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Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment: Incorporating Quick Time Events into Gameplay

February 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[This design analysis, originally published in Game Developer magazine, examines the QTE, from its genesis in the laserdisc games of the '80s through Shenmue's surprising revitalization of the concept and on to contemporary explorations of the form, from God of War to Heavenly Sword.]

A "Quick-Time Event" (QTE) is an event in a game where the player must press a button to perform a cinematic action that can otherwise not be performed in that game in an ordinary context.

Usually, when a QTE occurs in a game, normal controller inputs are overridden. If the X button on the PlayStation controller is usually used as the jump button, during a QTE, the X button can be substituted for any action the game designer requires. Using the X button in a QTE might result in the player character punching an enemy in the top of the head, dodging a bullet, or splitting an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in half with a samurai sword.

The sequence of a typical QTE involves normal controller input being taken away from the player for an instant before the on-screen action snaps into a cinematic camera angle.

In an action game, this camera angle usually reveals an enemy threat. Next, a button icon appears somewhere on the screen. This icon stays in place only for an instant. If the player presses the button in time, the player character will avoid or neutralize the threat.

For example, in Uncharted (Naughty Dog, 2007), at one point, the hero Nathan Drake falls from a ledge and onto his back. Control is overridden; the camera angle swings up to show a large piece of rock breaking off the side of a cliff face and sliding toward the ground.

A button icon appears. If the player presses the button, Drake rolls out of the way and the rock crashes violently onto the ground where he had just been. If the player doesn't press the button in time, a brief cutscene plays, portraying Drake's tragic death.

More complicated QTEs might involve threat after threat raining upon the player. In this case, the player must press numerous buttons in sequence. Missing a button-press results in instant failure and possibly death. Some games, like Ninja Blade (From Software, 2008), will allow the player to immediately restart the QTE upon failing once. Other games, such as Shenmue (Sega, 1999), the game whose director Yu Suzuki coined the terms "Quick-Time Event" and "QTE," are not so forgiving. Failure at a QTE will result in player death and a game over condition.

Of Ninja Theory's game Heavenly Sword (2007), in which QTEs are called "hero events," Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series director Tomonobu Itagaki told consumer magazine EGM that he had "never played a good game where the developers put a big icon of the button you're supposed to press onscreen." He said the game seemed "really half-assed, because it's asking you to do all these button-timing sequences," and the player is not "getting much payoff from it."

In defense of Heavenly Sword, SCEA's Kyle Shubel replied that "the intent of the hero sequences is to empower the player to experience events that would be nearly impossible to play in a natural platforming state... for example, making the player run down ropes, leaping from rope to rope as they're being cut from underneath you, all while dodging other objects -- that would be a frustrating experience to 99 percent of our users if we were to force them to do that manually."

This certainly seems to be the trend. QTEs replace actions that would otherwise be more complicated than any player, even the skilled ones, are able or willing to input with the basic methods allowed by an analog stick and a couple of buttons.

It's perhaps interesting to note that, despite their vocal stance on the virtue of QTEs, Ninja Theory's next game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010) employs not a single QTE, not even the kind where you hammer a button to open a heavy door. What happened?

Cutscene with a Knife

After hours of satisfying shooting at virus-infected high-speed-sprinting zombie-intelligence psycho-freaks, Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2003) climaxes in an extended knife fight between a hero and a villain. The exact nuances of a military-grade knife fight as seen in the climax of cinematic masterpiece Under Siege were, for certain, simply not expressible with then-modern video game control inputs.

Knives are short blades, a fraction of the length of a human arm. The arm acts as a whip; the wrist rotates; the mind manipulates the blade to clash with the opponent's in defense, to feint, or to make a desperate stab. You really can't express this one-to-one in a video game using only buttons and analog sticks. The fight is long and elaborate -- some critics might say too long, and fantastically elaborate.

The Resident Evil 4 knife fight takes place during a heated dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist. The dialogue involves the revelation of important story information -- why who has been doing what to whom For All This Time, and what he wants to convince him to stop. Effectively, it serves a purpose of a cutscene. As a climactic moment in the story, it's a cutscene that players most likely wouldn't want to skip.

Players that do want to skip the cutscene are unable to though. The sequence contains a series of precise button-press prompts. If the player fails at inputting a button press, the antagonist kills the protagonist, and it's game over. The knife fight QTE is the most-hailed example of both the positives and negatives of the form. The suspense of the unraveling dialogue and story revelations place extra pressure on the antagonist's coming knife-lashes; the potential for quick death means the player may be forced to repeat the QTE, the cutscene, and the dialogue again from the start.

Other QTEs act to replace or supplement cutscenes. In Shenmue, QTEs often occur at the height of a dramatic cutscene. Unlike the knife fight in Resident Evil 4, QTEs in Shenmue are all action. In one scene, the hero (Ryo Hazuki) is chasing a group of biker gang members out of a bar and down an alley. The chase comes after a small conversation in which Ryo attempts to wrangle information out of the gang members. The chase occurs as a spectacular action payoff.

Unlike the knife fight in Resident Evil 4, the story revelations are over when this QTE begins. Also unlike the knife fight, if you miss a prompt during this QTE, you still have a chance to win. The QTE branches: at one point, the man you're chasing knocks over a box of fruit; if you don't dodge it, and instead trip, the QTE is effectively lengthened as you're offered opportunities in the form of more button prompt situations. In the context of the story, this means that the chase is longer, and the hero doesn't look as impressive as he would had he captured the character quickly.

Similarly, Shenmue contains many QTE fight scenes full of intricately detailed karate maneuvers -- grabs, holds, throws, dodges -- that would be difficult to map to specific controller inputs. Miss a prompt, and the hero is punched in the face.

That doesn't necessarily mean game over. The player has plenty more opportunities to win the fight. The fight grows long, the hero lands punches, misses punches, dodges punches, and takes punches. The longer the QTE, the more interesting, if not impressive, the fight. Of course, if you miss enough prompts, the hero goes down, and it's game over.

In both of these examples, the QTE is "replacing" a cutscene -- in Shenmue, it often replaces a cutscene that would follow another cutscene. The talking cutscene ends, and the punching QTE begins. This type of cutscene-replacement QTE is primarily a means for developers to impress players with dynamic action scenes. The knife fight scene in Resident Evil 4, on the other hand, is "enhancing" a cutscene. In an "enhancement" QTE, the developer is providing the player with a reason to invest himself in the story revelations of the cutscene.

Other games, such as Metal Gear Solid 4 (Kojima Productions, 2008), will occasionally provide players with an on-screen prompt, which sometimes lasts no more than a fraction of a second. Press the action button during one of these prompts to view an alternate angle of the cutscene, or maybe view a piece of concept art of the character talking.

In Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, succeeding at one such on-screen prompt results in the player being treated to a view of a female character's underwear. In this case, QTEs are rewards to the player for steadfastly paying attention to the game's narrative. In this way, perhaps QTE are used to safeguard against the common complaint that games like Metal Gear Solid feature too many cinematic sequences and not enough game-playing. This use of the QTE has created many critics' impressions that QTEs as a game-mechanic are interaction on the fringe of passivity.

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Carlo Delallana
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I'd like to submit another wonderful and overlooked example:

The Mark of Kri (2003)

It almost seems like a hybrid system where complex moves are drilled down to very specific single-button actions but there's the element of choice as you decide to lock on to multiple targets.

Dan Brewer
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If may add Heavy Rain to the list of the examples. Made up of pretty much quicktime events.

A memorable sequence involving a leading character and a shootout in a Mansion. There is no fixed button to fire your gun, instead enemies pop up and depending on their screen position, a relative button on the dual shock controller is assigned to shooting them.

As far as I can remember, high up enemies on higher balconies were assigned to L1 or R1, lower enemies were assigned to face buttons like Square, Circle etc.

In the scene you find yourself intuitively finding and pressing the button to shoot the NPC, by judging their position on-screen, before actually being prompted what button to press! Genius design!

Joannes Truyens
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Nice article. While reading, I couldn't help but make a comparison between QTEs and morality systems in today's games. Both are strictly polar and limit the player's options to two (success/failure and good/evil respectively). There's no middle ground. As such, QTEs present a situation where the player can either succeed and keep going, or fail and try again. There's no partial fail state where the player can keep moving forward and account for the result of his failure (Shenmue is the exception that proves the rule), just as there is no morally ambiguous answer (to which something like The Witcher is the exception).

Dead Space 2 is a noteworthy culprit, because it uses QTEs for pretty much everything and fits the dualistic simplicity mentioned above. Even a key emotional scene, like Isaac coming to terms with his guilt over Nicole's death, is accomplished by mashing X. Thusly, QTEs are about fostering a rudimentary sense of interactivity. The player is not just watching a scene, he's hammering X while doing it and must therefore be an active participant! It's no longer "Press X to skip this scene", but "Press X to win this scene".

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While it is a nice article QTE's are game breaking distractions that take the user out of the game. Imagine watching a sci-fi movie and having to play "simon says" at a critical plot point. God of War got put in the closet at the first boss. No matter how good I got with the other game mechanics the QTE became a show stopping blocking point.

Joannes Truyens
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It might not have been entirely clear from my comment, but I'm no fan of QTEs. The worst I've experienced them was with the PC version of Fahrenheit, where even the flow of a flashback scene was dependent upon correctly completing the necessary button prompts. Of course, its gameplay mechanics were centered entirely around QTEs, and more so its spiritual successor, Heavy Rain.

Laurie Cheers
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I'd disagree with your definition of QTE; not every on-screen prompt counts as one.

In Gears of War, chainsaw kills work the same way throughout the game, rather than being a special action introduced just for one particular boss or event. You can play through the entire game without making a single chainsaw kill - it's just one gameplay option in your repertoire. And, critically, there's no particular time-limit to it. The prompt just appears, in a predictable way, whenever you're in range of a suitable target.

Conversely, in the 2008 Prince of Persia game, there are several sequences that I would categorize as quick-time events (press B, now press Y, now press X, now press X again... sorry, too slow, try again!) but without any on-screen buttons in sight. They just indicate which button to press using the player's situation. (There's a ring to grab! Press Y to grab it. That swung you to a magic platform! Press X to do a magic jump. Etc.)

The key distinction I would draw is: quick-time events are essentially tests of reflexes. The first time through, there's no way to anticipate which button you'll have to press, or when; all you can do is wait until the prompt appears (in whatever form that might take), then try to do what it tells you, and hope you're fast enough. And if you fail the first time, in subsequent playthroughs the test becomes one of memorization.

> Which one is more exhilarating to play? Be honest. If QTEs are a "problem," we might be millimeters away from a global solution.

Because Burnout's gameplay is fun, and is not based around QTEs? Sure... but plenty of other games still feature them, albeit not to the same degree as Road Blaster. I don't understand your point here.

[Edit: Wait, there isn't even a prompt for chainsaw kills. They're just an in-game action you can do whenever it's appropriate. So... what are you even trying to say here? If chainsaw kills are quicktime events, then any melee attack is one. And so is reloading. Or pressing any button to do anything at all. Are you defining QTE to mean "fancy animation"?]

Marko Muikku
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From UX perspective:

Generally a quick time event is a forced, reflex- and vigilance-based interactive cut-scene where the player needs to successfully complete sequences of, relatively unintuitive, button or direction presses in time in order to "complete" the cut-scene.

Lloyd Parker
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Intuitiveness is where I believe games such as Shenmue and Heavy Rain - both innovators in the area - separate themselves from the pack. Their prompts have relevance in the context of the game, outside of the QTE itself. In Shenmue, the "punch" and "dodge" buttons are universal throughout the game and QTE actions that have no in-game equivalent are intuitively mapped e.g. Up to jump.

I'm surprised Heavy Rain isn't mentioned as it is by far the most advanced form of QTE we have seen thus far (and arguably the most successful).

Marko Muikku
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That's spot on :) Shenmue and Heavy Rain differ nicely from the general QTE conventions.

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QTEs are poor substitutes for player interaction. I would define them as "simon says" mini games combined with fancy animation.

Andrew Hopper
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And I'd counter by saying that QTES simply represent another "form" of interaction, a genre in itself if you will. There are many ways to implement them, some good and some bad. Like any game, you have to decide how much control you want to give the character and I'd be gladto give up some control to play a QTE game if it used the QTEs to play up the emotion and story. As many have said, Heavy Rain is the best use of the QTE dynamic so far, even if the story itself was riddled with plot holes and that dumbass Madison.

Taylor Flagg
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This article feels more like a survey of QTE usage rather than a complete history. Heavy Rain is definitely a current-gen example of good QTEs and I think could be studied on its own.

I always felt that a game needs to make the player very aware that they should be ready for a QTE. Shenmue was good at this because, as the article said, QTEs were only during action sequences and not important plot scenes. My biggest problem with QTEs is that they force me to stay vigil during cutscenes, staring at the bottom edge of the screen for the flashing X, rather than being able to sit back and enjoy the movie scene I've earned. QTE during cutscenes is often poor interaction, so whatever may be gained is lost by not letting me focus on the camera angles, scene details, etc. You want me to watch the entire screen during your cinematic, right?

Steven Barnes
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What about Dragon Age(2009)? Bioware used it when fighting bosses as a sequence of finishing moves. I actually liked how they used the QTE's and I really could see them used in the future. That is if controller-less gameplay doesn't take over. I think QTE's could be used for Melee combat in FPS's as a way to extend combat making it more realistic. I think the new halo has something along those lines but I haven't played it yet.

Jongwoo Kim
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What QTEs? The sequence only plays when you finish off an Ogre or a Dragon with a normal attack, which is automated. You might've been button mashing the attack button, but that wasn't necessary...

Steven Barnes
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I'm not sure if you have ever played the game but I know for sure when you are fighting the dragons and finishing them off QTE's come into play. If you press the buttons as they appear on the screen, your character will preform special moves. If you fail to press the button in time the dragon will throw you back. I haven't played Dragon Age 2 so I'm not sure if that's what you think I'm talking about. Or perhaps you were button mashing and luckily pressed the right button at the right time. Just to let you know it is not necessary to mash all the buttons when you initiate QTE's, only the button that appears on the screen. Glad I could help you out! 8)

Richard Fleming
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Perhaps less smugness? Because you are wrong for the PC version. There are no QT events in Dragon Age for the PC at all. Zero. If you played the console version, perhaps that is where the confusion is setting in. I suspect that is the case, as you are talking about button mashing, which isn't a term us PC gamers tend to use. And if that is indeed the case, then it is a rather odd change.

I don't think the cinematics or tension of the fights would be improved at all with QT events. It's an rpg, not an action game. I don't want to have to enter a code to deal the final blow to the dragon, my character already did that. If I wanted that kind of a mechanic, I'd play an action game. So I guess my point is that I disagree with your point that Bioware should make QTs present in all their rpgs.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment: Incorporating Quick Time Events into Gameplay"

That's what QTE's are, REACTIVE input. It clears out why ACTIVE input are often better, doesn't really have to be extinct. One can argue in a macro level that all games should be sand-boxes as well, what's also untrue.

Kamruz Moslemi
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QTE's are just a way for developers to eat their cake and still have it. The cake in question is the obsolete concept of the mechanical and limited control over a player character being put aside for a moment so that an animated sequence can be shown depicting said character doing something cool that the player could never possibly do themselves due to their interaction with the game being limited to the established mechanics of gameplay.

Via QTE's developers can still show the cool piece of video, only now the player can at least pretend that they are part of the action by being forced to push the occasional button to keep the reel rolling.

Personally I feel QTE's are a rather cheap way to create an impossible spectacle that breaks from the monotony and predictability of the already well established gameplay of the title.

I much prefer developers think outside of box and try to surprise players while not breaking away from the established gameplay mechanics. There is a point in Dead Space 2 where the character is attacked by a boss monster which sets off a setpiece that ends them helplessly out in space with an attack ship bleeding rockets close to the monster which the player is suddenly required to aim at and shoot in order to escape the dire situation.

This is a sort of cinematic moment that punches the lull of monotony out of the game unexpectedly, and the cheap way to handle it would have been via a QTE sequence, but here the developers kept things moored in the usual gameplay mechanics, only taking away the player's ability to move and requiring him to think fast. Other setpiece moments from games that fool the players to think that something drastically different is taking place without the usual game mechanics changing much can be found in Uncharted 2.

The building toppling sequence and the sliding rock slab sequence are both very cinematic without taking away control from the player and reducing them to a spectator. I think that is the smarter way to go about creating variety, just take the player by surprise by a sudden change of scenery that in terms of play mechanic is actually just what they've been doing all game long.

Charles Forbin
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Re: QTEs.

Don't. Just... don't.

JB Vorderkunz
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all the haters need to realize that there are HUGE numbers of gamers who actually *enjoy* QTEs. There is no *right* or *wrong* way to design a situation, rather, you will simply have more or less fans based on your design and their personal tastes.

enjoyment==subjective experience

Sting Newman
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Not quite, QTE's are really used as an abstraction for in game cinematics, QTE's should really should be a subset of in-game cinematics, which most gamers don't have a problem with.

The real issue is when QTE's become a replacement for mechanics that would add value and fun to the game because the developers don't want to do the work (are lazy).

There is a time to abstract something and a time not to, deciding when is the issue.

Josh Foreman
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In general I loath QTEs. I'm not particularly good at them. And I am troubled by the massively different representational discrepency between normal gameplay and the QTE. It would be like playing the battle at the Alamo on the Holodeck, but every once in a while one of Santa Anna's soldiers was represented by a life-sized pawn.

Tora Teig
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(Like Joannes Truyens said!).

I don't think it makes a lot of sense to have the player die if failing an QTE. Then the player is forced to watch the same thing over and over until it is made right. So the player is watching this dramatic scene unfold over and over and can't do anything but pressing buttons in the correct order. Failing: the scene loads, then replays and the anticipation and excitement of the dramatic situation is worthless.

As they are executed today, I don't really like QTEs, but this was a very nice and interesting read still. Thank you!

Eli Friedberg
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This is an ultra-late comment and a silly nitpick, but I'm confused by the reference to the "Berserk" game in the article - it says that "Berserk: The Thousand Year Oath" was released in 2003, but a quick Google search has turned up no reference to a Berserk game released in 2003 nor one called "The Thousand Year Oath". There was a Berserk game called "Chapter of the Holy Demon War" released in 2004, which I assume is the one Rogers is referring to. I'm just wondering if this is a mistake or if there is another Berserk game that neither I nor Wikipedia-savvy Berserk fans are aware of.