In Defense of QTEs, Kind of

I remember the Official Dreamcast Magazine running a preview of Yu Suzuki’s open world opus Shenmue, and frothily outlining one of the game’s principal innovations: Quick Time Events, or QTEs for short.

The article described the game’s hero running away from some thug or other, and shoving over a flower stand (or something) in order to slow down his peruser. The game, of course, wouldn’t have a dedicated button or mechanic for that kind of thing. When the time came, the game would just urgently instruct the player to Press the B button right now! and then alter the otherwise non-interactive sequence in some way, based on that player’s success or failure.

Shenmue’s developers coined the term around 1999, but as far as their basic operations and intent, QTEs had actually been around since 1983. Dragon’s Lair (which featured the inimitable cel animation of Don Bluth) and Cliff Hanger (which repurposed footage from two Lupin III films) both used timed button presses as their mechanical bread and butter, thereby lending their action an unbroken cinematic flow, despite games being a decade and a half away from rendering anything remotely like hand-drawn animation in real time.

In the years since, QTEs have been frequently deployed and often passionately reviled. At their most legitimately onerous, QTEs wrest direct control out of sheer paranoia that the player will play the game wrong, and will therefore make the experience look or feel insufficiently movie-like. I’m not here to make excuses for that kind of self-defeating lunacy, but I do think it would be a mistake to tar all QTEs with that same damning brush.

Asura's Wrath

Though we’d now be more than capable of making the events in Dragon’s Lair playable without resorting to QTEs, our reach for ever-greater spectacle will probably always exceed our grasp on making those spectacles fully and richly interactive. Asura’s Wrath is the poster child for that. I’m not convinced there’s any way other than QTEs to let the player, for example, bisect a demonic stone worm the size of a continent.

The game’s QTEs also work well thematically, creating the impression that the titular demigod is not himself sure what he’ll do with his titular wrath once he gets going. Press Y at the right moment and Asura will do—something. Half the fun is finding out precisely what baroquely ridiculous thing that will be.

The folks at Telltale use that uncertainty (or that hysteria, if you like) in the opposite way in The Walking Dead. When Lee struggles with a zombie (or another human, or anything else), the player is just mashing the B button and hoping for the best. That feels much more like panic than a deep, consistent, challenging combat system would. Wait, there was no tutorial for this! Attackattackattack!!

Telltale has said that they’re planning to blend these two approaches in their next game, The Wolf Among Us. The protagonist will be a werewolf, and “when he becomes the wolf, he’s out of control. We want to convey that to the player.”

You’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m totally going to be a big badass right now and punch that guy in the face.” So you punch that guy in the face, but you punch his face off. There’s blood everywhere. It’s totally brutal. As a gamer, we want you to be like, “OK, that’s not exactly what I meant. I meant I wanted him to be a big badass hero. Then I obliterated this guy in a horrible way.”

So QTEs can inject all manner of uncertainty, ambiguity, and improvisation into a game’s proceedings. They can empower and disempower, surprise and astound and horrify.

The Walking Dead

Besides which, the branching conversations and fateful decisions in The Walking Dead are themselves a fairly brilliant marriage of QTEs and traditional dialogue trees. You have to choose what you want to say or do, but with a fuse-like timer burning away at the bottom of the screen. The more urgent the decision, the shorter the fuse. So you have the novel situations and instinctive reactions of QTEs, but tied to the decisions and concomitant consequences of non-linear RPGs. You find yourself having to make questionable split-second decisions. Then you have to live down the results. It’s incredible.

Obviously, The Walking Dead’s decision-making is a richer mode of interaction than just pressing Y to make Asura punch this guy even harder!! But in terms of execution, it’s no more demanding—which should make us think twice before dismissing all QTEs for being insufficiently gamey, or what have you.

To put it another way: Lucio played through The Walking Dead with his wife (who rarely plays plot-driven games) partly because of the series’ remarkably high ratio of narrative depth to mechanical complexity. Let’s not be too quick to dismiss any convention that takes what’s interesting about gaming and makes it more accessible to new audiences. If we can make deep games with shallow inputs—and The Walking Dead shows us that we most definitely can—then it looks like QTEs are here to stay, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One comment

  1. Given your other examples and emphases, I’m somewhat surprised not to see Mass Effect 2 and 3’s interrupts mentioned here; to me, they’re the apex of the non-foundational QTE. They’re not a core part of gameplay, and in fact interact with a reputation system that otherwise exists in an entirely different set of mechanics and situations, but unlike arguably more standard QTEs, they do not result in success/failure and can be safely ignored. They also feature the hysteria you mention, in that (on a first playthrough, at least) the player has only the vaguest notion of what the action resulting from their response will be.

    Basically, I just try to work ME’s QTEs into any conversation about them, because I think they’re brilliant, but no one ever seems to discuss them :)

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