I thought the idea of skipping combat was something only casual gamers dreamed about, but I may be wrong. It seems that many gamers appreciate being able to skip combat that is too difficult, tedious or just plain not-my-style.
To me, this seems like cheating and I can’t abide it. And I’m the type of gamer who sets difficulty to casual for first playthroughs and wants to get on with the story. Boss fights become way too tedious when that enemy health bar barely seems to be moving down — while my health bar takes a smack every 5 seconds, of course. I’d prefer to focus on fighting rather than scrambling for health potions. And though dying once or twice can add to the sense of triumph I feel when I finally beat a level, dying more than that stalls the game and makes my roommate dryly ask, “Having fun?” as I dream about rage quitting. Frustration is not fun, and video games are supposed to be fun.
Some people derive pleasure from strategizing their way through a level and take pride in beating a boss after dying many times over. The challenge is an enticement to them — but it’s not to me. It beats me down. I don’t pay for video games to feel like I suck at them. And really, I don’t care so much whether I’m good at a video game; I just want my character to look like a badass. That’s why I play on casual when I can, increasing difficult when it feels too easy but never before.
But as I said, skipping combat feels like cheating. A game without interactivity isn’t a game, and an RPG without combat is more like an interactive movie, in my opinion. I would never be able to skip combat in real life, and I want to suspend my disbelief when I play a video game.
So I propose some possible solutions to the problem of bosses who are too monstrous to beat and combat that feels like homework:
1. Difficulty Levels That Change the Combat Style
Dragon Age is a game series that does this perfectly.
When you play a game like DA:O on casual, you breeze through the game playing only as your character, in real time. But when you increase the difficulty, you start to pause combat to set up tactics. You switch to play as one of your teammates, setting up combo attacks (such as playing the mage to freeze an enemy, then switching perspectives to play the warrior and shatter the frozen enemy with a powerful, two-handed swing). On nightmare mode, most combat is paused as you jump from skin to skin. In other words, as difficulty increases, the game becomes one of strategy — a totally different style than the quick-hit delivery you employ when playing on casual.
But maybe this doesn’t really solve our problem. What it does accomplish is this: It makes the combat varied enough to give the player choices, based on their preferred combat style as well as whether they enjoy a particular level or not. Some players will always want to strategize, while others may prefer to reduce difficulty to casual during boring levels in order to breeze through them. This seems like a sensible alternative to skipping that content, as it ensures that you experience the entire game — no cheating necessary.
2. Skills That Act as Alternatives to Combat
When I play Skyrim, I play as a stealthy archer who tries to sneak past enemies to avoid fights. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, I’m thrilled. I have skipped combat without cheating! When I play Mass Effect, I renegade my way through sticky situations, threatening characters to get them to comply when necessary — and avoiding bloodshed in the process. (Admiral Hackett is so proud.) Again, I have skipped combat without cheating!
Alternatives to fighting should remain hidden in the game’s content. I don’t believe in a button to skip combat just for the sake of speeding up the game or avoiding a level or boss… but I do love sneak abilities and intimidate options. It’s all about making the choices relevant and in-character — very important in RPGs.
3. It’s All About Choices
I much prefer linear games to sandbox-style games, but a hybrid seems like the best option. What sandbox-style games offer players is a chance to choose their quests, avoiding missions that don’t appeal to them and getting straight to the good stuff. Game developers may strive to make all combat interesting, relevant and easy to beat, but this won’t please all players because everyone has different taste — and not every gamer wants to be patronized with easy combat all the time. That’s what makes the sandbox solution so smart.
But how can a linear RPG achieve this? Really, a truly linear RPG never can. Some RPGs (Uncharted 3) set you up as an actor playing a pre-defined role. Even RPGs that give you some room to develop a unique character and pursue quests in any order you want — BioWare does this a lot — still force you to complete every main mission before beating the game.
Witcher 2 at least gives you a choice between following Iorveth or Roche, but you still don’t know what sorts of quests each path will give you. On the other hand, if a game gives you a choice between being a convict on the run or a soldier, you might have an inkling of different combat styles and situations, with one favoring stealth and backstabs while the other is much more sword-and-shield. But now we’re getting into sandbox territory.
That’s why a hybrid game would work well to solve the dilemma of unlikable combat. I can imagine an RPG with a set story and goal but lots of space to achieve that goal any way you want. For example, if the story is to escape from a space station before it destructs, you can choose mainly to fight your way out, to rally support and get some of the authorities on your side, to sneak around the authorities or to hack systems that will make sneaking easier and possibly delay the destruction of the station. A hacker character may choose the tech and stealth quests over the combat quests to find a way off the station.
4. If I Don’t Have the Skills, Let My Squad Handle It
This is also where squads come in handy. RPGs that let you take teams or followers into combat already give you room to create a character who specializes in one type of combat rather than another, because your squad can handle the rest. (This is how it would work in real life, wouldn’t it?)
I would take this further. I would recruit a balanced team and let them handle most of the combat so that I don’t have to. If I’m playing a hacker-type character but need to fight my way through an enemy ship, I will bring my toughest squad members with me and let them battle while I remain in the back overriding systems to make the fight easier. I don’t need to jump into the combat at all if I don’t feel like it.
And perhaps some quests could even be completely optional for me if I send my squad in without me. Of course, I’ll expect them to report back with their success later — and the success would have to depend on me in some way, but that’s a whole new thought…