It was the moment that videogaming seemed, at last, to defeat all efforts at parody:
Press F to Pay Respects, from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Could there be a more transparently lazy attempt to use the pretense of interactivity as a substitute for genuine emotional involvement and pathos? It was a terrifically funny, meme-ready moment in the annals of AAA gaming, but also one that raised serious questions about so-called “quick time events” (QTEs), the use of a specific control input following an on-screen prompt to advance the game.
For many gamers QTEs are the nadir of a new wave in game design that reduces gameplay to mindless button mashing, or providing thin ludic spackle to an oh-so important cutscene, and Press F to Pay Respects seems only to fatally confirm the idea that such a mechanic can never act as a substitute for more complex gameplay or immersion.
But as with most commonplace pet hates, the reality is much more complicated. QTEs are not new; they appeared in the early days of gaming as a means of interacting with laserdisc movie games and rose to prominence with 1999’s Shenmue, still fondly remembered by many gamers. Through our collective amnesia, what gets lost is why QTEs exist in the first place. One might cynically say they exist because they’re lazy, uncreative and easy to make, but this does a significant disservice to both history and to game developers who’ve tried to make magic happen with the mechanic.
Simply put, at their best, quick time events are meant to blur the line between cinematic and gameplay to maintain the involvement of the player. They can be seen as a form of experiential integration designed to simulate involvement in a particular moment of the avatar’s story. The input device, be it a keyboard, controller, a mouse, or a mobile phone, is used to its fullest extent to provide some kind of sensation that simulates what you see on screen: twist a control stick to wiggle free of an attacker or button mash to pry open a locked chest, as in Tomb Raider.
But this simulation of physical sensation is, of course, an ideal which many QTEs spectacularly fail to reach, often simply reducing QTEs to basic reflex challenges. In that sense, they are not quite as unskilled as their detractors make them out to be. In addition to QTEs as such having a long history in gaming, they also neatly simulate the nature of control inputs in old arcade games (or even pinball) which depended almost entirely on reflexes and timing. But this can strike more modern gamers as rote and uninteresting, and it is sometimes at odds with the idea that QTEs can put you “in the moment” when a videogame character is experiencing something.
“I think a lot of the complaint with QTEs comes from the fact that they disempower the player, and that they’re unexpected,” said Kaitlyn Burnell, a developer at Rockstar Games. “QTEs are not that different from Guitar Hero mechanically, but if you look at how Guitar Hero is designed you see the note buttons coming from a long way off.”
QTEs are actually one of the reasons critics ought to be sensitive to the way a game feels—what physical sensations are produced by the game and by interacting with it? From high budget AAA games to Twine, this illuminates hitherto underexamined dimensions of play that are implicitly important to all of us but rarely talked about. Simulated physicality was exactly the reason the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pak was so beloved upon its release and ultimately led to vibrating controllers becoming an industry standard.
This is why certain QTEs are designed in very particular ways: like shaking the Wiimote in Resident Evil 4, as though it were a baton you were jogging with, was used to simulate running during a scene where your character had to escape an Indiana Jones style boulder. In the absence of a Holodeck (or even something like Oculus Rift), the challenge in crafting a useful QTE lies in finding a way to use the controller or computer in ways that permit the player to feel both involved in the action they see on screen and to feel like they’re actually physically engaged in it. It seems strange to say this about inputs reduced mostly to minor finger gestures, but it can make a world of difference between boredom and being on the edge of one’s seat.
2013’s Tomb Raider is a good example of a game with both compelling and frustrating forms of QTEs. There are surprising and aggravating moments where the challenge of a scene is reduced to pressing a specific button at the right time (press triangle or die), but others that felt more fun and meaningful, such as using your shotgun to blast away obstacles as you sluiced down white water rapids, or the unforgettable climax that saw Lara Croft take command of her iconic dual pistols. During ordinary combat, QTEs were used to trigger special attacks as well; the timing felt like a more reasonable challenge here because the consequence was a minor setback rather than failure (with the reward being a one-hit kill). There were better balances to be found throughout the game, even amidst a sea of button mashing affairs that felt forced or annoying.
Tempting as it may be, we shouldn’t write off QTEs as inherently poor design. The problem is less with the concept itself than with the constraints of the input devices we have and poor usage of the tools available to us. “It’s noteworthy that QTEs bother me less on iPhone games (like Revolution 60) than on consoles,” says Burnell. “It has to do with intuitiveness of gameplay. If there’s a barrier or unnatural button mapping, it makes learning more frustrating and unintuitive.”
The design of our input devices makes a world of difference in terms of what makes physical sense to one’s instincts and muscle memory. There is a reason the best QTEs are the most “natural” ones that haptically simulate the action on the game screen. “iPhone QTEs are ‘swipe here, make a circle here,’” Burnell adds. “There’s never an issue of ‘I need to look down at my controller because I’m not sure if square is on the left or the right of the control pad’.”
Mobile developer Eris Koleszar agrees, using the game Midnight Star as an example, “It has a QTE-type system for its melee combat and it feels much more intuitive because your muscle memory isn’t concerned with symbols and colors—just tap.” It’s precisely the promise of such interactions that makes the PS4 controller touchpad especially intriguing.
If there is a way forward from “Press F to Pay Respects,” it lies not only in avoiding button-pushing as a substitute for pathos (and thus letting writers and artists do their work) but also being more creative about what we expect gamers to do with our fingers, providing more unique inputs that see gamers availing themselves of the dexterity our phones are increasingly training us to have.
Quick time events, looked at fairly, are a callback to the earliest days of gaming; a big red A button loudly yielding beneath your thumb as you blast aliens and asteroids. Yet as lovely as it is, we cannot button mash our way to victory forever. QTEs are here to stay; now that we’ve seen how low they can go, let’s see what they can really do.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the City University of New York and a gaming scholar/critic who focuses on gender and culture in games. You can read her work at quinnae.com, at Feministing and on Twitter.