Ubisoft made a fascinating announcement this week. They revealed that the latest Assassin's Creed [official site] is to add a "Discovery Tour" mode, removing all the combat and challenges from the game, to let players just freely experience their in-depth recreation of Ancient Egypt. It's fascinating, to me, because it's a big deal. And goodness me, it shouldn't be a big deal. Because games should be delighted to include modes that remove all their difficulty and challenge, and players should cheer when they hear about it.
Oddly enough, a lot of players don't cheer. In fact, people can get awfully angry about it. Since the announcement I've seen on Twitter a combination of people declaring, "Hooray! I'm interested in playing Assassin's Creed for the first time in years!", alongside others pointing toward those utterly furious that it demeans their hobby, cheapens games, and most heinous of all, lets in the riff-raff.
I say: BRING ON THE RIFF-RAFF.
I'm not playing dumb here, I'm not being coy. I know an awful lot of what's made gaming culture such a miserably toxic environment over the last few years is deeply wrapped up in subjects like this, and those who spread the toxicity are those most likely to be on the side of condemning gaming options that remove challenge, that make the hobby more accessible to the crowds. But at the same time, I'm not going to allow that sewage to pollute my opinions, and my delight in expressing those opinions, and I've long been arguing that gaming can be a far better place if the industry would only introduce the "Skip Boss Fight" button.
Yes, of course, Skip Boss Fight is a totem for my larger point here, and it's a title under which I'd include Ubi's recent announcement (despite their rather awkwardly trying to wrap it all up as wanting to be Edumacational). It's the spirit such an option captures, and it's one that I think the industry would do well to breathe deeply into their souls.
This is ground I've covered before. And each time there's been a very similar reaction. In 2009 I suggested it was daft that I'm not able to just skip ahead while playing game, like I could in a film, book, or TV show. Of course that's daft! I wrote back in 2012 about the idea of being able to skip fights, as a reaction to the despicable response to BioWare's Jennifer Hepler's suggesting that game combat should be skippable. Of course it should! Last year I talked about how deeply peculiar is the perceived notion that people have to be GOOD at games for them to be properly enjoyed. Of course they don't! And in light of this seismic (that shouldn't be, oh it shouldn't be) announcement regarding AssCreed Unity, I want to reiterate it once more: let other people play games their way.
The reaction against these thoughts is one of Us and Them, and a desire to keep the Them from getting near the Us. "Them" are all ordinary, inexpert, mediocre, or worst of all, new. While "Us" are expert, experienced, hardcore, elite. But let us reject that silliness immediately, and embrace the idea that welcoming the Outsider in is always how society broadens and blooms. Never mind that there are plenty of people already here who are looking for different and more varied experiences.
Gaming has always been inclusive. The idea that there was this Golden Age when all games were cripplingly hard, and only the Chosen were able to play, is bullshit. In fact, back in these imagined halcyon years was when games invariably came with cheat codes, god modes, all sorts of ways to subvert and play differently. And despite the outright terror that articles like this are harming their precious gaming, that the Outsiders are changing games to what the self-identifying Us perceive as "worse", we're currently experiencing a heyday for super-high-difficulty, super-challenging, extremely tough games, like we never have before. Funny, that.
I bought a Nintendo Switch recently, and have been playing Zelda: Breath Of The Wild as much as I possibly can. (Gosh, it really is quite the thing to be able to just pick up your game off the TV screen and play it on the train - I sincerely hope a PC equivalent is happening.) It's an extraordinary game, vast and intricate and ludicrously alive. But, because it's a Zelda game - hell, because it's a Nintendo game - it has boss fights. And I can do them! They're much easier than the average. I still hate them.
I hate them for me because I find them incongruous to the rest of the game they're in (there are exceptions, games where a 'boss' is in fact a sequence that asks you to employ all you've learned so far, the gaming equivalent of a comprehension test, and these work so well, but they're rare like rubies and it's almost always just a difficulty spike). But I also hate them for other people, those who aren't as good at games as I am (I am average good at games), for whom I know these are not boss fights, but end points. They are massive impassable obstacles between them and the fun they could be having afterward.
I've long hated boss fights, as chronicled perennially on these pages, because they're difficulty spikes as game design. They're something that should be rooted out by beta testing somehow being given feature status. And yes, for some reason people love them so, but just as many - if not more - can't stand them. (Dark Souls wouldn't be a bloody genre if people didn't love a boss fight, but while it falls just short of selling seven billion copies, it's inarguable that there are people who do not enjoy boss fights. And when your game is made of boss fights tied together with string, then yes, it's plainly idiotic for a hater to buy it.) Here's the magic though: if games had a button that let you skip past these incongruous segments so you could carry on enjoying the great game on the other side, that button could just as easily not be pressed!
The argument against the skip button, the tourist mode, the skippable combat, the fast-forward a level, all these ideas that keep coming up, is always the same. It's always, "BUT SOMEONE MIGHT PRESS THEM!" It's not an enormously strong argument, all things considered. It's one I'd like to try to counter.
Yes, they might.
Goodness me, it's like Hegelian dialectic in here.
Ok, it's slightly more nuanced than that, although it's never actually expressed truthfully. The argument tends to go, "But someone other than me might press them, and then they'd get to see a bit of the game that was meant only for the Deserving Champions!" Because, the real nub of it is, it's about exclusivity. It's about keeping the Thems, the riff-raff, the outsider, out. THIS section of the game, this is special to me and only those as great as I am! I DESERVE this bit of the game! Those weaklings do not! Gosh, it's an ugly way of thinking, isn't it? And so utterly idiotic too. Because it requires the mental gymnastics of somehow believing that one's own isolated experience of a game is cheapened, lessened, impacted in any conceivable way, by the isolated experience of someone else playing that game. It is the transference of one's ego onto the game itself. It's not a healthy way to go about experiencing life.
The better argument, although it's a lot less frequently uttered, is, "But I might press the button!" And here things get a lot more tricky. How many's the time you regretted pressing the 'hint' button on your favourite mobile puzzle game? How often have you felt that incredible sense of achievement of having succeeded at a part of a game that challenged you so, which you know - you just know - you'd have skipped three tries back if you'd had the option? Yes, here, there's a concern. But it's not a concern about games, it's a concern about yourself.
So even to use this far more valid worry, that you might spoil your own experiences when offered a tempting shiny red button, is an exercise in unacceptable selfishness. Because that shiny button becomes the thing that allows a multitude more people than you to enjoy their experience of playing this game, and refusing it because of your own inability to self-regulate isn't a good enough argument!
There are obvious solutions. The most simple being the option to switch off the option of such a button when starting a new game, and impossible to switch on without restarting. Perfect, right? Those without the self control to impulse use it can remove the option, those who just want to enjoy the game differently than you have it on. Done. Then, if that weren't enough (and it is), there can be reward mechanisms. Skip the boss and you'll not get the sparkly new sword (that, ironically, will make things a little easier, but don't think about it!). Or maybe, to embrace the ugly icky attitude, you get a different ending, and those who need to feel better about themselves than others because of their ability to better press some buttons in time with a cartoon get to see the PROPER ENDING. Not the dirty scumbag ending for paupers and the weak! Aren't you great, with your ending. Imagine how people will stare at you in the streets!
So hooray for Ubisoft! Hooray for taking all the challenge and difficulty from a game for people who prefer games without challenges and difficulty! Hooray for skipping the boring bits to enjoy more of the fun! Hooray for people being allowed to enjoy a game in a different way from you! Hooray for the riff-raff!