One of the many eternal battles the gaming community consistently fights among itself is the seemingly irreconcilable "gameplay" vs. "story" debate.
The increasingly-heated argument has come back around again in full force over the past week or two, with public figures like Jennifer Hepler and David Jaffe being variously held up or dumped on for representing deeply opposed viewpoints. Hepler became the center of controversy for her 2006 comments wishing for a "fast forward button" that would let her focus instead on story; Jaffe, meanwhile, sparked arguments when giving a speech at DICE 2012 that called story in games "a waste of resources."
Deep under all of the fear, anger, and mud-slinging that polarization brings, there is a serious and interesting discussion to be had about the very building blocks of our games, and how they can fit together. The reality of games, like most realities, is not an either/or, black-and-white discussion. Games, rather, exist in a spectrum of experiences and have for many years.
Some games truly are fundamentally about mastering a given set of mechanics, it's true. A Gran Turismo that skips over all of the driving would lose most of its purpose, as would a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that skipped the shooting. A Super Mario Brothers without any jumping would be similarly pointless.
Games that are driven almost entirely by skill mastery of some kind are a large percentage of the titles on our shelves and in our digital libraries. We speak the language of having enough points, the right guns, the right magic, the right timing, and more learned, earned, and purchased traits than I could think to list. But skill mastery never has been the only metric for our play.
I don't remember when the first game I ever played was that had a difficulty option setting in it, but I remember it being on our Commodore-64 compatible Atari computer, and having to go ask my dad what "novice" meant, because I'd never seen the word before. The first game I can remember where I got to choose, though, was 1991's Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.
I came to console gaming late, in roughly 2007, but nearly every game I have played since has given me options that, if I choose them, can make the combat sections so easy as to be virtually non-existent, or so difficult they take hours and hours to get through. Games like L.A. Noire have provided the player a chance to skip action sequences entirely if they're failed too many times in a row, while a title like Heavy Rain will accept a player's failure and continue the main story without a full game over, instead taking the story down different paths depending on how an action sequence ends.
Gamers are a diverse lot, and the pool of folks who enjoy digital entertainment gets bigger and broader every year. This inclusivity is a good thing. Not every player needs to enjoy every kind of game. Nor does every player need to enjoy every single element of the games they do play. As I rediscovered this week, I enjoy the New Game + mode of Chrono Trigger more than I enjoyed my first playthrough, because the unavoidable not-so-random encounters in every level are rendered trivial, and I don't have to spend hours slogging through them. I can simply blow them out of my way, then get on with meeting party members and saving the world in my time-traveling way.
Similarly, when it comes to a modern blockbuster title like the Mass Effect franchise, different players are going into the game looking for different things. Several of my close friends and family enjoy the games, and we discuss them frequently. I play on a harder difficulty level than many, who are there mainly to see what happens, and on an easier difficulty level than many others, who enjoy actively mastering party skills and tactics (which I don't). All of us have the same game, but each of us has a different level of physical ability and emotional connection to bring to it.
Ultimately, it's the same with every game. Players are all going to approach a title with different needs, abilities, and expectations. In a title where the story is absolutely, inextricably linked to the player's performance of a mechanic, there are certain levels of ability that a player must master, or else walk away. (This is why I generally do not play fighting or racing games: I am terrible at them, and given my slow reflexes and general lack of hand-eye coordination, am unlikely ever to improve enough to make them worth my time.)
In plenty of games, though, there's a decoupling between physical ability and game progression. A player who moves through Uncharted 3 on very easy is not playing a fundamentally different game than one who plays on nightmare mode. A shorter game in terms of hours spent, most likely, but with the same characters, cut scenes, and general levels. And for nearly every game that I see on my shelf, or in my Steam library, the same is true.
In the end, then, general plot and physical mechanics in any given title can go hand in hand, or they can be completely divorced. The platonic ideal of a perfect game would certainly marry its form and function together seamlessly — we'd have a perfect "both/and." But in the real world, of games that exist, it's all down to taste. Neither is more right or wrong than the other, and for now at least both ideas will continue to co-exist.