A Game of Thorns

Press X now!

Press X now!

Last week I moseyed into my local Big Gaming Retail Establishment, plinked 6259 coppers on the counter, and bade the proprietor supply me with the latest in optical disc-based digital interactive entertainments, which shall remain nameless (and not, as you might guess, Game of Thrones). As transactions go it was pretty straightforward — I came, I paid, I left, whereupon I returned forthwith to my place of origin, slid the DVD thingy into the XCubeStation, and prepared myself to be enthralled by its righteous wonderments. And enthralled I was, for about half an hour, which is the length of time that it took to encounter the first bit of stupid-ass button-mashing cornholery that plagued that particular title from start to finish.

Whimper is Coming

There are few gameplay mechanics that set my teeth so squarely, firmly, and irresolutely on edge as gratuitously repetitive control inputs (such as mashing a button 60 mothershitting times in order to open a container); another is arbitrarily wresting control of the player character away from me in order to display something that’s clearly more important that my interaction with the game, and yet another is the ubiquitous quick-time event, which requires the press of a specific button at just the right time in order to avoid the untimely unravelling of my corporeal skein.

Alternately press L & R

Alternately press L & R

Of course, Last Week’s Game sports all three of these gimmicks in large, effluvium-filled buckets, plus a few more that I’m going to have to add to the list. I cannot help being slightly perturbed by a game that would otherwise be very enjoyable, were it not punctuated with a series of mandatory hand-holding, spoon-feeding, nose-wiping, diaper-changing events from which there is no surcease and no surrender; if you fail, you die, and Tough Shit Kind Ser. Time for a do-over.

There is a universe of difference between a game like the one I played last week (which remains nameless still) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which doesn’t seek to thwart the player by consistently presenting a single solution to any single problem; Human Revolution provides multiple solutions to every problem (which turns every choice that the player makes into an effective and very satisfying mechanic in its own right) and never interrupts the player’s progression with an entirely static, non-interactive scripted sequence designed to do nothing more than advance the plot.

Sure, Deus Ex forces dialogue encounters with certain characters, but those encounters are always interactive, and always reward the player’s skill in gleaning information, thereby (and most importantly) influencing the plot. It’s like the difference between driving in stop-and-go city traffic, and driving on a winding, two-lane country road; the former is repetitive, tedious, and predictable, and the latter requires a fair amount of skill, good judgment, and unwavering attention in order to negotiate safely, but offers a much more gratifying experience. Unless, of course, repetition and tedium are your thing.

What do we say to repeatedly pressing a single button to accomplish a simple action?

And there is only one thing we say to repeatedly pressing a button to perform a single action…

Wii Do Not Sow

Whenever the means supplant the end, it’s a sure sign that calamity and suck are to follow. Similarly, when the method of input in a game (the how) is used to create an impression of more realistic gameplay (the what), it’s a sign that there’s a mixup somewhere in the developmental premises. In forcing the player to hit the spacebar ten times to open a door, or the X button 23 times to open a crate (actual examples from popular games), it forges an association between the importance of the in-game event, and the amount of physical, real-world effort required to accomplish that event. If you must squeeze the trigger or tap the left mouse button five times to kill an enemy in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, your brain registers that as five separate instances of input. If you are then required to press a button 30 times merely to open a door (30 separate instances of input), it elevates a mundane, progression-based mechanic to a level of metaphysical significance that dilutes and marginalizes the higher-tier gameplay, i.e. the survival mechanics. (It is, after all, rather hard to open a chest when you’re dead, no matter how many times you mash the button.)

If the player character’s survival is supposed to matter, survival mechanics should be the most effort-intensive input. In that respect I can understand, if not condone, the quick-time event solely because it’s usually well-integrated with the gameplay — time-sensitive in-game events translated to time-sensitive input are okay, if you absolutely must include them, but I would shed no tears if I never encountered another one of those bastards. Button-mashing and disruptive cutscenes (meaning those that do not occur during a natural break in the player’s progression) have earned my unwavering contempt, and I’ll stop playing any game that includes more than a few of each.

Quickly press B to break the hold, Jory. Quickly. Now would be a good time...

Quickly press B to break the hold, Jory. Quickly. Now would be a good time…

This is why my Wii gathers more dust than Rosie, Florence, Hazel, Alice, and PanSTARRS; I’ve played only a handful of Wii games that don’t include the full-body dry heave as an input method. Even those with decent Wii Remote controls (The Conduit), have inverted the means and the end, usually requiring some sort of spasmodic wrist motion in order to perform a task like reloading a weapon or a melee attack. In this case realism would dictate that this is okay, as it really is harder to smack someone with a rifle than it is to pull the trigger, but that still usurps the what with the how by placing the method of control ahead of the object of control; any game in which the primary objective is to thwart the invasion of Washington D.C. by Crayola-hued aliens can have no say whatsoever about a lack of realism in its input. As I’ve said before, content, and only content, must lead the way in game development; what’s on the screen matters more than what’s in front of it, whether that’s a Wii Remote, a Kinect sensor, or a beleaguered 360 controller with a creaky, overused X button.

Unbowed, Unbent, Unopened

There are too many other entertainment options for me to sit on the couch and gnash my teeth while playing a game that pisses me off. Unfortunately, having read many trusted reviewers’ opinions of Last Week’s Game, I have to conclude that I might not be the only person on the planet for whom such metaphysically flawed mechanics are a deal-killer, but I seem to be a member of a rather exclusive club.

Frankly, I don’t know who to trust anymore, so I guess I’ll play more demos, and as such, probably buy fewer games until this imitative infatuation with unnecessary input and immersion-killing cutscenes is no longer a threat to my blood pressure.

Because when you play the game of th…well, you know the rest.

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