BioWare’s Jennifer Hepler is currently at the centre of controversy because of a certain slew of Twitter abuse, but regardless of that, she’s a games industry professional who has raised a good point. In an interview that goes back a few years now, Hepler claimed her least favourite thing about working in the games industry was playing the actual games – and suggested the inclusion of a “fast-forward button” into modern games to let players skip combat sequences.
Her logic isn’t fallible; it seems only fair that gameplay and story receive equal treatment. As she puts it, “games almost always include a way to ‘button through’ dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don’t enjoy listening to dialogue and they don’t want to stop their fun – yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combat even if you’re a player who only enjoys the dialogue.”
Cue backlash. Both critics and consumers tend to agree that gameplay is the most precious part of a game; without it, you’re basically watching a real-time CGI movie. But what if she’s got a point? There are plenty of people out there who play games predominantly for the narrative, and if the combat is executed tediously, those people should have the opportunity to skip through those sequences and get back to the primary plot. As she puts it: why make story optional but gameplay compulsory?
It’s a novel idea because until very recently, games didn’t boast such strong narratives. Once hailed as the best game of all time, and still often referred to as such, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time probably isn’t one of the games to which Hepler is referring. Those are polygon-laced cutscenes devoid of voice acting, and with a completely silent protagonist. If you stepped into Nintendo’s boardroom and suggested a true “story mode” with an absolute absence of gameplay, Miyamoto and co. would have laughed you off.
Pictured: Games have come a long way in the past decade.
On the other hand, modern role-playing games like those that come out of BioWare’s studios continue to present character development and rich, detailed worlds to gamers: games like those in the Mass Effect series feature long cutscenes rendered with gorgeous graphics and convincing voice acting, which are just as fun to watch as the rest of the game is to place, and while seasoned gamers will be itching to get back into the game to face the enemies they have just watched assemble, others may prefer to watch the aftermath.
“Then watch a film,” comes the most prevalent response. Yes, there’s that; after all, film is a medium designed for this sort of thing. It’s the most sensible criticism of Hepler’s “fast-forward button”, but when dealing with it, you have to remember that this fast-forward button is optional and user-activated, not automatic. Just because players don’t want to engage in the combat doesn’t mean that they don’t want to enjoy the more laid-back moments, like exploring locations or playing mini-games.
Besides, dialogue options are not coming to film anytime soon. The cinema and game genres are being consolidated more and more often with every day: if a fast-forward button is an insult to gamers, then so too is Heavy Rain with its constant quick-time events and cinematic presentation. It’s a “game” about character development, without any real challenge in combat – it’s an example of what every game would be like should Hepler’s fast-forward button be implemented.
Some gamers complain about games using too many cutscenes, while others complain about games that don’t feature enough; surely an implementation of Hepler’s button is a suitable compromise? Despite her words being now years old, I’ve still yet to see a single game boasting her proposed functionality, apart from perhaps the gameplay-assisting “Super Guide” in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Wii and similar titles. Those are about accessibility, though, not narrative.
Games have the opportunity to completely revolutionise entertainment, especially in the way that they marry cinema to a unique level of interactivity; if ideas like Hepler’s find themselves integrated into gaming, the format will be opened to a huge new demographic, and that will go a long way for the industry. Somebody has to get the ball rolling, and then we can jump into a whole new era for the format.