Opinion: Quick-Time Events in Video Games Are Almost Always Stupid

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a rant about game design. This is a mistake that developers seem to keep on making, so I’ll talk about it and offer some suggestions for better alternatives. All of this is opinion, of course.

Quick-Time Events, or QTEs, are a type of gameplay element in which the player must react to events happening on the screen by pressing the right button/key at the right time. Usually there’s a sudden hint on the screen telling you which button to press and when. If you fail to press all of the right buttons or press them at the wrong times, then you “fail” the event and either miss out on some reward or have to replay the same scene over and over until you succeed. And if you succeed, then you’re rewarded by…not having to repeat the event another time. Or if your timing is really good, then sometimes you get items or loot for your accomplishment.

I’m already showing my bias here. There’s nothing inherently bad about any of this. The common mistake seems to be how and when developers choose to implement QTEs. QTEs are an inherently reactive style of gameplay, yet they tend to appear in games that are otherwise proactive in gameplay style. If the entire game is designed to be played reactively, such as a rhythm game, then this timed-button-press gameplay becomes pretty enjoyable, as evidenced by the success of Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and other rhythm games. In this case, the player understands what he’s getting into, and he’s choosing to play a reactive game because he wants to play it.

A lot of games now are proactive in gameplay, which probably includes every open-world game. Minecraft, for example. Proactive gameplay excels when it enables the player to choose his own goals, his own path to reach them, his own actions, or some combination of those. When a QTE appears in an otherwise-proactive game, it completely breaks the proactive style and replaces it with a reactive style. The player has been led to believe he has a certain level of control over the game, and suddenly, that control is taken away and the player must now reach a predetermined goal by a specific predetermined path. Failure to do exactly as the developer has ordained results in the player losing, and having to repeat the event over and over until the exact button sequence is mastered.

I find this type of QTE to be nothing but an act of disrespect to the player. In a game that promises breadth of gameplay experience, it breaks that promise and forces the player through a narrow tunnel instead. It fakes a sense of challenge by pulling the rug out from under you and forcing a change of mode in the gameplay. It replaces challenge with tedium. There is no particular enjoyment in memorizing a button sequence and then repeating it over and over again until you get it perfectly, especially in a game that’s supposed to be about exploring, role-playing, adventure, combat, freedom, etc.

The 2013 version of Tomb Raider is an example of these problems. In that game, the QTEs would have been more enjoyable if they were removed entirely, replaced by non-interactive cinematic cut-scenes.

This leads to my first suggestion. If a developer wants to make a cut-scene, just make a cut-scene. Don’t try to force interactivity into it via QTEs, or the scene will lose all of its cinematic power as the player fails the first few times, then gets it right, having had to watch the same scene 3-15 times in the process. Save the interactivity for the primary gameplay.

Secondly, if a developer insists on using QTEs in an otherwise proactive game, then there are ways to make them more interesting. One, make it very apparent to the player that the game is about to become reactive. Two, give the player a chance to learn and practice the button-pressing conventions that will be required to excel at the QTE. Three, offer meaningful rewards for completing it with especially good timing. Four, implement them in a way that failure doesn’t require the player to repeat the same scene over and over again. In other words, actually invest in it as a core gameplay mechanic.

So often a developer will toss in QTEs just because they have somehow become part of the “checklist of features that go into a successful game” that I so loathe. I guess they got onto that list out of laziness more than any other reason, because QTEs aren’t that hard to create, which makes them tempting to throw into a game as an afterthought. Want to make the next Final Fantasy? Just toss in an open world, a crafting system, achievements, leaderboards, DLC, and oh yeah, don’t forget a few QTEs. Because a role-playing adventure game needs that. Blech.

Another example is Silent Hill: Origins. In this game, enemies can bind you in such ways that you can only escape by mashing the X button fast enough. This situation removes all other possible actions from the player. You can’t use your weapons, you can’t run, you can’t do anything else. It’s either mash the X button repeatedly, or lose the fight and die. It is annoying the first few times, but gets extremely tedious as it happens in almost every encounter with particular enemies. It would’ve been more fun if the game gave you other ways to deal with the situation. Present more buttons that take different actions, for example. Maybe you could mash a different button to try to grab a weapon and attack, or a different button to duck and roll, etc. Or better yet, don’t have the button mashing at all, and allow the player to retain his ability to attack, run, dodge, etc. as normal.

People play games because they want to have fun. They want to relax after a day’s work. They want to explore fantasy worlds, or hang out with their friends. They want to overcome a challenge. As long as developers keep these things in mind, then it’s (hopefully) likely that they won’t fall into the traps I mentioned above.