECADES and still have them. Most games have CHEATS like GODMODE who basicly let you skip through the game if you just want to see what the game’s story is all about.
    But do you want to know what? It’s not how games are meant to be played.
    Most people buy a game because they want to PLAY, not to READ and LISTEN. Skipping sequences of a game is like skipping parts of a movie: you’ll get the story, but you won’t get the experience.

    People like you simply don’t enjoy videogames. You just play them and wish they where something else.

  13. hrothgar says:

    Hi John, hi RPS.

    I made a video that sheds some light on the whole Hepler thing. It’s not an attack video, it’s pretty informative, so I think you guys should see it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QLz0CqtMVc

    Tell me what you think in the comments.

  14. Ymarsakar says:

    You should take a look at the VN Fate Stay Night if you want to consider “gameplay” vis a vis the narrative.