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"Watch 'Em Ups"; Sucking The Meaning Out Of Action Games

by Ben Ruiz on 08/29/12 10:49:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Watch 'em ups are a newly emerged genre of game that appear to bear the key properties of beat 'em ups, but are actually far less interactive. Their existence is entirely due to the popularization of Quick Time Events. A watch 'em up looks like the type of experience arcade born gamers love and cherish, but they are actually hollow and unsatisfying experiences in comparison. The reason they feel like this is because they are comprised primarily of what I call "low interaction mechanics".

What Are Low Interaction Mechanics?

They're a type of game mechanic where the game engine takes a very small amount of input and spits out a spectacular amount of visual and audio output. Their origins are in the Quick Time Events that were born in Shenmue, popularized in God Of War, and have been mutating ever since. If you are not familiar with QTE's,  God Of War's brutal fatalities are the iconic example; whenever it's time to kill a big dumb enemy you approach them, push a specific button, and it triggers this complex animated sequence: your character will sling their chains around the enemy, use them to leap onto its head, rip its eyeball out, jam the blade into its chest, tear its still-beating heart out, and so on and so forth until the enemy is dead. While it's amazing to watch, all the player is doing is waiting for simple on-screen cues to hit certain buttons. In all fairness, there is some risk involved being is that the player can fuck up these button presses, but they're still doing very little work yet still watching an avatar perform sensational actions on screen. And again, while QTE's are the backbone of low interaction mechanics, there are many more forms.

The Problem With Low Interaction Mechanics

They're not honest! Game are using these well-produced moments to trick the player into thinking they're awesome. In the pre-low interaction mechanic world, all of the distinct actions in these violent QTE sequences would have been their own legitimate mechanics that required a fair amount of skill to individually perform. While some designers would argue that you can't make traditional game play look that phenomenal because of its inherent playability restrictions, I say that you absolutely can. And while play at those levels is incredible to watch it's also incredibly difficult to perform, and therein lies the problem! Some people can't and/or don't want to operate at that high level of play and low interaction mechanics are the bone the game industry has thrown them. Unfortunately, what's happening now is that modern action game developers/publishers are now trying to capitalize on the people who enjoy these shallow and meaningless interactions by consciously and intentionally creating these kind of games from the ground up.

Watch 'Em Ups Are Now A Genre And That's Dangerous

As of 2012, there are now two official entries: Asura's Wrath (Cyber Connect/Capcom) and Ninja Gaiden 3 (Team Ninja/Tecmo Koei). Both are AAA titles by major developers/publishers that were green lit for the same reason anything is green lit;  because the people upstairs believed it will be profitable. Since action game developers/publishers have this awful habit of assuming that if they do something that God Of War did it means it will share its success, the decision to produce these games DOES make sense. It's asinine, but I understand it. However, my main problem is not that they exist in the first place, but it's that they look like beat 'em ups and are being sold to me as if they were beat 'em ups. It's gross and deceptive and disappointing and it's actually hurting beat 'em ups! They're ruining beat 'em up's reputation with its own diehard fans and any new fans Watch 'Em Ups bring in are going to be a completely different type of player. And this isn't irrational, especially since Ninja Gaiden 3 was co-opted by these players, which was a HUGE betrayal of the series' long standing fans.

And just to be super duper clear, I do NOT consider God Of War a watch 'em up. Like I've said before, I adore the God Of War games and I find them plenty interactive. I simply used the game to describe its very iconic QTE's and that's it.

At the end of the day, I'm an arcade gamer and I play beat 'em ups because I'm given a complex system of tools with which to express myself in a high risk environment and this makes me feel alive. But I need to know that the amazing things happening on my screen are a direct result of my own fiery will pushing against real opposing forces and that I'm actually succeeding. Art is at its most meaningful when you make it yourself and the philosophy with most action games is to give the player paints, a brush, and a beautiful clear canvas with which express yourself. Ninja Gaiden 3 and Asura's Wrath just gave you a cheap paint-by-numbers that someone else drew and a set of crappy watercolors in little plastic pill caps. These games have no faith in your skill and ability.

Interestingly enough, both of these games were financial failures. Hopefully what's happened here is that these publishers have overestimated the size of the Watch 'Em Up audience and that they're not substantially extant.

Read more articles on action game combat design at:! 

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