Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#46: The Distressing Implications Behind “Hepler Mode”

A long time ago (at least 350 internet years, which translates to around one year ago on October 2011), a writer at Bioware named Jennifer Hepler was the object of immense controversy. At the time of this incident, one statement is particular was brought to light that she had made six years ago: She had told interviewers that she wished that developers would more often include more “casual” difficulties for people like her that do not necessarily enjoy playing video games, but like to be engaged in a good story, in which the gameplay sections are skipped in order to go from dialogue to dialogue. Though at first I was in support of this “Hepler Mode,” in time I began to change my mind. This is not to say that I am against making easier difficulties for new players. In fact, quite the opposite is true in that regards. In the past, I have been vocal in my support of simplifying systems and allowing for adjustable difficulties to facilitate a variety of player skill levels. No, the problems with this “Story” mode are related to the underlying assumptions that are implied by the idea.

The fact that this has even come up in discussion is proof of a fundamentally poor design principal which is prevalent in the gaming industry (and honest probably has been for quite some time), which is that story and gameplay can and should be allowed to exist separately. This line of thinking is prevalent in video games of all types, from shooters like Call of Duty, to open-world games like inFamous, and even Western-style RPGs like Mass Effect, which have choice and consequence as major themes and mechanics. In many of these games, there is a clear divide between the moments where the player is engaged in the story and is advancing the plot and the other moments that consist of mostly shooting mooks or other gameplay elements. These sections where the game is nothing but intense combat seem to have no real impact on the outcome of the events and exist merely to extend the length of the game. Mass Effect is a clear example of this in action. In every Mass Effect game (and many other Bioware games if what I am told is true), despite the choices the player makes and the changes to the overall timeline as a result of these choices, the player will always play through the same levels with the same enemies. The only thing that the player can do to change up these encounters is to play as a different class and/or bring different squadmates along. The opposite of this phenomenon is also true. No matter what class the player chooses, who they bring on missions, and what they do during combat scenarios, the story will never be affected by it. Each of these two sections of the game exist, for all intent and purposes, independently of the other. This is not how games should be designed. The gameplay and the story should exist to supplement each other. They should be so entwined as to be nearly inseparable. Interaction and choice are the biggest strengths of the medium. In order to use it to most effective tell a tale, designers need to keep this in mind. Spec Ops: The Line is a fantastic example of that (which will be left vague because of spoilers).

The other error in the underlying assumptions of “Hepler Mode” is the question of who this kind of mode would be aiming for marketing-wise. What I mean by that is that Jennifer Hepler notes that one of the reasons this kind of mode of play would be needed is that there are people out there that do not like video games, yet are interested in a good story. Ignoring whatever opinion you may have of Hepler, why would a game developer or publisher even make an attempt to capture a market that literally has no interest in their products? What would be gained from that? Any interest this non-gamer market would have in video games would be superficial at best. This is not the same thing as attracting people who may have an interest in games, but are put off by the (admittedly high) barriers of entry like consoles/PCs, price of games, and complicated control schemes aimed at those familiar with other games. That makes sense. What does not make sense is marketing to people that literally have no interest in the medium at all. Doing so is a recipe for disaster and one of the easiest ways a developer can piss away the good will of its fans. If the target demographic has no interest in playing games, then the odds are that they will not even know the publisher is marketing to them, let alone have any interest in the games being marketed.

This problem with “Hepler Mode” is not that it is an unsound concept, but rather that it should not be. If the combat system wears down most players so much that the vast majority of them are asking to skip it entirely, then it may be a good idea to revamp the systems of the game to make it more entertaining. It is up to designers to make tough calls like editing, revising, and even removing features or parts of levels in order to improve the overall experience because that is what they are paid to do. The gameplay is just as much a part of the experience as the storyline. To give players the option to skip gameplay is to concede the video games are nothing more than movies with playable segments in between shots. That is not acceptable! It goes against the very strengths of the medium. Games are at their best when they embrace their nature as interactive media and utilized it to the fullest. While this is an old issue, it is still an important one nonetheless and I hope that lessons were learned from it.


krellen said...

Hear hear.

Anonymous said...

The real red flag for me is "for those who want to focus on good stories." How can I be delicate with this? Writing in video games generally sucks.

I think there are some good writing and stories in video games, but they were largely tied to design and mechanics that I liked anyway. If you strip away all the stuff that falls under gameplay and just hold up the stories and writing of video games on their own, they fall hopelessly short in comparison to other mediums.

The big problem is that video games keep trying to mimic Hollywood blockbusters instead of developing their own narrative language. Then they fall into the spectacle=story trap that a lot of AAA games keep falling into.

In particular, games are often terrible at one aspect of storytelling, that is pacing. Even Rockstar, who have some of the best writing suffer this. Red Dead Redemption(one of my all time favorites) kills all of its narrative momentum dead as soon as you get to Mexico. The game would have been much stronger had Mexico been cut.

I don't think storytelling in video games is strong enough right now to be held up on its own. The problem is with story telling itself. Video games shouldn't be telling you a story, you should be experiencing one in real time as it happens to you through your avatar.

newdarkcloud said...

Indeed. A lot of the writing in video games is of lower quality. It's something I will always harp on until they begin to fix it.

We are on the same wavelength. ;)

Anonymous said...

Even if the gameplay is executed well and doesn't interfere with or distract from the story, I still think "Hepler Mode" isn't an entirely bad idea. After all, the cutscenes are undoubtedly vital to the story... But they're skippable. Why shouldn't gameplay segments be skippable too?

Also, I think when Hepler said that "there are people out there that do not like video games, yet are interested in a good story," I think what she meant is that there are people who don't like shooters, who are interested in the story and lore in Mass Effect. And I think that's a fair point that deserves to be addressed.

newdarkcloud said...

My point wasn't that it is a bad idea. Giving the way developers build their games (and Bioware is particularly guilty of this), games are mostly just shooty bits with plot points between them. If you like story, might as well skip the gameplay. If you like gameplay, might as well skip the story.

My problem with that is that this shouldn't be the case. Gameplay and story should be woven together so that they complement and supplement the other. In that sense, you would need both in order to have the complete package. It's more of an indication of a major pet peeve I have with the industry.

And to be fair, this problem HARDLY originates with Hepler. This has been an issue pretty much since games were able to tell stories. A used this as an example to express my grievances with the idea.

Anonymous said...

I agree that that's a serious problem with videogame storytelling at the moment (believe me, I've talked about it quite a bit myself in the past), but even if that were fixed and story and gameplay were perfectly intertwined, it would still make sense to me if each individual segment was skippable, for the same reason that it's possible to skip scenes on a DVD.

newdarkcloud said...

Y'know. I can see that.

JPH said...

Thinking more about it, I can imagine many games would suffer from gamers wanting to skip through parts that are important to the story because they find those segments "boring," so maybe each section could become skippable after you've completed it once?

I suppose Half-Life 2 is the closest we've seen to that - the game is separated into "chapters," and when you start a new game you can begin at whatever chapter you want.

newdarkcloud said...

That's one of the things I'm afraid of. This probably isn't the best example, but Soap Operas are notorious for their style where if you missed one crucial episode, you'll be completely lost.

I'd rather not have games where that is possible. I suppose you could get around that with a codex, but then you'd still be missing something.

SougoXIII said...

I'll say that we already have some sort of 'Helper mode' via difficulty setting. Is this section too hard or tedious, turn it too easy and cruise through. If people just want to experience the story then what's stopping them from watching it on youtube and save £40/$60?

newdarkcloud said...

Yeah. Except making a section easier isn't the exact same as skipping it outright.