Thursday, 1 March 2012

Skipping Gameplay - Thoughts on a Touchy Subject

There's no right answer, but there is one hell of a debate.

Finally (mostly) getting away from the Hepler thing, today I'm discussing what she brought up: being able to fast forward or skip gameplay. This is a delicate subject to say the least simply due to the very thing that gives the greatest separation between video games and other mediums: interactivity.

There are two sides to any argument, and this one is no exception. I'll first be covering the reasons why I might not work and isn't a good idea, then go on to explain the flip side of the coin. Both sides have their points and since I'm just one guy I can't really say whether either is right or wrong, I can only outline what the proponents and detractors have to say and let people draw their own conclusions.

Looking at the drawbacks of skipping gameplay the first is also the most obvious: what's the point of a game if you don't play it? Even in games where gameplay and story are heavily segregated the very nature of a game renders it an incomplete experience if you forgo an element of it -- skipping gameplay robs the merit of story, skipping story likewise takes away motivation and resonance -- and is also arguably disrespectful to the people that crafted it. I can imagine that writers are often less than thrilled when people skip dialogue that they've worked hard on, so it's not a stretch to consider that a level designer being told that a player can just skip his level after two or three tries is going to have some serious issues with that design decision.

That issue isn't even touching upon the growing integration of gameplay and story. In games like Dragon Age and Deus Ex a lot of the story stems from the decisions you make on the fly in the midst of combat or questing. Killing enemies in certain ways (or not killing them at all) choosing which approach best suits your nature, even numerous side quests and totally optional things like secrets, bonuses and general goodies are all something that will be missed if you fast forward through a section, skip it entirely or even elect to have an AI do it for you. More and more the creation of a game is a delicate balance, and when you give people the option to take what they want and leave the rest you end up with a potential Jenga scenario where the removal of one block sends the entire tower crashing to earth. Reverting to simpler systems does nothing to prevent this either, as moving backwards tends to place even more emphasis on gameplay and gameplay alone. A game like Super Mario World wasn't played because it had an epic and moving story, it was played because it was a damn good gameplay experience.

Finally, there's the issue of actually getting what you pay for. If you buy a game but end up having to skip parts of it because of difficulty or a general dislike of a concept then weren't you better off simply buying a book or watching a movie that has relatively similar content? The fact that games are one of the most expensive mediums of entertainment certainly doesn't help matters either, since you can easily buy a couple of books or movie tickets or even an entire season of a show for the price of one new console release. So spending your money and not using the product to the fullest ends up robbing the gamer more than anything else.

Of course for each of these arguments, there is a feasible counterargument as well. Whether you agree with one side or the other in each case is up to you, but I'm trying to be as fair as possible here while still admitting that I have a bias, which I'll get to at the end of the article.

In this case it would be best to address the last point I brought up on the negative side of things first: that of a gamer cheating themselves out of what they've paid for by skipping over content. While a player cheating themselves out of content is a legitimate concern, there's also the idea that after a player buys a game it is theirs and they may engage with it however they wish to.

Some people will only play the main storyline/campaign of a game regardless of how much side content there might be; others will always go for 100% completion, even going so far as to get trophies that don't really have any practical usage in-game. Neither playstyle is wrong, but one is certainly closer to what the developers have in mind for what they want people to do with their games. Some people for one reason or another will also never clear a game at all; perhaps the game is not what they expected, or maybe their interest just waned over time. Some people though, will stop playing due to something that they can't get past whether it be a level, boss, or something else.

This is by far the finest line to tread. The argument can and does go both ways: if a person can and does skip a level that they wouldn't otherwise be able to get past then it can create a multitude of concerns. First and foremost is the fact that they've missed content by skipping the content in question, secondly there's the idea that once a player skips once, they've started to dig themselves into a hole wherein if a later level is the same concept they'll be less prepared for it practically necessitating the need to skip again and miss more content. The counterargument to this though is that if a player completes a game due to being able to pass over a stymieing section then they've still experienced more of the game even with that loss than if they would give up and walk away then that's still more of an experience and arguably a better experience than not. There's no right answer to that question, but both sides are valid.

There's also the assertion that if a person begins to play a game and finds the story to be the main reason that they want to move forward, then assuming that the sort is sufficiently segregated from the gameplay is there a legitimate reason to withhold the story from the player because the player doesn't have the proper amount of skill or the necessary time to invest in getting that reward? Again this goes back to the idea that a player gets what they want out of a game, rather than what a designer or developer often intends. I wouldn't quite go so far to say that it's a death of the author scenario, but it certainly draws parallels. The argument that similar stories can be found elsewhere is valid, but it also falls short if a player begins a game and then wants that story, not just one of similar nature and scope.

In terms of the experience missing when skipping content there are some mitigating factors that can be put in place. I'd say that plot irrelevant side quests should not have the option to be able to commit to them and then skip to the end; only sections which advance the overall arc of the game should be subject to this, and even then only sparingly. Decisions made in game that would have an effect on the overall story should still be made by the player, but without knowing the circumstances that led to the situation it might be hard for them; certainly you could have an option to "go in guns blazing" or "sneak in and kill no one", but have a chance for things to go wrong either way - not to the point where skipping will cause the player to lose, but to the point where it can result in unpleasant consequences. It's not an ideal solution, but it's a shot at one.

 As for my own stance; well, I've personally always been the kind of player that plays a game more for the sake of playing it than because it has a good story or excellent graphics. Certainly a great story is an added bonus for playing through a game, but for me it's not the paramount reason for doing so. Certainly there have been times that I've been incredibly frustrated playing a game (the Hades section of the original God of War certainly comes to mind) but overcoming those obstacles made the joy of victory that much sweeter. I can't honestly say that, if given the option to skip that section after the umpteenth time I'd failed it, that I would have or wouldn't have, and to that measure I also can't say whether or not I would have lost anything from that experience, since that's not the way things played out. What I can say is that the way I play and enjoy games is indicative of me, not anyone else, and if someone wants the story of a game while missing the elements they perceive as irrelevant I don't honestly think they should be harshly judged for it.

This debate isn't going to end anytime soon, at least I doubt that it is. But I hope that I've shed some light on both sides of this argument while keeping it as fair as I can.

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