6/14/2013

How QTE makes developers lazy

Recently I'm reading a book called "The ultimate guide to video game writing and design". As soon as the introduction, the authors admit that "the book is not a contemplative work that is meticulously structured and certain of its conclusions", which is pretty much a complete opposite of "ultimate guide", but fortunately, it gets a bit better later. Even though the book is quite far from perfect, it shows quite well how the designers approach the design.

In early chapters authors emphasise the importance of gameplay as a narrative element, but a few chapters later, when they get to the point and list the storytelling tools that every game writer or designer has in his arsenal, they somehow focus on dialogues, voiceovers and cutscenes, forgetting the gameplay completely, but... that's how it is.

image stolen from Destructoid :)
It is actually pretty rare to see the story shown through actual gameplay. To do so, you have to consider a shitload of scenarios, where players just do something we don't want them to to. It's just so much easier to make the puppets on the screen move the way the designers or writers want them to. So the most common approach is: let the player shoot some random things between the checkpoints and then just feed him some more story. Even the biggest and best titles we all cherish did it. If you look at Final Fantasy VII, popularly voted the best one in the series, it also told 90% of the story with long cutscenes and dialogues. It is still one of the best games of all times.

This approach worked fine for quite a long time. But people started to get bored with so many dialogues and cutscenes: "Hey, let us play already!". The western gamedevs solved the problem right away with an option to skip cutscenes, the eastern ones often kept sticking to "watch the damn cutscene, we are telling you the story" a lot longer. And then came the savior of the decade - Quick Time Event.

stolen from http://cenaf.newgrounds.com/
This smart little thingy was a literal and metaphorical gamechanger. Developers no longer had to hold back with the length of elements that didn't engage the player. It became enough to script in mindless button mashing when the scene got too long. Apparently, the players are happy to watch a chunk of pre-scripted series of actions if we only let them to press a button once in a while. If they succeed, the game goes on. If they don't, they need to try again.

Some would argue that QTE has let us express a lot more in games. We can make the character do pretty much anything and the player stays engaged. We are not limited to the number of buttons the gamepad has with our actions. The character can jump, climb, swim, shoot, turn wheels, dodge, smash barrels... Anything we want, with this marvel of situational controls.

I happen to completely disagree. Immersion is when we forget we have a gamepad in our hands. When we just become one with the character. When we know our moves so well that we don't have to think what we are doing anymore. We are not thinking "Press X to jump" - we are just jumping. Being constantly prompted on the screen is just plain annoying - it's like the game knows that it failed to teach you the controls, so it's constantly providing you with a live manual.


Let's analyze the 2 most common gamepads - they all have 8 action buttons that are commonly used. They have Select/Back and Start, usually reserved for accessing menus, but that can be used for pretty much anything. They have 2 sticks that can be pressed. They have directional buttons that get used more and more for stuff other than walking around. It makes a total of 16 various actions that can be done with pressing a single button. Not to mention that by combining 2 buttons (pretty common) we can make our character perform another 120 actions. That's a lot. Frankly speaking, the 8-16 base buttons is more than enough for 99% of the games out there.

Look at Journey - you jump, fly, slide, run, activate pictures, open gates, communicate with other players, power up other players, replenish your energy... All that with just left stick and 2 (!) buttons! And there's no prompt there after the quickest tutorial ever, you have no QTE to make these 2 buttons do everything you need, you don't need lenghty cutscenes or dialogues to tell the story.

Sure, in some cases QTE might be fun and "on spot", but let's face it - most of the time it is just a lazy way to pretend there is some kind of gameplay in moments when there is none. The mechanic itself is quite primitive and has nothing to do with immersion. There are two main uses for it. One is helping the player sit through a cutscene or dialogue - useful, when the cutscene or dialogue aren't engaging by themselves or when the developers need to resolve to loads of cutscenes to tell the story they can't convey through gameplay. Second is to make the player character perform actions that are outside the basic controlling options - useful when the designers haven't thought the controls through.


Whenever you see a QTE in a game, think for a moment, what the developers would have to do to still engage the player without this trick. What if Square, instead of adding QTE in XIII-2 decided to ensure the story makes sense? What if Capcom never heard of QTE - maybe Resident Evil would still be a survival horror instead of a cutscene-heavy action shooter?


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