These days, few things in games frustrate me more than a blinking button on the screen. I’d never really noticed the frequency of these quick-time events in the past – an odd thing for a God of War stalwart to admit – but lately this lazy design mechanic has been causing me to lose it. I believe it was during a pre-release press trip to see The Last of Us where this flagrantly overused feature was pointed out to me. “So, when are developers going to stop with these button bashing sequences?” managing director Anthony Dickens asked me, as he performed thumb exercises on a DualShock 3. I laughed it off and shrugged, secretly pondering what the big fuss was about.
However, in the twelve or so months since that day, this flaw has caused more furrows on my face than Manchester United’s first post-Sir Alex Ferguson season. I murdered my way through Call of Duty: Ghosts over the past few days – a perfectly competent if overwhelmingly formulaic first-person foray, by the way – and that campaign was packed to the figurative fill line with dumb DualShock 4 destroying interactive cut-scenes. On one occasion I had to pump the trigger in an unflattering manner in order to break free from some debris, and on many others I was forced to repeatedly jab the square button like I was training for the thumb wrestling world championships.
I understand why these scenarios exist. In almost all of the above examples, developer Infinity Ward was trying to make me feel the struggles of my character. It’s the gaming equivalent of a staccato passage in an epic piece of music, designed to make you clench your fists and feel the tension of your alter-ego. And sometimes it works – in Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, where you must guide an ageing Snake through a reactor by pushing the triangle button repeatedly for a full five or so minutes. In this instance, the clever presentation – which shows several other events occurring at the same time – makes it a trademark Hideo Kojima magic moment. But it’s in limited company.
In fact, the only other game that I can think of where I enjoyed a similar sort of scenario is Heavy Rain – and, to a lesser extent, Beyond: Two Souls. The former is filled with moments that force you to play twister with the DualShock – intentionally adopting an awkward control scheme in order to convey the perils of the protagonist that you’re playing as. There’s also that moment involving a finger and lots of blood, but if you haven’t experienced the Saw-inspired sequence for yourself, I’ll refrain from going into too much detail. Still, even those Quantic Dream developed titles – for as clever as they are the majority of the time – fall into the exact same trap as Call of Duty: Ghosts.
And the problem is that it’s just not fun. The intention may be to put stress and strain on the player, but there has to be another way. I recently tried Alien Isolation, and the survival horror included an interesting alternative. After working you into a frenzy by forcing you to play cat-and-mouse with its titular extraterrestrial, you find yourself hiding in a locker. Naturally, the big-headed beast sniffs you out, and the game tells you to hold your breath. There’s no button bashing exercise here, though; instead, you simply pull the analogue stick back. You could succeed by giving it a gentle tug, but the way that the game plays with your emotions in the build up to that moment means that you’ll almost certainly yank at it like your real-life depends on it.
I never felt that way in Call of Duty: Ghosts – or the dozens of other games that have included this feature in the past. Even the seminal God of War series – where you’re battling with the controller to rip off heads and slaughter colossal sea monsters – fails to really connect you to the character through these energy exhausting quick-time events. In fact, arguably the best finisher in Sony Santa Monica’s mythological series to date is the one that requires the least amount of exertion – when you pop both analogue sticks in order to blind wet blanket Poseidon from a second-person perspective in God of War III.
So while I don’t necessarily have a solution to this somewhat pedantic problem, I can say with confidence that developers are failing to connect me with their campaigns by forcing me to grind my controller into fairy dust. These tiring International Track & Field-inspired sequences may seem like a convincing way of conveying tension, but all they’re really successful at is obliterating any sense of immersion. Alien Isolation appears to understand this, using every facet of its presentation to make you feel the predicament of its protagonist, rather than lazy button bashing screens. Perhaps it’s time that other studios started to think outside of the box, too, instead of overusing this annoying mashing mechanic.
Are you similarly frustrated with the emphasis on button bashing sequences in blockbuster games? Is this something that you haven’t really noticed before? Do you like the sense of tension that this mechanic conveys? Tap square a thousand times in the comments section below.