On-Screen Help, In-Game Hindrance


When Shenmue introduced Quick Time Events seven years ago, it didn’t look like the beginning of a trend. Synchronizing button presses with onscreen cues didn’t exactly catch on, maybe because gamers weren’t impressed by the prominent on-screen depiction of controller buttons in the middle of their cut scenes. It took two 2005 blockbuster titles, Resident Evil 4 and God of War II, to bring such mechanics into the limelight. In 2006, Tomb Raider: Legend followed suit, and now QTEs will feature prominently in the upcoming Heavenly Sword and The Bourne Conspiracy.

It’s unfortunate that cluttering up action scenes with controller button images has become a selling point. I like the way God of War lets me brutally pluck out Cyclops’ eyes. I don’t like the way it sticks twirling 3-D representations of the DualShock’s orange circle button on the screen as I do this. By the same token, when I’m yanking a gigantic hydra head around with Kratos’ awesome chainblades, I don’t want huge green triangles blocking my view of the action. Giant DualShock buttons have no place in Greek mythology.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to see Wii titles following suit, considering Nintendo’s focus on making games easier to play. The recently Wii-retooled version of Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the worst offender. While the original release peppered its cuts cenes with flashing GameCube controller buttons, the new and improved version has the audacity to throw animated images of the entire remote onto the screen; there it is, glowing red and waggling obscenely in the middle of my epic boss battle. While Leon Kennedy courageously hacks the parasitic growth protruding from El Gigante’s spine, the game makes certain I don’t forget I’m sitting on the couch, gesticulating like an idiot with my controller. So much for immersion.


I get what developers are trying to do here, and I’m not opposed to the underlying principle. Using a bit of player interaction to spice up cinematic moments usually is a noble cause. I think there’s a better way to go about it, though.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, for example, was on the right track with its speed kill system, which used subtle onscreen indicators to prompt player actions. In typical combat scenarios, a shimmering effect would appear around the edges of the screen when a stealth attack became possible. Pressing a single button would trigger a stylish sequence of animations, culminating in a single flash of the Prince’s dagger. Timing a button press to the flash of the dagger enabled a perfect stealth kill. The developers expanded the system for boss fights, which synchronized a series of button presses and dagger flashes to trigger impressive attacks.

The system worked, because it combined elaborate animated sequences with player input without resorting to dumb, intrusive visual indicators. Instead of watching obnoxious buttons flash across the screen, the player could keep an eye on the spectacle and respond solely to the rhythm of the action and the telltale gleam of the Prince’s weapon.

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The Games play best when their interfaces are transparent, and the disconnect between player and game starts to vanish. Loading up game screens with buttons only serves to diminish immersion. I’m looking at you, Twilight Princess, and the ugly graphical representations of the Wii controller you stick all over the edges my screen. I know it’s a Zelda tradition to clearly show the controls mapped to Link’s tools at any given moment, but must I really admire such a beautiful game through a tangle of Wii remote glyphs? I have to believe the minds behind Nintendo’s most brilliant first-party titles can do better.

same goes for inappropriate use of onscreen mini-maps and radar. At some point during the horseback firefights in Gun, for example, I realized I was spending more time watching the radar-style mini-map in the bottom corner instead of the action on the rest of the screen. Sure, the mini-map conveniently depicted the locations of my enemies, but it also had me ignoring the imaginary world around me. And just as importantly, why is there an omnipotent onscreen mini-map in a Wild West game? It’s one thing to have a radar display in a game like Halo, where it makes some sense. Unlike Spartan-II super soldiers, cowboys should not have high-tech enemy locators.

Poor use of waypoints is another common stumbling block. Consider the illuminated pathways in Perfect Dark Zero whenever the player loses his way. They’re useful, to be sure, but they’ve got no place in the universe the game creates. Contrast this method with the one employed in Shadow of the Colossus, where the player wields a sword that when held to the sun focuses a beam of light in the direction of the goal. Perfect Dark Zero‘s method is intrusive and inelegant (and arguably a band-aid for poor level design), while Shadow of the Colossus‘ smart solution adds a sense of wonder to the game.


I’m not suggesting that interface contrivances need to be done away with completely. There’s a time and place for onscreen indicators of all shapes and sizes, they just need to be implemented thoughtfully. Samus Aran’s Combat Visor in the Metroid Prime games is a perfect example. It provides the player with a detailed onscreen display that’s more than just a convenient interface. It’s an integral, stylish part of Samus’ character. Even when the player jumps to a map screen courtesy of Samus’ onboard databases, the world’s context remains intact.

There’s no shortage of games that employ interface features that have been lazily appropriated from previous titles simply because they’re easy to implement. And many of these are good games. They’re just not as good as they could have been. Interfaces that draw upon the game world itself rather than the controller hardware are better for their creativity. Keep the buttons on the controllers, and out of the games.

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