My comic this morning was about the quick time events in The Force Unleashed. Sometimes the side-text in the comic doesn’t have enough room to say what I want to say, so let’s talk about that some more in this space.
Anytime I bring this stuff up, there’s usually a discussion about which games have terrible QTEs and which games do them “right”. Lots of titles get nominated in the “terrible” category, but God of War is more or less the game everyone holds up as an example of doing things “right”. That’s nice for God of War, but I don’t think this really vindicates QTEs or proves that they’re a good mechanic. I think the reason they work in God is War is because it’s an awesome game, not because a QTE is awesome gameplay. People are thrilled that they got to impale a dude on his own femur, not that they got to press X to make it happen.
But to me the odd thing about the QTE craze we’ve got going on is that it runs counter to a lot of other trends in gaming.
I remember back in the 90’s when games – shooters in particular – would have this big collection of icons at the bottom of the screen. It was like a big toolbar of images and text where you could see your health, ammo, what guns you had, keys obtained, and sometimes a scowling picture of your avatar. I’m glad game designers eventually moved away from the Microsoft Office: Constipated Space Marine Edition school of interface design and started thinking about what sorts of things actually needed to be on screen while you were playing. (Conclusion: very little.) Some games go the whole way and remove even the health bar, and just make the screen flash red when your lack of skill is about to get you sent back to the last checkpoint. Regardless of whether you play PC or console, we’ve got more screen resolution than ever before and it’s now possible to pack a ton of information onto the screen at once, but instead games are giving us less so that we can immerse ourselves in the world more.
And now that they’ve cleaned up the interface so that there’s nothing between you and the gameworld, they turn right around a throw a bunch of bright flashy icons right in the middle of the view. Oh, you were having fun playing “Emo Sith Kicks the Galaxy’s Ass”? Well you can get back to doing that once you beat this round of Simon.
I do give Force Unleashed some credit in that the QTEs aren’t all that bad. In fact, it gets things a lot less wrong than a lot of other games:
1) It depicts all of the face buttons at once and highlights the button you need to press, which means it’s an actual test of reflexes instead of a test of how long you’ve been using this brand of console and remember which symbol is which. (This is also nice for people who moved between Xbox and PlayStation and might have different ideas about where the X button ought to be.) As a bonus, showing the player the face buttons like this over and over will help them memorize the layout, so they’ll be better equipped the next time they run into a game that doesn’t do this.
2) It’s not binary win-or-die. If you flub the sequence, you can usually still kill the bad guy the boring way, thus making a successfully executed sequence into a reward instead of making a failed sequence a punishment. This is good because for the most part insta-kills are not fun. (Dear Capcom: The previous sentence was placed in this article solely for your benefit. Everyone else has figured this out by now. Please get with the program. Thank you.)
3) It’s usually worth the effort. The QTE is used as a way to abstract out spectacular action sequences that can’t be performed using conventional gameplay mechanics. Cutting an AT-ST right in half is a pretty fun thing to do, and comes pretty close to the God of War philosophy of giving you something cool to look at for your trouble.
4) They don’t indulge themselves in my most rage-inducing pet peeve: putting a QTE in the middle of a cutscene. Really, that is obnoxious. If you want to stop my gameplay for a movie then don’t show me a movie with surprise gameplay that makes me have to re-watch the movie until it’s no longer gameplay or a surprise. That is by far the worst of both worlds: a movie you can’t enjoy and boring gameplay that is strictly pass / fail. (Again, this applies mostly to Capcom, although there might still be a few other developers who don’t get this yet.)
Having said that, I still wish developers would find some other way to cue these things besides blasting us in the face with icons that obscure the action we’re trying to watch. Some suggestions:
1) Use a color flash at the corresponding edge of the screen. This seems obvious to me. You just need to direct the player to press one of four buttons, so there is no reason to clutter up the main display. A flash at the right edge of the screen means press the right-hand face button. There. Now a player can jump between PlayStation and Xbox seamlessly without worrying about the irrelevant and entirely cosmetic differences between the controllers.
2) Stick the prompts in the gameworld instead of on top of it. If you want me to stand in front of Godzilla and hit X, A, B then put the X marker on the ground where you want me to stand when I hit the button. Then have A appear on his chest, then have B appear on his head. It’s still an ugly hack, but at least I’ll be free to watch the action without worrying I’ll miss the prompt, and the prompt won’t cover up the delightful carnage. It’s the difference between Superman having a word bubble that says “Stop, Luthor!” and trying to look at a picture of Superman while a guy keeps shoving an index card in your face with “Stop Luthor” written on it.
3) Link the QTE speed to the difficulty level, or (better yet) to its own difficulty level. I was brand new to the Gamecube controller when I played Resident Evil 4 and couldn’t remember the prompts fast enough to hit them reliably. I turned down the difficulty, but the QTEs stayed the same. (I think. I still missed them just as often.) Most of the game was easy even to a newcomer like myself, but those QTEs were just too dang fast. And failing them inflicted a punishment worse than simply dying.
4) Leave QTEs out of your sloppy mouse-and-keyboard PC ports. I don’t care what you have to do to make this happen, but trying to do a QTE on a keyboard with re-mappable keys is insane. And I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but trying to alternate two different keyboard keys as fast as possible with one hand is actually really painful on a keyboard. I know you think we’re all a bunch of dirty pirates, but I’d rather you just come to the house and sucker punch me than ask me to flutter Q and E to not die.
Yes. Quick time events suck less than ever. But they still suck.
Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning.