“Must Mash Buttons!” – My QTE love-hate relationship

Storytelling mechanic or overused gameplay element? Alex ponders the humble quick-time event and all it has to offer. Anyone keeping up with this blog might recall that I wrote a piece on my personal “top five” overused gameplay features. Quick-time events (QTEs) just about managed […]
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Storytelling mechanic or overused gameplay element? Alex ponders the humble quick-time event and all it has to offer.

Anyone keeping up with this blog might recall that I wrote a piece on my personal “top five” overused gameplay features. Quick-time events (QTEs) just about managed to miss an entry on this list; they’d definitely have made it on a “top ten”.

I’ve always had a healthy dislike for QTEs in general ever since I first encountered them on SEGA’s Shenmue and I positively hated the bastards in Resident Evil 4. Whilst playing the most recent Tomb Raider game I had tremendous fun watchingElectronic Theatre Image Lara Croft die in a variety of horrible and degrading ways in cutscene after cutscene.  Far Cry 3 was another recent game that succeeded only in irritating me with its QTE-based ‘boss’ sequences. Ultimately, as far as QTEs go, I’m just pressing buttons to advance the game rather than because I genuinely care.

This is not to say that QTEs can’t be used to great effect.

When they’re put into the gameplay, as was done most notably in the God of War series and an extensive list of other games that were combat-heavy, the QTE can add depth to player sensations of being awesome. There’s more tangibility and satisfaction to a finishing move that, say, has my character ripping off an enemy’s appendages if the game demands that I get something right in a matter of split-seconds.  As far as combat goes, it also breaks the tedium of calculated button pressing and gives me some breathing space to think about what I’m going to do next. I think combat QTEs were done very well indeed with Platinum’s hectic score attack shooter, Vanquish.

So while they are overused, can be considered lazy or cheap, and aggravate a lot of players who just want to watch a good cutscene, there are times when QTEs can become an effective tool for player interaction. For my part, I didn’t think any game had used them very well for the actual process of storytelling – or that this was something that could change.

And then I played The Last of Us.

Even as I write these words it’s difficult to explain how this is possible. What does this game do with its QTEs – which aren’t, by QTE standards, even all that complicated – that means I can mash buttons to avoid death and be completely engrossed in the outcome?  I assure readers that this hasn’t happened before.  Normally if a prompt telling me to press X, mash circle, or pull both triggers, pops up during a cutscene I engage ‘Shits Not Given’ mode and patientlyElectronic Theatre Image follow said prompts until the scene ends. This leaves any emotional attachment I felt towards the characters thoroughly eroded. Not so with The Last of Us.

It’s no secret that Naughty Dog have a strong history of producing gold standard titles.  Theirs are the kind of games that can quickly result in a spike in console sales and I believe The Last of Us has done exactly that for the PlayStation 3 in recent weeks.

Still, what I find most impressive about this game is how I can be coerced into mashing buttons during a cutscene and care so much if I don’t get it right.

Storytelling QTE success in The Last of Us derives from something that other third-person action games haven’t done before. To begin with, the game is more of an interactive story than it is a game. Cutscenes and gameplay are merged seamlessly into each other; main characters Joel and Ellie converse almost as much when players are in control as they do in the story sequences. This essentially results in a conditioning effect upon the gamer, getting us used to the idea that we’re just the means by which events in The Last of Us play out. Every player action can be loosely described as a QTE, from stealth takedowns on enemies to all-out combat. The game discourages long, drawn-out battles and embeds a desire for quick solutions to violent encounters.

This makes QTEs in the cutscenes much easier to swallow as a legitimate storytelling mechanic. Joel isn’t by any means light on his feet. His hefty frame and fighting abilities, while brutal, are cumbersome to work with and the controls appropriately reflect this physical sense of struggle. At one particular point in the game, where Joel is kicked off a ladder and being drowned in an opportunistic puddle, I was prompted to mash the square button and I did this with an almost religious fervour while muttering words to the effect of, “Come on, get up… Get up! Knock his teeth out!”

I caught myself in that moment and realised The Last of Us had done what no other game had managed to do. I was engrossed in this character, his story, and I’d hardly noticed the QTEs that permeated the gameplay at semi-regular intervals because I felt his human desire to survive every dangerous situation.

There are more than a few games that could have benefited greatly from having QTEs removed from their cutscenes altogether, but I can’t imagine The Last of Us without them. It’s a relief to know that QTEs can be used in cutscenes to good effect, albeit in small doses. That being said, The Last of Us is unique in its approach to gameplay and I don’t imagine many other developers could strike that delicate balance.

I hope they take note of what Naughty Dog has achieved here. It isn’t often that a game can plonk what most would consider an overused mechanic in front of me, only for me to lap it up with wild abandon and ask for seconds.

There are other promising titles that have dipped into QTE territory and come out better for it, amongst which I would count The Walking Dead episodes. Most of them are, like The Last of Us, character-driven interactive narratives, but none have had the courage to include as large a portion of gameplay as Naughty Dog’s masterpiece.

As much as I can deride the humble storytelling QTE and the absurdity of games that demand I mash buttons to stop a character I don’t care about from getting knifed, crushed, bitten, molested, or generally traumatised, I now want to see it put to better use. It takes a lot for it not to be a clichéd mechanic, but then again that’s what would make it special.

Make it happen, developers. Make it happen.

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