The Deep Roads -- A beautiful concept painting depicting a figure walking through the dimly lit geometric stonework of a mighty tunnel.

Roll a Die by the Sword: An Engagement with Jennifer Hepler’s Ideas

The Deep Roads -- A beautiful concept painting depicting a figure walking through the dimly lit geometric stonework of a mighty tunnel.

 

There were many things wrong with the recent bacchanal of hate that surrounded Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler this past week, but one of the more critical ones was this: she was being savaged for merely offering an opinion in an ongoing discussion about gaming. One of the tragedies of cultural sexism is that we as women are not taken seriously as participants in our fields; even when robust defences against misogyny are mounted, lost in the shuffle is the renegotiation of the discussion that allows these women’s views to be folded back into the discourse where they belong.

In other words, one of the best ways we can honour Hepler as a community of gamers is to take her ideas seriously and discuss them rationally, whether or not we agree.

So let’s get down to it: what are the merits of her ideas surrounding issues like skipping combat?

I have often said that combat is the central idiom of progress in most video games; across every genre you can think of—encompassing a startlingly diverse canon—combat reigns supreme as the primary mechanism by which progress is both represented and assessed. This has been handled in a variety of ways that lend distinction to various games; there are many ways to do combat. However, could there be another way forward? I believe that dethroning combat as game’s central mode of progress is one of several ways games can begin telling a whole new tranche of stories.

In the furore surrounding the public airing of edited remarks by Hepler even some of the more sensible commentors routinely conflated “combat” with “gameplay.” Some said that Hepler was calling for the “game” part of video games to be extracted entirely. I feel that if fighting has become so central to our understanding of what gaming is, we have a problem. Needless to say, an entire genre of games that many gamers look back on with a measure of fondness—Adventure games—wouldn’t exist if combat was the bread and butter of every game.

But what about Hepler’s idea specifically? I think it merits a good deal more consideration. As Susana Polo on the Mary Sue has argued, one of the third rails that Hepler’s comments inadvertently touched on was the rampant fear in some sectors of the gaming community that games are becoming easier; “dumbed down” is a phrase that appears in every one of these conversations. The eschatology of it is all rather interesting: “casual players” are coming over the hills and threatening to destroy all we hold dear. They shall burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants, absconding with our rich, fulfilling gameplay, and our deep, involving games, all so that greedy developers can make a fast buck off a growing market.

The reality, however, is very different—as many here no doubt know, at least on some level.

You may not know it, but these sheep are responsible for the death of gaming, and everything else we hold dear. Damn you, sheep, damn you!

First of all, the hatred of “casuals” (a notoriously ill-defined group) is very often a dog whistle that is meant to antagonise people to whom gaming has not catered to in the past, women in particular. To look at any online “hardcore v. casual” debate one will immediately find lamentations about “bored housewives” playing games and what a terrible thing this must be. This invariably leads to the now ritualistic sneering about Farmville and discussions about how Farmville is killing our babies and making holes in the ozone layer.

So, misdirected anger. But what about the substance of the complaint: that games are getting easier? In some senses this is true. Games lack some of the obnoxious mechanics they had in the past. Reflexes are no longer as important as they once were during the golden age of platformers. But there is a deeper truth that few of these debates get at. Many gaming companies have not declared war on challenges, they’ve declared war on tedium.

A Common Ancestor?

When I played Dragon Age: Origins I found out quickly that the Deep Roads were a scary place- both the writing and the atmospheric design bent everything in that direction. Few things horrified me in a game as much as the approach to the Broodmother (it’s up there with the abandoned hotel in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines in terms of being incredibly scary and chilling).

What pulled me out of that atmosphere? Killing endless waves of darkspawn every five seconds, if I’m to be honest. It’s arguable that’s part of the atmosphere. Darkspawn come from the Deep Roads. Where else would you put endless writhing masses of the things? But there is a balance to be found, in my opinion. Too much combat can be too much, and on subsequent playthroughs I loathed schlepping my party to Orzammar not because DwarfWorld wasn’t a ton of fun (it is, and it is exceedingly well written- many parts by Ms. Hepler, no less), but because I was thinking “Ugh… hours of killing darkspawn again. Weeeee.” It’s not because the Darkspawn were especially hard to fight, it’s because they were incredibly tedious to mow down due to sheer volume.

And my parenthetical about the VtM:B hotel? That hotel was the scariest challenge I ever encountered in a game and it required zero combat on my part. That made it more, not less frightening. My weapons could do nothing. The final boss of the entire level was my own fear. I mean that literally, the biggest challenge was overcoming the sheer terror induced by the atmosphere. No darkspawn/orcs/zombies/skeletons/mutant rats required.

Some may say the Deep Roads aren’t the best example for reasons I’ve already mentioned—and fair enough. But be real with yourself: how many times has repetitive, grindy, bread and butter combat against hordes of forgettable enemies in an RPG where they’re clearly designed as filler actually been fun at all times? Sometimes it is fun, actually. Some days I want nothing more than to mindlessly grind (don’t read too much into that sentence). But would having the option to skip combat somehow be nice? Yes.

Why? Well, explaining this requires a bit of a detour.

On The Mary Sue, one critic in the comments, Tess27, argued the following:

This is because videogames derive from a completely different branch: board games; RPGs, and in particular Bioware RPGs, are even more associated to board games since their gameplay derives directly from Dungeons and Dragons rulesets. Now when you play a board game, you don’t do it for the story, you do it for the challenge of the gameplay.

I disagree rather strongly with this. But let’s assume it’s true and that board games are the common ancestor of all RPGs. Having a common ancestor still implies evolution and divergence. I don’t play Monopoly for the same reasons I play Dungeons & Dragons. What attracted me to the RPG Eclipse Phase was entirely about its story. The mechanical system was not a draw in the slightest. RPGs are distinguished by the meaning they create whose warp and weft are synthesised by the loom of narrative. Mechanics can be important: they are the measure of your character’s progress and the almighty arbiter of her interactions in the world. That neutral roll of the dice that can decide the fate of empires.

Pictured: a D20 basking in its profound metaphorical power. (See here for more: http://www.etsy.com/listing/60669433/chompd20)

But what makes the roll interesting? The context lent by the story. You’re rolling for initiative to accomplish something. Self-perfection in the context of a game does involve, yes, raising your Strength score from 12 to 18. But what makes it satisfying is that a Str score that high gives you a fighting chance against the evil warlock who’s been your character’s nemesis since level 1.

The fight itself can also be a satisfying nailbiter, but the that tension only comes from the story that gives purpose and meaning to the fight.

Another objection must be raised at the implications of Tess’ construction. It seems to say that whatever “story” is, it’s something that’s not gameplay. And whatever gameplay is, it’s something to do with combat. I find this both tautological and unhelpful. I prefer a much more holistic view of gameplay, and it’s one that includes story. After all, much like a stat increase, advancing the plot of a game is its own reward.

So what does this have to do with Hepler’s suggestion? Endless repetitive combat is only one way we might perfect our characters. We could, instead, be given alternatives that enable other forms of gameplay. A button that allowed us to skip combat as easily as we skip spoken dialogue might be nice, but also rather heavy handed. I’d prefer non-violent alternatives, in conjunction with combat that was more focused—instead of hordes of nobodies (so bland that they’ve garnered names like ‘mobs’ and ‘mooks’), let’s have a smaller number of more interesting enemies. Allowing routes around combat at least some of the time can help us deepen our characters in RPGs.

My favourite moments in RPGs are those where I’m given a very distinct choice in how I complete a quest, and those are often the most fun and meaningful moments for me. My favourite part of PnP RPGs is not dice-rolling-as-combat but that I get XP for being my character. Put another way, I get XP for talking, trading, seducing, strategising, praying, singing, philosophising, politicking, spying, cooking, parenting… perhaps now my point should be clear. (For a similar discussion, this episode of Extra Credits should provide a lot of food for thought.)

The idiom of progress needs a bit of complication and diversification.

Why do We Play?

Hepler is not wrong to suggest that this may appeal to new markets. Some people criticised her for making essentialist statements about women’s taste in gaming when she said:

“The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.”

This is a complex discussion that deserves more than the bookend I’m consigning it to. My view on the matter is that there is truth to the idea that mothers in particular are overworked and have demands placed on them that fathers or non-parents are less likely to experience. A cursory survey of the sociology literature reveals this (Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift remains the most accessible example). I don’t think it’s essentialist to point out that mothers in particular may have a harder time making room in their schedule.

That said I think she could have chosen her words more carefully when she talked about what she feels women want; certainly a lot of us like violent and vertigo-inducing gameplay. I do not feel that antipathy to violence per se is something especially invested in women, and it may be more reasonable to suggest that what we (and a lot of men, for that matter) are really pushing back against is time wasting tedium whose sole purpose appears to be to win a highly contrived contest.

One of Hepler’s points, however, was that she finds it hard to convey to outsiders that games are more than that, and she feels that allowing options to gloss over or skip combat entirely may help emphasise another side of games entirely. I suspect that’s what she meant when she said:

“I really believe that there is a large group of women who enjoy other genre products (from fantasy romance novels, to anime, to the Lord of the Rings movies), who would enjoy an interactive RPG story with some of the more logistical challenges removed, but I honestly don’t know how to let them know it’s out there.”

Part of what made World of Warcraft so appealing was that it transcended the masochistic gameplay of games like Everquest which seemed to revel in tedium-as-challenge. This was not just offputting to, say, working mums with busy schedules (after all, a lot other of women did play EQ), but to everyone. Plenty of men wouldn’t play either simply because they had too much else to do. WoW changed this by allowing MMO game play to be progressively reduced to bite sized chunks that you could add up to a massive whole at your own pace.

Now Hepler and others have pondered how we can take this to the next level by allowing players to not only take things in chunks (after all, in single player games Save and Reload do that for you) but how to have more input on the nature of the content itself. That’s a worthy discussion.

WoW not only allowed you to take content in bites, but it reduced overall tedium. The death system was dramatically relaxed, rest XP was introduced (remember the fury when that was first announced?), the amount of crap you had to kill was scaled back, and it got better and better as time went on. Quests began to reliably drift away from the Kill 10 X schema and towards various modalities of questing that made places more memorable and interesting. In Wrath of the Lich King, what could’ve been a boring quest to gather lumber turned into an interesting micro adventure wherein I got to commandeer a Goblin shredder.

Not to be trite about it but creativity yields more fun.

Instead of taking Hepler’s comments at purely face value, we should see her words as a starting point that invites us to think more deeply about why we play. We won’t all agree on a “skip combat button” but her idea raises a welter of issues that we do need to consider as a community, for both the sake of inclusion and the sake of artistic originality. Already with Deus Ex’s “conversation bosses” and Mirror’s Edge “Pacifist” achievement, we see some glimmering examples of possibility. My hope is that the adults in the room can continue talking about Hepler’s comments and those like them, and see where they lead. Hepler’s proposition should not be seen as a binary yes/no question, but an invitation to think more deeply about why we play and where we’re going with it.

Edit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted an article today which also takes on the argument surrounding skippable combat. Worth a read for sure!

90 thoughts on “Roll a Die by the Sword: An Engagement with Jennifer Hepler’s Ideas”

  1. Great article! I’m honestly in favor of anything that increases the potential for games to reach a broader audience.

    One comment I have heard from some people who would like to play games, but can’t figure them out (and, this is anecdotal, but this mostly comes from women), is that they have difficulty figuring out how to navigate the 3D space that most modern games use. (Let alone doing combat in it.) I think this is another big hurdle that “hardcore” games have to overcome for some players.

    1. That’s something I’ve noticed as well. The only non-gamers I’ve tried to introduce to gaming have been my father, my sister and my girlfriend, but all three of them had a hard time with fully realized 3D spaces. In the end, my father preferred top-down strategy games, my sister top-down RPGs and my girlfriend sidescrolling platformers.

      It would be neat for there to be a game specifically designed at helping people new to gaming navigate 3D spaces, since that seems to be one of the major issues. What do you think the problem is – is it figuring out how input relates to 3D navigation? Is it reading screen output and trying to figure out where one is? As someone who has played 3D games for years, I’m sadly blind to the nature of the difficulties such environments may cause for others.

      1. As someone who sometimes struggles with 3D games, particularly first-person ones, maybe I can at least explain what I have difficulties with? I was thinking about it recently when someone else was asked (somewhat facetiously, admittedly) how they could have problems with first-person games when they live their life in first person.

        I think for me my main problem is that I never feel sure where I am in a first person game. In real life, we have senses other than the visual that establish where we are in the world. I can feel that I’m balanced, I know where my limbs are in relation to one another, I can feel the floor under my feet. If something outside of my field of view were to attack me, I’d at least be able to, you know, feel where it was hitting me. In games, there’s only the visual to rely on; none of that other stuff is there. And it really throws me off.

        For me, simply having the option to zoom out to a third-person view helps a lot (though then aiming becomes a lot more difficult).

        (I also have a problem with the more restricted view that comes with first person – I get freaked out about the possibility of things coming up behind me. That happens to me in real life, too, though, and is probably more a product of my anxiety…)

        1. That’s very funny, because I’m one of those people who do mostly rely on vision (and touch, secondary) in meatspace too for knowing where they are and what they are doing. It’s not that I don’t have the other senses at all, but they are impaired. So yeah, I often have to hold a hand against the wall to know when I’m upright, for example. I have walked into doorsills with my head because I was tilting sometimes. I also don’t know as well what my limbs are doing: it’s not totally absent, again, but I have to watch my feet when I walk the stairs (and hold something to make sure I’m upright), watch my hands when I’m carrying anything, when I’m eating, etc. if I don’t watch my hand, they will just drop what they are holding, and I can’t carry more than one drink reliably.

          And yet I really dislike having to play first-person. The zoom level I use usually depends a bit on a game’s various factors like how they use their camera. If I can’t zoom in or out it feels very uncomfortable.

          I know my mom’s biggest problem with 3D (though she mostly just got used to it for the sake of gaming) is spatial coordination, the same issue she has in meatspace: knowing which direction is which, where she was just coming from, etc. Reading the radar too.

          1. And I thought I was the only one who couldn’t walk up and down stairs without looking at my feet. I don’t think I have it as bad as you, but I do occasionally lose control of my limbs for just one split second so I have to watch my hands very carefully when I’m carry things with two hands. Doesn’t seem to be a problem with one. I also have a tendency to momentarily lose spatial awareness and hit against things.

            Even so, I find the lack of spatial awareness disorientating in first person games. In third person, I know where all my limbs are and I like that. But in the first person, I can’t even see my feet. What if I fall off a ledge? How far can I go? Also, I cannot play first person games for more than 15 minutes. I’ll get dizzy.

            1. I mostly dislike it because the field of vision seems too small. It doesn’t really feel like my field of vision in meatspace. Zooming out usually alleviates that a lot.

              I generally tend to walk off ledges in third person too :D. (It’s a bit of a running joke in TOR with my mom when we get to an elevator shaft). Third person does help me when I have to make difficult jumps in games specifically. Though usually I hear people say that they find it easier to do jumps in first person, I have no idea how they do it.

              But in general pause fighting is what makes most games playable to me, or action that gives you some breathing room now and then in any other way.

        2. I think for me my main problem is that I never feel sure where I am in a first person game. In real life, we have senses other than the visual that establish where we are in the world. I can feel that I’m balanced, I know where my limbs are in relation to one another, I can feel the floor under my feet. If something outside of my field of view were to attack me, I’d at least be able to, you know, feel where it was hitting me. In games, there’s only the visual to rely on; none of that other stuff is there. And it really throws me off.

          This is EXACTLY it — for me, at least, but I’d be willing to bet that it is what gives many others trouble as well. We cannot “feel” the character we’re playing and we cannot control each limb as we control our own bodies. Even if we could, I think it would not really help much because it would make the controls much more complex and non-intuitive, which runs counter to how we use our real bodies. I don’t have to remember the keybind for turning my head left while walking forward. I also don’t risk hitting the wrong key and accidentally sitting down or shooting my weapon instead.

          There’s no doubt that first-person games can be damn gripping and immersive just from that sense of “it’s really me in that situation”, but the controls and the feedback just can’t back up that impression.

      2. I’m someone who has trouble with “3D” spaces on a 2D screen, and I can pin down exactly why that is: There is nothing I see on the screen that tells me what plane a shape is in. I recently attempted to do a racing video game, and I consistently had the same problem. I saw a trapezoid ahead of me, which I guessed might be a bit of road disappearing into the distance over a slight hill. Only when I smashed into it did I figure out it was a trapezoidal shaped bit of wall. So the next time I saw a trapezoid, I avoided it because I’d learned that that indicated a wall. But this time, it actually was the road I was supposed to follow. Basically, the only way I could play the game was by repeatedly ramming into walls until I happened to find the wall that was actually a road.

        Yes, I’m a woman, and I’m old enough to remember when video games first became a popular toy– almost exclusively for boys, I might add, so I didn’t grow up practicing the particular skill of mapping a 2D array of polygons into a representation of 3D space.

        I also do seem to have some quirks about how I process visual information. I can look at a photograph of a lunar crater and see it either as a crater on the “floor” or, by imagining the light source on the opposite side of the image, as a bump on the “ceiling.” I don’t know other people who can flip images as easily as I do, regardless of gender, so I might not be a typical example of supposedly woman-specific problems with spacial perception.

        It’s interesting that you suggest a game to teach 3D mapping skills. I recently read some research that debunked the myth that men are inherently better at spacial processing. It was challenging some earlier research that found that women do not perform as well as men on tests that ask the subject to look at a 2D representation of a configuration of cubes and identify which of several other drawings is a different rotation of the same configuration. The researchers suspected the gendered difference might be down to learned behavior; after all, boy children play with blocks a lot more than girl children. To test their theory, they had women play spacial video games for several hours. And sure enough, playing those games taught the women subjects how to parse the shapes, and their test scores improved to the point where the difference between the genders was not statistically significant.

        So, yes, it is a skill that can be learned, and it take surprisingly few hours to do so– about 30, IIRC. (Sorry, I can’t remember enough details about the article to pull it up now. Maybe I found it on Echidne’s site; that seems the most likely.)

        1. About the “learn mapping 2D screen to 3D world” game: early FPSs weren’t true 3D. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, two of the more famous early FPSs (and the ones I started out on) both were coded such that each level was mapped as a single 2D plane. Doom took pieces of the plane and rendered them higher or lower to create stairs & such, but there was never a possibility of one player-accessible level directly beneath another.

          Dark Forces, Quake, and System Shock 1 were true 3D but both were still fairly blocky and might have been easier for newer players to process.

          So: people who grew up along with the genre (such as me) probably had plenty of time to learn and adapt along with the technology. Hypothesis: Playing earlier games first might ease developing one’s FPS-perspective.

          1. I think there’s something to the idea of starting with older FPS’s. For the longest time, it was nearly impossible for me to navigate in a first-person perspective. They just weren’t the type of game I played growing up, so the first time I sat down to Halo 2 and Team Fortress I literally couldn’t move. The field of vision was too restricted to be useful to me, and I’d never had to use a control scheme that asked my hands to work in concert the way an FPS does. So, usually, I’d end up with a great view of the floor, swing the camera around until I was completely disoriented, and then tumble off a cliff.

            My boyfriend devised a way to ease me into it, starting with System Shock and then, when I was comfortable playing that, Unreal Tournament Gold. They were simple enough that it finally clicked for me where my character was relative to the environment, how to find “up” and “down,” how far away objects and ledges were, etc. And from there I could accept the idea of moving my “feet” and “head” in different directions, since now I could imagine where I was standing on the map. A major breakthrough, in my book.

            I’m still not fluent with shooters, and probably never will be, but I can mostly move the way I intend to, which lets me play slower-paced things like Portal and Skyrim without too much trouble.

            1. Glad to hear that you were able to develop the spatial-relation skill, and you raise a related point: I didn’t learn the skill of coordinating mouse & keyboard until I started playing Unreal Tournament (’99, the original). Seems like modern FPSs might owe UT99 more than previously thought.

              Interesting that you started out with SS1: it has a fair amount of movement options*. Conversely, one doesn’t really need to use most of them until later in the game, and the lean, stance, & look up/down controls are clearly present in the HUD so it’s easier to tell what one’s doing. Come to think of it, starting out in the recovery room might not be a bad place for people to give those controls a good workout and get a general idea of the space.

              Thoughts?

              *Off top/head: walk/run, crouch, prone/crawl, lean to either side in any of the three, look up/down from the horizontal, all of the above with hoverskates, hoverskate with afterburner on, jumping with/out various jump-jet boots, and getting used to the gravplates on deck 4. Not sure if the rear-view camera would help or hurt. And then there’s cyberspace.

            2. Yeah, I had to add movements very gradually with System Shock, and didn’t master the leans, and crouching and crawling never really stuck, which didn’t end up mattering since a lot of games don’t offer the option (I wonder why?). System Shock involved a lot of awkward fumbling around, but it was still easier to grasp than newer shooters. I’d say it took a couple afternoons to get where I could toddle around with any kind of real purpose, just experimenting. The rear-view camera actually helped me orient myself sometimes, since it saved me trying to look all the way around.

              I felt a lot more confident by the time I started with UT, which is where I really had my click moment. I guess you could say SS1 let me build a vocabulary, and UT helped me get a handle on the grammar. Or something. Another thing I liked with UT and older shooters in general was the fact that the camera moves smoothly, instead of bobbing up and down to simulate someone running. I hate that, I find it really confusing and I wouldn’t be surprised if the bobbing contributes to making people dizzy.

      3. I struggled with the transition to 3D. I basically skipped the entire Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 generation because I didn’t like playing 3D games.
        Ultimately, reading a 3D space on a 2D screen is a skill. In real life, we have peripheral vision and our eyes subconsciously dart around very quickly to take in all the visual information we need to navigate space in real time. In games, you have to learn to take cues from the surroundings to anticipate what will be in your periphery, and you need to learn to be comfortable with that “floating” sensation.

        Now, I play 3D games without a problem, but I had to work up to it, and I had to find the right games to do so.

        First 3D game – Zelda Windwaker – third person; colorful, distinctive graphics; accessible combat and platforming; emphasis on thought over reflexes

        First first-person 3D game – Oblivion – Can switch to third person at any time; running long distances between combat helps acclimate a person to the first-person perspective; difficulty can be adjusted at any time on a sliding scale so combat does not have to get in the way of progressing

        First Quasi-FPS – Fallout 3 – for many of the same reasons as Oblivion; VATS system allows you to avoid reflex-based shooting most of the time

        First FPS – Borderlands – split-screen co-op allows beginners to play with more experienced players – although you should make sure the characters are at the same level, it’s no fun to have one person mow everyone down with a level 20 character while the other person is just running behind them barely making a dent; ammo is plentiful enough to not have to worry about it too much; colorful graphics make distinguishing things easier

        I still struggle with FPS games that have what they characterize as good enemy AI (they move a lot) and limited ammo. The just dart in and out of the visual area too quickly for me to adjust the view and aim, so I miss a lot. I like the environments of games like Bioshock, Uncharted, and Rage, but I get very frustrated at dying all the time because I run out of ammo.

    2. I’m someone who, in most games that I play, likes to make combat HARDER for myself (usually with low level or single character challenges) – and I would still love the ability to skip combat! Maybe I don’t want to fight twenty flocks of bats on the way to the next town. (On second thought, that’s not even a maybe – those sorts of battles are just tedious and boring.) Maybe I already played through the game and I just want to see a different ending or different dialogue options without having to fight a bunch of the same battles that I just fought last time. Maybe I frankly find the fighting system of the game boring and prefer concentrating on other aspects of it (I’m looking at you, Morrowind). Or… maybe the game is a genre that I suck at and I just cannot freaking get past this boss and would probably, if I can’t skip the fight, just stop playing the game entirely and miss out on whatever story it has. Skippable combat can certainly benefit people who struggle with the game, but it can also benefit people who are good at it. And if skipping is optional, it certainly isn’t going to take away from the experience of those who enjoy the combat – they can just… not skip it.

      And that’s not even getting into games (or parts of games) without combat. Heck, even in the game that has what is possibly my all-time favorite battle system (Paper Mario), it was still the portions of the game with no combat whatsoever that I found the most memorable and enjoyable.

      Oh, and I’m a guy. It’s not just women who would enjoy non-combat options. I think we all knew that already, though.

      1. I’ll note that it’s quite possible to get replay fatigue with story rather than with gameplay. I’ve been looking at visual novels a lot recently, and their branching storylines are generally laid out such that you have to replay substantial portions of the game to experience all of the content. (There has been, however, a fast-forward button in the games in which I’ve had a problem with that.)

        1. Eh, I’m sorry, but way more of the time I spend playing the Dragon Age games is spent talking to the NPCs than it is running around looking for darkspawn to kill.

          That’s not to say that if you took the combat out entirely I wouldn’t be expecting some more clever character interaction dynamics going on, but I’d say the focus on their games at the moment is far from being pretty much squarely on combat. If it was, I never would have played pretty much any of their games. Hell, if it was then I probably wouldn’t be playing games at all.

  2. I’m torn about this. While I agree that non-combat games and conversation-based RPGs can be as satisfying as anything else out there if done well, and that having more non-combat games would do well for overall maturity and respectability of the medium…. could she not have done that without resorting to every stereotype about female gamers, ever? Without reaffirming everything that sees women shut out of the “core” elements of gaming, without giving ammunition to those who assume every “girl” playing these “core” games is actually a man, or faking it? Look, look, even a female game designer agrees!

    I mean, she’s probably right about there being a “large group of women” who enjoy genre products and would be more inclined to game if it were less challenging or combat-based. But there is also a “large group” of men who would be similarly inclined. I know there would be. I play table-top and board games with them all the time. And though each is at loathe to admit it, the reason they stick with largely turn-based video games as well is because either they don’t really like the excessive violence, or they’re a bit thumb-fingered (and let’s face it, losing all the time sucks, regardless of the gender of the loser). Similarly, all adults period have work and chores that do (or should) take priority over gaming – why say “if you’re a woman…”? Why not “if you’re a parent”? Should a father be expected to blow off his kids because he just got a killstreak?

    Argh. I really like, and agree with, the message. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had with said turn-based and table-top fans is non-combat RPing (L5R, for example, has great rules for courtly intrigue, and I once ran banquet with no combat whatsoever that spanned several sessions and everyone loved it) and that could easily translate to a video game. But she sounds like she genuinely believes that she’s speaking to women specifically with this, which not only takes a proverbial dumb on the women who love the “core” action games of the industry, but on those men who’d much rather be inviting friends to parties. That’s girly! Silly wimmenz, Call of Duty’s not for you – why would you expect to be represented there? Shouldn’t you be playing Cooking Mama? That’s what a woman game developer says!

    Nah, I’ve made up my mind, actually. Not cool.

    1. I agree with you, and I do apologise if my writing didn’t seem to emphasise your points with sufficient strength. For my own part, however, I came down on the side of thinking that I should devote more column inches to reminding us all that mothers have disproportionate burdens placed on them due to societal sexism.

      I also pointed out in the article that a lot of men were pushing back against the trope of excessive/mandatory combat and have had several experiences that mirror your own.

      The bottom line is that accessibility is an issue that affects us all, regardless of gender, and you’re right to point this out. As a woman I certainly felt a bit miffed at the suggestions that Hepler made, which was why I critiqued them. Whether you felt I did so at sufficient length, I leave to you.

      (L5R, for example, has great rules for courtly intrigue, and I once ran banquet with no combat whatsoever that spanned several sessions and everyone loved it)

      Coincidentally enough I was just talking about this with a friend and she was lamenting the paucity of intrigue in RPG video games. Banquets and balls came up frequently. :)

      1. No no, I got that you took issue with the same aspects that I did from your article, but I thought that the fact that combat doesn’t agree with a lot of men either deserved a bit more emphasis, because it’s precisely this kind of stereotyping that prevents a number of men from joining the chorus of those who would rather do non-combat gaming, and in so doing is extremely harmful. By making it not a matter of taste, but rather a matter of femininity versus masculinity, men are shamed out of being useful allies.

        I don’t want this to come off as “what about the mens” – as a CoD-loving woman I took all kinds of umbrage in any case – but I felt you’d covered that sufficiently.

        Not to derail the topic, but it’s strange that the table-top genre of RPGs seems to have drifted away from being more combat-focused to more RP-focused (whole non-combat troupes of L5R, WW games, etc.) and video game RPGs have done the opposite. Who really remembers the random monster encounters of classic RPGs, or cared about them? I remember talking to interesting townspeople in Chrono Trigger, and the opera scene in FF6 and the soul-crushing difficulty of the puzzles in Betrayal at Krondor. Random hack’n'slash never comes into it.

        1. It’s funny, because I’m usually incredibly sensitive to feeling as though I’m being told “As a woman, you must like X/Y/Z”, and yet that aspect of what Hepler said really didn’t bother me.

          I mean, like I said in my thingy yesterday, I do turn some games (I’m looking at you, Dragon Age) down to ‘Easy’ so I can get to the juicy dialogue options, but I’m also a woman who’s played through both Mass Effect games on ‘Insanity’ and really, really enjoyed doing so, so it’s not even that I feel the same way as she does.

          I think the reason why it didn’t bother me is because I never really felt as though she was speaking about ME, or about women in general. She was asked a question about how she thought more women could be drawn into video games, and she gave a response that came from her own experience of being a woman, and a mother, and presumably from knowing other mothers too.

          As Quinnae pointed out, women can and do still have a disproportionate amount of the parenting duties pushed onto them, so while her statements might not make sense for ALL women, it certainly makes sense for the group of women that Hepler was writing from.

          Like you both say though, this does also applies to men. In fact, the only gamer I’ve spoken to who expressed time-related parenting issues with playing big RPGs was a man. I can see why statements like Hepler’s aren’t helpful and kind of erase that demographic (as well as the women who like to kill things), but no one put her up in front of the floodlights and asked her to speak for ALL WOMEN. They just asked her for her own views on how games could be made more appealing to women. And being a mother who presumably knows a lot of other mothers, she answered as such and I don’t feel as though I have much right to have asked her to do otherwise.

          If you’d asked me the question, I would have given you a different answer. I probably would have said “Give women more female characters that are actual people they can engage with, and more female NPCs that get to be people, too”. In saying that, I wouldn’t have been speaking to Hepler’s experience any more than she was speaking to mine. There are areas of overlap, of course, but the second you start asking questions like “You’re a woman, how can you get more women involved in games?” you’re not going to get anything other than a generalisation in response.

          1. “I think the reason why it didn’t bother me is because I never really felt as though she was speaking about ME, or about women in general. She was asked a question about how she thought more women could be drawn into video games, and she gave a response that came from her own experience of being a woman, and a mother, and presumably from knowing other mothers too.”

            I happen to be a mother that Jenny Hepler knows, and I cannot thank you enough for this comment. So much of this has involved taking her words out of context, which you have given back here quite accurately.

            1. Indeed, I couldn’t agree with this more. My thoughts and wishes are certainly with Jennifer, and I hope she knows how many people have stood behind her on this. Thank you enfpea for the benefit of your thoughts, and thank you Allegra for the community organising you did around this issue. :)

            2. Thank you!

              She’s very much appreciating the support, and still feeling like the entire thing is a bit surreal.

              I was very happy to see such a well written piece emerge from the ashes. I haven’t called myself a gamer in many years (Rift was the first MMO I’ve tried in a long time), so I feel very out of place in the community. But I do know that you don’t need to agree with someone’s ideas to start a useful dialog.

    2. Yeah, I fully agree with you taking issue with the way she fed all those stereotypes about women. It doesn’t invalidate any of her points, but it sure is unfortunate that she essentially gives critics free ammo by playing right along with their own sexist perceptions — which I might add is of course NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER for the hatred, the lies and the outright witch hunt she faced.

    3. Respectfully, I think that’s not exactly what she is saying. The narrative among her detractors is definitely that she wants simpler ganes and skippable combat in order to make gaming more attractive specifically to women. But just after the part about childcare in the interview she says:

      “A fast forward button would give *all players* [emphasis mine] — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.”

      I don’t think that she is denying that women can be hardcore gamers so much as identifying an underserved market for RPGs which is made up not just of women, but where women represent a large opportunity for growth. When she goes on to talk about how to get more women into gaming, she really focuses on marketing and outreach.

      So, it could have been phrased better, no doubt, but I don’t think she’s saying what you think she’s saying, exactly. Likewise, she doesn’t say that women do or should do all the parenting work: she says that she expects not to have any spare time after her child is born, and that many women spend time parenting, which limits their ability to grind. However, she says that in response to a question which specifically asks about steps for engaging more diverse audiences, which specifically mentions women as a part of that diverse audience the interviewer wants her to focus on. So, the quoted section above follows the interview question’s structure – it talks about that diverse audience, and then specifically addresses feedback she has encountered from women.

    4. I think the main reason we’re seeing tabletop rpgs move away from combat, or at least, grindy-number combat, is that tabletop rpgs hold strength in people being able to create a collaborative story together.

      Given that the games started in wargaming, it’s taken decades to start shedding those roots- even L5R & WW games still track wounds and have rules for combat – compare this to games like Primetime Adventures, Breaking the Ice, Fiasco, or 1001 Nights- games where the mechanics only focus on story elements and combat isn’t really it’s own thing.

    5. Can I just say here that when the interviewing website has a name like “killerbetties”, that she might have been addressing “women” because the website was by/for women who play or are interested in video games. In other words, if my assumption is correct, then it is perfectly reasonable for Hepler to address her comments to the intended audience, ie, women. And especially when asked by “gaming women” how to get other women interested in playing videogames, she would specifically need to address “not-gaming” women….which was what she did.

  3. This is an interesting idea. Combat grinding is mostly done for either gold or XP. If you could get those by doing quests or alchemy or exploration or what have you, you could build up your character’s prowess in much more interesting ways than fighting the same pallette-swapped monsters over and over. Yes, I like this idea :)

  4. Iji is a neat (and free) game for those interested on this subject. It’s basically a deconstruction of the Metroid games. Playing both a combatant or pacifistic character are equally viable options, and they both have impact on the story itself. Still, that only sidesteps the issue with stealth-based gameplay rather than outright skipping combat.

    You might also be interested in a couple of older essays on some of the wider aspects this article touched on:

    “Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy” (http://web.archive.org/web/20101103020827/http://malstrom.50webs.com/birdman.html) thoroughly debunks the “casual/hardcore” argument, and instead frames it as “downstream/upstream consumers” instead.

    “who killed video games? (a ghost story)” (http://insertcredit.com/2011/09/22/who-killed-videogames-a-ghost-story/) is a more recent one you might have read, which details how the Free-to-Play games are developed not by artists, writers and programmers, but mathematicians and psychologists to basically be the Skinner Box concept perfected to a science. I post this mostly because I oppose FTP as an exploitative business model, not because I dislike the audience or content itself.

  5. I would love skippable combat sequences (in the exact same way as skippable dialogue lines and skippable cutscenes).

    It’s not even that I dislike combat and play only for the story. I do play mostly for the story but I usually like combat as well. But skippable combat would be awesome for two reasons for me:

    1) I have issues that often make some bits of combat too difficult even on the easiest setting. Being able to skip those, per moment, would be grand. I wouldn’t have to turn combat off entirely (i.e. restrict myself to only non-combat games). I might even be able to play at a higher difficulty level, with a bit more skipping! That would be nice. I wouldn’t have to go get someone else to play through certain moments of the game for me just to continue or repeat sequences a 100 times and getting really frustrated.

    2) Sometimes I just find the combat boring. It seems like they put it in just so you won’t have 3 moments in a game where you aren’t occupied by combat. It’s one of the things I dislike about Amalur (which I like in general, though): if you see clear ground before you, and your radar also shows no red blips, and you run a bit, mobs will actually just magically appear out of the ground because it wouldn’t do to have people walk 10 meters without fighting something! (Ugh.)

    There is actually one game I will never replay again because of my intense hatred of just one little area of it: Dragon Age 1.
    I hate hate hate the Circle Tower. Even when I went in there the first time and saw the stairs, I was going “Oh geez I hope I just have to go up the stairs once, maybe twice.” And then there was another level, and another level, and oh yeah then there was a dream sequence with MORE TOWER LEVELS. Skipping the combat would allow me to get through that so much quicker that I would actually be able to play the game again.

  6. The very nature of games makes them suited for physical action. Physics simulation is pure math, and translates easily to programming. We have really intricate and realistic physics models for all kinds of action games, but even a simple model can create high levels of interactivity and a very dynamic, unpredicatble world that makes for a good game.

    Social interaction and human intelligence haven’t translated to programming nearly as well. We have some path finding, simple behaviors, etc. The Sims can create some complexity and dynamic situations, but it’s still very coarse compared to physics.

    Narration is still basically the same as in older forms of art. A branching narrative can be lots of fun, but it’s still very simple. When will we see a truly dynamic narrative? When will we have a story engine working alongside the graphics and physics engines? We don’t even have good voice synthesis, so characters always speak set lines. Such a simple thing limits the game to the story that writers write in detail.

    I would love to see some development in these areas, so that games can diversify. I think we need to see some serious technological development before anything more than a shift of theme in games happens. Simply moving the current parts of games around won’t get us that far. I think that Hepler needs to reconsider not only how other parts of games work, but how the parts she’s responsible for work too. Linear narratives and characters with static personalities and story arcs should also be reconsidered. Games can be much more than action, but they can be much more than interactive films and branching narratives too.

    Anyone challenging the status quo deserves to be heard. My favorite action games aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’ll likely be better with a more diverse world of games. I’m sick of the short-sighted don’t-take-away-my-favorite-toys attitude of some hardcore gamers, especially when turns sexist.

    1. There are many people experimenting with narrative engines and highly-explorable story-space. Have you looked into their work?

      (Not saying you haven’t, but occasionally I see people lamenting the lack of X in games when in fact there is plenty of X in games, just not in the highest-marketing-budget AAA games that are the only ones they’ve noticed.)

      And yes, they tend to have to be indies willing to forgo voice acting because of the technological hurdle as mentioned. There are many who lament the push to full-voice-acting in games for that reason.

      1. Well, I’ve seen several interesting experiements and concepts, but no actual games. Is there anything you could recommend?

  7. It seems to say that whatever “story” is, it’s something that’s not gameplay. And whatever gameplay is, it’s something to do with combat.

    I take issue with that attitude as well, as I wrote in my comment to the original Hepler thread. I can’t fathom how people could develop that attitude unless they only play a very narrowly defined kind of games. Mind, “narrowly defined” doesn’t exclude “sheer numbers” since there ARE a ton of shooters. But what about other kinds of games? When I look back at the games I played as a kid, combat wasn’t at the core of most of them. That is why this attitude is not only irritating but also somehow amusing, like childish flailing that ignores a rich history of games from a time when the industry produced a greater variety of genres.

    Now, admittedly RPGs have often but not always been combat-heavy to the point of story being as much of a threadbare figleaf as in the stereotypical shooter. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. My own immediate suggestion for cutting back on the primacy of combat would be to have games that include more consequences, good AND bad, for player choices — up to and including making a game impossible to complete if you piss enough people off badly enough so that no one will work with you anymore. Right now, combat is usually the only showstopper in games: if you can’t beat a required fight, you can’t continue. It also usually produces zero negative consequences. Remove those twin problems of combat’s special status and it’d be a good step forward, IMO.

    You could also allow story-focused players to make combat much easier (or an automatic cutscene win, even) if they spend time, effort and in-game resources to make allies who will send aid, or recruit mercenaries, or lure the enemy army into traps, or cut off their supplies to starve them, or strip the enemy of supporters via bribery, diplomacy or threats. There are many options. I do enjoy a good, hard, edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting fight as much as anyone — but in many cases combat does feel like a cheap filler or artificial bloat and that’s when it gets irritating.

    1. Eh. I think you’re splitting hairs on the combat vs. gameplay thing. Yes, it’s true that there are plenty of gameplay interactions other than combat… I could give a gigantic list here, but I don’t feel the need. Honestly, I don’t think anybody is trying to deny that. However, the core gameplay interaction in BioWare games is invariably combat. Now, I could be misunderstanding Hepler; she could be advocating focusing on some other kind of gameplay. But a recent BioWare game with the combat subtracted is just walking around and selecting dialogue options. Neither of those are especially deep gameplay mechanics. (Admittedly, there would be more gameplay there if you were to start from, say, Neverwinter Nights instead.)

    2. “Right now, combat is usually the only showstopper in games: if you can’t beat a required fight, you can’t continue.”

      I’m playing through GTA IV again, and this rings true even for areas that aren’t about combat. The mission “No. 1″ is a mandatory race, and it always takes me about 20 tries over a couple of days to complete it. (Having Brucie polluting the air with his noise doesn’t help things.) For me, it’s not fun, it’s not entertaining, and I don’t feel accomplished after I win the race; I feel relieved that I never have to do that mission again. The same can be said for “chase” missions, where you have to follow someone in your car. One wrong turn or minor crash can make you fail the mission, so you have to start over from the beginning. Again, these segments are not fun for me, and if I could skip them, I would.

      It wouldn’t have to be a skip option/button, either. For example, based on your mercenary idea, there could be a character one could hire to drive for them, like a street racer or former (or current) police officer skilled in high speed chases. There could even be ways to hire other characters to help you do the combat parts. You’d have to pay them and/or complete a mission to unlock them. Maybe you could even take them on outings, like you do with nearly every other person you meet in the game, and once they like you enough, they’ll help you out for free. I think I’d like that more than just skipping through the missions, since it would give me even more stories to uncover and characters to interact with.

      (Admittedly, removing all instances of combat from a GTA game would be tricky, given the premise of the series, and all; however, someone commented on the other article and said that LA Noire had an option that let people skip difficult action parts, so who knows?)

  8. As a slight aside, on the issue of roleplaying games being about combat/dice/mechanics…

    I have been roleplaying since I was about 14 years old, which is more than half my life now. Last week, for the first time in about a decade, I actually played a game with a group in which I was required to roll dice. The vast, vast majority of roleplaying games I take part in are diceless, statless, and entirely story- and character-focused.

    Anyone making the “Computer RPGs are essentially tabletop RPGs are essentially board games are essentially dice-rolling” argument is a moron who obviously hasn’t set foot in half of the games I’ve wasted most of my life on.

    1. One thing I have been reminded of frequently when discussing CRPGs is that, for many people, “RPG” does mean stats and die-rolling, and little else. It’s not just people whose entire experience with RPGs is of the electronic variety; there are pen ‘n’ paper RPG players who are just there for turn-based tactical combat and nothing else.

      It’s a viewpoint that is utterly alien to me and it does get my inner semantics nerd rather fired up (how can something be called a role-playing game if it doesn’t have any role-playing in it? Or game, for that matter? Shouldn’t either extreme thus be called something else? *Shrugs*) but it’s an opinion that is equally as valid as my own.

      For my part, I’d like to see RPGs have more robust non-combat options. These days it seems that most RPGs come down to combat and conversation, plus, if we’re very lucky, stealth. I’d love to see more games allowing me to sneak, plan, strategise and talk my way around problems, rather than just stabbing them.

      I do recognise the difficulty in crafting the requisite gameplay systems for these options. I’m not entirely sure how one can create a satisfying conversation-based game mechanic that still allows for role-playing. If you’re confronted with a guy who will only respond to intimidation and you’re trying to portray a meek, shy character, you’ve either got to break character or fail. There’s also the problem of dialogue options not giving you the response you expected, a complaint I’ve frequently heard about LA Noire.

      In the end, I support having as many different options to appeal to as many different people as possible. I applaud Bioware for the three different game modes in Mass Effect 3 and I think it’s a great pity they didn’t come up with the idea earlier in the series as I can think of at least one person who has attempted to play the games but has given up due to their lack of shoot-’em-up prowess. I would have loved skippable combat in Dragon Age because I hate that particular style of gameplay with a fiery passion, despite being what most would call a hardcore gamer.

      1. Yeah, I know what you mean about Dragon Age. I can’t cope with games that expect me to maximise skill trees and constantly tweak my inventory. I just want to get on with the story, goddamn it!

        Heh. Amongst the RPG circles I move in, we call the dice-rolling, stats-based gamers as ‘roll-players’, because you’re damned right: It can’t really be called roleplaying if it doesn’t actually involve playing any roles.

        Funnily, I’ve never liked or been very good at shoot ‘em ups. Up until a couple of years back, I hadn’t touched a video game of any kind in about ten years. And yet I took to Mass Effect like a fish to water–even despite the notorious start to ME1 where you’re thrown in a the deep end and expected to just… I dunno… Figure it out or something. It’s funny how differently our brains work.

        Which, I guess, is another reason why we need as broad a spectrum of gameplay as possible!

        On an entirely unrelated note (because after talking about DA and pen and paper games, I can’t resist) I have a tabletop Dragon Age game tonight and get to roll out my ageing political terrorist apostate. It’s going to be a good night!

  9. First I want to say that hate campaign towards Hepler is perfect example of misogyny among gamers, really it fits all to well into: woman on the internet, with opinion, about games and even partially influential = misogynerds rage. Seriously, if anything that Hepler said was actually said by a man, it wouldn’t cause anything similar.

    To the point, I also agree that combat as a mechanism of progression is vastly overused but there were whole genres of games that didn’t use it, now in decline I guess: adventures games, trading games, etc. Actually skipable combat isn’t also such a novel idea, while I don’t remember being implemented in cRPG (escaping from random fight in FinalFatasy ?) it certainly was a staple for a lot turn based strategy games, it wasn’t technically skipable but games have auto resolve button that more or less serve the same purpose, to allow player to concentrate on governing your “kingdom” instead of boring, long fights.
    Now DA:O and Deep Roads is painful example, when I reached that part of a game I was already past the moment when combat brought any enjoyment to me, now these countless fight with Darkspawns killed DA series for me, I gritted my teeth and finished the game knowing that I would never comeback to it, I also skipped DA2 based exactly on the fact that this game maybe even crank up number of fights (based on demo). Why no one at Bioware listened to Jennifer Hepler in 2006 is beyond me, because she was and is damn right!
    Having said that I do think that article unified a bit combat mechanism with more general skill/challenge mechanism. While Hepler points about removing or skipping some of challenge based elements as good step towards more inclusive games (something I agree with), it’s not exclusively combat related. See, mentioned example of Mirror’s Edge, game that indeed isn’t based on combat as progression but it’s a game extremely heavy on skill/challenge mechanism. Now to make such game as Mirror’s Edge more inclusive while keeping it mechanism intact, that’s very hard task if even possible.

    1. Actually, I found that DA2 was less focused on the combat than DA:O. Or, at least, the combat was quicker. (I probably should say I played on easy mode). There was not nearly the amount of micromanaging that you had to do in DA:O, and that sped up fights considerably. I’ve finished DA2 multiple times, but have only gone through DA:O once because even though I LOVE the game quite a bit more (sit in camp and chat up Leliana for hours? I have no idea what you’re talking about >_>), the combat is just too much of a pain to deal with more than one playthrough.

  10. Enjoyed this piece. I especially have to agree with the criticism coming from people who believe the challenge is more important than gameplay. While their position is legitimate, I suppose, I personally view such a mindset as… shallow. Unfair? Possibly, but there’s nothing saying that story and challenge can’t go hand in hand. My courier encounters challenges which play into her story. So does my Dovahkiin. They don’t need be separate.

    I also support the idea of optional combat opt-out, though certain gameplay tropes make me uncertain how it would work out (like the super ultra secret bosses in RPGs who give you a piece of secret information when you throw them down and smite their ruin upon the mountainside) or certain challenging gameplay mechanics, like in Mirror’s Edge, mentioned in the previous post. Would I engage in it? Probably not. Now, I’ve been known to ragequit a game if it gets to hard, but part of me (the brickheaded part, I wager) likes to come back eventually and keep testing that electric fence for weaknesses. Aaaand I also like the achievement noise on the Xbox 360 when I’m playing the Halo games. :D But back to the original point I diverged from, I see no reason why people should blast people who only want the story from a game. There are games I wouldn’t want to play because of the specific gameplay mechanics, bar none, but I’d be interested in watching how the devs played the story out.

    Now, I could go to Wikipedia and that’s what I usually do, but a cut and dried plot synopsis for a videogame is similar to one for a book or movie. You miss out on the direction, which is of paramount importance to the impartation of the story. I could read a Dragon Age II synopsis (and I just did), and it gives you the bread, but no butter. No blackberry jam! Gameplay mechanics are good, yes, and they can be used to help better tell the story, but I’ve really not had that many instances where I’ve played a game where combat gameplay tells part of the story. Maybe a couple, but that’s it. And it’s my firm belief that telling people that they have to choose between slogging through gameplay they don’t like or just reading a story is wrong. For both books and movies, you have story and summary. Games have the added gameplay component. If someone wants to skip that, why not let them? Oh yes, opposition to inclusion. Gamers are an elite club and what not. Utter tosh.

  11. I guess my main issue with her comments is that Bioware’s distinctive identity in videogaming is this combination of combat and roleplay which is their trademark. See, BioWare’s not particularly known for either of the two… actually, their combat is somewhat well-known for being lackluster, although they have been trying to change that recently. And, if I’m going to be honest, their writing is not that great either – they’ve kinda been stuck on the same plot since Baldur’s Gate. What makes BioWare games distinctive and fun is that they have both, and that they are pleasantly interleaved. Either one on its own wouldn’t be very engaging.

    Now, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to play an American RPG with less fighting. (Heck, I play visual novels. I have no particular attachment to combat.) But, if I’m going to be honest, I’ve got to say that I don’t think BioWare is the right place to make that type of RPG.

  12. The tedious combat is why I have finished DA:O only once, despite adoring the story and characters, whereas I’ve finished DA2 several different times (although I don’t like the characters/story quite as much). The combat in DA:O, as mentioned, just got tedious after awhile… and necessary party micromanagement was something that really annoyed me. I know a lot of people complained about combat in DA2 being too easy, but it was perfect for me. There were awesome abilities and special effects, it was reasonably quick, there weren’t eleventy-bajillion packs of mobs, and I didn’t have to frakking pause my game every three seconds to make sure the dumbass healer was actually healing.

    I really disagree with the multitude of comments around this subject that suggest that people play for the combat. Okay, maybe some people do, but not everyone. And it’s not just women that prefer story, which is an idea I see a lot; I know plenty of men who have commented that they really would prefer to minimize the combat, have options to avoid combat through story actions (like how you can persuade yourself out of a lot of situations in DA if you have the right skill), or have options for easier combat.

    Like, I’ll take ME1&2 as an example. I haven’t played them because I have difficulty with the controls. My husband has played them, also had difficulty with the controls, but has a little more familiarity with FPS style games so had an easier time learning them. But, he commented that if he didn’t have that familiarity, and if he wasn’t so interested in the story, he probably wouldn’t have worked to get over the hurdle of becoming familiar with the controls (which came with a lot of deaths, because fucking hell those mobs hit hard). I’m hoping that Story Mode in ME3 will allow me to become familiar with the controls to go back to the first two games, because I really haven’t been able to get over that hurdle.

    I’ve played games that focus on combat for the past several years. I’ve played EQ2, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and other games. I’m at a point where I’m just burnt out on it; there are only so many ways you can slice and dice monsters, okay. I’m more interested in the stories and what they’re doing with them. It’s why I love SW:TOR so much right now; there’s so much story there, and choice, and… honestly, it reminds me a lot of playing pen-and-paper, where there was a lot of focus on the roleplaying rather than just the combat. The story was equally important.

    1. I have exactly the same issue with Mass Effect. I’ve played partway through the first one, but I just couldn’t get used to the controls. But I really feel like I’m missing out on something awesome, because I’ve watched my friends play and it’s such a cool story, and I love the characters. I kept wishing for some way to experience the story and adventure without having to futz around with confusing controls for hours.

      1. For what it’s worth, I had the same experience with Mass Effect 1. Then I picked up Mass Effect 2 and have since played the game four times and am eagerly awaiting the release of 3 in less than two weeks (hooray)! It’s a little more on the shooter side rather than the RPG side. If shooters aren’t your forte, I recommend playing an Engineer class (space mage, basically). The reason I have been so stuck with Mass Effect is the same thing that had me pick up the first game in the first place… the story, the characters, etc.

        Mass Effect 3 has added a second tier of the “easy” difficulty setting called, “story” that reduces the number of enemies, the health of enemies, and auto-levels characters to really put as much emphasis as possible on the decisions and story. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

    2. Completely agreed re: combat in DA2. I found it way more fun than Origins. I’ve played a mage twice so far and the “pew pew pew” amuses me greatly xD Whereas DA:O the combat was just filler in between the interesting parts, which is all the talking!

  13. One of the reasons why the Assassin’s Creed games are my favorite in terms of actual gameplay (not necessarily story) is precisely because combat is not a central mechanic of the game. Sure, it’s there, but it happens relatively rarely. Those are the only (non-puzzle) games I’ve ever played where if you end up in open combat, you probably screwed up your mission.
    Obviously I do have those days where I just want to shoot some gosh-darned aliens, and a lot of the time those games do have amazing stories. But I think it really says something significant that my favorite game is popular, exciting, suspenseful, challenging, and also the one that most discourages combat.

  14. I play interactive fiction (not even visual novels, mind – ‘you will be eaten by a grue’ stuff), casual iOS games, adventure games… and shooters, and dungeon crawls, and fighting games. I can’t understand at all the idea that any one of those types of games is superior to the others, or should be made exclusively, or is the hallmark of a particular type of gamer that is to be looked down upon.

    More to the point – has everyone forgotten about cheat codes? That was the only way I got through The Bard’s Tale remake to get my funny dialogue fix. Hell, after two playthroughs I’d usually toggle godmode on whatever I wanted to replay and just enjoy the trappings of the game. There were level codes for things like Out of this World (which fffff was that hard to beat, first time around), where you could just skip ahead to whatever level you wanted to try. Half-Life 2 lets you jump around to particular levels. Oddworld! Oddworld was all about running away from dangerous people (well, at first), and still wretchedly hard.
    Why is the idea of skipping out on combat suddenly beyond comprehension?

    My personal favorite RPG is still Planescape – and I hate the combat. Haaaaate it. Since I play it just about annually I’ve lately taken to cheat mods to get through it. I am much more interested in those conflicts which are resolved in the dialogue boxes. You could die in a conversation! I want more of that.
    And I want more well-designed combat that isn’t just filler, like Baldur’s Gate flinging twenty orcs at you every time you venture a few inches across the map. These things are not antithetical.

    1. Without cheats, I never would have finished a single Oddworld game. Abe’s Exxodus in particular offered no mercy. Cheats are a godsend; I never understood the bizarre moralizing about using them.

      And yeah, I don’t quite get how one style of game is less than another. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Old-school adventure games, platformers, rpgs and shooters can all be nail-bitingly thrilling in similar ways. Different gameplay mechanics, including combat, are a means to an end within the game, not a separate entity dividing so-called hardcore and casual games.

      And so Planescape goes on my endless to-play list. Dialogue that really matters–I’d give my left pinky for more of that sort of thing. I feel similarly about Star Control 2. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, but I use every mod I can to make it easier. I’ve got enough on my plate gathering information that could lead me to resources for my fleet and swaying potential allies without worrying about fighting every pesky Slylandro probe that bumps into my ship.

      1. Re: SC2, problems with resources/probes

        Not sure whether you’re having problems with the combat engine (I’m not that great at it either) or just the Slyandro. If you’d like a recommendation for configuring the Flagship, let me know.

        1. What are your recommendations for the Flagship, if you don’t mind? Not gonna lie, I usually go straight for speed, turning, and crew pods and don’t pay much attention to anything else, just kind of stick one of everything on there.

          I wish it was just the probes. No, I’m afraid I’m not very good at the combat at all. Can’t get my head around it. The only ship I can get going where I want it to with any regularity is the Human Cruiser, and given the rock-paper-scissors nature of the ships, I get outmaneuvered a lot when I’m not busy crashing myself into planets. I’ve taken to setting combat to auto and hoping for the best. It usually doesn’t even occur to me to use the flagship.

          I’m kind of a bad Captain. :U

          The probes are incredibly annoying, though. I always visit the Slylandro homeworld as soon as my flagship can make the trip, just to get rid of them. At least the other hostiles make me laugh before they try to kill me.

          1. Well, boldly stepping OT for a moment here, I agree with maxing the engine outriggers. Both speed and turn-rate are critical, and increased speed does not of itself drain the fuel any faster, IIRC. About visiting the planet: get the code but, unless you can’t afford getting stopped in HyperSpace, don’t return. You get salvage from probes destroyed via code, and Slyandro salvage is the best in the game.

            Crew pod = HP, more accurately, heart container. Dynamo = quicker recharge rate (any more than 3 is a waste). Shiva furnace = more points per recharge. Weapons fire in different configurations by slot…but you probably know all that already.

            I’d go with the best gun available in the front slot (fires one shot forward), either the same or one level lower in the second slot (two shots, each 45 degrees to port/starboard), 1-2 dynamos, and no more than 2 hi-cap fuel tanks. If you have access to targeting modules, one or two max.

            Using fusion blasters, one of the first upgrades available, along with a few dynamos should give you enough gun capacitance to shoot down a probe. Provided it started at least one zoom level away, the blasters should kill it before you lose more than 3-4 crew.

            So I don’t completely pollute the thread with OT, I’ll close by recommending the Ultronomicon & Pages of Now And Forever:
            http://wiki.uqm.stack.nl/Main_Page
            http://star-control.com/index.php

            Now, to get back on topic here: SC2 Cyborg mode is an example of one way to skip combat, but I’m personally unfamiliar with using it in the campaign. I take it from your “hope for the best” that it isn’t very effective.

            In games that feature both strategic and tactical combat, such as SC2 (Space travel counts!), Jagged Alliance 2, Lords/Realm 2, SW Rebellion and Empire At War, and probably quite a few others that I either haven’t played or don’t recall, they do have a “simulate combat” feature for the tactical battles. Most of what I’ve heard and to some degree experienced* is that such battle-skipping gives increased player-side casualties or some similarly-unfavorable result. I’m not sure if this sort of paradigm would be suitable for games like the DA/ME line, probably because I’ve not played them [hardware/DRM issues], but I suspect it could create a downward spiral if the player is not able to develop the character through other methods.

            Thoughts?

            *Some examples:
            JA2: If a team takes a hit, the determination of which character got shot during a simulation feels more or less random. If player-controllable mercenaries are present, playing out the battle is generally the way to go. If the battle is strictly between non-controllable militia and the Enemy Forces, simulation is faster and gives better results, as militia AI in tactical is pretty bad.
            E@W: If I understand the system correctly, each unit has a point value, and simulations are simply adding up each team, subtracting the lesser team from the greater, and preserving the units that made up the point differential. Everyone else dies. Therefore simulations near end-game can get rather bloodier than playing out the battle.

            1. I’ll keep the blatant OT brief as well. Apologies, I get kind of excitable about SC2.

              I’ll have to try that configuration out. And, ha, I get stranded often enough that it doesn’t faze me too much.

              Cyborg plays at roughly the same level of skill as I do, so I figure I may as well spare myself some stress. It seems to do best with the Spathi Eluders and the Pkunk Furies, especially with the resurrection chance the Furies have. I don’t know, considering the age of the game, I don’t expect stellar AI.

              Traveling totally counts! Space travel is the core of the game, and I find it pretty thrilling just by itself. Keeping an eye on your fuel (or forgetting about it and paying the price, in my case), figuring out the most efficient and/or safest routes between stars, trusting a character’s hint and taking off into a new area of space and trying not to mortally offend the aliens that live there… It all made the game feel so big, like you’re really out on an epic quest to muster up a new Alliance.

              You’ve got a good point in that a lot of existing simulated combat options sort of punish the player for using them. I know in SC2, I lose more ships with Cyborg mode than I would if I invested the practice to master ship combat myself. I think that’s more a limitation of the game than some malicious intent of the programmers, but one definitely reaches a point of diminishing returns by relying on the simulation.

              If there are ways included for the player to make up for their combat deficiency, like earning tacticians or special generals or something, or researching more advanced armor and weaponry to outclass the enemy. Something that would require investing as much effort as one who chooses to play out the battles themselves, but that lets you mitigate the player-side losses the simulation makes. I haven’t personally played the other games you listed–anything I can think of is just borrowing from RTS games, but it seems like there should be a way to make up for the AI, at least in part. SC2 sort of does it with the Shofixti making crew cost one RU instead of three, but I still end up sinking a lot of RU into replacing lost ships. I always wished they’d included ways to upgrade the escort ships the same way you upgrade the flagship and the lander; that would have made Cyborg mode a lot more fun.

              *Man, that Empire at War simulation mode sounds brutal. The description of the point system reminds me a little of a 40k battle played out in one massive turn.

  15. I honestly fail to see why having skippable combat would be such a big deal. There are so many ways you could implement it that would let those who want bragging rights keep those intangibles intact. Achievements! Give badges and trophies to people who get through chapters without skipping, or have a non-skip mode available to choose at the start of the game and give some kind of shiny for people who finish the game in that mode. Use a point system and award more points for people who fight the fights themselves!

    Or you could make a story only mode that unlocks once you finish the game once on regular! Then you could replay the game to see the other ways the story could play out, or just to see your favourite bits again, without having to do the grindy parts! Massive replayability upgrade! I bet even combat FIENDS have wished for this sometimes!

    Just, guh, if you don’t want to use the fast forward button, don’t PRESS it. But it’s SILLY to be furious that one might EXIST. I really don’t get it.

    1. I really wish more games had a cutscene gallery, where you can just view the cutscenes you’ve unlocked without playing the game all over again. I know a couple of games that do this (Saints Row 2, Galerians: Ash), and it would be so awesome if others did it, too (any Final Fantasy game, for instance). There’s even official DVDs of game cutscenes. The first Galerians game has Galerians: Rion, and there’s a Xenosaga Episode I DVD. In other games, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, I keep track of certain save files, so if I want to go back and replay a specific conversation, I can. A story-mode that lets me just access those scenes and/or conversations without going through the game again? Yes please.

  16. I think one of the reasons for the outcry against Hepler’s comments is that many of these so-called “hardcore” gamers have their identity *as* gamers tied up in their finger-twitchy combat skills. It’s a very specialized skill set, and they really are extremely good at it, but it’s also a very limited one. And if games are created that do not particularly reward that skill set, it opens up the field for other people not only to enjoy the games but to excel at them– maybe even to outperform the “hardcore” gamers. Of course they find that threatening. No wonder they do whatever they can to delegitimize any approach to gaming that doesn’t center on their particular talents.

    It’s one thing if non-twitchy skills are used in other genres– adventure games, interactive fiction, visual novels, sims, etc.– because they can just dismiss those genres as “casual” (i.e., not legitimate) gaming. But Hepler is suggesting that a single game ought to offer multiple modes of game play, depending on what skills the player chooses to apply. How, then, can the “hardcore” gamers signal that they are the superior gamers? They’ll be indistinguishable from people who lack controller-button skills (and who excel at other skills).

    I understand why they’re pissed off, but I think it boils down to their privileged position being challenged.

  17. I think it would be grand to have a skip combat button. I’ve actually talked about this for years. The reason I game is to interact with characters, make story-changing choices, watch how interpersonal drama unfolds, witness a legendary journey that I am interacting with and designing with my input. Essentially, cRPGs/wRPGs, whatever someone wants to call roleplaying games where choice and roleplaying a character persona are essential parts to the story, are my bread and butter. They tap into this cerebral part of me, the part of me that loves stories and loves a game/world/people reacting to the choices I make.

    It is like being a storyteller’s aide, where you get to decide the characters, romances, dramas, intrigues, outcomes, only the results are an engaging surprise! Like my love of Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, or interactive fiction. To explore themes and morals and points of view… to delve deeper into a world, its people, and the whys of why they may do things beyond ‘because they’re elves’ or ‘because magic did it.’

    I can enjoy RPGs with grinding and combat-intensity fine. Certain games have good mechanics in place that keep me interested in leveling — like offering deep customization of the character, choices in abilities and how they evolve, etc. Things that aren’t cut and dry DING and you level and get one point to choose to put into two abilities and everything else about the leveling is automatic. There is no strategy or deeper choice or uniqueness there.

    Epic Lootz was never a big draw for me either, so that avenue is alien to me. I much prefer wearing an outfit I cobbled together from various sets and pieces and costumes, to look how I wish to look, than worry about whether x piece of armor gives me enough of y stat.

    But there comes a point in a game where plodding through combat, trading the same animations, over and over and over, spamming the same skills over and over and over, and trying to level for the sake of surviving to the next storyline bit, where it becomes a pointless and incredibly boring slogfest. Fifteen to fifty hours into a game it turns into repetition for no real sake other than to delay the player from continuing the game, or act as distraction. That’s not for me. Likewise, if I’m playing through a game for my third time? I really don’t want to sit through all the combat distraction to get to see the different pieces of story. In those situations, yes, I rather have a ‘skip combat’ button.

  18. I would bet good money that every. single. one. of the people making noise about this, if they’re playing on PC, have used the console command killallhostiles at least once, if not dozens of times. Whether or not they would admit that in public.

  19. I think that even for someone who has no interest in a story-only mode, the fact that one would be considered says something positive about the non-combat aspects of the game.

  20. Well, I feel like I’m in the minority here. Combat is VERY important to me in games. I enjoy a game with a good story, but if the combat isn’t challenging enough, isn’t engaging, or is missing entirely, I have almost zero interest in playing at all.

    To give an idea, the very first thing I do after opening the box and inserting a disc into my console is go to the game options and crank the difficulty up as high as it will go. “Insanity/Nightmare/Super Duper Hard,” these are the difficulty levels for me. I want to the rats in the basement to slaughter me the first six times so that I have to try 7 different tactics before I find a way to defeat them.

    So, I do understand the frustration that can come when a game is too easy. It’s usually just a problem for me with games that don’t have difficulty settings (Assassin’s Creed for example,) but every once in awhile even that doesn’t work. For instance, I recently bought Kingdoms of Amalur, cranked the difficulty to Hard, and then quit the game half way through out of boredom because I was facerolling through the entire thing. Nothing makes a game feel more grindy than killing hoards of easy enemies.

    Despite all of this, I don’t really feel like “easyness” in games is ruining the industry. There are still plenty of games that provide great challenges, and good developers have been finding ways to make their games appeal to more players with appropriate difficulty settings, bonuses for doing things “the hard way,” being able to talk your way out, etc. Honestly, skippable combat is just another way of doing this and these are the kinds of ideas that developers need to keep exploring.

    1. I feel like I’m in the minority here too! The thing the article said was off-putting to everyone (the tedious, repetitive gameplay of older MMOs) is something I love and wish I currently had more opportunities to enjoy. I do like faster progress and the ability to take things in chunks, and I love difficulty, as long as there’s plenty of repetition. I am a simple lady.

      From that perspective, it’s obvious to me that people like different things, so I’m all for options, and skippable combat is certainly one that isn’t often available. I like the idea of games growing in as many directions as possible. I think that’s what inclusivity is.

      1. Hey there Jane!

        I certainly didn’t mean to diminish your perspective. When I said “everyone” I meant, rather, that it wasn’t just one demographic group (i.e. women) that had complaints, but a lot of people. I certainly didn’t mean “every gamer ever.” :) I totally understand your perspective, and I even share it sometimes. As I mentioned in the article there are days when mindless grinding can be relaxing for me, personally. The repetitiveness is soothing in its own way because it’s easy and incrementally productive, but not so taxing that it defeats the purpose of a “lazy day” or somesuch. So, I totally get you, and I agree that we’re better off with more choices that suit a variety of playstyles. =)

  21. Funny you should mention adventure games. Back in the olden days of floppy discs, adventure games had many ways to make themselves unwinnable if the player made the slightest mistake. What’s that, you forgot to keep the pie that you now need to throw at the yeti? Sorry, you can’t continue. Let’s hope you saved before your mistake. If not, you gotta restart and waste many hours of playtime. Keep in mind, this was the rule rather than the sadistic exception.

    But then LucasArts came along and announced part of their design philosophy: no choice by the player should lead to a dead-end, with no hope of beating the game. Many veteran adventure game players were outraged at the very idea and said that their beloved genre was being dumbed down for general audiences. How dare people play – or even WIN – these games without having to save at every single decision point!

    Of course, these days – where making a game unwinnable is seen as a major design flaw – this type of thinking is inexplicable. But it’s just like what was said of players’ irrational hatred of perceived “dumbing down” of games – and constantly reverting to old saves is certainly tedious! Even after reading this, I still don’t fully comprehend their thinking. But I guess this article helped me kinda see some of the reasoning. Just goes to show how common it is.

    1. I feel like I’m all over this thread, but I had to agree with this. I grew up on old Sierra adventures, and I still compulsively keep multiple save files of games I play even when I know I don’t need to. One missed object, one wrong dialogue choice, and you are simply DEAD, often in the most outlandish way possible. Without a separate save file after nearly every seemingly-successful decision, hours of progress are down the drain. Space Quest was practically an instrument of torture, but I was so elated when I finally beat it. But as accomplished as I felt, for me it didn’t outweigh the frustration of countless failures, and I certainly wouldn’t go back to that system. Once I played my first Monkey Island game, I never looked back.

      I remember the pearl-clutching over LucasArts games, but hadn’t seen the parallel to the current bru-ha-ha until you pointed it out. There’s not much difference between reloading a save for the tenth time and retrying a boss fight for the tenth time, I think.

      (Oh, and heaven help you if you liked Myst. It ruined adventure games FOREVER!!1)

    2. You are giving me nightmare flashbacks to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game. It’s shameful how long it took me to figure out how to even progress past Arthur’s house.

      Well, and not to mention it is now also the norm for games to have an ending. Go back to old school Donkey Kong and they just keep making levels harder and harder, as though they are hoping to drain the life out of the player before they inevitably reach a kill screen. This same model would not work in today’s game market.

  22. I think too many people conflate combat with conflict. There doesn’t need to be an action-packed shoot-out in order for a game to have an intense conflict. The Phoenix Wright games don’t have any combat, and yet they’re exciting and entertaining. Fallout: New Vegas gives you many styles of play, and if you never want to fight anything, you don’t have to. Even something like Amnesia, despite how violent and disturbing it is, is permanently in non-combat mode. Your main defense is running away and using the environment to hide and obstruct the monsters’ paths, and if you have too much trouble escaping the monsters, eventually they despawn so you can continue.

    Like many others have said, sometimes combat in a game just gets tedious or even frustrating. I actually like grinding in FFXII, and the license board is one of my favorite things about it, but sometimes I just want to get to the next part of the game without worrying about whether my stats are good enough. It can even become impossible to finish a game if you can’t get past just one boss or area, and that doesn’t strike me as fair. I still haven’t completed Legend of Dragoon because one boss is just so difficult, and the area where I’m stuck is very hard to grind in.

    To go back to my original point, I think it’s a problem of conflating combat with conflict. Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a. Fahrenheit) and Heavy Rain are a couple of games that have many types of conflict, from hiding evidence to interrogating someone, and yes, even fighting. But the same mechanics are used for all of those situations, especially in Heavy Rain. In some cases, you press X to punch someone, in others, you press it to prepare lunch. And Heavy Rain’s narrative changes depending on your actions, taking into account your triumphs and failures. There’s a lot about Quantic Dreams’ games that I don’t like (the problematic aspects of their stories, for one), but I love how you interact with the world in their games. I don’t know why more games don’t have similar mechanics. It would take a lot of work to write and design all the different narrative paths, but I’m sure it could be done.

    It’d be nice to have a wider variety of games that utilize different styles of play, and while some could focus on completing challenging combat scenarios, others could focus on narrative and interaction with the environment and characters. Others still could be somewhere in the middle, where players can choose which aspects of the game they want to invest in. I simply can’t see how having more gameplay options and more types of conflict in games could be a bad thing.

    1. To clarify: I’m not trying to say that everyone conflates combat with conflict, or that everyone who really enjoys combat in games does. Like I said, I could grind for hours in something like FFXII, and I love the feeling I get after winning a difficult battle in a SMT game or something like Demons Souls. What I don’t like is having to repeat the same fight or missions dozens of times with no success. And it irks me a bit that there aren’t more games that offer ways to resolve conflict other than combat. I still want there to be super-challenging games for people to enjoy, but it would be nice for there to be more options for people who want a more relaxed experience.

    2. While I like Indigo Prophecy and such in theory, I hope not a lot of games follow in their footsteps in actuality, because I can’t play them at all. Accessibility was lousy. I don’t remember if there were difficulty settings, but if there were, I played on easy, and I don’t want to know what they think ‘hard’ should be like. There were just far too many keys to press in very tight order and way too fast. I just can’t make my hands do that. I usually map as much functionality I can to mouse only because the keyboard is a hindrance to me. I can’t hold controllers properly.

      1. I see how those games are difficult to operate, especially Indigo Prophecy. Instead of having more games with the exact same control schemes as IP/HR, I’m thinking more of the concept of using similar mechanics for all aspects of the game, from exploration to conversations to combat. Ideally, I’d like it so as few buttons could be used for as many actions as possible, just that the way you control narrative and exploration parts are the same as you control combat parts. Kind of like how The Sims works, where you can use the mouse for everything (besides typing names).

        So, for example, instead of that silly Simon-Says thing Indigo Prophecy had during various fights, perhaps you could simply click on where you want to hit the opponent. To move something to another part of the room, instead of using one button to grab it, then a couple more to move it, you could just click and drag it or click the object then click where you want it to go. And for dialogue, you could click on the option you want, instead of needing to press a different button for each option. The scenarios are pretty varied, but they all use the same mechanic: mouse clicking. Would that be a better control scheme? (Apologies for my wordiness; I have trouble explaining my thoughts.)

        1. Oh, yeah, and I think I have seen games where they use the same mechanics for different kinds of action (not just combat).

          I don’t remember very specifically, but I think from what I remember Psychonauts did something like that. I also thought it integrated the action well with the story, from what I remember nothing seemed unneccessary, though all the collection stuff (trophies and cards in game and such) is just extra for people who like that (and I do). That was also not a game that is very pleasant for me to play though, in a certain way. I struggled myself through it because I just like it so much, but usually I just let games like that lie on the shelf.

          I’d like to see not just traditional difficulty settings in games, but another set of settings for people who want and/or need different kinds of control styles. Because if they made a mouse-only game, that would be great for me, but many people also *need* to play keyboard-only, or with a special controller, etc. If they just tied that in to difficulty settings, that means I will never be able to explore higher difficulties, for example, or that easy still isn’t easy or even playable for some subset of people. To some extent certain RPGs do that already, where for example you can press keys to move, but also use mouse buttons to move, or click on the spot you want to move to.

          1. Games having multiple control schemes is a very smart idea. So many games could be made more accessible if they allowed players to control the game the way they want and/or need to. I think that game designers need to do research and they need to have conversations with gamers who can’t use traditional control schemes in order to figure out how to meet their needs. One of my goals is to make a game, and accessibility is something I often think about with regards to it, so having this discussion is very helpful. Thank you. :)

  23. I have no problems with combat in my games and love my FPS and RTS and what have you, but it often makes my head spin how unnecessary some of it is.

    Random encounters: hate the stuffing out of them. Absolutely loathe the old Random Encounter thing, because it seems not just utterly unnecessary and plotless but actively distracting from the primary mission. It is combat without a purpose and without consequence and that just seems frustratingly pointless to me.

    Having combat being the only source of XP is something that also sends me out of my gourd. What is the possible rationale about having to learn even non-combat skills via the application of blunt force to numerous randomly appearing Orks. Skyrim did pretty well on the exercising a skill was what developed that particular skill but it tends to be an outlier. But with other things its like, how on earth does punching Orks make me a better alchemist?

    Love seeing more creative item generation schemas, more non-combat sort of quests, intrigue, diplomacy that isn’t completely facile, things like this. There are so many more interesting ways of doing things!

  24. I think if you have the option to skip dialogues, it makes sense to be able to skip combat as well.
    I am not sure I agree with the argument of being too busy or not liking combat but in any case I agree with argument for the quickness of replay-ability and several playthough.

    For me the DA and ME franchises are as much about the story as it is about combat.
    So yes it I want combat.
    That being said I found combat in DA: 2 so tedious that I change from nightmare to casual for the bosses.
    I know people have experience the same thing with DA:0. So it is not really a DA:X vs DA:Z thing.
    The commonality between what we found in the combat was the restiveness.
    I.e. warrior vanguard berserker/reapor in DA:2 and mage in DA:0 (Grease+fire ball+ hearthquake)

    What made me like DA:0 fight more is that because I played suboptimal group, I had to improvise a lot and that is what kept the combat interesting. (i.e. it made me feel smart, an easy thing to do some will say). So I would like a better combat and I think that getting out of a fight by skill or dialogs is just as gratifying. Basically having several options is better

    In DA:O you could talk/bullshit your way out of a fight and that was good and in DA:2 you get the XP for completing the combat (as opposed to XP for killing each opponents) so, you can use the same model to get XP by solving the encounter by non-combat ways

    phil.

  25. There’s been very little discussion about the actual issues at the center of this firestorm, so I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read everyone’s thoughts.

    “A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do.”

    I actually don’t think this is a great way to engage with any medium. There’s something that feels degenerate or masturbatory about rewinding that one part of your favorite movie… over and over again… still, she’s right to point out that we have that ability in books or movies but not games. Except… we kind of do! Most longer games have save points and level selects, which sound like an even more efficient version of the kind of feature she’s speaking of.

    Idvo is right to point out that ‘conflict’ is probably a better word than ‘combat’, and I think that distinction helps explain the source of some of the rage that has surrounded this issue. While it’s trivial to list successful games that have no combat, it’s not quite as easy to think of games that don’t contain any conflict. Conflict is part of the DNA of games, just as it is with stories, and life.

    1. Well the skip combat button would not make sense in a WWI flight simulator but DA/ME are really both combat and narrative games.
      It is not a bout no combat at all it is about skiping it for those who wants to.

      Yes the danger is that we can end up with sloppy even more respective combat since we had the kill all enemies’ buttons if we don’t like it.
      But we coul den up with a better combat system. I am not asking for a one like Silent Storm but combat should not be mindless repetitions of the same moves all along.
      I would like the ability to get the people of the team where I want them before the fight start. I would like the ability to talk my way out trouble.
      I would like a way to sneak pass enemies or do minimum damage to get unnoticed.
      I would like to see more feature like in Dragonlance on PC where Riverwind takes the leads when Goldmoon health is under 25%.

      Phil

      1. Indeed, which is why I praised Idvo’s use of the word “conflict” instead of “combat”. All of the situations you brought up are steeped in conflict, whether or not it is expressed through combat.

        I think when people get upset about features like a fast-forward button for combat or the tutorial blocks in NSMB Wii (and if you think there was no fury surrounding those, you have a short memory!), part of the reason is because they interpret these things – correctly or not – as a sign that developers are prioritizing accessibility or narrative over challenge and game design.

        I don’t think that holding that view is inherently sexist or elitist, although as Alex pointed out in the other article, some of these people certainly were in this case!

        I also think that if such a button were actually included in a game like Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2 it would probably have the undesirable side effect of revealing how much the stories in these kinds of games actually leave to be desired… we may take for granted how much flavor and anticipation the slog through the action bits lends to the story bits.

        And of course, the game would be less than an hour long!

        1. Yeah, if you skipped *everything*. Then again, if people want to pay for the game and then skip *all* of the combat, it’s their party.

          It would give people the option of skipping it where they need it, though. Option being key there.

          I think if they need you to like the story more by playing through *tedious* combat, they are doing it wrong.

          So, people could skip combat where they need/want to, and people who just don’t want any combat at all can skip everything if they really think it’s worth it in a game that is still very combat-oriented. They might even get some valuable data from looking at which bits get skipped by many people.

          And I just thought of this: most games that are largely about talking and dialogue still usually let you skip the dialogue and the cutscenes etc, so why would it be so weird if a game that is largely about combat lets you skip fights?

          1. “I think if they need you to like the story more by playing through *tedious* combat, they are doing it wrong.”

            I agree. I actually think that they ARE doing it wrong, but that’s kind of a tangent!

            “And I just thought of this: most games that are largely about talking and dialogue still usually let you skip the dialogue and the cutscenes etc”

            Is that so? What games did you have in mind? I’m struggling to think of more than a handful of games that I’d consider “about” talking.

            1. In a lot of adventures, you need to pay attention to what is said to be able to solve the game, the conversation isn’t just fluff or story/atmosphere, especially if it’s mystery/crime solving. You can almost always skip through the dialogue unless it’s an older game. Some adventures really are about talking to people, opening up more stuff in the game but also more dialogue options with other people, then going back to those other people, picking the new options, etc.

            2. Sure, I suppose I wasn’t really thinking of adventure games … in my experience adventure games seem to often boil down to finding the right key for each lock. Sometimes the lock is a conversation option or you get hints about the key through conversation, but I wouldn’t say the game is “about” talking in the same way something like Facade or Prom Week is… two games in which you can’t skip dialog, actually!

              That said, text-based games make it difficult to draw the line about what counts as skipping dialog! If one player reads faster than another, that player should be allowed to advance at a faster pace.

  26. This got tl;dr. Sorry, I’m a rambler. I didn’t realize I had so many feeling about non-combat in games until this whole be-outrageous-jerks-to-Jennifer-Hepler mess started.

    Not only would this not have been such a huge sacrilege if Hepler had been a man putting forth the idea of skipping combat, but if the game in question hadn’t been a AAA sacred cow like Mass Effect I doubt there would have been a tenth as much panic. I’m still not sure what’s so threatening about adding options to skip combat. I’m in love with the idea; not only would it make games more accessible to a broader audience, it would add an impetus to make the non-combat areas of mainstream games more fulfilling. That’s where I really take issue with the “but skipping the combat is skipping the game” argument. It may be true for a lot of games, but that’s because the combat usually gets the lion’s share of time and attention spent on it during development, with dialogue and other interactions relegated to cut-scenes. What interactive non-combat a mainstream game has is usually little more than a glorified menu or flavor that has no bearing on completing the game.

    Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge get the job done with stealth, which is a great option. On the whole, I think the industry is moving toward the idea that games can be designed to let the player take multiple approaches to solving the same problem. It’s not so much about getting rid of combat as much as it’s about elevating things like stealth, dialogue interaction, or crafting up to the level of combat, and making them all viable ways to complete the same game.

    I was messing about with War for Cybertron yesterday, and it occurred to me while I was slogging through the fifth or sixth identical shootout so I could get to the next entertaining cut-scene how much a non-combat option would have improved the experience for me. At the start of each level, you’re asked to choose one of three characters to control. In my admittedly-ambitious daydreams, I thought it would have been cool to have one character be the traditional combat choice, another more suited to sneaking past or outrunning everyone, and maybe have the third one rely on communication, talking down hostiles, using bribery or charisma or threats to get past a group without resorting to combat. Let each player choose how they want to meet the mission objectives. A lot of extra work and a much larger final game, but I think someday that level of complexity will be doable.

    Even what non-combat actions the game had devolved into “hold this button and stand still with a target on your back.” MMOs are bad about using that old saw, too. It’s as if combat is so ubiquitous we have a hard time imagining how to represent non-combat activity. Why can’t hacking the enemy computer or repairing the getaway ship take some measure of skill (even if it’s a different kind of skill than combat requires), or at least be more interactive than mindlessly holding a button?

    For a game about the start of a civil war, it would have been a blast to play through as, say, a smooth-operating politician, or a spy agile enough to never need to fight to meet the level objectives. Three choices per level that are actually three different choices, instead of choosing between a heavy fighter, a light fighter, and fighting with turrets.

    I guess what my rambling comes down to, is that we have a lot of games that are pure combat, and some games that are totally without combat. None of these genres will go away, but it may be that combat won’t be the unquestioned top dog of gaming mechanics much longer. It looks as though Bioware and Jennifer Hepler wish to make games that are a synthesis of different play styles, that lets us all enjoy the game together. Different players have different skill sets, and that’s okay. I think that’s a great idea, and I support it, and I think Hepler’s detractors are largely tilting at windmills.

  27. To take a slightly different track, the thing about the hotel in Bloodlines that turned me off to it was the fact that you’re still an immortal vampire with superpowers. Even if there’s nothing really to use them on. While that game certainly had some good environmental design (especially in terms of a SoCal city-space, except for the part where it has no cars), I would say a better example of true terror that doesn’t utilize combat as its core mechanic (immediately disqualifying all mainstream survival/horror after Resident Evil) would be Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, or its more well known spiritual successor, Amnesia: the Dark Decent. Those become terrifying not simply because of possessing a scary envroment, but because on top of that the only option you have for interacting with it is through terror. Bloodlines loses the key Lovecraftian thesis which is the impotence of the actor in relation to a unimaginably dark, vast, and cruel universe. The night is no longer a truly a thing of otherness when you are a creature of it. Tl;dr, I agree with your reading, but simply watned to express a more “pure” set of examples.

  28. Great article. One game which I found very refreshing in terms of the way combat was handled was L.A Noire. The elderly father of a close friend had recently said he wanted to play Red Dead Redemption because of his love of cowboy movies, but as a non-gamer, I could see he would face a lot of difficulty in negotiating the game mechanics. However with L.A Noire I felt that the option to skip action sequences, meant that potential gamers who wanted to enjoy aspects of play OTHER than combat, were well catered for.

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