QTEs Don’t Have To Suck

QTEs Don’t Have To Suck

“Press X to not die.” It’s a gaming cliche at this point, one that many view as a symptom of lazy game design. Quick time events, as they’re known, are glorified cut-scenes. Things happen, and we press buttons that don’t really match up with the action on screen. They can be pretty bad.

I don’t think they have to be terrible, though. In truth, QTEs (fun fact: not originally called quick time events) canbe better than more traditional forms of gameplay, depending on when/where they show up. It’s all about context.

QTEs are simple and restrictive, but that allows for a level of focus it’s difficult to get from other game mechanics. Finishing off a boss with a complex combo, every action of which you perform yourself, might be more rewarding in the grand scheme of things, but mashing the hell out of a one or two buttons — your palms slick with sweat and fury — to drive home the final blow is a powerfully physical thing. You’re only doing basic actions, but you’re going all-in on them. No pauses or breaks, no mood-breaking health potion gulps, nothing to pull you away. It’s just you and the moment.

QTEs Don’t Have To Suck

And all the while, events on screen can take whatever cinematic form they need to — within limits. A good QTE is not entirely arbitrary. A good QTE accentuates the action (or non-action) unfolding in front of you, even if it doesn’t directly correspond to what’s happening blow-by-blow.

It is, however, easy to get that wrong. To overdo it or, worse, under-commit, lazily sprinkling QTEs all over an experience instead of considering the potential each individual one has to be really special.

Recently I’ve been playing a lot of Telltale adventure games, which spice their dialogue-heavy stew with brief bursts of QTE-heavy action. Problem is, they’re pretty rote as far as QTEs go. I waded into Game of Thrones‘ opening action scene full of trepidation, but not because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to press the left arrow key to — SPOILER ALERT — dodge left and avoid a dude lunging at me. It was the plot, the world, the lingering ghost of Game of Thrones book and TV show experiences wailing, “WooOOoooOOOoo shit is gonna get terrible for everybody you love in, like, three seconds. Also I am a ghost.”

QTEs Don’t Have To Suck

Game of Thrones QTEs got the job done, and that was it. They were samey and unexciting. They felt like they existed to pull players back into the game in case they’d zoned out while people were talking or something — not to be genuinely interesting on their own merits.

Telltale reuses QTE concepts too, to the point of eye-roll-worthy predictability. Game of Thrones has a bit where you get trapped beneath a thing/person and have to mash a button in hopes of escaping, but it turns out to be impossible. You can’t fill the little meter no matter how hard you mash. When you inevitably falter, someone rescues you. Tales from the Borderlands had the same thing. If I remember correctly, so did The Walking Dead.

And, like, yes, I get it. The situation is hopeless, futile. This is a way to express that through gameplay. Thing is, it’s supposed to be surprising — like, “Oh man, the button mashing thing I usually use to pry the slavering jaws of certain death from my throat didn’t work like it always does!” If you copy/paste it between games so frequently, it’s not a surprise anymore.

I don’t mean to single out Telltale here, because a) they make some really great stuff and b) many video game QTEs are kinda garbage. There’s also a lot Telltale gets right — for instance QTEs where failure doesn’t mean instant death, just a new branch in the story. But the not-so-great aspects of Telltale’s designs are a recent example of the trend on cruise control — QTEs used as a surrogate for other forms of gameplay (for instance, combo-based action or something) instead of an expressive tool in their own right. Other games that have made similar mistakes or have triggered “cheap” insta-death moments with QTEs include the recent Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

So what do QTEs look like when somebody’s using them for good, not a drowsy, narcoleptic sort of evil? Well, the most classic example is the Krauser knife fight from Resident Evil 4. It’s a tense, intimate scene — a sudden showdown between two men with volumes of history between them. Every line of dialogue is hissed, spat, snarled, and then punctuated with a swing or stab at some vital organ. The fight is a physical representation of their conversation, of the sparks between their dueling personalities.

But there are lulls, moments where Leon and Krauser circle each other warily, continuing to chat through gritted teeth. It’s here that the player must wait for a button prompt that could leap out at them at any given second. I was actually on the edge of my seat during that scene. I was stressed out of my mind, a point lodged in the side of my brain by the fact that the in-game camera constantly lingered on those two terrifying knives, gleaming and flickering in the darkness. One wrong move meant certain death — gutting, evisceration, decapitation. Not a good time, in other words.

The stressful unpredictability of each button press accentuated the mood of the scene. I imagined Leon was feeling exactly the same way as me. Frightened, on-edge, despite his desire to take down Krauser and Get Some Answers. In a game of brazenly over-the-top action, it was a surprisingly human moment, one where the player and character’s emotional states overlapped.

My favourite example of excellent QTE use, however, is Asura’s Wrath, a game that was almost entirely made up of cut-scenes and QTEs. It was essentially a crazy shonen fight anime that pretended to be a traditional beat-’em-up sometimes, when it felt like it, but those parts weren’t all that great. It was the QTEs that gave Asura’s Wrath its unique personality. Well, that and Asura with, you know, all of his wrath. Boy was he ever upset. He was so mad that sometimes he grew extra arms about it.

But for all the rage and testosterone bleeding from every crevice of that game, its subtle mastery of QTEs was damn near artful. The glue that held it all together was the “burst” meter, which — when filled — let you enter a QTE finisher with the pull of a trigger. It was always mapped to the trigger, and it always meant the same thing: “You are about to do something inconceivably rad. Also your arm is gonna hurt like hell afterward.”

Now, unlike the Telltale examples above, this was a place where consistency worked to a QTE-heavy game’s advantage. Asura’s Wrath had “burst” morph and evolve over time. The game’s designers kept in mind the powerful significance the burst trigger held, and then they played with it. At first it was used to make you feel powerful, to hype you the goddamn hell up. But then, as the game progressed, it popped up in unexpected locations — even as a joke in a silly, extremely anime bathhouse scene. And the final burst of the game? One of the most satisfying, bittersweet trigger pulls I’ve ever done in any game ever.

I could write an entire article dissecting each form of QTE in Asura’s Wrath. There were so many great individual moments, like hammering away on the B button — tiny versions of which blotted out the entire screen — to use your hundred arms to punch the most powerful punch of all time. Heck, even sprouting said extra arms was always cool. You did it by flicking both sticks in opposite directions simultaneously, and then — boom — arms. It just felt right. Like, now I know how growing extra arms should feel, if ever I need to advise someone on the process.

And then there was the ring that encircled especially important button presses. If you timed it just as it closed in around said button image, it’d click satisfyingly while exclaiming that you were “EXCELLENT” or some variation on it. Then, depending on the situation, you’d mash B to drag a giant dude’s face across the ground or do a Dragon Ball Z-style punching battle with your old, now-evil master or click the sticks and mash furiously to stop the continent-annihilating finger of a dude who was fucking bigger than Earth.

Each individual button press corresponded to crazy cool, stylish action. Some were consistent throughout the whole game, others less so. And if you screwed up on the timing of one, well, you were a bit less awesome than usual. But you were still fucking awesome. Asura’s Wrath was a teetering stack of reward principles. In lesser hands it would have fallen over and died and exploded (in that order), but carefully crafted QTEs carried the whole thing.

QTEs Don’t Have To Suck

Those are just a few examples of how QTEs can be great, and there are plenty of others — for instance Heavy Rain, select examples from God of War, and more recently, Bayonetta 2. That’s why it breaks my heart to see them used lazily. Maybe it takes away from my “gamer cred” or whatever, but QTEs have driven some of my favourite moments in games. In the right hands, they’re a versatile tool for expression and evoking emotion. I think there’s still a lot of unexplored territory surrounding them, too. Now here’s a QTE for the game designers in the audience: PRESS X TO FINISH READING THIS ARTICLE AND GO MAKE SOMETHING COOL.

(You don’t actually have to press X.)

(Actually I lied. You’re dead now.)

To contact the author of this post, write to nathan.grayson@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @vahn16.


  • There was this early PS2 game called EVE that did something interesting with QTE. They were used as openers for boss fights. If you failed the event the only negative reaction would be that you would start the battle with less health.

    But there was one particular boss battle that was really interesting. You chase him through a large blimp, constantly getting ambushed from him with QTEs. At the end you have a regular boss battle with him that’s actually pretty easy, but if you failed a lot of those QTEs then you’ll be fighting him with very low health, thus making the battle more challenging.

  • RE4 knife fight was the best. Didn’t mind any of the other QTEs either though, but then I guess that was the first game where I was introduced to them. Not sure I’ve seen them pop up in much else of what I’ve played, definitely nothing so terribly horrible that seems to make everyone spew hatred over them though.

    Interesting about Asura’s Wrath there. I never really heard much about it, but this makes me want to check it out. Stupid stealth marketing 😛

    • When i first played RE4, I died during that because I thought it was a cut scene, so I casually put my controller down to grab a drink…

      • Yeah, that was so frustrating. Cut scenes were the one part of RE4 you were supposed to be able to relax in! Then bam, dead.

    • There was a bit about it when it was launched. But it was slammed for having QTE as a major gameplay device (Often from people who had heard it had them but hadn’t played it)

    • Asura’s Wrath is excellent. Mind you I did pick it up for next to nicks, so as far as fun:$$ it gets a seriously high score.

  • I am glad that Asura’s Wrath got mentioned as a shining example of QTEs done right, even if the author missed the most important reason why. They made sense contextually. If it was leading up to a punch, it was the punch button. If you were about to move left, it was left on the stick. If you were planting your left foot down, it was down on the left stick, down on the right for your right foot. There were times when it was difficult to work out what action was going to happen, but the buttons you had to press always made sense contextually, especially when it came to game controls vs. cut scene controls.

  • God Of War 3. Press down the thumbsticks to gouge out Poseidon’s eyes. Doesn’t get much better than that in terms of 1:1 controller:game world mapping.

  • Some games do them great. Shen Mue for example. Other ones, you put the controller down when you get to a cutscene, grab a drink or something and BAM, you’re dead because you didn’t notice X on the screen when it was completely unexpected.

    • I actually passed one in Shunmue II by accident because I’d set the controller down – in a scene where Ryo is trying to get help or information from some barber, you sit in the chair to get a shave while you talk and he tests your willpwoer by acting as though he’s about to slit your throat. The ‘A’ button flashes up surrounded by a strong pulsing effect, presumably to match Ryo’s quickened pulse. Apparently if you press anything, you get cut and die – game over. I was on the other side of the room and by the time I got back to the controller the “pulse” had slowed down and I wasn’t dead, so of course I continued to do nothing.

      Pretty clever use of QTEs there.

  • The QTEs from Metal Gear rising Revengeance were some of my favourites. Similar to the above examples, they’re usually used as finishers in action heavy boss fights (so they don’t break the flow), they often correspond to gameplay moves, such as the Blade Mode and Ninja run QTEs and the ones that don’t are usually just friggin awesome to watch, like flipping a giant robot in the air, running along the length of it’s body while slicing through it’s armour and chopping it’s arm off before it’s hit the ground.

  • I really like Telltale’s implementation of QTE’s most of the time. Tales from the Borderlands I thought did them quite well. Yes they are lazy and require little skill, but that’s a selling point.

    So many of my ‘non-gamer’ mates have become Telltale fanboys/girls over the simple gameplay driven mainly by dialogue choice. There’s a younger me screaming somewhere about catering to the weakest common denominator, but I’ve grown up since then.

    • Telltale’s games are almost 100% QTEs and dialogue choices and I, as a seasoned gamer, am totally ok with that. The action sequences in Walking Dead were sometimes a bit iffy but season 2 was an improvement and I really enjoyed the way they handled the action in The Wolf Among Us as well. I plan to pick up Tales from the Borderlands soon (due to it’s rave reviews in spite of me finding the idea of a Telltale/Borderlands game questionable) along with Game of Thrones (a franchise I will mindlessly consume regardless). Heavy Rain had a mix of both good and bad QTEs.

      The QTEs I hate are the ones where you just have to mash a button or jiggle a stick, usually to represent a sustained effort or struggle of some kind. The main reason I hate these is because they’re usually unreasonably tough or can potentially damage the controller. For instance: you have to circle the left thumbstick – it’s not physically possible do do it fast enough with just your thumb, so you have to hold the controller in one hand and palm the stick with the other. That kind of QTE can GTFO.

  • ryse got so much hate for it’s QTE but I actually think it worked really well. All the quick times do in that game is activate your bonus depending on how well you time them, if people bother to play on higher than the lowest difficulty this actually becomes a challenge and you need to be predicting what to push based on your characters animations and you need these bonuses to not die. The people (reviewers included) who cried that the animation keeps going even if you miss the quick time are just admitting they never bothered to learn what they do in the first place. That game wasn’t great but it was far better than people were giving it credit for.

    • I liked the way it was represented in Ryse too. No giant button overlays, just highlighting enemies with the button colors.

  • I can’t believe you opened with a Shenmue gif, and didn’t even mention.

    Considering that it was the first game to really have lengthy QTEs (that I’m aware of), it did such a great job. I remember a chase sequence (possibly the one in the gif), which not only had optional paths (eg, pick left or right) but there was no “game over, try again”. Pretty sure I failed the QTE completely by bumping into too many people/things, and then the story kept going. I just had to follow up a different lead.

    Also, Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy was really great. My favourite part was being interviewed by the detectives while those crazy green bugs were screwing around. If you pressed the button prompts (reacting to the bugs), the detectives become suspicious of your oddball behaviour.

    EDIT: Oh, and also Ninja Blade. Everything in that game was so off the wall crazy (like Asura’s Wrath) that I could rarely play more than one level at a time. Stuff like riding a bike down the side of a bus that’s flying through the air, or stopping a plane with your bare hands. Too awesome.

    • the guy holding the razor blade to your throat and you had to keep your cool and not react, even with the giant X button beeping at you on screen.
      That was an interesting use of them I found.

  • I hate QTE in cut scenes when there isn’t a gameplay reason for it. Getting through a tense fight, calming down to watch the story and bam, QTE.
    Also annoyed the hell out of me in Mass Effect, with the renegade, paragon actions. Worse when playing with a K+M as half the time I’ll take my hands off them during a cut scene, in the same way I hold my controller in my lap. Well at least in ME you didn’t die if you didn’t press the button.

  • Nope. They’re always bad. They’re just simply bad design. You’ve taken away the thing that makes a game interesting and substituted it for a simple simon-says experience with pretty pictures.

    Can they show something cool? Sure. But you’re never going to convince me that moment wouldn’t have a greater impact and been more memorable if it were initiated and controlled entirely by the player.

    In my highly opinionated opinion, a designer who uses a QTE has failed at their job.

    Actually, more radically, anyone who needs to display a button prompt during gameplay has failed at their job. You should provide the player with a toolkit and then guide them into discovering ever more awesome ways to use that toolkit, not setting a fixed path and forcing them to monkey-see-monkey-do their way through it.

    • Blaming the tool for it’s incorrect usage are we?

      Like shaky cam in movies, QTEs in games have occasional good uses but mostly get thrown in due to laziness/incompetence.

      “Actually, more radically, anyone who needs to display a button prompt during gameplay has failed at their job. You should provide the player with a toolkit and then guide them into discovering ever more awesome ways to use that toolkit, not setting a fixed path and forcing them to monkey-see-monkey-do their way through it.”
      Is a very extreme viewpoint, and might be true for your preferred genres but certainly doesn’t apply to every game ever. QTEs can even be an entire game if you use it right, and by that I mean Guitar Hero was pretty fun, even if it was entirely ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’ button prompt gameplay.

      • Right. This is quickly going to become too long to be worth reading 🙂

        You make a good point with Guitar Hero, though I would separate that slightly from a QTE. Largely because it’s a consistent interface. It’s always valid to press the buttons in question, and they’ll produce a predictable result, it’s just interpreted as correct or incorrect based on the current game state.

        For a game element to be considered a QTE, on the other hand, it usually has to be a moment of extremely restricted interactivity in the middle of an otherwise fairly open, real-time game. It also often completely changes the game’s interface, and then displays immersion breaking button prompts.

        My standard example for why I consider them bad design goes as follows:

        As a game programmer, I have been tasked with developing systems to reduce the number of polygons rendered in a frame, in order to improve the overall gameplay experience.

        If I decide that the easiest, most reliable way to do this is to comment out the code that moves the camera and delete all of the geometry that is now outside of the camera’s view, I wouldn’t get rewarded for my ingenuity. I’d be fired for not doing my job.

        That’s essentially what a game designer is doing when they use a QTE. Their job is to create interesting, emotive, interactive experiences. If they decide that’s too hard and essentially turn off the game logic, physics, and player input, then they have failed at their job.

        You are right that, as a tool, there are better and worse ways to use them. Part of my deep dislike for them comes from working on a an action-adventure game and having to implement a QTE system for smashing certain objects in the game.

        The only thing you did in the game was walk and punch stuff, but apparently the “punch stuff” button wasn’t good enough for punching this particular stuff, so we had to add another button that put you into a special “punch stuff” mode and allowed you to punch the stuff that was otherwise invulnerable to your regular punching.

        So dumb.

  • I really enjoyed QTEs in Castlevenia:LoS 1. After playing it I checked some reviews and surprised that reviewers criticized its QTE and trials while I found them a very cool feature for the franchise. But I hate some QTE added unnecessarily in some action game like Metal Gear: Rev (PC), it was pain to quickly respond to QTE keys (KB or Controller).

  • Shenmue didn’t always use them well, especially once there were button sequences introduced in the second one. Jump wasn’t always jump and kick wasn’t always kick, it drove me mad. The context was hard to read from your surroundings.

    God of War did things brilliantly once it introduced the button prompts to the edges of screen (GOW3?), the PS button symbols are not second nature to me, but the positions are and it addd context to what was going on. Before that, I remember, in GOW2?, when fighting zeus there was a random QTE I just couldn’t nail, I had to get my friend to man two buttons while I did the others. It took 2 men in close quarters with all four thumbs primed to get it. I’m not sure it was what the designers intended.

    Finally Resident Evil 5 was giving us grief until we realised you could press ALL the buttons for QTE and you weren’t penalised. We didn’t feel bad for cheating, which makes me think, QTE are great when you can get them nailed, but losing you feel incredibly hopeless, especially after a prolonged sequence you have to replay. Perhaps QTE you cant lose is the way forward!

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