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!