The QTE plague: What hath God of War wrought?

Quick Time Events. So many games have used them to some extent in the last five years that just about every gamer has an opinion on them. Mine is that they are the worst gameplay gimmick to take the industry by storm in a long time, and I wouldn't mind seeing them all packed into a burlap sack filled with leeches and thrown into the depths of a volcano. They're tacky, they're unintuitive, and their attempts to engage players in cinematic animations backfire and break the sense of immersion one has with a game. And unfortunately for me, they're just about everywhere these days.

Two behemoths let loose in early 2005 can be thanked -- or blamed -- for the salvo of games that have featured QTEs in the last five years. The first, with a January 11 release date, was Resident Evil 4. The game was extremely well-received: it won many Game of the Year awards, offered a fresh take on the aging Resident Evil formula, and gave Gamecube owners a third-party exclusive worth bragging about. The other member of the gruesome twosome that brought us into the era of QTEs is known as God of War. Released just two months after Resident Evil 4, the game received just as many accolades and turned heads back to the PS2 as quickly as they'd been lost to the Gamecube's horror hit. Is it any wonder that the industry went in the direction it did when two such monumental successes as these both prominently featured a relatively unused gameplay gimmick?

Today we'll take a look at how the smart use of QTEs helped put these two games on the map, and watch a few examples of QTEs gone wrong. And trust me, there was a huge pool of resources for the latter.

Resident Evil 4 Fishy

Resident Evil 4

Because the cinematic camera system from earlier Resident Evil games was replaced with a more manageable over-the-shoulder view, Capcom couldn't rely on zombies surprising players from around every corner to provide the franchise's trademark moments of heart-pounding terror. The replacement came in the form of QTEs. Whether it was fending off a chainsaw, swimming from a sea monster, or giving a boulder the old Indiana Jones, Resident Evil 4 definitely managed to make a few palms sweaty. These moments of Mash Buttons to Survive are easily forgiven: without them, the game would barely qualify for an entry in the horror genre it popularized.

The primary offenders are the game's cutscene QTEs, which punish players for setting the controller down when the shooting stops and the talking starts. Successful completion of these unpredictable pop-ups results in a pretty cool action sequence, but failure almost always ends the game, requiring the player to replay a potentially-long sequence and re-watch a potentially-long cutscene. And failure is inevitable: the button prompts appear and disappear quickly, so only a reflexive memory of the controller's button layout will keep a wall of lasers from cutting Leon to ribbons. Worse, the button prompts change after failure: X may have dodged that first bullet last time, but this time it could be A and B together. A good scare is a good scare, but it loses its shock value when you know it's coming, and by the end of RE4, you will know when every scare is coming, because you'll have succumbed to each multiple times.

So was it worth it? Debatably. Mashing the shoulder buttons to swim towards your tiny boat when an enormous sea monster lurks below the depths is one of the most frantically-terrifying moments in gaming. On the other hand, the knife fight sequence becomes a lot less impressive when you've seen it a dozen times, and still can't appreciate the choreography because your unblinking eyes are fixed on the button prompts in the center of the screen.

god of war Gorgon

God of War

If there's one genre that exploded onto the scene in the PS2 era, it was the 3D action brawler. Capcom introduced the public to the genre with the Onimusha: Warlords in early 2001 and set the standard with Devil May Cry later the same year. Just like when Capcom found success with Street Fighter II, everybody wanted a piece of the action and jumped on board the trend train. Every game needed its own gimmick, though, and God of War chose a Greek mythology setting, complete with all the tits and entrails that Zeus and his wacky cohorts are famous for.

Much of that brutality (and all of the sexuality) is presented through QTEs in the God of War series. Simply cleaving heads with the standard chain-sword weapons isn't enough for Kratos: he tears gorgons' heads off, impales chimeras with their own horns, and generally frees most internal organs from their epidermic holdings. Obviously these context-sensitive acts of satisfying brutality can't be programmed into the game's overarching control scheme, so SCE Santa Monica decided to throw some button prompts on-screen while Kratos did his thing to make us feel like part of the hemoglobin-drenched action.

Did it work? I hate the QTE craze with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, but even I have to say I enjoyed God of War's brutal button prompts overall. Most of the sequences are initiated by the player, and failure results most often in very slight damage and a chance to try again. Cutscenes come and go without any "Gotcha!" moments, as the more dangerous and surprising QTE moments happen during boss battles, so they're not too unexpected. Buttons are rarely switched up, with most repeated animations using the same sequences each time. And the action isn't completely covered by the button prompts: they're big enough to recognize but not crowding over the action. In God of War III, the cues even move to the borders of the screen so as to leave the center clear for brutal displays: each face button's cue is moved to the corresponding edge (triangle is at the top of the screen, X on the bottom, et cetera). And while most games' QTE animations just don't pay off, Kratos' acts of dismemberment and disembowelment are definitely worth a few stray button presses.

The Aftermath

Though these two juggernauts of early '05 mostly used their QTE gimmicks effectively, it's just as easy to demonize them for convincing publishers and/or developers that allowing players to fail a cutscene was a fantastic idea. Nearly every action game released since God of War has added button prompts to their cinematic finishing moves or cutscenes. And the results are almost universally disappointing. But rather than pick apart the details, why don't we just watch a few?

Resident Evil 4 might be able to get away with its crimes because the button-mashing frenzies are sincerely panic-inducing at times, but the only thing scary about its HD sequel, Resident Evil 5, is that some scenario designer thought anybody could take the following seriously:

Chris Redfield vs. The Boulder

God of War's legendary success spawned many imitators, one of which was Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword. "Babe of War" managed to capture Kratos' divine skill with unorthodox chain-blades well, but its use of quick-time events wasn't so heavenly. The game's QTEs are quite finicky in how the prompts are addressed, and some of the moments chosen for cinematic activity don't feel all that rewarding when completed, let alone when failed.

Cat Girl vs. Creepy Man

Even Spiderman gets in on the action, to hilarious results.

Spiderman vs. Black Cat vs. The Sidewalk

These clips don't exactly help the case for QTEs, and there are far worse ones out there, I'm sure. So is there any hope for QTEs? A glimmer or two. But that's a topic for another time.