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

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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.

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.

God of War® III Remastered_20150311220208

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.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

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Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

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