This is a cross post from my blog here.
In what situations do Quick Time Events work? Resident Evil 4 wanted to create the feel of never being safe, ever. So in order to make sure that players continued to feel tense even when they were watching a cut-scene (which they should feel tense during because the character they were playing was still feeling tense) they added quick time events where you had only a small window to input a command to stay alive but there is a fundamental problem with the way they do them, what happens if you fail?
You die of course, but are then re-shown the cut-scene. But the game has shown its hand now, the player knows exactly when it is coming. You can randomize the command they have to input so they don’t know exactly what is coming but they know when and so constant tension is replaced by a game of Simon Says and if you make it too hard you just force the player to repeatedly watch the same cut-scene over and over again which is annoying. If instead of mandating players win these little games by forcing them to relive it until they do win they completely remove any drama from those scenes (at least you won’t be feeling it so much on the 4th time). What if instead of making it replay until you win it was just part of a larger boss battle, where if you missed it you started out the boss fight with less life? You keep the constant tension but lose the annoying repetition of this one mechanic.
There is another bigger problem with it though, and that is that because of this mechanic, you can’t make cut-scenes skippable. Cut-scenes should be skippable (and it should be a 2 stage process: 1 pause, 2 skip) but if you make the cut-scenes an active part of the game you can no longer let players skip over them (because things could happen during them). If you make only the cut-scenes with quick time events in them skippable then you are telling the player which cut-scenes have quick time events in them because “Oh, this one doesn’t have the skip option, better get ready”.
The problem of how you keep a player engaged or tense during a cut-scene shouldn’t be solved in a cut-scene, it should be solved by having less cut-scenes. If you want the player to feel like a fight could break out at any time during an exchange of dialog or a bit of exposition, why not have that happen in game with the player still in control? If you are having a quick time event where the character is doing some cool actiony thing, why are you showing it to the player and not having them live it? I think that the answers to these two questions is that people draw inspiration for games from movies and want to make them more like movies. While games can learn a lot from movies they are not movies, and every second you remove control from the player you are erecting a barrier between them and the character you want them to react as.
QTE can work though, and a good example of a game where they do work is God of War 3. There are two kinds of QTE in GoW3, the ones that happen during cut scenes and the kind that happen in fights.
The ones that happen in cut scenes work because you just can’t fail at them, or re-do them but without the dying and restarting nonsense. They are typically centered around killing someone in a particularly gruesome way and so until you put in the command Kratos will just stand there. In this way they are not used to create a constant “I can die at any moment” tension and used to reaffirm that Kratos is under your control and that this is you doing this. When it wants you to think you are in danger it doesn’t play a movie and use QTE it just has you live those moments which is quite right.
The other kind are the ones that happen in fights, and those work because the punishment for failure isn’t death and you repeating that same thing it is you don’t finish them off in a flashy way and go back to fighting. This avoids the needless repetition part of the QTE problem. Add that to the part where the player must activate the start of the event putting them in control here makes it so they don’t feel jipped when one randomly pops up at the end of a long cut-scene and they now have to watch all the exposition again.
When you want your player to feel like they are in constant danger during a cut-scene, remove the cut-scene and put them in actual in game danger and leave QTE for when you want to show the player something cool they can’t do in game but want them to still feel like they are a part of it.