It’s been one of the most hated features of video games this last generation, yet there are no signs that they’ll go extinct in this new one. Quick time events, or QTE’s for short. Yesterday as I was playing episode 1 of the second season of The Walking Dead (it’s excellent so far, btw), I felt compelled to get into the subject more deeply. Why are QTE’s so unpopular, why are they still in our games, and what are the redeeming qualities?
What’s a Quick Time Event?
A quick time event is any time in a game where you the player are prompted to press a button in a short time frame. The button or motion you’re supposed to perform on your controller/keyboard+mouse is directly shown on screen. If the action is not performed within that time frame, most often you’ll suffer some kind of penalty, usually instant death.
Why are they used in games?
QTE’s are a popular weapon in the game designer’s arsenal during cinematic action sequences. They enable the designers to channel their inner movie directors and stage elaborate set pieces. Only, there is no way the player can keep doing their usual actions such as jumping and attacking in God of War. In order to make these sequence as visually impressive as possible, the player’s freedom of action must be severely limited, if not completely removed. In order to provide some level of interactivity QTE’s are used to pose a challenge for the player to overcome.
Why are they so hated?
The thing with QTE’s is that they often pose a jarring break in the normal game flow. One moment you’re running and climbing your way through an ancient temple in Tomb Raider Legend, when suddenly the next you’re stuck for two minutes trying to jump out of the way of a tumbling rock. The reason you’re failing is not because you’re bad at timing your jumps in the game, no, you’ve actually mastered that skill already. Instead, you’re failing because you just can’t seem to press the sequence of buttons at the right time, four times in a row. The first time you failed miserably, and with each successful step, you immediately fail on the next one, since you don’t know what button is next. You’re forced to fail at least four times just to memorize it all. It breaks the flow and any immersion you had and reduces the player into an input machine that must pass a test in hand-eye coordination. Also, it doesn’t allow for any player choice. You have to press a very specific button, at a very specific time. There isn’t any freedom of action there. The following game Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit) commits even another sin: the button icons are so central and elaborate that the player can’t even properly see what’s actually happening in the game!
What are the redeeming qualities then?
One arguably redeeming quality is that they allow for the cinematic set pieces I mentioned earlier. Another is that they break out of the normal control scheme and let the designer reassign new actions for the player’s avatar to perform that only really make sense at that exact moment in the sequence. It’s similar to a context sensitive action, but for a one-off context.
One might argue that instead of cramming in QTE’s, if the designer is so intent on including these cinematics, they should just do a traditional cut scene. But during such a scene, player would just lean back and enjoy a movie, instead of sweating and struggling along with the avatar as they usually do. QTE’s put pressure on the player to act and react, and thus serve as an analog for the things the avatar goes through in the sequence. When Bigby in The Wolf Among Us must be quick to react and jump out of the way of an attack, the player ought to be put under that pressure as well, and quickly press to move left to get out of the way.
So, are QTE’s good or bad?
As with most things, it depends on the execution. For a long time, I’ve been a hater. QTE’s break with the control scheme and detach the player from the avatar, which lowers the level of connection he or she feels. And for what? Just so that some designer can live his fantasies of being a movie director?
But when playing God of War, I couldn’t help but have a lot of fun with the QTE’s. They became something I’d look forward to and landing a successful killing blow would get me pumped. Ultimately I felt that the game was enriched by the QTE’s. Sure, there can be some frustrating moments, but the positives outweighed the negatives for me.
In The Wolf Among Us, I also had a lot of fun. In fighting scenes in that game, sometimes there’d be a choice between going left or right. A minimal level of freedom of action, yes, but better nonetheless. Ironically enough, I got very frustrated in The Walking Dead yesterday, when I failed one QTE a lot of times in a row. The problem wasn’t the level of difficulty, but the gruesome death I’d see my avatar suffer time and again, around 6 times in a row. It became extremely jarring to watch.
There are good and bad implementations of QTE’s in games, and when a designer decides to include one, they better be sure it fits. In games like the Telltale adventures which are already very cinematic in nature, they don’t feel so out of place. Most of the controls in those games are already based on context sensitivity on a fundamental level, so it really matters just how rigidly actions are assigned to a button for the majority of the game. Then, it’s also important to fine-tune the difficulty of the QTE, whereas it’s better to err on the side of being too easy than too hard. Give the player enough time to react to the button prompt. It is also often unnecessary to use a lot of different buttons. Just use one, or at most two buttons, so the player doesn’t have to think about which button on top of everything else. If they can instinctively press the right one without thinking about it and only focus on timing it right, that’s a lot better. The less the player is prompted to think that it’s a QTE, the better. Try to fit the nature of the action as closely as possible to what happens on screen. If Bigby needs to jump left, prompt a motion to the left. If Lee Everett needs to choke a zombie, make it a button mash instead of a one time press, etc. And finally, focus on giving an appropriate payoff, be it visually or otherwise.
Fundamentally, I’m still somewhat against QTE’s, but only because I’m more of an advocate of less cinematics and more systems driven gameplay. Cinematic have become a big part of gaming though and I do enjoy games of that nature. So when playing one such game, bad QTE’s can often feel like the final straw for an experience I’m already luke warm about. When a game does go down that route though and yet does it well, QTE’s can be an exhilarating and enriching part.