As entertainment industries go, it’s disparagingly easy to see how often the newest genre on the scene is being entirely milked dry. This can be witnessed across the board, in music, film, television, literature, and perhaps most prominently, in gaming.

Gaming trends are frequent: Check out the number of world war FPS’s, or the excessive amount of interactive fitness games. It’s not just genre that is the issue though, it’s also plot lines and game mechanics.

Bloodied screens for damage, regenerating health (bleed outs), bullet time, inactive AI team mates, all have their place when implemented correctly (ok, maybe not that last one. Bloody useless blindfiring bastards), but all are far too common in games of late. However, the thing that really grinds my gears at present is the use of QTE.

QTE, or Quick Time Event, if you have no idea what I’m referring to, is the use of on screen button prompts to trigger immediate character responses that are perhaps more technical or cinematic than is possible within the standard control system. See below for an example:

With relatively recent innovations in interactive tech, button prompts have sometimes been updated with particular controller motions, such as those witnessed in the Wii zombie port Resident Evil 4. Success at pressing the correct buttons in a limited amount of time determines how the game progresses. This can include a variety of alternating consequences, such as simple fail-repeat scenarios or actually changing the narrative direction of the game – see Heavy Rain as a significant example.

It has been suggested that the term QTE is originally attributed to Yu Suzuki, the Japanese game director behind the cult success that was Shenmue. Apart from 1980’s interactive movie laserdisc games like Cliffhanger and Dragon’s Lair, Shenmue is viewed as one of the original QTE titles, integrating the gaming mechanic to acclaimed success.

Though QTE has received mixed reviews (primarily because gamers feel that it breaks the fluidity of action games somewhat, becoming tedious and repetitious, especially when failing to input the correct action in time has no impact upon the narrative), Shenmue was highly praised for its implementation. Originally the first title of a planned 12 instalment series, Shenmue used QTE seamlessly during cinematic interactive cut scenes – not to mention the amazing arcade style mini games. Not only did this avoid the necessity of extended loading times, but added an exciting, suspenseful element to scenes predominantly marked by dialogue.

"I love these..."

Each section was remarkably varied, using QTE to different effect, whether it be combat, defence or a classic chase. Importantly, many scenes were not built into the structured narrative of the game, instead triggered at particular locations at certain times. They can be missed entirely when completing the game or, if failed, will not affect the overall story arc – but will certainly mean that the user misses an interesting consequence or dialogue which cannot then be achieved without turning the game off! This ensured that each occasion felt like a reward, heightening the pressure and therefore excitement of completing it successfully on the first attempt. I can’t tell you how many times, with the intent of a completionist, that I’ve wanted to turn off the game because I failed a QTE, soon realising that it’s an impossibility because I saved it two painstaking hours ago, and I finally got that illusive Super Sonic toy!

'A' for 'Actually exciting'.

The most significant reason behind the success of Shenmue’s QTE is that it did not govern or conclude the combat system. Whereas certain titles these days use QTE’s as a method of finishing boss battles, which feel entirely like a cop out, rendering the difficulty and intensity of the final conflict null and void (honourable mention to God of War 3 for the battle with Zeus), Shenmue used the game mechanic as an entertaining, heart-racing addition. General combat within the game was still completely free, allowing the player to input whatever commands they choose, to enact moves from a large list. Instead of hampering combat, reducing strategy to nothing more than rapid hand-eye co-ordination, it formed a secondary battle system, one which provided light relief from the more user-controlled structure. I mean, imagine if that epic [SPOILER] 70 man battle required the use of QTE, it would be pathetic!

The real issue I have now is that most uses of QTE in games seem ill-thought and hurriedly implemented. They bring no excitement to the game, wholly breaking the feeling of fluidity and autonomy.

Games like Resi 4 on the Wii, did make some positive use of it; I don’t think it had the impact of Shenmue but certainly added some excitement to those lengthy cut scenes, especially as they were included so sparingly as a sporadic surprise – how’s that for alliteration Fluffrick. Beyond this title though, I have seen very little in the way of successful implementation. It was fine during the general combat of God of War 3, in performing execution moves to destroy enemies which would also provide the user with additional life or magic power ups, but entirely ruined boss battles (I know what you’re thinking and I entirely agree – apart from when it sees the protagonist Kratos pummeling the face of a muscle-bound Hercules until it resembles some kind of archaic, decorative bowl). Heavy Rain finally saw a game where failure of QTE was met with an alternative path in the story arc, yet somewhat milked it with a re-release using Playstation Move.

Bet he has a horrible headache.

The biggest offenders of late though have to be Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. Both of these eagerly-anticipated FPS sequels adopted QTE for particular scenes of the game. Though there was obviously a positive intention of using the mechanic to enhance gameplay by allowing users to perform moves unimaginable in standard FPS’s, conversely they have only really distanced the gamer more.

Personally, I think that the problem is intrinsic to the genre. First Person Shooters are entirely built around the principle that the gamer must feel in control. The camera view enables the user to see what the character sees; extended access to their gaze provides a feeling of vicariousness – we are in the game (well, as much as possible without the use of interactive technology). This feeling is bolstered by detailed control systems that allow us to sprint, jump over obstacles and, in some cases – Black Ops – even dive. We are in complete control, often literally in the driving seat. Yet this directly opposes the very nature of QTE. Although it does enable increased interactivity in scenes that are ordinarily just viewable, also giving the sense that the user has performed a move otherwise impossible in the game, there is an unavoidable, diametrically-opposed sense of restriction that accompanies it. Being forced to press a particular button in a small space of time feels very limiting which inherently damages the autonomy that FPS’s attempt to inject.

This is particularly bad in the Modern Warfare series, where impactful, cinematic endings have seen a significant transition:

Notice the change with each iteration:

Full user control (in a moment that felt like something out of Point Break) > Simple addition of QTE but maintaining player controlled aiming > Entirely QTE. What can we expect next time, ‘Press A to win’?!

The Modern Warfare series encapsulates what is wrong with contemporary uses of QTE. It seems lazy and unimaginative, and while attempting to give the illusion of increased user control, conversely it is dramatically removing it. Much like the final battle in God of War 3, mentioned above, gamers want to feel like they have had a significant impact upon the ending of a game, but unfortunately that feeling is being severely damaged, if not entirely removed. And before you COD fanboys start getting on my case, Battlefield doesn’t escape criticism either. Battlefield 3 saw recurring moments that required some ineffectual and uninspiring uses of QTE, to melee combat with an enemy for example, in the first level. It’s these additions which damage the name of what can be an extremely interesting and, more importantly, entertaining game mechanic.

Clearly the industry is set on course for full immersion. From 5.1 surround sound to continually updated photo-realistic graphics, we are being enveloped by the games we play more and more. Patently, user interactivity is the primary method of immersing consumers into the media they buy, look at the recent tech innovation of Augmented Reality. Yet, developers must stop and think before they adopt a game mechanic simply because it has become a staple addition to the genre – if it brings very little in the way of heightened user experience, or can even potentially damage it, then it must be reconsidered.

Time to set up my Dreamcast and play Shenmue again.

“Ma’am please stop calling me suede-headed, baby boy Ryo”.

“I’ll think about it”… Ahh memories.

  1. […] slash series Ninja Gaiden. The demo is indefensibly poor, hampered by generic narrative, an over reliance on QTE, and a combat system that no longer rewards you for proficient knowledge of its […]

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