Quick time events (QTEs) are making frequent appearances in modern video games. To the uninitiated, a QTE is a section within a game that requires the user to key in a series of button presses, usually separate from the main game play. QTEs tend to be components of otherwise static cut scenes, requiring the player to input the sequence as quickly as possible to avoid failure and to progress the scene along a pre-designated route.
QTEs [can] oversimplify the task at hand, offering two basic options: the right way, and the wrong way.
QTEs are a clear result of a desire to portray games as more cinematic than they otherwise could be. By completely limiting the player’s control, developers are free to sculpt a scene as they see fit: rather than a hero running around in circles and jumping like a loon (thus breaking the intended seriousness of a scene), they are instead shown pulling off a fairly complex manoeuvre in the most heroic way possible.
Theoretically, QTEs are a welcome addition to the historically 1-dimensional cut scene. It’s a chance for players to feel as if they’re still in control of the action, despite the seemingly incontrolable action presented on screen. Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3 exclusive, Heavy Rain, is essentially a text-based adventure with game play modelled entirely upon QTEs. However, like any concept, QTEs can be overused and employed in such a fashion that it oversimplifies the task at hand, offering two basic options: the right way, and the wrong way.
The quest for cinematic integrity ignores the crucial advantage that video games have over cinema: viewer freedom.
Is this the trade-off, however? Throughout the years, there has been an incredibly vocal collection of gamers who desire tightly paced, cinematic thrills to be standard fare in the games they play. As graphical and technical power has increased, so too has the methods of presenting the story to players. It can be argued, however, that QTEs are far too rampant in games of today. They’re being used less to bookend a section of player-controlled action and more to augment the action during those sections. Yes, the action is cinematically thrilling, but it also means that any time a particular QTE is replayed (perhaps on a second play through, or after having to restart a level), the result will be exactly the same.
So why is this a problem? It’s a problem because the quest for cinematic integrity ignores the crucial advantage that video games have over cinema: viewer freedom. Games have the ability to allow the player to craft their own story as best they can within the world given to them, and it’s this difference that gives video games credibility as a medium. This isn’t to say that QTEs have become the scourge of the gaming world. Like any core concept, they can be used intelligently to offer interactivity where it’s otherwise not allowed. Developers need to start thinking of ways to ensure that QTEs are not a ‘right way/wrong way’ result, but instead promote the advantage that games have over film. As a medium, there’s no problem with video games looking towards other mediums for inspiration, but that inspiration needs to hark back to the uniqueness of our medium, not replace it.
Imagine that you’re watching a game cutscene. Halfway through, a prompt on-screen tells you to press a button to prevent the game’s hero from being brutally killed. You stare blankly at the screen, wondering what the hell is going on. You might fumble for the controller resting in your lap. Seconds later, the hero dies, and the cutscene restarts from the beginning. The second time round, you are ready for it – you press the button, and the cutscene continues.
Essentially, this is a Quick time event (QTE), and it’s oh-so-popular in the video game world these days. The one described above is basically exactly like most of the ones found in Resident Evil 5. Battlefield 3 employed them heavily in its lacklustre campaign. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 had them as well, though not as many as its rival.
So, what’s the purpose of a QTE? To be honest, when used in the way described above, I have absolutely no idea. Some argue that it’s supposed to bring some sort of level of interactivity into the game during a cutscene, but that sounds like a load of bull to me. Valve perfected that over 10 years ago with a simple solution: don’t take away the player’s control during a ‘cutscene’. That’s certainly better than injecting QTEs and forcing the player to watch the same thing twice (or worse, many more times!).
Some games treat QTEs in a fairly different manner. They’re still there in cutscenes, but if you miss them, you don’t instantly get a game over and have to watch the scene again. You just miss out on the rest of the cutscene, which could potentially have something interesting in it. Most of the time, however, these are rather pointless, because they don’t really change the actual story of the game. Examples of this include the victory fist pump at the end of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, or the ever-so-tasteful "press X to undress your girlfriend" in Assassin’s Creed 2.
So we have two different ways to treat QTEs: force you to replay the scene, or simply miss out on the rest of the scene. In both cases, the player is the one that suffers. I mean, really – if you’re going to put a cutscene in, just let me watch it in peace! A player can’t be expected to be gripping the controller during every cutscene, ready to pounce on a QTE just in case it happens. Most games would be better off if they had no QTEs at all.
But there is an excellent middle ground that I would be happy with. To get there, we need to look at a game where QTEs are the core mechanic: Indigo Prophecy (IP). IP does two important things regarding QTEs – the first being that if you fail a QTE, you don’t instantly fail the game. In fact, in many cases, it simply changes the way that the cutscene plays out (of course, failing too many times usually means that you will die).
The second thing that IP does is display a large prompt on screen before any QTE scene: "GET READY!". Those two simple words make one huge difference in how the player interacts with the game. That short amount of time is all the player needs to be ready for a QTE when it actually does come a few seconds later. I am quite certain that at least 80% of QTE deaths in Resident Evil 5 wouldn’t have happened if the game alerted you so players were ready for them.
Most games with QTEs can get very frustrating. If more of them implemented one (or both) of these two mechanics from Indigo Prophecy into their QTE cutscenes, they would be a lot less painful to deal with for players.