I’m sure you saw the story a couple of months ago about Jennifer Hepler, but just in case you missed it, it went something like this: Hepler is a writer at BioWare who said that she wanted a “fast-forward” button to skip combat. Then angry gamers saw the quote and aimed their rage cannon at her, unloading a huge dose of hatred, sexism, homophobia, and general jackassery.
The story wasn’t so much about what Hepler said, but about the community response to it. She’s a writer, not a game designer, and she wasn’t advocating taking anything away from anyone else. She wasn’t saying gameplay should be removed, or that games should be shorter, or universally easier. She just wanted a way through a game without having to play through the combat. Yet the mob rage was completely disproportionate to what was said, and it left a lot of people in the industry feeling dismayed. Suddenly, there was this huge crowd of hate-bots in our gaming community. It felt like being at a dinner party, and late in the evening you realize everyone else is a Neo-Nazi. “Wait, how did I end up mixed in with these people? How did I not know about this until now?”
Some of the hate was about her suggestion itself. Some of the hate was because of the specific things she worked on at BioWare. Some of the hate was just a more generalized anger at all the changes BioWare has gone through, making her a lightning rod for frustrations that have been building among BioWare fans more or less since the company was acquired by EA.
My own take is that this was less about the gaming community being full of sexist monsters, and more about the condition of the community at Reddit, where the initial thread took place. I could be wrong, but this is not the first time we’ve seen crowd-sourced madness and bile, and the phrase, “Did you see the crazy stuff people are saying on Reddit?” seems pretty common. I suspect that with the right phrasing you could go to Reddit and provoke the exact same behavior from movie fans, sports fans, or people with strong political opinions. I could be wrong, and maybe there is a large segment of the gaming populace who are simply incapable of having a reasonable conversation and who will explode into a flaming frenzy at any suggestion that makes games more attractive to “the casuals”. I guess I’m about to find out.
Now that the storm is passed, I want to backtrack and actually talk about her proposal, because it doesn’t seem that outrageous to me. All she’s asking for is a way to skip combat sequences. Call this gameplay option “Hepler Mode”. I mean, people who don’t like the story can skip cutscenes. If you’re watching a movie at home you can skip right to the car chase, the kung-fu fights, the sex scenes, or whatever it is you want. This is entertainment, after all. Would you walk into your friend’s house and forbid them from fast-forwarding through a movie because they’re “watching it wrong”?
I’ve actually played games in Hepler Mode. I’ve sat beside my brother and watched him play through videogames. I was curious about the story, but I hated the gameplay, so I hung around and watched the cutscenes without playing the game myself. Unless you’re an only child, you’ve probably done this yourself at some point.
Obviously Hepler Mode doesn’t make sense in all games. Add Hepler Mode to Super Mario Galaxy and the game would just be a long sequence of incongruous scenes of wooshing stars. You couldn’t add it to Skyrim, since the combat and looting and story and puzzle elements are all mixed together, so there isn’t a clear delineation between “combat sequence” and “story sequence”. If you added it to Asteroids then the game would simply cease to exist. If you added Hepler Mode to Torchlight then … I dunno, what would that look like? Just selling a pool of infinitely-replenishing vendor trash, forever? Whatever. The point is, it wouldn’t make any damn sense.
But in a story-driven game with dialog trees, skipping the combat can make a lot of sense. I was really into The Witcher 2. I liked the situations and I was interested in the lore. I loved how it moved away from the BioWare Paragon Doormat / Renegade Jerkface based decision making and just presented messy situations and let you deal with them as you saw fit. I wanted to know where the story was going, but the combat in that game was a dull chore. If I could have replaced the combat with vacuuming or washing dishes, I would have stood a better chance at making it through the game. Instead, I shelved it. I’d totally be willing to take another run at the game if I could skip the fighting and just explore the world and the lore. (Yes, you can watch it on YouTube. But if you do that you can’t explore, make decisions, or control the dialog.)
The Trayus Academy sequence in KOTOR 2 was painfully long, repetitive, and boring. If I could have pressed a button and skipped right to the end of that section, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Same goes for large sections of Neverwinter Nights 2, when it felt like the combat was needlessly padded and the game was just blatantly wasting my time.
“Games are about gameplay!” screams the crazed purist. Actually, games are about fun, but even if we accept the premise that we’re here for gameplay it’s worth pointing out that dialog trees are gameplay too. A properly constructed dialog wheel should let you make decisions about how things play out in the world, let you use your dialog-based skills to get your way, and uncover new lore. Why is one type of gameplay skip-able and not the other?
If anything, the fact that Hepler Mode is possible is an indictment of the cutscene / combat / cutscene / combat / cutscene style of game design. I much prefer games where the story and combat are blended organically, so that you don’t have to stop doing one so you can start doing the other.
Maybe instead of adding Hepler Mode, developers should make games where the story and gameplay are in harmony instead of competition. But if Hepler Mode is possible – if combat is nothing more than an obstacle between cutscenes and nothing you do in a fight will have consequences later on – then I don’t see any reason not to give players the option.