Quick Time Events, or QTEs, are sequences in videogames which occur suddenly and ask the player to input a particular control to avoid a penalty (often death). They date back to the 1983 Cinematronics arcade machine Dragon's Lair, the gameplay of which consisted of nothing more than QTEs, but the term “Quick Time Event” was coined by Yu Suzuki in reference to sequences in his game Shenmue which featured numerous action sequences requiring sudden control input to be completed.
But are you for QTEs, or against them?
The beauty of the QTE is that it adds excitement and challenge to a game. Rather than watching a static cut scene in which the story unfolds, the player can be challenged to react quickly to a sudden event. This was the stated reason for the inclusion of QTEs in the popular Resident Evil 4 videogame. This game marks a turning point in videogames to some extent: before its release, QTEs were uncommon, after its success they began to become ubiquitous in certain action games (although it was not the only game to contribute to this trend).
Since the whole purpose of a videogame is to offer interactivity, part of the perceived benefit of including QTEs is that the entire game can offer interactivity – no sitting through long and tedious cut scenes with nothing to do... in a game with QTEs the player must stand ready at all times to react to a sudden occurrence. It keeps the player on their toes, never letting their pulse rate drop too low.
By including QTEs, the challenge that a game offers can be heightened. There are a fair number of players among the gamer hobbyists for whom overcoming difficult challenges is the reason they love videogames – Nicole Lazzaro calls this style of play Hard Fun, while International Hobo has dubbed players of this kind Conquerors. They are willing to endure hardships in order to rise to the challenge of overcoming them, ultimately resulting in the emotional reward which in Italian is known as fiero – triumph over adversity, that feeling that causes you to punch the air. Since action videogames are always pursuing this feeling of victory over impossible odds – after all, a boss fight is all about this feeling – it does not seem unreasonable for games to include other mechanics which lead to the same reward.
Of course, QTEs can be done badly – few if anyone will defend Fahrenheit's ten minute QTE sequence that requires the player to repeat the entire chunk of play every time they fail – but this doesn't change the fact that they can be done well. Ideally, the keys to be entered should make sense in the context of what the player has already been taught. If A is normally a forward roll, pressing A to roll out of the way of a boulder is an intuitive response. In this way, QTEs can be constructed such that rather than the player having to hit an arbitrary control, they learn the meaning of each control and can react in a logical fashion when the QTE occurs.
If a game is already targeting Conquerors as their audience, why shouldn't they include QTEs which add more challenge, enhance the excitement, and thus increase the eventual rewards of victory when all the challenges are overcome?
Up until recently, the Wikipedia entry for QTEs began with the phrase “QTEs are a form of torture used in videogames.” This is far from a minority view on the matter. If you are a Conqueror, QTEs have a lot to offer, but most players of videogames are not Conquerors.
What QTEs offer most players is frustration. You must complete the QTE or you fail, a gameplay mechanic which Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation has devilishly characterised as “Press X To Not Die”. A recent survey of emotions in gameplay by International Hobo revealed that while 1 in 5 gamers report that frustration can enhance their enjoyment of a game (the classic Conqueror play experience) twice as many players reported that they don't enjoy feeling frustrated and angry, and avoided games that made them feel that way.
In a game which is offering to sandpaper off your face in your quest for victory (say, God of War) perhaps QTEs make sense, but there were a great many players who liked the core play of Resident Evil 4 but whose enjoyment of that game was stopped dead by the inclusion of QTEs in which the player had to rapidly and accurately enter the correct control, or die. This was a game with an innovative control scheme that split the moving and shooting actions into independent functions, allowing players who didn't enjoy “twin stick” controls to play a 3D shooter. It reached out to a more casual player with one hand, then slapped them with the other.
Game literate players – which includes pretty much everyone working at a game developer – routinely misjudge how complex the controls of videogames have become. A prerequisite for completing a QTE in the time alloted is that the player must know with absolute unconscious certainty which control is where on the controller – this doubtless seems trivial to those players who have racked up innumerable hours of play, but for more casual players this can be more problematic. When the time it takes them to work out which control is which equals or exceeds the time alloted for completing a QTE, such a player is effectively barred from enjoying the game.
Some games are intending to offer blisteringly difficult challenges, and thus appeal to a smaller audience (the reduction in breadth of appeal offset by the fact that most Conquerors buy and play many games each year, and thus suitably polished and marketed games of this kind can hit a few million unit sales quite comfortably). But any game which is trying to hit a wider audience cannot in good conscience include QTEs.
QTEs heighten the requirements of fast reactions at the exclusion of all other approaches: there is no way to devise a brilliant strategy to compensate for poor reflexes in a game which uses QTEs. If you insist on employing this kind of mechanic, why not allow the player to opt out of the QTEs when selecting the difficulty at the start of the game? Videogames are sold to players on the promise of an enjoyable and entertaining experience – shouldn't players for whom QTEs represent a form of torture have the right to leave them out of the play experiences they have paid good money to enjoy?
Over on The Minigame Court, we are putting QTEs on trial as an alleged Crime Against Gamers. Guilty? Not Guilty? You decide! Cast your vote here! Alternatively, if you want to discuss the finer points of videogame torture, feel free to engage in discussion in the comments here. Votes cast here, however, will not count in the trial so be sure to go to The Minigame Court if you want to determine the fate of QTEs.