The evolution of quick time events (QTEs)

I’ve chosen to republish this piece, originally written in early 2010, because it’s funny how things turned out in the years afterwards. At the time, there had been a concerning trend towards reduced interaction in gaming, whereas I was an advocate for increasing it. Thankfully, the rise of the Quick Time Event began to wane in the years following this article, in no small part to the release of Heavy Rain, a game so dependent on QTEs that it spawned a litany of memes and parodies, such as the popular online game ‘Press X to Jason‘ that mercilessly ridiculed David Cage’s much-maligned masterpiece. On social media in 2018, one of the most common light-hearted responses to any kind of minor tragedy or disaster is to simply type ‘F’, a reference to the ridiculous ‘press F to pay respects‘ scene from 2014’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

A young, muscular gentleman is cautiously walking towards a small building with its door ajar. As he enters the structure, he turns suddenly to find that the door has slammed behind him. There is a growling noise coming from the corner of the dimly lit room. The man cranes his neck forward to peer into the darkness. A loud roar erupts and a snarling zombie panda leaps forth from the shadows and swipes at the man. Press B. The man ducks and avoids injury. The panda recoils and picks up a nearby chainsaw and revs it up, before ramming it towards the young male’s face. Press X. The man dodges and grabs the handle of the weapon. Tap A rapidly as the man furiously attempts to force the blade into the panda’s chest. The chainsaw pierces the poor bear, spilling blood and gore everywhere and thus ends our cut scene. A series of complex and stunning events such as this would normally require some kind of mastery of a game’s controls, but as I have so patronisingly suggested with my fictional example, this is not always the case.

QTEs are certainly not new to gaming, but their popularity has risen dramatically over the last five years or so, with a number of current releases using QTEs rather heavily. Indeed, if the great number of games at last year’s Tokyo Game Show featuring QTEs were anything to go by, then it can be said that this trend is likely to continue. Are QTEs an effective method of making amazing set pieces interactive for the player? Or are they merely a cheap and lazy shortcut of tacking on interactivity to something that should either be played fully, or not at all?

In terms of creating stories and cut scenes that allow the player to engage in discussion without leaving the game mechanic, there have been a number of partial successes. Half Life 2 and Assassin’s Creed, among others, allow you to wander about as you listen to the narrative, supposedly seamlessly blending the borders of gameplay and narrative. The problem I have with this pseudo-interactive narrative device is that nine times out of ten I will just potter about in the room, not really listening to what is being said. For some reason I am more interested in jumping around the room, smashing computers and walking in circles really quickly than I am in listening to the problems with the world. What is the point in this approach? If the choice essentially remains ‘to listen or not to listen’ then why do we need to be able to walk about in the background? QTEs attempt to balance this by forcing the player to pay attention to the scene, in case a random button prompt should appear on the screen. It worked on me, as I watched all the scenes in Resident Evil 4 for fear of missing a button press and therefore being mauled, whereas I would normally only half pay attention.

In cases of failure in particular, I often end the QTE scenes feeling somehow hard done by. It seems that there is no real point to any gaming technological advancements if it all comes down to simplistic button taps. Games become nothing more than an interactive DVD during QTEs. But on the other hand, that can be a good thing. Fahrenheit (AKA Indigo Prophecy) was a game based entirely around QTE and was a thoroughly enjoyable game (or interactive movie … where’s the line?). Perhaps this is because the game was a story-focused psychological thriller, rather than the more interactivity-demanding zombie horror genre.

Despite there being a few examples like Shenmue and Fahrenheit that have proved that there may be a place for QTEs in gaming, I think that it is time for some progress. It is encouraging to see that in Tomb Raider: Underworld, Crystal Dynamics have implemented a variation upon classic QTEs. In these ‘adrenaline events’, Lara is given a moment to react to unforeseen circumstances in slow motion, without reducing player input to command prompts. No controls are taken away from the player, but the events still feel as epic and aesthetically pleasing as a standard QTE. In Star Wars: Force Unleashed the QTE button cues are consistent with the action, so each button always corresponds to the same outcome, although the format remains true to classic QTE presentation.

I propose an amalgamation of these two features. I would like to see a game that has context-sensitive command prompts within cut scenes. The output would need to vary from game to game obviously, but I think that each face button could be mapped to a different action. So instead of timed prompts, Y would always roll or duck, X would always jump or leap, B would always stop or stand still and A would always block or defend. In other circumstances or genres, the buttons could be mapped to positive or pessimistic conversation responses. It would build upon ideas in Fable 2 and Mass Effect, but would ultimately result in a more natural and immersive narrative device. With hidden prompts, the player would have at the very least a superficial control of the event, and at most a complete arsenal of options with which to deal with the event. You would however, need to remember the mapping of each button, but that is common in gaming. I know the details of my proposal are fairly shoddy, but the foundations are solid. Developers could adapt it to have a button for each item or weapon to be used in each context within the cut scene or perhaps even some really abstract uses of the system could be devised.

With so-called revolutionary games like Heavy Rain and Alan Wake on the horizon, it would be hugely disappointing to see those titles resorting to standard QTEs (as is currently suggested) to keep the payer engaged in the action. I’m sure they can come up with something better than QTEs, probably something better than my concept.

I don’t want to conclusively say whether QTEs are either good or bad thus far, but I do feel as though their time is over. Perhaps there was a time when the use of QTEs was acceptable, but I believe that the industry should be moving forward with the concept, rather than lazily saturating the market with QTE-heavy games, as is sadly currently apparent.