The QTE cure: Singin' in the Heavy Rain

Quick Time Events. Ever since God of War and Resident Evil 4 exploded onto the scene with button-prompt sequences of gore and horror, the industry has shown its sheep-like nature and incorporated these Gotcha! moments into games without thinking about how they make an interactive experience better. Many gamers have adjusted to the fact that every cutscene now has an awful series of play buttons throughout, but I personally would like to cram all the QTEs in the world into a space shuttle full of cobras and launch them directly into the sun if it meant I'd never have to see another one again.

That said, it's not impossible to come across decent use of QTEs. Indeed, before Resident Evil 4 set the standard at the advent of 2005, the mechanic was most prominently-used by the Dreamcast's crown jewel, Shenmue. In fact, it was Yu Suzuki, that game's director, who coined the term "Quick Time Event." Suzuki put the gimmick to good use throughout Shenmue, allowing protagonist Ryo Hazuki to do everything from tossing drunkards around in bar brawls to saving little girls from incoming soccer balls. One of the reasons the game is so beloved today is that it allowed the player to engage in such a wide variety of scenarios, many of which were supported with smartly-designed QTEs.

Good QTEs didn't end with Shenmue, however, even though sometimes it seems that's the case. Like God of War, other Playstation heavyweights have managed to use QTEs to enhance a game experience. I think it's only fair that we look at a few of those, as well as some alternatives to these timed button-prompts for cinematic flair in games.

Infamous Sasha

inFAMOUS

The first example, inFAMOUS, was almost universally-loved by reviewers. You'd be hard-pressed to find mention of any quick time events in those reviews, however, as they're used so infrequently that they're easily forgotten. In fact, the gimmick only shows up in two or three boss battles that make up a miniscule portion of a substantial sandbox game.

What makes these QTEs special is that they involve the player more than just hitting a button at the right time. A few key moments in these boss battles find Cole, the hero (or anti-hero), getting up-close and personal with his opponent. Whether pushing away a freak's mouth-tendrils or planting his own electro-hand upon a superhuman's face, Cole's QTE moments fall into the mash-button-to-struggle variety. Only in these cases, direction also matters: the player has to direct Cole's hand -- and the circular indicator on it -- to a key area to the boss's body. The button mashing simulates the struggle to push against an opposing force, while moving the cursor with the control stick lets the player feel as though they have more direct control, even if it's just for show. The effect would have worn with overuse, but inFAMOUS utilizes its brand of QTEs effectively and with moderation.

Heavy Rain Nothing Serious

Heavy Rain

Another big-name Playstation 3 title that occasionally presented button-prompt actions to players is Heavy Rain. And by "occasionally," I mean to say that the game is controlled almost entirely through on-screen button prompts. Other than simply walking around, almost every character action is context-sensitive and presented to the player on-screen with the button and a label for the action it represents.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Shockingly, even I have to admit it works well due to the game's sterling presentation and the immersion that results from it. Rather than appearing as play buttons stuck in the middle of the screen, Heavy Rain's button prompts feel as though they're objects within the game. A character's thoughts may float around their head, each connected to a button, and pressing one results in related dialogue (or inner monologue). In times of panic or stress, these thoughts may move around erratically, making it tougher for the player to choose one, similar to the on-screen character's plight. Meanwhile, making a character perform exhausting or sensitive mechanical actions may require players to fumble around their controller and hold four or five buttons at once: climbing up a muddy hill can be an arduous task, after all, so it makes sense that asking your character to do so would require you to mangle your hands around the Sixaxis controller.

Heavy Rain boy SwingBut perhaps Heavy Rain's greatest feature is that, technically, its QTEs in moments of intensity and danger aren't even dependent on success. It is actually quite rare that failure results in a character's death or incapacitation. Missing a prompt or two during a scuffle in a parked car may result in your head slamming into the steering wheel, but the fight doesn't necessarily end there. Losing an intense apartment brawl may simply result in your character receiving a few bruises and a limp for a while. But even in those moments where repeatedly missing prompts results in a character's death, the story continues without them. Rather than punishing the player with a Game Over screen and the boredom that comes with repetition, the player is simply thrust into a version of the story without the dearly departed. Some might not even call that punishment, especially when it makes the story more interesting.

 

Prince of Persia two Thrones CatwalkQTE Alternatives

Heavy Rain casts off the stigma of a QTE-drenched game through smart integration of the mechanic into its core gameplay. The game is essentially a playable movie, however, and such use of QTEs just makes sense in its case. But other games can benefit moments of context-sensitive cinematic rapture as well, and fortunately some have managed to do so without giant X's appearing on-screen. One such success is the final chapter in the Sands of Time trilogy, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. A new feature, added for the trilogy's end, is the stealth kill. The Prince may find himself leaping off a wall toward a soldier's back or hanging above an unaware sand monster, and in these situations the screen will flash, prompting the player to press the attack button. Success results in a rather impressive quiet kill, while failure merely alerts the enemy and triggers the game's equally-satisfying combat. The enemy may scoff at your failed lunge from behind, but you'll likely have the last laugh when you're plunging the dagger of time into his abdomen.

Ninja Gaiden 2 ScytheAnother excellent implementor of flashy fatalities is Ninja Gaiden II (and its PS3 sibling, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2). It's only natural that the blade-filled work of a ninja may result in a lost limb, and this aspect of a warrior's life is well-represented in Ninja Gaiden II. Through the course of normal combat in the game, it's incredibly common for one of Ryu Hayabusa's strikes to result in amputation of an arm or a leg. But enemy ninja are quite devoted to their duty and fight on, crawling across the ground with katana clenched in teeth if need be. These enemies can be finished off in a sickly-satisfying execution event, simply by pressing the heavy attack button when nearby. Rather than flashing a button prompt at the player to signify a cinematic opportunity, Ninja Gaiden II presents a less detached cue: a three-limbed enemy.

If it ever comes to pass that quick time events go extinct, I'd probably be less than devastated by their passing. So many decent action games have provided moments of unnecessary frustration and separation by shoehorning the gimmick into their cutscenes that I wouldn't mind never seeing them again. But I guess it wouldn't be all sunshine and lollipops if it meant a game like Heavy Rain could never be.

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