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Video games are becoming very cinematic. I remember playing games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation and thinking, “this is like controlling a movie.” Looking back now, those games may be a little dated in technology but the cinematic quality is still present. It didn’t take long for developers to realize that game players may start getting bored during their lengthy story sequences. Thus was born the quick time event. QTEs quickly became common place in games but since E3 has ended I have been pondering if QTEs are still relevant.
Two games at this year’s E3 are to blame for this article, Tomb Raider and Need For Speed: The Run. Both games were shown off with live demos. While they both look really fun, I felt uneasy about the amount of QTEs they contained. There are two sides to the QTE coin. The advantage, they allow developers to easily produce complex set pieces in games that would normally have to be left out or restructured. The disadvantage, control is taken away from the player producing a disconnect that cheapens the impact of what is happening on screen. Often when the actions on screen are compelling enough the disconnect is minimized. However, as game tech and design grow, QTEs seem to be growing outdated.
Resident Evil 4 has the best use of QTEs that I have ever run into. They were also quite unexpected. The day the game came out, several people were gathered in Will’s dorm room watching him play. After beating an early section, he set the controller in his lap to watch the cut scene. A zombie dragged an axe as it slowly approached a restrained Leon Kennedy. The whole room was immersed in the movie as the zombie raised the axe into the air. Just before the axe dropped, a prompt saying “press A” appeared on screen. Everyone screamed, especially Will who grabbed the controller and smashed what he hoped was the A button. It was a great moment; mostly due to everyone’s reaction. Several other cut scenes in RE4 have similar prompts, including one that is my favorite cut scene of all time; the knife fight between Leon and Krauser. These scenes are awesome but could they have been better if the player had total control? It’s hard to say for a game that is held in such high regard. Perhaps it is better to ask if the same thing would work today. Resident Evil 5 followed a similar structure as RE4 without receiving the same praise. Personally, I feel RE5 is a fantastic game but I know many felt it was too similar to its older counterpart. This is quite telling of how quickly the video games advance.
The Force Unleashed is my default response for a QTE gone wrong. A commercial for the game showed Starkiller (the main character) pulling down a large space ship using nothing but the Force. That single commercial more than likely contributed to a major portion of the game’s sales. As it turns out, the actual sequence ended up being a string of QTEs. In this case, the cut scene ended up being more powerful without the QTEs added in; many that played the game commented on their disappointment of the sequence. No doubt pulling down an enormous spaceship without touching it can make one feel empowered but having to spam a button to do it somehow cheapens the experience.
Controlling the players focus is often the excuse for inserting QTEs into a game. Ten people can play the same game ten different ways; one player can be right in the middle of a gun fight while the next could be jumping on a desk in a corner trying to clip through a wall. While I admit it can be very difficult to direct a player’s focus, I don’t think QTEs are the solution. Developers are getting better about directing the player’s attention without removing control. Story sequences can be fully interactive without wreaking the players understanding of what is happening. Half-Life 2 is heralded as one of the most emotionally stirring games ever. As far as I remember, control is never taken away from the player through the duration of the game. Some may argue, if given the option to move around, players will roam around a room and not pay attention to characters delivering dialogue. This is true if the player is not engaged in the story presented to them. If constructed correctly, players should be immersed in a story and will interact with characters to ensure the story advances. Valve is clearly one developer that understands this. I imagine a lot of (if not all) developers understand consumers want to play games instead of watching them. In the years to come I think we will see the QTEs die out and only be used as a last ditch effort in games rushed to market. Video games are very cinematic but they are not movies.