[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.
Failure Is Not an Option
The very first QTEs were, in fact, a replacement for in-game action. The most obvious example is also the genesis of the modern concept of the QTE: the Laserdisc-based Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics, 1983). In Dragon's Lair, the player controls a knight on his quest to rescue a princess from a dragon. Though the story was common fare for any type of adventure story, the graphics were superbly unique compared to other games at the time. Dragon's Lair was a lovingly hand-animated cartoon featuring the work of renowned animator Don Bluth.
Dragon's Lair's secret was that its data was stored on a Laserdisc. Player control inputs were limited to actions that, effectively, changed the chapter being played. At certain points in the action, an arrow or on-screen object flashes, either to the hero's left or right. The player has to respond in a split second. If we succeed, we see a brief animation detailing our hero's triumph. If we fail, we see our hero's demise.
This game mechanic would be offensively shallow if it were the core of any games today. But at the time, with graphics so astounding, it worked.
Part of Dragon's Lair's appeal was that the hero's deaths -- not just his triumphs -- were unique animations. Dying is part of the game. Seeing each of the hero's deaths is as essential to earning encyclopedic knowledge of the game as seeing each of his triumphs.
We don't see games fully made up of QTEs anymore. However, we occasionally see games where the QTE becomes the main format of the game-action for an entire set piece.
One infamous example of such a QTE usage comes in the game Shenmue II (Sega, 2001) -- the sequel to the game that brought the QTE abbreviation into the mainstream. At one point in the story, the hero and his buddy arrive at a dilapidated tenement building in Kowloon. The goal is to get to the tenth floor, where they have an appointment to meet someone.
The hero goes ahead alone. Upon reaching the second floor, he finds that the floor is caved in, and the only way to get to the other side is to walk across a precariously positioned plank of wood. Step onto the wood, and the action QTE begins.
The camera is positioned just above the hero's shoulders as he stands on a thigh-wide wooden plank spanning a black hole in a gray-floored, brown-aired tenement building devoid of other life or sound. Arms held out at his sides, putting one foot in front of the other, he baby-steps forward across the plank. Every few steps, at randomly staggered times, he leans to one side or the other. An on-screen prompt urges you to press either left or right on the control pad.
Soon, these prompts are coming in relentlessly. Miss just one, and the hero falls to his death. Falling to your death means game over. You reload the game, you endure the journey from your save point to the place of your death, and you try again. Succeeding at this particular mission flawlessly takes 10 grueling, palm-sweaty minutes of your life. Failing at it might take a dozen hours.
You have to walk across planks -- sometimes two of them -- on each of the ten floors of the building. This might be where you give up on the game, either because it's too difficult or because you've smashed your controller. If you succeed, the other character is waiting for you at the top. The hero, confused, asks how he got up there. He explains that he took the elevator.
The player has no option to take the elevator.
God of Buttons
Shenmue II's example of using QTE to replace game action, in theory, is purely out of Dragon's Lair. In practice, it offers no neat graphical payoffs. Even death is unceremonious: the hero is swallowed into the void. It's a chore that must be completed to move forward in the game. QTEs are a powerful game mechanic in that they offer developers the opportunity to show the player something really cool -- and that's why gamers play games: to see really cool things.
Making a game sequence entirely out of QTEs means everything has to be very cool, and it's hard to make everything cool. It's like writing a sentence using only exclamation points. People get tired of that after a while.
The secret, then, is to use QTEs to enhance in-game action.
In God of War (Sony, 2005), a shining example of enhancing in-game action, QTEs most often arise in the middle of climactic battles -- not the cutscenes before or after said battles. In an early boss battle against a hydra, the player must dodge the enemy's attacks while attacking its weak points. Hit the weak points enough times, and you induce a vulnerable state. The player has a few moments to reach and attack the hydra head during this induced vulnerability. He must continue to dodge attacks while climbing the mast of a ship to reach the hydra's head.
Once in place, the player presses a button to initiate a QTE during which the hero lambastes the beast's head, swings around in an acrobatic arc, and ultimately pulls the head down with great force, impaling it on a broken, spiked wooden pole.
Success at the QTE means destruction of one of the parts of the boss. If this were a game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the boss's life meter would be made up of four rectangular segments: attacking the boss outside of the QTE would not decrease his life meter, while successfully completing the QTE would erase an entire segment.
The penalty for missing a prompt in the God of War during-boss-fight QTE is ejection from the QTE: miss a move during the hydra fight, and Kratos plummets back to the deck of the ship. The hydra recovers his strength. You must now attack the boss as before until he's in a vulnerable enough position to initiate the QTE again.
QTEs aren't just for bosses. They can happen in the middle of typical underling fights as well. God Hand (Capcom, 2006) employs QTEs of the button-mashing variety in the middle of standard fights. Sometimes, your hero will have an opportunity to get an enemy in a headlock. Press the button displayed on-screen with the proper timing to initiate the headlock. Now pound that button as hard as you can in the ensuing lock-up to inflict damage on the enemy.
The faster you press the button while gripping the enemy, the faster the hero pummels, the more your controller vibrates, the more damage you do, and the more satisfied and inspired to pump your fist you become.
The crux of this kind of QTE is that it requires a timed button-press to initiate, and that that button is always the same button. In Japanese game development, all QTEs are most often referred to as "Action Button Events" -- as in, you press a button, and you get action.
Meanwhile, in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998), an all-purpose, context-sensitive button is called the "Action Button."
For the God Hand flavor of QTE, where the same context-sensitive button is always used to enter these pummeling scenarios, the description "Action Button Event" is more apt than it may be elsewhere.
Compare the God Hand example with the "torture attacks" in Bayonetta (Sega, 2009). The player plays the part of a witch who pummels angels to death with her hair in a fantasy realm. Every once in a while, during an angel-pummeling situation, a large button icon appears above the enemy.
Press the button in time, and a large guillotine or iron maiden materializes surrounding the enemy. The blade falls, or the iron maiden snaps shut, and the enemy dies in a geyser of blood. It's like a Mortal Kombat "Fatality," except it's happening during in-game action.
It involves complicated machines materializing out of thin air, and it only requires a single button press. And that single button press is indicated on the screen, unlike Mortal Kombat's arcane, mysterious, complicated Fatalities.
This reminds us that, even in the God Hand pummeling example, the button icon remains on the screen throughout the pummeling. This makes us realize why the button appears on the screen at the time of initiating the pummeling: otherwise, the player wouldn't know it was time to pummel. The enemies generally have no tells.
One game far ahead of its time with regard to this type of QTE was Berserk: The Thousand-year Oath (Sammy, 2003). In that game, enemies have tells that indicate when the player can press the action button -- normally the block button -- to execute a spectacular parry and score a massive attack on the enemy.
The tells are neither so subtle that you can only learn them through rote memorization (as in an old-school Mega Man game), nor are they so blatant that they see fit to throw a button icon up on the screen. Rather, they're near-subliminal: an ogre might raise a club above his head, and bring it crashing down toward you. If you're in range of receiving the attack, the screen action will freeze for the sticky, frictive instant before impact. This is your cue to press the block button and initiate the brutal, fast action button attack.
In light of this type of QTE, we could say that traditional QTEs, which halt the game to display button icons, are micro-tutorials. These micro-tutorials teach you how to do the precise thing the hero needs to do in the context of the current, complex situation a microsecond before he has to do it -- or die.
If the current situation calls for the hero to roll beneath a demon beast's blade before cartwheeling back in the opposite direction and then running up the blade toward the beast's face, the QTE-as-tutorial will instruct the player, for a moment, how to do that -- with an alarming, screen-filling "X" button icon. This is directly in line with Ninja Theory's descriptor of QTEs as allowing the player to do things they couldn't do in regular game-action.
It might be construed that a QTE-as-tutorial is "introducing" a new action element to a game long after the traditional tutorial phase has ended. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (LucasArts, 2008) often employs QTEs where the player character jumps about as high as he can jump in regular play, levitates objects about as heavy as he can levitate in regular play, or lightsaber-slashes about as ferociously as he can in regular play. As a tutorial, the QTE is merely "teaching" a nuance -- one which will not be displayed elsewhere in the game.
Buttons on a String
It's possible to employ a "triggered" QTE like this simply, with great flair, with equal risk and reward, and in a manner that doesn't interrupt the game. A good example would be the chainsaw kills in Gears of War (Epic, 2006). You might not think of these as QTEs, but what else would you call them?
In Gears of War, both you and the enemies have guns. You can shoot each other from a distance. Enemies can take four to five dozen bullets before dying. You and the enemies can crouch behind walls for cover from unfriendly gunfire. To arrange a chainsaw-kill, you need to orchestrate the situation.
The entire level design is like an on-screen button prompt. Its geometry tells you where you need to be to stay out of enemy sight while your teammates suppress him. He's not going to stand up or leave cover, because that would be stupid. Jet-engine-volume gunfire echoing out your surround system, you sneak around, holding the chainsaw-revving button. You approach the enemy and are treated to a sudden, fast, furious, satisfying spray of blood.
Then we have the weird little disconnected button-mashing events. Uncharted has plenty of them: the player arrives at a door that cannot be opened. It's too heavy. It opens upward. The character puts his hands under the door. The character says "This door is heavy."
Now a square-button icon appears on the screen. Hammer the square button, and our hero exerts himself until the door is open. The problem with these events is that they usually occur during a time of no conflict. The enemies are dead -- or else we're in an undiscovered ancient ruin, and the developers feel the need to make the players push a whole lot of buttons furiously every once in a while or they'll get bored. (An aside to Naughty Dog: Uncharted's quiet parts are fascinating. It's cool; you don't need to punch them up.)
Then there are context-related situations, where a door requires cranks on either side to be rotated at once. This means you have to finish an ongoing fight in order to convince the non-player-controlled character to come to the door to aid in its opening. Once the fight is completed, the button-mash to open the door feels like dead air. The conflict is what kept you from doing it. Now that you can take your time, maybe the game should let you relish your victory instantly.
It's actually quite possible to place button-mashing QTEs in a strategic context. One fantastic example is in Gears of War 2 (Epic, 2008). Your characters are ambushed while standing in the middle of a circular elevator. The enemies are in the circular hall surrounding the elevator shaft. In the center of the elevator is a round wheel. Get to this wheel and hammer the action button to raise the elevator above the heads of the enemies.
Now you have the high ground. The enemies, however, have access to a crank handle all their own, and they can pump it to lower your high ground. Now we have to keep our eye on the enemies' handle to pick off anyone trying to kill our advantage while also dealing with enemies around the circle. While dealing with those other enemies, one of them out of your sight range might get to the enemy crank and start lowering your elevator. It's a fast, maddening, excellent level design.
God Hand plays with the idea of opening a door with a QTE even while stopped at a conflict-free dead end. It does this by turning the event into a mini-game. Locked doors in God Hand often feature a large, smiley-faced button with a wide mustache made of maces.
As you pummel the button, it turns from green to red. You can see its facial expression quaking. The face soon gets angry. This is your cue to tweak the right analog stick to dodge: its mace-mustache is about to clap your ears, doing big damage.
Dodging forward or backward offers a slimmer margin for error than dodging left or right, though it is also quicker, and buys you more time to pummel the door-button. (Any time you're not pummeling the button, its color slowly fades from red to green.)
Though the level design may be no more than hollow boxes full of enemies, the fights are fantastic, and even the simple act of opening a door includes unforgiving mini-games involving punching. It's no wonder scientists recently proclaimed God Hand the Best Game Ever. (Editor's note: they didn't actually.)
A pattern that emerges in the analysis of game-enhancing, progressive QTEs is that they involve using buttons on the controller for the same purpose that they're used in regular play. In the God Hand example above, the player uses the punch button to punch and the dodge button (actually an analog-stick swipe) to dodge.
Another excellent example is the first boss in Ninja Blade, a game that otherwise features bland (if forgiving) cutscene-replacement QTEs. The first boss is a massive spider monster at the end of a corridor. The player must traverse that corridor, dodging left and right to avoid the shock waves the boss is spitting. If a shock wave hits the player, it hurts him, and knocks him back.
The corridor is long and treacherous. When the player successfully reaches the end of the corridor, he can now attack the spider's face. He does this by pounding the attack button. Eventually, the boss doesn't like this, so he emits a super-powered shock wave that knocks the hero back with intensity. The camera zooms in to the hero's face. He's holding up his sword-edge against the shock wave. This is your cue to press the sword button rapidly to fight back the shock wave.
No matter how many times you press the sword button, you're not going to conquer the shock wave. It's going to knock you back. The question is how much it's going to knock you back. With a less-than-stellar button mashing performance, you might be all the way back at the beginning of the corridor. With a great performance, you might only be 10 feet away.
John Woo's Stranglehold (Midway, 2007), likewise, exclusively employs such progressive QTEs. The most striking of them are the standoff situations. A group of enemies surround the hero. They point guns at him. They tell him to negotiate. He's played by Chow Yun Fat and wearing sunglasses at night, so he is definitely not going to negotiate.
The camera slides into a first-person view. Time slips into super slow motion. Using the right analog stick, we perform the usual right-analog-stick motion of aiming the hero's guns. We pull the right trigger, and it does what the right trigger always does: we fire our guns. In the first slow-motion microsecond, the enemies begin to fire their guns.
The first-person camera snaps from attacker to attacker. The crosshair is always a bit off of the deadly pressure point. You move it manually, at just slower than its usual speed, as you savor the super slow motion reaction time of the enemy in front of you. You pull the trigger. The camera follows the bullet impact. The enemy flinches, deforms, crumples, or explodes backward with terrific physics calculated by the impact point of the bullet.
This is as exciting as QTEs can possibly get: the action fits story context, character context, and game control context, and the payoff is visceral and instant. Much as Half-Life phased out the cutscene by making the narrative "happen" in the world as the player plays, Stranglehold shows that QTEs can be part of a game and not be sudden, intrusive, demanding situations.
In Stranglehold, physics is the payoff. Everywhere you go, you're shooting neon signs and watching them fall onto enemies. Objects that can be shot glint at appropriate times. Shoot them, and they're bound to fall on an enemy position. The "glint" is the game's way of temporarily, instantaneously gifting the player with the hero character's superhuman skill of destruction-minded creative perception. Shoot at the glint, and something will happen. Shooting the glint is accomplished by aiming and shooting your hero's gun in the same way as you'd aim and shoot the gun in any other context.
For the moment, let's ignore the way Stranglehold jumps the shark one-sixteenth of the way through stage two, and say that it might just be the future of action games. Stranglehold presents a genre where the game world itself is a QTE.
Press A to Die
So we've come full circle. Game graphics today are incredibly impressive, even if the things we do with them are something obtrusive and weird. Eight-year-olds who gawked at Dragon's Lair in 1983, if shown Stranglehold, would likely scream until they spontaneously combusted.
The amazing thing, way back then, was that games could look this good while simultaneously portraying complex, dynamic, cinematic action on the screen. We've evolved much since then. We've learned how to make graphics equally as impressive as those cartoons of the 1980s, and we've learned how to make games so incredibly interesting to play that we're willing to get online and play them with profane 12-year-olds, if we have to.
Consider Road Blaster (Data East, 1985), which depicts high-velocity cartoon car chases from a driver's seat view. In Road Blaster, your only input is pressing right or left on the controller at excruciatingly specific times. Your reward for enough precise inputs is to watch an enemy car fly off the road, smack into a mountain wall, and explode in a ball of fire -- or to watch your own car drive up a ramp and fly over some impossible ravine.
A decade and a half later, we have Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise (EA, 2004 and 2008), games about driving at criminally insane speeds and performing ridiculous maneuvers, where the central play mechanic involves knocking cars off the road to their death. What we've done in this modern age is perfectly recreate the thrill of piloting a speeding automobile, and married it seamlessly with the crazy action of sideswiping some dude off the road and into a mountainside.
Unlike Road Blaster, Burnout, using only its vehicle native controls and no on-screen button icons, lets us finely control the velocity of our car and minutely consider the angle and ferocity of our approach. And when we succeed in our favorite in-game action of death-delivery, all kicks into slow motion and the camera swivels to bring the road behind us into view to show our soon-to-be-late rival slowly careening toward some form of demise, the physics of his flight perfectly calculated uniquely, just for our current performance.
Compare that to the game-length QTE that is Road Blaster. (Please ignore Road Blaster's killer soundtrack and wicked-sweet character designs.) Which one is more exhilarating to play? Be honest. If QTEs are a "problem," we might be millimeters away from a global solution.