In a previous edition of TL;DR, I briefly introduced some thoughts about some common uses of Quick Time Events (QTE from here on out) and how I feel they’re being poorly integrated into games. For the record I’m just going to come out and say that I’ve never liked the idea if QTEs, but if we’re going to have to live with them meddling into games for years to come, I’m at least going to try to make the best of it. What follows are my ideas for the best, and worst, uses of QTEs and how I’d like to see them used going forward, potentially into the next generation of consoles.
But first, let’s take a look at the history of these POSs… I mean QTEs. As a term, the Quick Time Event is generally attributed to Yu Suzuki, the director of Shenmue. This was the first time a more modern equivalent of the QTEs we know today was used to a large degree. But the idea of rapidly tapping a series of buttons in order to progress an otherwise non-interactive scene has roots going back much further than that. Strap in kiddies, and let’s take a ride in my totally street legal DeLorean back in time, to the long-forgotten decade known simply as, The 80’s.
Before anyone asks; no, Dinosaurs were not still alive during the 80’s, so let’s move on. Back in 1983, a “game” called Dragon’s Lair arrived in stores wherever laserdiscs were sold. I use quotations because the now-classic arcade phenomenon is comprised entirely of video clips and requires minimal input from the player to progress. Dragon’s Lair basically consists of a player watching a non-interactive movie and pressing buttons to react to predetermined situations. In short, the entire game is really just one never ending QTE requiring flawless timing and the memorization of button prompts. Only a year after Dragon’s Lair, other laserdisc titles such as Ninja Hayate refined the mechanic by introducing the concept of flashing the correct button prompts on the screen. The benefit to QTEs here is it took an otherwise non-interactive experience and made a game out of it. Because of technical limitations at the time, the only way to achieve high video fidelity equivalent to the cartoons of the time, was at the cost of gameplay. Alright, a man can only take so many perms and normandy rose jeans before it’s too much, so let’s jump ahead to the 90’s, and the advent of a new style of QTEs.
It’s alright ‘coz I’m saved by the bell… Ahem, here we are, The 90’s. Here is where the QTE began slowly introducing its plan to take over the world and enslave developers everywhere. And, as most good things that were once magnificent but now are disfigured monstrosities, it all starts with Sega. (Seriously, what the hell is a werehog?) In 1996, and then again in 1999, Sega introduced the QTE as something to do during cutscenes. You know, as opposed to watching the non-interactive cutscene. Because why wouldn’t you want to interact with something that is, by nature, not interactive? Suddenly, people with blow-up girlfriends had their own niche market. Seriously though, I’m talking about Die Hard Arcade for the Sega Saturn and Shenmue on the Dreamcast. (The Dreamcast 2 will happen!) Thanks to these shining examples of progressive gameplay, instead of using cutscenes as breathing room to mentally prepare before a boss or wind down after completing a difficult gameplay segment, we are now required to pay close attention to the corners of the TV screen in anticipation of a button prompt that can appear without a moment’s notice and disappear just as quickly. Ugh, this decade isn’t as charming as it used to be; let’s go home before I accidentally buy stock in this promising upstart company called THQ.
What did that human-sized turtle just say? Booyakasha?!? Maybe we should’ve stayed in the 90’s after all… Alright, now that we know where QTEs came from and how they’ve evolved so far, let’s look at their current day uses. Uncharted, God of War, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Heavenly Sword, the list goes on. What looks like a list of some of the best games/franchises of recent years is actually the perfect list of how NOT to use QTEs. Let’s look at the examples: Uncharted asks players to give protagonist Nathan Drake a helping hand by mashing the circle button every time he’s opening a heavy door. God of War won’t let a good boss die until you’ve triggered and then successfully “executed” a series of QTEs. (I see what I did there.) Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes this one step further, penalizing the player for failing the QTE by restoring the boss to nearly half health. Both Heavenly Sword and Reckoning take what would otherwise be awe inspiring finishing moves and distract me from watching said finishers so that I might enjoy a quick game of Simon Says that I don’t remember asking to play.
These interactions don’t enhance the experience, they detract from it. For the record, developers, those words are not synonymous. I don’t feel like I’m more immersed in the experience because I failed a serious of button prompts a few times before eventually getting it right; with my reward being the last few seconds of a cutscene I’d have rather watched in its entirety. I don’t feel more gratified because I helped Nathan Drake or Kratos open a door. (Small aside, the Wii needs to stop forcing me to “turn the wiimote” so that I can pantomime unlocking a door. Enough already!) Nothing about these uses of QTEs add anything to the gameplay experience. And just like in film, as a general rule of game development, if it isn’t absolutely necessary, it should be cut.
But there are some games that use QTEs effectively, and in a shocking M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, one of those games also appears on the list of how not to use QTEs. Is your mind blown yet? It should be. I’ll explain. While God of War does a lot of QTEs wrong, God of War III in particular does one incredibly right. Spoiler Alert incoming if you’re that one person who doesn’t know what happens in the game. Remember the fight with Zeus? Remember how it felt coming to the realization at the end of the fight that you were in control of just how badly you could beat him down? How bloody did the screen get before you chose to stop? Using QTEs as a morality choice is an intriguing and engaging way to become fully attached to our character. Another example of this idea in motion is the Mass Effect series. While I find that these events occur a bit too abruptly in some cases, more often than not the game gives you ample time to make a decision; usually changing the outcome of a conversation or sequence of events. Sprinkling QTEs into an already interactive dialogue scene makes the choices more impactful, and puts players in the uncomfortable yet real-life position of having to make a gut call in the heat of a tense moment. As a more recent example, no game does this better than The Walking Dead. If you’ve ever wanted to feel terrible about yourself and spend an entire day second-guessing your own decisions, that’s the game for you. And given the context of the game, that’s exactly the point, so well done Telltale Games. Of course, it’s obligatory that I mention Heavy Rain in any article about QTEs, being that the entire game is basically a never ending button prompt. The more plot-centric, character driven QTEs are the most effective ones in this case as well, usually focusing on central protagonist Ethan Mars as he’s forced to make impossible decisions.
So, since QTEs obviously aren’t going anywhere for a while, how can we make better use of them going forward? I think there are three basic ways: Tie them to meaningful morality choices, use them to alter character interactions, and include them as a teaching tool during tutorials (where applicable). In the case of morality choices, as has been done before, QTEs can serve to reinforce the weight of player decisions. Killing is a choice, right? Well, would you play Dishonored any differently if killing your mark required you to really drive your sword into them? In other words, no additional QTEs at the end of the fight, just the simple reinforcement of repeatedly tapping the attack button to simulate the force with which you’d need to thrust your blade to run someone through with the final strike. Just small, subtle touches to emphasize player choice during emotionally intense gameplay moments, that’s the idea here: Let a hug or kiss between characters last only as long as you hold down the button. Let a touchdown celebration go on a few more moments, at the potential risk of a penalty, just to rub it in your buddy’s face. These aren’t long strings of button prompts that require conscious attention, just singular, often optional decisions that connect the player to the experience on their own terms.
In looking at character interactions, let’s refine the Mass Effect approach a bit. Imagine cutscenes that play out on their own, without giving players the choice of specific dialogue options. Now, also imagine being able to manipulate the direction of how those cutscenes play out by adjusting different character’s attitudes. No flashing button prompts, just the foreknowledge going in that each face button on the controller correlates to a different emotion. Additionally, allow players the benefit of switching between characters, whether they are protagonists or NPC’s or what have you, in turn shifting the camera’s perspective. What we’ve created is player-driven, dynamic dialogue scenes that could play out any number of ways. Don’t like the way some sarcastic asshat is talking to you? Make your character angry and see how that version plays out. Or make said asshat apologetic after realizing the hero is just trying to help. Is that a crap ton of work for script writers? Hell yeah it is, but hey, more writing jobs means more jobs in general, right? Look at us, saving the gaming industry and bolstering the economy.
Using QTEs during tutorials as a teaching tool can also be effective in helping the player develop a sense of “game rhythm.” You know, ease them into the groove of either combat mechanics or basic gameplay. Since most games have tutorials anyway, use this time to help players get their timing down perfect. In action oriented games like Assassin’s Creed, use quick time events to teach players how to achieve that perfect parry, or critical defense. In racing games, use on-screen button prompts as a way to master perfect drifting and “power slides.” Remember, this is just during the tutorial so that newcomers can get their bearings. One of the issues I’ve noticed people have when trying to play a game for the first time is just understanding the game’s natural rhythm. This would help alleviate that frustration by making them successfully achieve, and therefore understand, at least a basic explanation of how to play the game, as opposed to telling them by flashing words of text across the screen, that often mean nothing to someone who still needs to look down at their controller to find the buttons.
That just about covers it. If nothing else, I hope I’ve at least got you thinking about ways we can innovate and reinvigorate this industry we all know and love. Now’s, here comes the part where I ask you to join the discussion and share your feelings on the subject. How do you feel about QTEs? If you could, how would you change the way they’re presented in games? If you haven’t noticed, I’m passionate about the topics I discuss in these editorials and love nothing more than getting a great debate going. So I sincerely hope you’ll indulge me by offering your thoughts.