[Written by Aaron Leach.]
With the recent release of Heavy Rain and the impending wrath that Kratos’ third installment looks to deliver us, I thought it would be a good time to look at Quick Time Events, or QTEs, since one game is basically all QTEs and the other uses them pretty heavily. Now there are already plenty of articles out there that deal with whether or not QTEs are a good or bad thing, and due to the inherent subjectivity of that discussion, I have little desire to participate in that conversation.
Like them or not, they are here, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon so we may as well learn to play nice with them. The aspect of QTEs I’d like to examine here is how many of them negatively impact our visual attention and what some games are trying to do to correct this.
For those that are unfamiliar with QTEs, although I can’t imagine there are many of you, here’s a brief rundown. QTEs use on-screen stimuli, or prompts, that the player must follow in order to advance the game segment. This is usually a cut-scene or any sequence in which the game’s normal control mechanics wouldn’t be able to handle the complexity of the on-screen action. The idea is to keep the player in a participatory role during these segments rather than having them watch passively.
The 1983 classic Dragon’s Lair is often credited as the being button-press that started it all. The Dreamcast epic Shenmue would later start to really popularize the use of QTEs in console games. Since then, many well known titles have used them such as God of War, Resident Evil 4, Indigo Prophecy and many others. It’s actually hard to find a game nowadays that doesn’t use some sort of QTE in some capacity throughout the game.
The problem with most of the current implementations of QTEs is that they pop-up right in the middle of the screen or at least right on top of the action you are trying to watch. However, even when the on-screen buttons themselves aren’t obstructing the view, these events force the player into a mode of alternating attention which, according to the wiki, is what allows people to switch their attention between two different things that have different cognitive requirements.
In the context of QTEs, it’s the battle between trying to watch and process what is happening narratively on screen while trying to actively process and react to the game’s commands. There are many conflicting studies on whether or not humans can effectively divide their attention and multitask with the same level of quality as when they are doing only one task so I can’t definitively speak for everyone when it comes to this issue, but I can speak from my experiences playing games.
In my experience, it can indeed be difficult at times to enjoy watching Kratos rip the head off some giant mythological beast because my eyes and attention are more focused on watching for the next quick time prompt rather than paying attention to the animated action.
The question that game developers who wish to continue to use QTEs in their games need to be asking themselves is how they can create a more seamless QTE experience that doesn’t require such jarring shifts in visual and mental attention. Using some of the various research that many psychologists are currently doing in the areas of attention and, more importantly, visual attention, I think that developers can come up with some simple ways to remedy this problem. Looking at a few games that are already making strides in this area, we will see the new direction that QTEs are moving toward.
The God of War franchise is one of the biggest users of QTEs and really helped to popularize their current form. Having played the demo for the upcoming God of War 3, we can see how the series is attempting to refine the implementation of QTEs. In the first two installments the game utilizes something called vision with attention. This is more or less just what it sounds like. We are paying attention to what we are directly focused on. It also means that this method adheres to the idea of a spotlight effect in which our brain will only focus on what we are directly looking at. God of War does this by flashing the commands right on top of the narrative action. This causes the alternating attention I described earlier.
However, God of War 3 switches things up a bit. Instead of placing the prompts directly into the player’s central focus, or foveal vision, the game flashes the prompts in the player’s peripheral vision at the top, bottom, left or right of the screen. This use of QTEs shows a tendency towards newer research done at the University of Leipzig that suggests that our spatial attention can be divided into multiple parts of the screen, and the stimuli can be processed simultaneously by the brain.
Now of course, we all know that your eyes can truly only focus on a very limited field at once and that things in our periphery have much less clarity and focus. This is where a little extra magic comes in on the game’s part. A prompt that appears in a specific position (i.e. top, bottom, left or right) on the edge of the screen directly correlates to the controller’s face-button that shares that position. For example, a flash to the top is always a command to hit “triangle” and so on. So you never really have to look directly at the prompts to know what they are.
This simple correlation reduces the amount of heavy lifting that the brain has to do in these instances and should allow the focus to stay on the narrative action. The player now only has to use their peripheral vision to notice that a prompt took place and where it took place rather than identify the prompt, identify the specific button and then identify the specific action. This also seems to utilize the idea of preattentive vision, or vision before attention, and possibly more so the idea of vision without attention.
According to a paper by Jeremy Wolfe, PhD, a Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, vision before attention is when we gather and process visual information before directing attention to the specific stimulus while vision without attention is when we try to process a visual stimulus that we never directly attend to. This really seems to be what God of War 3 is trying to do. It wants the player to perceive and react to the prompts while paying as little visual attention to them as possible. While there has been some even more recent research in the area of selective attention that goes beyond some of these ideas, it would seem this style of QTE falls into these categories pretty well.
Another change in the deployment of QTEs looks like it takes advantage of a multimedia learning principle called the Spatial Contiguity Principle. Again from the wiki, this principle states that people learn better when words and pictures that are related to one another are presented in close proximity to each other. How is this applied to QTEs? Let’s look at Heavy Rain for the answer.
Unlike Indigo Prophecy, which took a front and center approach to QTEs, the on-screen prompts for Heavy Rain appear very close to where the narrative action is taking place. In a sense, the game is attempting to guess where your eyes are going to be focused anyway and then place the prompts in that area.
For example, if a character is going to punch someone, the visual stimulus happens near one of their fists. While I do like what this method attempts in regards to making sure the player notices the prompt, the issue I have with this is that it still requires the player to alternate their attention long enough to see what button needs to be pressed. This diverts the focus away from what is happening narratively and turns it toward completing the button-press task.
Finally, a game that attempts to use the Spatial Contiguity approach while also utilizing a singular control correlation to the prompts is Batman: Arkham Asylum. “But wait; I don’t remember a bunch of QTEs in that game!” That’s because the developers did a great job of hiding them. The counter-attack mechanic is based entirely around the principle of a QTE. When an enemy is about to attack The Dark Knight, a little lightning flash appears around his head, and the player has just a moment to hit the corresponding counter button. This is using those two aforementioned principles almost flawlessly.
The proximity of the prompt to the character ensures that the player never needs to negate attention away from the narrative task at hand (i.e. dealing out heaping boot heels of justice), and the usage of a single correlating action to the prompt ensures that the player doesn’t really need to think about what button needs to be pressed. It’s so effective that as I said, the prompt isn’t even a direct visual representation of a button but rather a symbol for the function of a button. This makes pressing that button a pure reaction to a narrative-environmental stimulus rather than the completion of a task commanded by a stimulus outside of the narrative action.
As games continue to evolve and developers continue to get savvier, the mechanics that each employs will also continue to covertly create a more seamless and immersive gaming experience. Until we have some sort of universally accepted control scheme that accounts for all the potentially complex actions that a fully interactive narrative would include, QTEs are one way to keep the player involved. Hopefully, more games will follow in the footsteps of some of the games mentioned here and continue to create QTEs that don’t constantly divert the player’s attention away from the good stuff. You hear that developers? Heed the warning of Kratos, God of Quick Time Events.