[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.