Press F To Do The Thing (An Assessment of QTEs)

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?

Pay F to Be Super Lame. This is an example of a QTE.

Pay F to Be Super Lame. This is an example of a QTE…and it sucks.

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.

Clementine never forgets.

Clementine never forgets.

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.

Heavy Rain laying the QTEs on pretty...heavy.

Heavy Rain laying the QTEs on pretty…heavy.

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…

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Separation of Film & Gaming

Modern storytelling exists under the umbrella of film. For more than a hundred years, film has been the American audience’s most culturally significant way of connecting with stories, more so than literature or even television; as opposed to video games which are very young in the world of art and storytelling. Though the gaming industry has now financially become the largest aspect of the entertainment industry – surpassing film and music quite handily – in the eyes of critics and most of its audience, gaming still lags behind films in the quality and presentation of storytelling. Throughout this adolescent phase of video games, we have consistently seen attempts at emulating movies. Read any review about a game like Mass Effect or Uncharted and you will probably run into the word “cinematic”. Why are video games constantly compared to movies? Are video games doomed to live in the shadow of film, or can they forge their own unique storytelling voice?

The comparison between film and video games comes from the way in which modern audiences consume stories. Film has taught each of us the basic building blocks of story and story structure – heroes that take action and go on an adventure, overcome obstacles and learn about themselves, and a conclusion that allows our heroes to achieve their goals, having changed. Of course, these ideas are much older than film; they are as old as humanity. However, the 20th century was dominated by film in the arena of storytelling and has thus influenced audiences the most. The men and women who create the games we all enjoy were influenced by these films as well. Without Star Wars, we may not get Mass Effect. Without Indiana Jones, we may not get Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Without Alien, I’m assuming we might not have Alien: Isolation. Is it possible that these games exist without their film counterparts? Yes. However, not only are the influences clear while playing, but the ideas and themes found in some of these films laid the groundwork for the games to expand upon. Movies and video games are similar in their most basic form – visual presentation to create an entertaining and hopefully emotional experience for an audience. Because of this, the influence of film on video games is neither surprising nor necessarily bad. The extent of which that influence reaches is where we begin to see video games succeed or fail.

Without Indiana Jones, we might not have Indiana-Lara Croft fanfiction! (oh god) Image from comicvine.com

Without Indiana Jones, we might not have Indiana-Lara Croft fanfiction! (oh god) Image from comicvine.com

Despite the positive influences of film, the negative aspects are clearly visible as well. Far too often a gamer will reach moments in a game where control is ripped away from us and we watch a video of our character doing super awesome things we would love to be a part of, but instead are now regulated to the role of spectator. Cut scenes in video games, while not always bad, undercut the very thing that makes video games unique – interactivity. That’s the major element of gaming: being able to thrive in worlds and circumstances we may not experience in real life. We’re not just watching someone else’s life unfold while playing, we’re making choices and making moves that make us feel responsible for what’s happening. Other times we’ll see video games attempting to tell a story in a way that mirrors film, despite games typically being much longer, resulting in missions and quests that feel like filler or unimportant to the real story. Unless otherwise stated, gameplay should be the focus of a game, not the ninth song on a twelve song album. Gameplay is the pre-released solos, so we need something with which we want to engage. Any time a game developer attempts to make players feel like they are in a movie, they fundamentally undercut the unique aspects of gaming as a medium – immersion and interactivity.

Games like Mass Effect and The Walking Dead have begun to capitalize on the emotional impact you can have on an audience when you allow them choice, creating personal connections with the characters in the game. While these games were certainly not the first to attempt this, they are currently the ones doing it best and allowing gamers a form of immersion that most do not. When we are forced to choose between Kaidan or Ashley or between fighting a zombie horde or running away, we become immersed in a way that other art forms can’t offer. We are allowed to move from a passive observer to an active participant, giving us an unprecedented level of interactivity. Games become more than just something we consume, but a unique collaboration between the developers and their audience.

How do you choose?! Image by Ethaclane on Diviantart.

How do you choose?! Image by Ethaclane on Deviantart.

Advances in technology will be a key partner in the future of video game storytelling. Oculus Rift and other virtual reality (VR) companies are vying to bring a brand new experience to gamers around the world. VR gets us even closer to full immersion, a step that will again allow the gaming industry to highlight what makes gaming unique from other art forms. Allowing gamers to stand in the shoes of a hero rather than merely controlling one breaks down another wall that stands between an audience and the art they are experiencing. We will fight dragons, pilot spaceships, leap out of buildings, shoot zombies, form relationships…everything that film and TV merely present to the audience we will have the chance to actually perform. The possibilities are truly endless.

A .gif from the Oscar winning film, "Birdman".

A .gif from the Oscar winning film, “Birdman”. 

We are all watching the video game industry grow up, and as with most things that go through that awkward, pimply phase, there have been and will continue to be growing pains. However, we are also witnessing some of the most exciting and groundbreaking projects that the video game industry has ever put forth. Thanks to advances in technology and the creative minds now flocking to video games as a medium for storytelling, the time has come for video games to emerge as the pioneers of a new kind of storytelling. A new wave that allows for an interactive experience with the audience, creating engagement at a level that is impossible for any other art form to achieve. Video games can acknowledge their roots in film and, firmly grasping the lessons learned from that medium, move the idea of modern storytelling forward in ways that have never been imagined.

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Tucker Poindexter is a guest writer for Ignite Gaming Blog. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago whose passions lie in directing and writing for film. For more writing, witty commentary, and a bit of sarcasm, check him out @TuckDeanPoin on twitter.