One thing that game designers need to remember is that in order to engage and possibly immerse a player you need to connect with them mentally as opposed to physically. This is basically the reason why the Nintendo Wii wasn’t quite the revolution we were promised. When it is all said and done; nothing reminds you faster that you’re playing a silly videogame than a control scheme which constantly demands that you flail plastic objects around for its own amusement. Your brain is a wonderful little biological supercomputer that translates the world around you within microseconds, whereas your body is a blob of fat held together with sticks that can be defeated by rascally children running up behind and giving you a dead leg.
Currently you are staring at a collection of little lines and scribbles and translating them into something comprehensible instantaneously. Try reading it out loud however and things turn into a much more stressful experience, you probably already fumbled on “comprehensible instantaneously” and one of your friends is mocking you for it like the jerk that he is. Fortunately, you’re still reading this paragraph out loud and his lame joke has now been called out for the predictable waste of air that it was...and now this has all gotten way too meta to actually mean anything so back to business; MASHING BUTTONS IN GAMES IS STUPID.
We’re not talking about your Street Fighter button mashing, where your previously-mentioned jerk friend knows all about character balance and frame traps and other such jargon, while you attempt to combat this by pounding your palm into the face buttons as much as possible. We’re not even talking about mashing buttons fast to get up in Punch-Out! or even to gain extra hits for a combo in Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. We are talking pure “mash this ONE button like crazy” stupidity, usually presented in the form of a Quick Time Event.
This article is blessing your screen currently because these QTEs make an appearance in the recently released South Park: The Stick of Truth and it actually turns up in the somewhat controversial “anal probe” scene that was censored in Europe. Here’s the premise; a white phallic object inserts itself into your child protagonist’s rectum, and you mash a button to clench said rectum until the phallic object explodes with ease. Then a black phallic object appears and does the same thing, and the same QTE appears but is way more difficult this time. This already isn’t exactly the best joke in the world, but it really loses its thunder on the 12th showing.
Let’s get personal for a second, you beautiful people. I have a confession to make; I’ve never been able to mash one button continuously in my life. It’s been a constant burden in my life, it means I’ll never be able to get the good ending in Metal Gear Solid, it also means I had to watch the microwave hallway scene in Metal Gear Solid 4 about 15 times. It’s just something I can’t do despite far too many games forcing me to practice, and just to make sure I wasn’t a complete loon I Googled this exact problem and many other people struggle with it too. I don’t care if you can do it, some people can’t, so putting a mechanic in your game where passing it is essential (as it is in The Stick of Truth) is just silly and an oversight.
It’s one of those things that some people can do and some people can’t, it has nothing to do with skill. It would be like if a Kinect game had a QTE in it that demanded the player roll their tongues at the camera to advance; maybe this would be valid if the designers were trying to make some controversial point about genetic engineering or something, but as it stands it’s just a terrible idea. The player themselves isn’t even the only factor here; what if you’re using a third party controller that doesn’t handle quick repetitive inputs well? What if (like me) you are a larger person to which puny normal sized controllers are not catered for and bits of your hand mesh with the analogue stick as you attempt to mash? It’s not that unreasonable to claim that any mechanic not based on skill that ostracises any part of your audience is going to be frustrating for someone.
At the end of the day, even if everyone in the world definitely could pass these “mash one button to death” QTEs in one or two attempts they’re still a terrible idea to put into your game. There are some notable exceptions; the already referenced torture scene in Metal Gear Solid is one of them. Okay, it was kind of a douche move to base what ending you get on whether you could mash the circle button or not, but Kojima was being all experimental with interactive storytelling, plus he probably hadn’t left his house for about two weeks for fear of PMC-orchestrated carpet bombing when he came up with it so we’ll let it slide.
As far as The Stick of Truth is concerned, it’s a turn-based RPG which really nails the “role-playing” aspect of things by dropping you into the town of South Park as a new kid and letting you wander around to your heart’s content. Here lies the problem; you mentally take notes of your goals and objectives, you manage all your abilities and equipment (which there is a lot of) and you immerse yourself in the world of South Park. But all of a sudden, this QTE drops out of nowhere and even if you can pass these things with relatively little effort it’s still something that demands investment from you physically.
In my case, playing the PC version of The Stick of Truth I had to restart the game, unplug my USB controller and stand over my laptop and mash the keys because that was the only way I was going to get past to it. Even when I managed to pass it after another half-dozen attempts, I saved the game and turned it off for the night. This wasn’t a “rage quit” or anything of that nature, it’s just that the game forcefully grabbed me by the throat and pulled me out of the world of South Park and dumped me back into my bedroom mashing my keyboard into dust. The immersion was destroyed, not by bad writing or bad world building or any such equivalent, but just by the mere presence of one stupid mechanic.
So there you go game developers, please take more caution when asking the player to mash their controller to death. At best it’s going to be a needless, not remotely fun and immersion damaging mechanic, and at worst it’s going to be progress blocking and experience ruining. My PlayStation 2 controller and wrists have still not forgiven WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2007 for the insane amount of button mashing in it, it may as well have been the core mechanic. So please think of your players, think of the poor hardware that has to endure the pain and more importantly consider what a dumb idea and waste of everyone’s time it is.