The whole talk about “Exploration Modes” and difficulty in Cuphead has generated so many rants and comments, some valid and others not so valid (specially the extremely useful “git gud” comments). The most valid argument I’ve found so far is the one about respecting the developers’ original vision of having a certain level of difficulty (except when that so-called comment about respect comes accompanied by a comment along the lines of “if it’s too difficult for you, git gud or don’t play it”.
If you were to ask me, I’d say two things: first, that you have to respect the developer’s vision; and second, that you need to keep in mind that not all games are aimed for everybody, and while it sounds pretty similar to “if it’s too hard for you, don’t play it” my statement couldn’t be any more different, because I am not talking just about difficulty, but about the game as a whole. For example, I am a Tomb Raider fan, but I completely despise the reboot; not because “it’s too hard for me” but because, as a whole, the game doesn’t work for me, from the premise to the execution. Platforming in the TR reboot is fun (albeit not exactly challenging) and combat itself is also fun (except when it gets too repetitive), but the combination of story and gameplay doesn’t work at all, no matter how you look at it.
In case you are not familiar with me: First, I like story-driven games, meaning that I like games with good stories, that will leave you good memories about that specific plot point as well as that specific sequence. This also means I rarely play games where the plot is forgettable, or pretty much non-existent, unless the game itself is really REALLY good (specially old games).
That is not to say that I think “story is king.” After all these years making games (including those failed and cancelled games), I think the game as a whole is king because every game is a combination of different elements that play together to create the entire experience.
I’ve talked a lot but I still haven’t said anything about my skip button dilemma, and my dilemma is this: the idea that we don’t need a “skip boss” button because because bosses are part of developer’s original vision contradicts the idea that we need to include a “skip cinematic” button even if the cinematic is also part of the developer’s original vision. Both cinematics and whatever challenges in the game are part of the developer’s vision, and you can’t advocate one should be respected while you advocate for the other one to be skippable. So, I think it is only fair to ask why is it so bad to even consider adding a “skip boss” prompt, but at the same time it’s pretty much mandatory to add the “skip cinematic” or “skip dialogue” option?
One could argue the main difference between in-game challenges and cinematics is that “challenges are interactive, and cinematics aren’t, and that you are here to play, not to watch a movie.” I am sorry if this gets you, but to me, this is a stupid argument, because: a) cinematics are in the game for a reason, even if they are not interactive; b) the games are not only made up of interactive elements like challenges or bosses.
Do you know what other elements can be found inside a game even if they are not interactive? Props. If cinematics are not important because they are not *interactive* then I fail to see how non-interactive props should be a vital part of a game. Yet, nobody argues against “non-interactive elements” in games (props) because, even if they don’t affect the gameplay (gameplay-wise, that doll on the left side of the screenshot below could be replaced with a chair, a shelf, a statue, and the “gameplay” itself wouldn’t be affected at all). However, props are useful for world-building, environmental storytelling, setting up plot points.
Just like cinematics…
Look at all those non-interactive things…
So, even if this is slightly off-topic, what if we just got rid of cinematics?
“Cinematics or no cinematics” is a topic for another blog post, and definitely for someone with far more experience/talent/whatever. While some think it’s better to have everything married with gameplay, and make the story-elements play into the game using scripted sequences, I think cinematics can are better to deliver certain story elements. In-game scripted sequences could work, but you’d still need to restrict the player’s freedom in some way, or else you could end up with extremely bizarre results (from 2:39 to 4:12).
Another argument could be that “why do you want to watch a cinematic again if you watched it the first time you played?” but the same applies to pretty much every part of the game, including bosses, so you could also ask “then why do you want to fight a boss you fought the first time you played?” I think the easiest answer is because “gameplay is king,” but I think that’s not entirely the answer. Simply saying “gameplay is king” means stories are not important, and that you can slap together any “plot” as long as it lets you do whatever you’re supposed to do in your game (like in Tomb Raider…). If “gameplay is king” then Silent Hill 3 sucks, because the shooting and combat in SH3 is bad compared to games from its time, like Max Payne. Nobody plays Silent Hill 3 because “combat is fun,” but, as far as I know, nobody plays Silent Hill 3 thinking “geez this combat sucks, and I don’t care about in here is a tragedy, I just want to get to the next cutscene.”
There’s also the argument of “choice” and how you should give players the choice to watch or skip a cinematic. If I, as a developer working on story-driven games, must give people the choice to skip a cinematic or a dialogue that I consider a vital part of the game (or else I wouldn’t have put it there to begin with), why shouldn’t I give players the choice to face or skip a boss or a challenge, which I also consider vital parts of the game? After all, there’s no denying that most games have at least one part that sucks. For example, I love Dead Space, but the reason I never wanted to play it again was due to that part where the game turns into a 3D Galaga. I must have died maybe 10 times in that part, and I hated every second of it even on my first try.
If it’s all about choice, I can say some games could benefit from some sort of “exploration mode” (like the one from Assasin’s Creed Origins, which sparked part of the conversation), but only if there’s actually something to explore. It is one thing to explore a world with a lot of details and lore, and it’s a completely different thing to ask for an “exploration mode” in a game like Cuphead, where there’s nothing to explore and there’s no crucial difference between “playing the game without bosses just to admire the graphics and animation” and “watch a YouTube video to admire the graphics and animations.”
Personally, I can’t say I am against skipping challenges for three reasons: First, I also believe cheat codes in games were a good thing and allow for some interesting gameplay results; and second, because infinite lives and save systems are already making “current difficult games” easier than “difficult 8-bit games.” Since Cuphead is at the center of this entire debate, there’s a hilarious video that illustrates this:
And third, because, as others say, those challenges are also part of the game design. What would Bloodborne be if you only read about the beast sickness but you never find or fight an infected? What if, after learning higher rank members of the Church turn into the most hideous beasts, you never ever see the Cleric Beast or Vicar Amelia’s beast form? The result would be a completely different game: some sort of gothic horror exploration, like some gothic Gone Home. It would still work as a game, but it would be a different game, not the game From Software intended to make.
However, it would be really hypocrite to say what I just said about bosses and then be ok with allowing cinematics and dialogues to be skipped, even if they are vital parts of the story. If bosses should not be skipped, neither should cinematics. If cinematics should be skippable in favor of player’s choice, then bosses should be skippable as well (or cheats should be available).
TBH, I’d like to see more games where gameplay and story work together to deliver the full experience, and are equally engaging. I think there are two main problems: In many cases the gameplay is going in one direction, while the story is going in a different direction (or is so generic players don’t really care about it). In other cases, level design and story can complicate things forcing you to re-watch something because you failed a test, and this is specially problematic when you are not using checkpoints or automatic saves.
Of course this takes into consideration that it’s a game where the story is also an important part of the game, like in HellBlade. So it shouldn’t apply to games where the premise can be swapped without affecting the game at all, like in Cuphead. To put it simple: Remove all the story elements from HellBlade and you get a crippled experience; remove the story from Cuphead, and the experience isn’t really affected, because you don’t play it for the deep story.