I’ve been playing games for decades now and I’ve seen many trends go by, some all about the graphical power of a game and many more on control schemes and in-game mechanics. Some hang around for a while like a bad cough and others, thankfully, go by without much consequence.
But for the past few years there’s been one such trend that has not only remained but seems to be spreading across the entire industry, infecting games of every genre and developers or every calibre. This trend is not only annoying on its impact on gameplay but also on how much it diminishes what used to be a valuable tool for creating tension and excitement.
The trend I’m being vague about is pressing and holding the buttons down for every single action, from picking up an item to opening a door.
What happened to simple button tapping? It had its purpose, to allow quick interaction and instant response. Not everything needs a long waiting sequence. If you have to wait for more than 5 seconds for a door to open, there better be a damn good reason for it, something important in terms of story or just the scene you’re in.
I’ve been playing Mass Effect Andromeda and it’s perhaps one of the worst games in the world in how much it forces the press-and-hold. I’ve stood in front of a simple door for more than ten seconds, my only guess being that Bioware wanted every interaction to be extremely dramatic, the result being, in fact, the complete opposite.
But it’s not just Mass Effect Andromeda but many titles out there, with Sandbox games somehow getting this nonsense every time. The Mad Max game had this issue, where every minor pickup had you holding down the button and waiting, as if this task was monumentally important to the experience and not something you’re going to do for hours on end.
Actually, it seems to be a recurring thing in open world games, as Horizon: Zero Dawn also has the same nonsense, particularly when trying to loot bodies off mechs and caches. Though in Horizon I do forgive the button-hold in one instance and that is the override of enemy mechs, as it usually happens when surrounded by more enemies, so it contributes to the adrenaline rush.
It surprised me to see this same thing happen with Team Ninja’s Nioh, a game that borrows heavily from Dark Souls yet doesn’t follow that title’s example of keeping interactions quick and simple, forcing you to wait to pick up even the smallest weapon, thus killing whatever momentum or rhythm you had in a game that already slows down to a crawl every other cutscene.
There are games where this approach works, where the genre and the atmosphere make it so that holding the button causes the players to become apprehensive and feel tense. Take Fatal Frame 2, a game I’ve been playing on the Wii U virtual console. In that title, all item pickups have lengthy button holding sequences, but there’s a chance than in the middle of the animation, a ghostly hand can pop up and hurt you, or some other thing will show up out of nowhere.
And it makes sense. You’re dealing with horrible hauntings and anything can show up, pass through a wall, or come from the basement and holding the button helps the horror be as effective as possible.
The Styx stealth games, Master of Shadows and Shards of Darkness, used the button holding masterfully. Most things you can take care of with a tap, except picking locks, disposing of bodies and a handful of key interactions that create fantastic tension, because there’s always the fear of discovery. You’re infiltrating enemy territory and you find yourself surrounded at every moment, so anything that makes you wait means a guard can take that turn around the corner, see you and trigger every alarm in the level.
But the games that abuse this mechanic reduce the dramatic effect of the action, so that when you’re in an action sequence, running towards enemies or a main and key objective, holding the button and waiting for that door to open doesn’t create the tension it should, because it’s just another lengthy waiting period in a game full of them.
Videogame developers need to be careful with how they implement mechanics and controls, as every element of the game, both the audiovisual and interactive, can help or undermine the narrative within their creation. Everything that makes up a game helps it tell its story, down to the way it handles button presses.
Holding the button down should only be for major actions, things that contribute to the tension, the adrenaline, the excitement of the game.
In some genres, even picking up a small item is worth the hold, but in most of the others it’s simply not and this trend will only continue to annoy players and undermine their immersion, and that is a tragedy.