Home » Quick Time Events: In Defense of Gaming’s Most Unpopular Mechanic

Quick Time Events: In Defense of Gaming’s Most Unpopular Mechanic

by John Websell
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Quick Time Events have been around for a surprisingly long time, however, it wasn’t until the release of Sega’s 1999 classic Shenmue that they became an established part of the gaming landscape. Fun fact, it was actually director Yu Suzuki who was credited with coining the term many have come to know and loathe in the first place.

Over the years, QTEs have been accused of being repetitive, lazy or downright unnecessary; filler that serves to mask a developer’s lack of originality.

While there are certainly plenty of underwhelming examples from video game history that support such claims (more on that later), when done correctly, Quick Time Events are no less effective than any other gameplay mechanic.

At its most basic level, Quick Time Events offer diversity; something that’s particularly welcome these days, what with the increasing homogeneity of major AAA titles. Compare Final Fantasy XV with its predecessors, or consider the new direction Ubisoft has taken with Assassin’s Creed Origins.

True, there’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a vast open world RPG or decimating an army of enemy soldiers in an exhilarating first-person shooter, but without a bit of variety every now and again, these otherwise incredible experiences would quickly become stale. It’s like eating pizza for every meal: it seems great at first, however, give it a few days and suddenly that boring old salad doesn’t look quite so unappealing.

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As such, it comes as no surprise to learn that Shenmue 3 – the next installment in a series famed for its use of QTEs – is the most successful Kickstarter-funded game in the platform’s history. Indeed, backers didn’t give their support and donate their money to the project on the condition that Suzuki remove all traces of Quick Time Events from the game’s DNA. Rather, they invested because they loved the quirky, utterly unique originals; QTEs and all.

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That’s not to say Shenmue, or Telltale Games, or Quantic Dream for that matter, have a monopoly on the mechanic; that there aren’t other games representing different genres that use the mechanic to great effect. The original God of War trilogy, for one, separates the numerous action sequences with a smattering of standard, yet viscerally satisfying Quick Time Events – rotating the analog stick so as to tear the fingernail off of a mountain-sized Chronos, for example. Similarly, Asura’s Wrath‘s liberal use of QTEs successfully conveys the unquenchable fury and awe-inspiring power of the irascible protagonist. Tellingly, neither title’s popularity suffers as a result.

Of course, Quick Time Events offer much more than just diversity.

The Walking Dead: Season One and Until Dawn are prime examples of the mechanic’s ability to keep players focused on the events as they unfold and create real, palpable tension throughout the course of a game.

Whether engaged in a frantic game of cat and mouse with (spoilers) flesh-hungry Wendigos or fighting off the mysterious killer whilst navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the isolated Washington family cabin, Until Dawn does an excellent job of attaching a remarkable sense of desperation to each and every Quick Time Event. The button prompts are neither overly complicated or rudimentary, the amount of time allotted to enter the required input is right on the money and the autosave system which prevents the player from simply reviving dead characters with a timely restart ramps up the tension to almost unbearable levels (in a good way).

Walking Dead developer Telltale Games uses the mechanic in a similar manner. However, while a handful of these sections are certainly compelling, it’s the dialogue wheels that generate the most tension; specifically, the time-pressure. Having only a few fleeting seconds to make a potentially life or death decision is an extremely effective way of truly engrossing the player in the experience, making them feel like they’re responsible for a living, breathing individual. For instance, deciding to spare or shoot Conrad at the climax of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is tremendously difficult with the on-screen timer ticking down inexorably to zero whilst the player weighs up the possible ramifications of their choice. I remember agonizing over my decision a couple of days later on my first playthrough: an absurd situation for a 28-year-old man to find himself in, perhaps, but it’s a testament to the way these game’s draw the player in.

When it comes to focusing the player’s attention, Until Dawn once again provides a prime example of how to do this right using QTEs. Knowing one could appear at any moment ensures the player stays glued to the screen from start to finish, lest they miss an all-important button prompt that could well lead to the untimely death of one of the group. Consequently, the player finds his or herself absorbing the subtler details of the story and game world and, before long, discovers they actually care about the often obnoxious cast of young adults; yes, even Emily. The same effect can be observed in Life is Strange, Tales from the Borderlands and many other such titles too. In the former, the bond that develops between the player and the characters makes the seminal, usually binary choices that appear multiple times during the course of each episode feel that much weightier and, occasionally, heart-wrenching.

Rewarding as this level of immersion and sense of attachment is, it’s the way Quick Time Events so perfectly suit the pace and tone of narrative-driven experiences, like those mentioned previously, that lends the mechanic real credibility.

Eschewing complicated combat systems, brain-melting puzzle sections, diversionary side-quests and collectable hunting, Quick Time Events facilitate smoother, more coherent narratives capable of producing moments of profound human beauty in something like Firewatch and high-quality comedy in the exquisite Tales from the Borderlands. It would be justifiable to argue the inclusion of an obligatory cover-shooting section in one of these titles would harm the final product, rather than augment it. In other words, just as it would be a mistake for From Software to plunk a QTE-style boss fight into one of its critically-acclaimed Soulsborne dark fantasies, so too would Call of Duty-style gunplay jar with The Walking Dead.

Obvious as it might sound, cutting extraneous content, instead focusing on a central narrative and perhaps one or two intriguing sub-plots makes it far easier to follow the story. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has an absolutely excellent story, but all the (admittedly interesting) side-quests and hunting contracts can obscure the main narrative, especially if it takes the player a couple of months to complete the game to their satisfaction.

Streamlining the gameplay experience in this way also allows the developer to devote a greater amount of time to expanding the core narrative, as well as exploring the personalities of the character’s themselves. The pathos of Lee Everett and rebellious charm of Chloe Price might not have been quite so resonant if the story was regularly interrupted by fetch-quests revolving around reuniting an elderly lady with her favorite frying pan or the compulsive desire to collect every last in-game artifact.

Yet for all the well-crafted and relevant Quick Time Events that exist, it’s impossible to wholly ignore the arguments put forth by the mechanic’s critics.

In certain situations, such as the ‘press x to pay your respects’ scene from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, it’s not hard to understand why some accuse the mechanic of trivializing key events. Likewise, repeating the same section over and over again until the correct sequence of button inputs has been logged can be ridiculously frustrating, not to mention immersion-breaking. And beside that, generally speaking, Quick Time Events can feel exasperatingly familiar from title to title, given how few variations on the theme there are.

Nevertheless, aside from a handful of incongruous examples from specific blockbusters such as the Call of Duty or Uncharted series – chart-topping titles that have a far greater player base than the likes of Heavy Rain or Firewatch, it should be noted – the humble Quick Time Event is, in reality, a perfectly legitimate choice for developers looking to try something a bit different.

So, instead of rolling our eyes in exasperation every time one appears, we should celebrate the moments of genuine excitement and satisfaction provided by this much-maligned mechanic and the wonderful diversity of modern gaming.

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