How Should A Game Let You Skip Content?
A lot of developers will do their best to make sure players of all skill levels can reach the end of their game. For example, Resident Evil 4 has a dynamic difficulty that alters how challenging enemies are based on how often you are hit and receive game overs (though you’re not supposed to know about it so shhhh). Another example is Super Mario Odyssey, which has an assist mode that highlights the main path, increases Mario’s main health from three to six, and prevents him from losing coins if he dies. That said, no matter your thoughts on video game accessibility, one option arguably stands as the most contentious (besides the aforementioned dynamic difficulty): allowing players to skip content.
Now don’t get me wrong, games for years have allowed players to skip content, such as warp rooms in the original Super Mario Bros and fights in Earthbound; however, both of those cases have been under little flak due to their context. Super Mario Bros will only let skilled players skip levels because the warp rooms needed to do perform the action are not on the critical path and require exploration in order to find them. Earthbound, on the other hand, skips battles when the player is fighting an enemy who is considerably weaker, with the game figuring that if you are going to make mincemeat out of the foe without taking too much of a beating, then the fight itself might as well be skipped. The kind of skipping that has become contentious (which I am going to refer to as content skipping for the purpose of clarity) is the kind that is not based on skill but rather the one where the game notices you are doing poorly and offers the opportunity to skip a tricky level, an exacting boss battle or a section that troubles those with disabilities.
I do see where both sides of the debate are coming from of course. People in favor of content skipping claim it’s great for accessibility. Letting players skip a level they are struggling on prevents the game from gatekeeping unskilled players and additionally allows them to ditch sections they dislike. Plus if their primary reason for playing the game is the story, then those players are able to play through the narrative without much hassle. That said, I do see where the opposing side is coming from with their views (sans those who believe accessibility features are a waste of time).
Allowing players to skip sections can encourage lazy players to just ditch stuff that requires effort because it can function as a get-out-of-jail free card. I tried out content skipping in Celeste and can prove that skipping levels means it is possible to exploit the system and immediately reach both the final level and end credits without expending effort (though there is a point in Celeste’s favor that I will go back to later). There is also the problem where you reach the end of the game without really earning it because you skipped those levels and allowing players to avoid crummy sections can be a justification for bad design as players do not have to do it if they don’t want to. Plus, going back to the narrative point, there is the argument where if you are interested in the non-interactive portions of an interactive product, why are you purchasing a $60 game when you could watch it on YouTube (which is another contentious discussion).
With all that in mind, I feel like skipping game play sections does not have to be a detriment to the final product. Like with my examples regarding Super Mario Bros and Earthbound, I feel like it’s the context of the feature that matters. What slice of content is the player skipping and how do the developers decide to implement it. There is no easy answer to the question of whether integrating content skipping is a good idea, but thankfully, a number of titles have released that I believe set standards other titles should follow if they are to go through with this feature, including, for starters, Hitman 2.
Hitman 2 is all about developing a knowledge on how levels function and repeating them to try out various kills and garner a mastery for them. Your first attempt at a Hitman level will be far from your best since you have no idea where the targets you’re supposed to assassinate lay, how much security is present and where, and which disguises allow for access to which locations. Because of that, the game is about using a consistent rule set. This isn’t Super Meat Boy where mechanics introduced in one level come back later on in a more complex form.
Because of the way Hitman levels are designed, I feel like they can get away with letting the player skip around. Everything you need to know on a game play level is taught in the introductory stages and later stages do not ask you to utilize a new mechanic that comes out of nowhere. Someone who feels confident can bypass the difficulty curve and skip levels with no problem. A notification will even show up stating that, “you are accessing story content before seeing what precedes it,” but Hitman 2 will let you continue on anyway if you decide to play the levels out of order. While this approach works for games based around a specific set of mechanics, it would not work for every game which is where my next example comes into play.
Remember what I said about Celeste making up for an exploitive content skipping system? Well, while Celeste does suffer from that problem, the option only exists in its assist mode. If you are not playing the game in assist mode, the option to skip levels does not exist. You have to enter assist mode in order to be eligible for content skipping. What makes this work is that assist mode exists so players who are likely going to struggle with the challenging game can get a helping hand if needed. If a player feels like beating a level is a longshot, then the option to skip and move on is there. Now you can technically breeze through levels by turning on invincibility, unlimited stamina, and infinite air dashes, which basically makes you unstoppable and brings content skipping into question, but having the option be exclusive within an optional mode is nonetheless a good idea other titles should follow.
In general, skipping content works if it’s for accessibility, like if a section in question is going to be a nightmare for someone with a disability. For example, Super Mario Galaxy 2, a game with motion controls that will be a nightmare for those with disabilities that affect motor functions, has the cosmic guide which appears after a certain amount of deaths and will complete the level for you. Although there are some aspects I do like about it, such as the power star you get not counting towards reaching end-game levels, how it only appears in a select few stages, the benefits for people with motor disabilities, and how you need to ask it permission to skip the level, the way it’s implemented can come off as patronizing to players who do not need or want the assistance as it appears for everybody who has died enough times. One way this can be done better is if the option to turn on the Cosmic Guide appeared in an assist mode like in Celeste or can be turned on or off when you first start the game like in Spider-Man (though to be fair Galaxy 2 came out at a time when this kind of accessibility was not prevalent).
In Spider-Man, when you begin a new game, you are given a list of settings to alter elements like subtitles, backgrounds, and quick time events. In regards to skipping content relating to having a disability, letting players who may struggle with holding buttons or tapping buttons ditch those sections before the game starts allows them to breathe a sigh of relief as they can now play the game without having to worry about moments made hard because of their disability. Though Spider-Man does offer the option to skip puzzles (which goes back to what I said about a skip button allowing the justification of poor design since the puzzles are pretty boring), having the option to avoid dealing with potentially troubling content be available before the opening is a smart idea.
With the context of titles where you can basically play levels in any order with little hassle, behind assist modes that only exist for those who really need help, and are offered before the game begins to help those with disabilities, I’d say the feature is justified. However, those drawbacks mentioned earlier do need to be dealt with. After all, content skipping can be exploited by those too lazy to learn the game properly, can feel condescending when the option is given to someone who does not need (or want) the help and is just having a tough time, and can come off as you beating the game without expending much effort.
Taking all that into account, I feel like context is all that matters when it comes to content skipping. It’s about what method are players using to skip content, what kind of content is being skipped, and what game is the content skipping featured in. If a game uses content skipping to excuse poorly thought-out content, give players an easy way out, or patronize those who are not going to use it, then perhaps its implementation is far from justified. That said, if a game is using content skipping for all the positive reasons mentioned before, then perhaps it does have a right to exist.