I’ve been working on several long articles for some time and I was a bit frustrated that in the meantime, my blog saw no activity. Luckily, the opportunity to talk about something presented itself a few days ago, when Brendan Keogh mentioned QTEs in a tweet. I replied half-jokingly that maybe it was time for us to reconsider the accepted truth that ‘QTEs are bad’ – and a small discussion emerged, which somewhat surprised me! But it also prompted me to think more seriously about what I meant, and to elaborate on that initial suggestion.
Quick Time Events, in the past, – I was about to write ‘traditionally’ and, indeed, it isn’t unlike a tradition at this point – have been mocked, ridiculed, for a whole lot of reasons. The most obvious one is that they’re perceived as ‘lazy’; when the character is about to perform a spectacular action, instead of developing the systems to read and interpret a series of inputs from the player, developers just assigned the whole thing to a single button press. Another criticism is that they lessen player agency (you rarely have any choice but to agree to the prompt to continue playing, and have no say in the result) and offer cheap, unfought-for, instantaneous gratification (which, if you’ve read anything about gamification, you’ll know makes for ‘lower enjoyment in the long run’). They’re also just plain stressful sometimes.
The question I ask myself now is: are those things actually inherently bad?
Of course, it’s easier to develop a game that asks for a pre-determined sequence of inputs and converts it into a choreographed action scene, than one where the player is given from the get-go enough tools to recreate that same scene step by step. But, beyond production considerations, it’s also a matter of simply making the game you want to make: the latter game is wildly different from the former. In one, you’re using a limited set of inputs to perform a limited set of actions, but the pool of available actions seems infinite; in the other, you’re picking from a large pool of inputs to perform a large, but explicitly finite, number of actions. The bigger that number, the more complex the game becomes; and although one might argue that this allows creative play, and even reward it, there definitely is a tipping point where the quantity of available options becomes too overwhelming in a stressful context and the player falls back to known combos. Looking at the most skilled players of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta demonstrate their talent, it doesn’t take long before the protagonists’ actions start to loop. For the argument’s sake, we could disregard that vague and abstract plateau; but even then, it simply is impossible to hard-code into a game the literally infinite actions that could be scripted, animated, and assigned to button prompts for any given situation. So the choice is between highly-authored scenes arbitrarily mapped to inputs, and a lesser number of individual actions that are also authored (but individually) and also arbitrarily mapped to inputs, except you combine them in any order you want. Neither seems indisputably better than the other to me.
Next: Quick Time Events rob the player of some agency. Yes, this is true. But I think seeing this as purely negative comes from looking at games in a certain way; do games really need to offer agency? Is the concept of agency a scale on which to measure the value of a game? I personally don’t think interactivity is the be-all and end-all of videogames. So what, if a game’s main focus is its story? So what if it is first-and-foremost a visual experience, or an auditory one, or a textual one… and uses interactivity merely as a complement, maybe to support the other aspects or maybe just as an extra? Choice isn’t all that crucial either. In fact, the absence of choice is often just as important as its presence. Of course, agency is more than just interactivity or choice; but my point is, it doesn’t really mean anything, without any context, that a player doesn’t feel in control, that they don’t feel responsible for how a game plays out. It can be a good or a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re not, in fact, playing a game. A game is a game because it was made a game. Putting such a strong focus on agency limits the spectrum of games that we can conceive. I want to be able to play games in which I am mostly a spectator! games that lead me through their scenery! And, of course, games that only use QTEs parsimoniously, and only use them in very specific situations, when it doesn’t alter my feeling of agency at all.
It’s also true that a successful press of a single button is often rewarded by a disproportionately spectacular move. My reaction to that is pretty much the same: so what? We’re not talking about extrinsic, manipulative, currency-based systems that manufacture artificial glee through gratuitous endorphin-producing loot drops and other ‘+1’s. And we’re not talking about activities that shape one’s life and identity, like learning about something new or getting along within a work environment. Yes, there are countless TED videos about how someone will enjoy something more, and get more out of it, if they worked enough to obtain it; and yes, QTEs can be followed by bombastic sequences – or emotional moments, or huge plot twists, etc. – even though the player didn’t do anything to ‘earn’ them. But I’m opposed to the idea that players must earn everything they get from a game. Again, it all depends on the game you want to make! It’s okay if it’s just shallow entertainment! And, again, I’m purposefully taking extreme examples here; I think the QTE form can be used to great effect in trying to convey meaning.
I think the real reason that Quick Time Events are so universally rejected lies beyond those arguments. After all, I don’t recall anyone slamming Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan despite it being, literally, an unending stream of QTE-like interactions that gave way to ludicrously over-the-top scenes. (I know I’m reaching here, but bear with me.) I think we are so used to the way 1st- and 3rd-person games behave, their grammar is so ingrained within our brains, that it dictates how we approach them; and, specifically, we expect to directly control the character’s movement. I can only think of very few games that feature a player character whose movement isn’t directly controlled by the player; not only that, but the character’s movement is often the core interaction. It’s the very first thing you learn to do in tutorials (or maybe only after being told how to look around). So, when that fundamental ‘gameplay brick’ is removed from below our feet, when direct control is wretched from our hands, it feels like an insult; like a breach of contract. My agency! you may cry out in anger. Damn devs couldn’t find a way to make this scene without taking control away! But once you accept that such a contract never really existed in the first place, I think you’ll find that QTEs are actually totally fine, and, more often than not, a perfectly valid artistic decision.