Button Mashing and Meaning

I have to disagree with this assessment on Matthias Worth’s blog that button-mashing is a form of meaningful gameplay.

I was at the Hudson talk at 2008’s GDC where he presented the evaluation of lockpicking mechanisms, but his summary of traits of minigames fell short for me. You don’t collect data, form a theory that fits that data and call it a day. I’m not meaning to insinuate a lack of intellectual rigor here, because I don’t think that Hudson was trying to create a Grand Unified Theory of Minigames. It was just a 15-minute GDC talk on lockpicking.

But back to button mashing.

If we use the criteria from Hudson’s talk with Worth’s scores, button mashing strength minigames score quite well:

  • Ease of Understanding – High
  • Ease of Use – Medium High
  • Immersion – High
  • Rewarding of Player Skill – Low
  • Meaningful Consequences – High

It shows how subjective this evaluation is. For me, ease of understanding and ease of use (while heavily dependent on each other) are the same, I would say immersion is drastically low. Now, what is your definition of immersion? For me, it is the sense of being “in” the game. I can be “in” a game of Poker just as much as I can be “in” a game of Mass Effect 2 if all I think of is the game. But button mashing takes me out of the game. Whatever is happening on screen is lost. There could be naked ladies bouncing around the periphery of the screen, I wouldn’t notice; I’m forced to focus on the damn icon filling up and willing my fingers to move faster. I have this problem with all QTEs that throw icons on the screen, which is why it is such a surprise that I am loving Heavy Rain.

The other point of differentiation is “meaningful consequences”. Unless this is a throwaway trait, do not most minigames have consequences on the world at large? The dice gambling minigame in Suikoden is one of the things I remember the most about the game, but its consequences were only on my in-game bank account. If I bet all-in on that, would that not be more meaningful as a God of War QTE where if I lost, the animation simply looped and I got to try again?

When I worked at Tiburon, there were a few folks who loved button mashing. Why? Because they were good at it, I assume. Every time a button mashing mechanic was implemented, they dominated. And it makes sense in a football game from a parallelism perspective: the stronger player should win the tackle battle every time, right? Well, no, but go with me here. Parallelism is a nice side effect, but what matters most is fun. And if the effect is predictable every time, will it be fun for all players? The designers I used to work with thought so, because they were on the winning end so naturally when they played, it seemed fun. But I am sure their opponents didn’t think so, since every time they went head to head there was nothing they could do to affect their chances.

Now, I assume the counterargument would be: “then Chess isn’t a good game because there is nothing the average player could do against a grand master!” But Chess isn’t a subset of a game (unless you do Chess Boxing), it is a whole game. No one would sit down and play Chess against a grandmaster and expect to win. But if Chess was a subset of another game in which the opponent believed he had a fair shot at winning, he would call the Chess part a broken mechanic. Your decisions against a grand master at chess have no meaning because there is nothing you will be able to do to win, insofar as winning is the proper criterion to be evaluating.

I ramble here, but the essential point I have is this: button-mashing has no meaningful decisions so it isn’t a game and instead falls into the categories of other ability-based events. Bench pressing isn’t a game. Running the 40 yard dash isn’t a game (Although running a marathon may well be). So if it isn’t a meaningful game on its own, it is a tough candidate to be a meaningful minigame.

2 thoughts on “Button Mashing and Meaning”

  1. It seems like your focus on gameplay is a little too rigid – not every element of a game needs to test the player’s strategy and decisions in a high-risk way.

    A well-done button-mashing component adds value by taking the player OUT of such a situation – it forces the player to do a 180 from thinking hard to physical exertion, and I believe the mental backflip adds a lot to the gameplay.

    Take, for instance, weapon jamming in Far Cry 2 or the finishing moves in Bayonetta. Both are button-mashers, but they serve great functions in gameplay. The former can come out of nowhere, and increases the tension as the player desperately tries to regain their defenses. The latter gives players a reprieve – after spending ten minutes using intricate combos to pick away at the boss’ health, they get a brief opportunity to ‘take revenge’ on the boss and deal retarded amounts of damage.

    The key to both of them is that they’re not nearly as predictable as written above. There is a skill being tested – the ability for the player to quickly jump from precision timings and strategy into a physically-trying activity.

  2. I completely agree with this. Button mashing and QTEs completely distract from a gaming experience. I have painful memories (okay, a little exaggerated) of playing a friend on Smack Down and just there being nothing I could do on the button mashing submission moves and him just laughing because he knew that as well.

    Also, QTE completely distract from what’s going on. Death defying leaps and last second dodges can be happening, but you have no idea because you are staring at the middle of the screen trying to get the next button in time to stop you having to do the whole sequence a 3rd time. Games that use them tend to have the horrible tendency to use them A LOT.

    A game should be fun. With any button masher or QTE I don’t come out of it thinking “wow, that was a rewarding gameplay experience” but “I’m glad that’s over, oh wait, there’s another one”

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