clock menu more-arrow no yes
Iron Man flying with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background and firing a beam from his left hand in Marvel’s Avengers

Filed under:

In defense of the quick-time event

QTEs can be very effective when used well

Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

A video taken from the beta of the new Avengers game recently surfaced on Twitter and quickly went viral.

The video shows a cinematic cutscene of police battling criminals in the streets, shifting into gameplay as the player flies in as Thor, wielding Mjolnir. And then — swoosh — a slow-motion transition to a scene with an on-screen prompt to hold the triangle button and perform a slam attack. The game pauses until the player performs this action. The tweet, and video, have since been deleted.

Now, for context, it seems like this particular scene is part of the game’s intro, and the pause does not appear in the rest of the game. This interaction is actually either part of the tutorial or — in my opinion — allows for players to make Thor do the “cool superhero thing” instead of just watching the cutscene without interaction. Neither option seems very controversial, especially in the realm of an Avengers game, which heavily borrows from movie tropes (for obvious reasons), where the movies are ripe with slow motion and even freeze-frame scenes for effect.

The internet, however, was pretty quick to jump to the conclusion that this is a use of a quick-time event, or QTE, within the game. All hell broke loose.

I thought this would be a great time to analyze quick-time events from a game design perspective, explaining why some people dislike them and how I personally think they’re used best.

Let’s dive in, shall we? Don’t worry, though: If you’re not ready, I won’t move into the full article without you.

Quick-time events and cinematic storytelling

When we refer to quick-time events within games, we’re talking about a series of button presses, often timed, in either fixed or random order to get through a cinematic story segment.

Button presses are related to character actions, and usually, the game is paused or slowed down while waiting for player input. Failing these QTEs usually either results in the player failing the segment and dying, or having to redo it from the start.

In the God of War series, quick-time events are a vehicle for the delivery of cinematic segments. They make players mimic directional pulls, struggle, or physical strain by translating that to the controller. The game wants to avoid delivering the cinematic ending of a huge boss fight without the player’s input, while preserving the movielike feel of framed shots and camera pans.

Thematically, having these events not be particularly difficult skill checks on the player’s end makes sense, since Kratos is half-god. While we want to preserve the action, defeating monsters should not feel difficult for Kratos, but rather powerful and cinematic. It’s your visual spectacle payoff for the fight.

But QTEs are one of the mechanics in games that are sometimes described as the “most hated” among players, largely because we perceive them as cheap and unskilled mechanics. And through a lens of a skill check, that is certainly a valid argument to make.

QTEs are pure reaction tests in many ways, are tedious to perform, and offer no value along the lines of mastery since you can’t really get better at them in any meaningful way over the course of the game. Redoing them is either tedious or, when the consequence of failing them is a different story path, can feel like not getting a fair chance to perform or have agency.

In this example from Heavy Rain, we see the QTE system somewhat falling apart in real time as the player simply chooses to miss every single button prompt.

I love this particular video, though, because it shows a strange ingenuity of the system: Completely failing and not engaging with it still provides a valid game experience, even if it’s silly. How many other game systems do you know where that’s the case? Once you free yourself of the unnecessary elitism of viewing QTEs through the skill lens, you may just see their unique value.

However, I would argue that viewing QTEs through the lens of skill checks and player performance might not be the most useful angle to analyze the use of the mechanic — or even the best way to appreciate their implementation.

In many ways, QTEs were invented as a way to make cinematic storytelling an interactive experience. In some games, you could argue that trying to grab onto the side of a cliff as you fall — or other similarly intense situations modeled with QTEs — is an attempt to make you feel that sudden panic of a real-world accident or dangerous event. In my opinion, the induced stress of that gets pretty close to reality.

If you think about your bodily symptoms of a fight-or-flight response, or the stress of having an argument and trying to pick your responses in real time, then QTE implementation makes a lot more sense: sweaty palms, raised heartbeat, clenched jaw, tensed muscles. All these reactions are usually what a stressful QTE segment can invoke in you when playing — just like real-world examples of these situations.

Of course, that isn’t unique to QTEs. But I’d argue that in some games, they do what they are designed to achieve pretty well. Until Dawn is one of my favorite examples, with dire consequences for wrong decisions or failure. You can watch an example here, but be advised: There’s a jump scare.

It’s not a skill check. It’s a means of invoking similar bodily responses that a stressful and time-sensitive situation would produce in the real world. It’s a question of immersion, not skill.

Think of it this way: Timed dialogue options are just QTEs with a narrative layer on top, but we perceive them as decisions rather than skill checks.

Should we get rid of quick-time events?

The now-deleted video of Thor’s epic moment in Marvel’s Avengers went viral because it was being perceived as an annoying QTE (despite it being a one-off intro moment). But I personally think the video shows a way of using QTEs in an interesting and accessible manner. The game allows the player to treat the epic entry of Thor as a spectacle.

Marvel’s Avengers gives me time to take in the scene, frames it for me in a cinematic manner, and allows me to engage with it once I’m ready. Arguably, that is a thematically sound way of implementing QTEs, given that superhero games are both meant to be cinematic and are all about epic shots. Movies often insert slow-motion moments or freeze frames to add spectacle, as well as a pacing device, to the action.

QTEs are perfectly established and reasonable mechanics in many other contexts — every rhythm game consists entirely of QTEs, really. In the context of a rhythm game, despite the perception of it not being a QTE system, we get an easier sense of progression and are therefore more likely to accept it. Rhythm is also a less tangible skill for most gamers, with less connection to elitism and difficulty.

I’d personally love to see a little less hatred for the approach, so game designers have room to push the mechanic further and contextualize it better. Leaning more into the cinematic experience, going the aforementioned Avengers route and giving me a visual freeze-frame spectacle that I can pan around before proceeding would — for example — make me feel curious about the possibilities of evoking an emotional response.

And let’s not forget that paused QTEs that can’t be failed are a very valid way of making them accessible for all players! Playing with implementations that allow for pausing the game, using it as spectacle, and other modern ideas are actually wonderful ways to explore making QTEs more accessible and interesting at the same time.

The hate for QTEs is, in my opinion, an unnecessary expression of difficulty elitism. A well-implemented QTE system has lots of great cinematic opportunities to offer, and provides plenty of ways to make interactive cutscenes feel more tangible.

I’m looking forward to innovation around quick-time events, and hopefully, with it, a player base with a deeper understanding of the mechanic’s potential without outright dismissing its value for storytelling and cinematic experiences.