In Defense of QTEs: Why The Game’s Most Derided Mechanic Is Actually Good

I’m sure not many people read this headline and rolled their eyes. Really, I can’t blame you; there is a reason QTYs are hated. However, I’m here to convince you that when used correctly, every game developer’s little guilty pleasure can actually be fantastic.

QTEs (or their Sunday name, “Quick Time Events”) are all about bombarding the player with split-second button prompts. Their first well-known uses usually date back to classic laserdisc games like dragon’s lair and road blaster. Said laserdisc games were more like movies with button prompts than games, mind you. It would take another 10 or so years before QTEs fully transitioned into more traditional games like Sega’s. Die Hard Arcade Where Shen Mue (with Shenmue director Yu Suzuki being credited with coining the term “Quick Time Event”).

So why are these small events so unpopular? To really understand what makes a good QTE, we’ll first need to give some examples of bad QTEs.

Imagine, you’ve spent a good 20 hours slicing your way through Orc guts in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Talion’s story of revenge finally comes to an end as you prepare for an epic and decisive encounter with The Black Hand of Sauron. You finally reach your mortal enemy… and the whole boss fight is a sequence of button presses replacing the game’s pre-existing combat. This atrocity is the last thing you do in the game. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth; undo the work of the many fantastic hours that preceded.

It is therefore the first (and the most obvious) for bad QTE: the replacement of the gameplay. This was a big thing during the seventh generation of consoles, replacing big sequences or boss fights using a game’s well-established mechanics with an interactive cinematic. Mortal blow in Origins of ArkhamNavarra in Unexplored – the list continues. There are times when QTE combat works. Resident Evil 4The knife fight with Krauser comes to mind, but the key was that it wasn’t your last encounter with Leon’s rival, and more of a silly cutscene.

Resident Evil 4 takes us to the other worst offender in the QTE realm: Instant Death QTEs. Have you decided to put down your controller to watch a cutscene? Oops, you missed a button prompt and died! It’s time to review everything. And, of course, you can’t ignore it – that would be silly. One of the worst offenders is the original Bayoneta game filled with those mid-cutscene deaths (made even worse by those deaths affecting your rank at the end of levels).

Slightly less boring, but much more common, are “mundane QTEs”. Think about God of the war; how many times in this game did you have to mash the square button to lift a door? A good mash can be used effectively to build tension, but what’s the point when there’s no tension? These slow events feel like filler and have the opposite problem of Shadow of Mordor: instead of replacing gameplay with a cutscene, they replace what should be a cutscene with gameplay.

Shadow of Mordor: A lesson in how to do QTEs wrong.

Bayonet Being one of the worst offenders is quite ironic, as developer Platinum Games is the crème de la crème when it comes to good QTE usage.

Let’s take an example of Platinum’s magnum opus – Metal Gear Rising Revengeance. As soon as things kick off, Raiden is tasked with battling a single Metal Gear Ray. Now, in Metal Gear history, the last time Raiden fought Ray, he was armed to the teeth with a seemingly endless supply of rocket launcher ammo.

Rules of nature.

This time, the White Devil is armed only with a sword (and his cyborg body). After crying at your opponent’s feet for a moment, Ray’s giant arm suddenly flies towards Raiden… and you block it! Butt kicks in and you’re asked to frantically mash the X button. You’re instantly transported into Raiden’s shoes as he resolves to hoist this monster 70 feet above his head like Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 3.

The timing, the tension, the intentionality – this is the polar opposite of what I was talking about with the “mash to open door” prompts. Rather than turning what could have been a cutscene into meaningless gameplay, Rising takes what could have easily been a cutscene and makes the moment much more impactful through player input.

Haven’t played God Hand? You should.

After completing Resident Evil 4, director Shinji Mikami created the cult classic God’s hand; a game almost exclusively about punches. And while you punch people, protagonist Gene accumulates power. When you have enough power, you can unleash the titular God Hand, which allows you to hit people much faster. When you blast enemies with your combos, you can stun them, which in turn allows you to perform North Star-style flurries of punches by mashing buttons. Again, mimic the character’s actions with your own input.

Later in the game, you meet Azel: the owner of the Devil’s Hand, which – you guessed it – allows the wielder to strike very quickly. Since the hands are even, Azel and Gene have the chance to burst into this flurry at the same time. This leads to that same mash-em-up gameplay, but now with the added context of a struggle to master your equal to really see who can hit the best (or smash the fastest). Mechanics, narrative encounter.

Mash A to protect the earth.

Another platinum masterpiece – The Wonderful 101 – is filled to the brim with good QTEs. The “Mash A to Protect the Earth” finale is sublime, and it’s enhanced by the cast of supporting characters crashing down with you. Often, time will slow down for you to accomplish these heroic feats in a split second through the use of your “unite morp0h” mechanic. It would be easy for the game to sit back and watch these moments, but instead you still feel like part of the action in The Wonderful 101. It also helps that nearly every QTE in the game has a humorous cutscene in place if you fail. Incentives even on failure – not like instant kills in Bayonetta.

Many players mistakenly attribute QTEs to laziness. And I can’t say I would ever blame someone if they once played Shadow of Mordor and undid the mechanic forever, of course. But, really, QTEs aren’t all bad. In reality; I think they are fantastic when used correctly. When used to complement and enhance gameplay, not replace it, they are a balm – a moment of reflection, or climax, or relief.

And the 2022 versions like Bayonet 3, sound bordersand Kirby and the Forgotten World everyone seems to get the message; by deploying them sparingly and tactfully. So perhaps the days of anticlimactic button-pressed boss fights are long gone, we’re entering a new QTE renaissance.

Let’s just hope it’s not a quick, timed event.

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