Last month, guest writer Tucker Poindexter got us thinking about the effects of film on video game storytelling. One of the points he brought up involved cinematics, or cut scenes, in games and how we as an audience want those scenes to enhance our gaming experience. It all came down to one thing: interconnectivity, or, how game developers get us to move from “a passive observer to an active participant.” One way in which developers get us to be active participants, is with Quick Time Events (QTEs). QTEs are context-based actions played by the gamer after receiving an on-screen prompt. There are lots of incredible QTEs that help the audience stay connected to the game, but lately we’ve been feeling a little let down. Are QTEs still here to keep us actively engaged or are they merely here to make game cinematics less passive?
From a developer’s perspective, I could see how QTEs are extremely valuable. QTEs allow players more control during major events and fight scenes that, in the past, would have delegated them to the sideline rather than having some control over the outcome. The player therefore doesn’t have to spend much time watching the character they have spent countless hours controlling do something without them. That being said, what is required of a QTE in order for a player to feel emotionally and mentally engaged? In “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare”, there is a moment where the player is asked to “Press F to pay respects.” All this does -spoiler- is make your character walk over to a casket, place his hand on it for a moment, and then turn away. Is that really more engaging than not prompting the player, but instead letting them choose to go to the casket (or not)? On Reddit, users felt that on top of it being a pretty basic QTE, it also attempted to force them to feel a certain way – “Press X to feel sad”. Doesn’t that also take away from the “active participant”? Not only does the player not get to move naturally, but they don’t get to feel naturally either. In “The Walking Dead” there is a moment where the protagonist, Lee, faces a dilemma: a young boy may or may not be bitten, and the character’s father is adamant that he has not. Meanwhile, another character insists that he has and that swift action must be taken. You have the choice of whom to side with and, even though your choice has no drastic effect immediately, the game tells you that the character you DID NOT side with will remember that you chose not to. This sort of emotional storytelling allows the player to identify with their character and the characters around them much more deeply than simply giving them a single option with a single outcome.
QTEs, when done right, allow the player a level of focus that other game mechanics don’t. For example, major boss scenes with intense button mashing QTEs make me crazy, in the best way. I’m on the edge of my seat, almost sweating, throwing it all in in an attempt to knock out the big boss. I am totally engaged and the victory is so rewarding. Is that what it takes to make a QTE successful? Mechanical complexity and high stakes? “The Walking Dead” is a good example of this not being the case, but many gamers cite sequences such as the one above as being their favorite kind of QTE, so it clearly has merit. Games like “God of War” and “Asura’s Wrath” are great examples of this sort of high stakes, intense QTE. “Asura’s Wrath” triumphs with its “burst” QTE. The “burst” takes on different forms to fit the situation, sometimes amping up the player to perform something powerful or even do something as silly as get drunk in a very NSFW scene. Even though the player does not always know what the burst will accomplish, they know it is at their disposal based on a meter. The player is kept focused and engaged because they know when the meter is finally full, they will be able to perform something truly impressive. Or just, ya know, get shwasted! In either case, the player is no longer passive or participating in something mundane. Perhaps getting drunk isn’t as emotionally engaging as many of the choices in “The Walking Dead” or “Heavy Rain”, but it is entertaining, another necessity when crafting a story of any kind.
Unfortunately, all QTEs aren’t silly drunken escapades or emotionally engaging decisions. They’ve increasingly become nothing more than “press x to not die”. Even inside of stellar games such as the recent “Tomb Raider” re-boot, this trend continues. What’s with the current trend of lackluster QTEs? Are developers basically writing film-esque cinematics within games and then realizing, “Oh snap. We gotta give them something to do here”? Are we as gamers okay with that? Which is better: a long, intense cut scene without any action on the player’s part or a cut scene with a few lackluster QTEs thrown in? Can we have a strong story with multiple, mechanically complex QTEs? Or does story suffer for mechanics? While many of these QTEs are thrown in to give a player a sense of control, the truth is that “control” is a facade, one that has only one outcome and little to no impact on the player.
Clearly, a QTE is a tool and can be used well, but recently we’ve found ourselves with lackluster attempts at interconnectivity. It’s obvious that gamers want sound storytelling and fully realized mechanics so why aren’t we getting them? Are developers getting lazy? Are we too demanding? I think there is a lot more to explore surrounding QTEs, hence all the questions in this post, but I know that right now, I’m not satisfied.
If only there were a single button I could push to fix it all…