QTE’s And Input-Output Balance


It’s pretty easy to just say “I’m against Quick-Time Events.” I think it’s also not that much harder to say “I think QTEs are a sorry replacement for ‘real’ gameplay.” What I’m doing here is going into a somewhat detailed description of why, and how it also applies to modern interpretations of things like context-sensitive buttons and long automatic animations, as well as the quest to make games look “cinematic,” which I think is often at odds with the feel of gameplay.

A lot of people have said QTEs just a halfway point between gameplay and cut scenes put there because the developer wanted to let the player do things they couldn’t figure out how to design into real game systems. An example might be a knife fight in Resident Evil 4 or Far Cry 3. I just don’t like QTEs because they make me feel less responsible for what’s happening on-screen.

That goes into input lag and something else I think a lot of developers miss — the proper amount of “space” between the player’s action of pressing a button and the player character’s reaction on-screen. Every time I think about this it brings me to a quote from Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive designer Tomonobu Itagaki: “What makes video games fun is that the output the game gives you is many more times more impressive than the input. You push one button and your character does amazing things.”

Itagaki goes on to say, in this 2006 criticism of the Wii remote, that things start to feel different when the amount of input from the player heavily outweighs the amount of output they get from the game. I think QTEs are an example of the opposite happening. They give players a disproportionately huge output for very little input. I think in order for the controls to feel best, there needs to be a balance between that input and output.

I don’t really feel what’s going on when I do a QTE in God of War or Far Cry 3 for two reasons: 1) I’m usually pressing one button to watch Kratos or Jason or whoever perform an entire complex move. It almost feels like watching a small cut scene at that point. 2) The input lag between the button press and the corresponding part of the QTE is usually higher than a game’s normal input lag, disconnecting me further. Ninja Gaiden on the other hand feels so good because it doesn’t reward you with a whole Izuna Drop for pressing one button. You press one button to get a sword slash, which is cool — it’s an input-output balance you won’t get in real life. Then you combine a few button presses to construct a move. That way, you get to see a cool move on screen that you probably can’t do in real life, yet you still feel responsible for putting it together.

This brings me to the knife fights. FC3, like most first person shooters, doesn’t have an actual gameplay system for melee fights. But the developers want these kinds of melee combat scenes in at certain points, so they put in QTEs as a band-aid. In my opinion a game in FC3’s position should either figure out an actual melee system or redesign those events around the game’s main gameplay loop. RE4 has a single knife fight cut scene, but it also has an actual system for fighting with a knife, or at least the beginnings of one. The game’s penultimate boss heavily encourages knife use, and it actually feels kind of cool because you have to properly time your strikes. It’s not a lot but it’s something.

I think the same way in regards to things like stealth takedowns in action games or other abilities that cause the player character to do a really complex thing with a single button press. It used to be you just hit a guy in the back with a melee weapon and you understood it dealt more damage. I especially don’t like ones that take you from a first person perspective into third person for a second just to show the player character, not you, doing the action. Most people seem to think this is preferable to having little or no animation at all separating input and result. It’s probably the same mentality that has lead to us now having to watch the player character’s hands perform every action in first person games. I actually don’t always think that’s a good idea.

Doing this basically always adds input lag which makes controls less responsive. I get why it’s popular now though — developers want those actions to look more “real.” Simply pressing X and watching the door in front of you open or watching an item disappear into your inventory looks kind of goofy. The extra little animation sells it visually, which brings me to the ultimate reason we have QTE’s and all these other little actions in the first place: they look more cinematic and make more sense visually than “real gameplay.”

When you look at combat in Ninja Gaiden or any fighting game, it doesn’t look realistic or even like a movie fight scene. A lot of developers want fighting and other actions in games to look “realistic” or at least like movie or something. This mentality doesn’t really take into account how the input feels to the player.

Battles in Ninja Gaiden or Street Fighter may not look like traditionally cool fights, but they still involve a similar degree of strategy. It just isn’t a strategy based on reality or movies or anything other than video games. The same goes for first person actions. It may not look like that character is opening a door, but oftentimes the player feels like they’re reaching towards the doorknob simply by pressing the button.

Basically, you often have to choose between something looking cool visually and feeling cool to the player. QTEs to me are an attempt at the former in almost total exclusion to the latter. There are a few examples I think try to balance this out, usually by making the QTE or character animation as quick and non-intrusive as possible. Many of RE4’s QTEs occur during normal gameplay and don’t even remove your control over Leon. The Crysis games, especially the original, have very brief first person hand animations. I also think Far Cry 3’s stealth takedown animation is about the right length.

The worst however is the recent trend of context-sensitive buttons used for extremely complex actions and whole cut scenes. I think these are actually worse than QTEs.

A major example I’m gonna bring up is towards the beginning of Bioshock Infinite where upon first arriving in Columbia, you press the action button to accept a baptism. The game has no actual function or system for accepting baptism. You just press one button to relinquish control of Booker as he walks over to a priest who talks to him, then dunks him in some water. It’s the ultimate imbalance between input and output masquerading as a context-sensitive action. Developers do this to make you feel like you’re constantly immersed in the action but it does quite the opposite.

I guess that’s the ironic part about QTE’s in general. They’re supposed to make the player feel like they’re doing cool things, but in my opinion lacing cut scenes with button prompts just isn’t the way. You have to construct a system that let’s the player construct those cool actions for themselves in order to feel like they earned it.


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