The Quick-Time Event – few things are so polarizing in this industry. Reviewers hate it, players hate it (at least the vocal ones), and studios seem to be…just ok with it.

Why? Why do we use the QTE? Why do we love it so? Why do we use it over and over if feedback appears to be consistently negative? Do we need to kill QTEs, or do we just need to adjust how they are used?

I still remember the first time I encountered the QTE – God of War.

Remember This Awesomeness?

Oh my god was it ever glorious. It was the most amazing and visceral thing I had ever seen, and was almost positive it was the future of gaming – turns out that it’s 2011 now, and QTEs are still here, although they don’t seem to be as welcome.  I’m not 100% sure that God of War was the first to incorporate QTEs, so if anyone can cite anything older, I would love to hear about it in the comments, but one thing is for sure – QTEs have never been more fun, or more original, than in the God of War series.

So what went wrong here? Is it just a vocal minority that despises the QTE? Is it oversaturation? After all, people were complaining about photorealistic cover based shooters when Gears of War 3 came out – despite the fact that Gears pretty much invented the photorealistic cover based shooter.

Are gamers really just hipsters that come to despise popular mechanics, or is there something fundamentally wrong with the mechanics themselves?  And if there is something fundamentally wrong with the mechanics themselves, then why did they work so well for some games, and not the rest?

A major problem with QTEs is that it’s really a workaround to the controller. Bear in mind the word workaround. Workaround implies that we’re not nullifying the controller and its input, but circumventing the basic ways that we use a controller to force a scripted outcome. It’s pretty arrogant when you stop and think about it. Say I were to say I figured out a way to “get around’ the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you’d think I was a pretentious ass.

The major problem here is that we’re working around the parameters of the controller to do something that we don’t have the tech (or time/mechanics/etc…) to do. What you do in the QTE takes your hands out of the equation. Just execute a combo press and the game runs the results for you – failure or execution. It’s also frustrating for someone to play a button masher, only to blow past a QTE and fail it because they gave wrong input at the exact moment the QTE triggered. On top of that, most QTE fails result in a loss of health, or an increase in enemy health.  Sounds like a punishment due to unintuitive design, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a break from talking in circles for a minute, and look at an example of a good QTE and a bad QTE.


Warhammer 40,000 – Space Marine

When You're Tired Of This, You're Tired Of Life.

I. Friggin. Loved. Space Marine. Oh my god. You have no idea how much I loved Space Marine. As a massive tabletop nerd, it was like a wet dream. Relic hit the nail on the head so well, I really had a hard time reconciling with this particular design choice. The final fight of the game was nothing but a QTE. QTE–type events did happen throughout the game, but it was very organic in how it was presented. Stun an enemy and then press “B” to do a finisher that would regenerate health. Great mechanic – but the last boss was a really weird moment.


You fought waves and waves of mobs that were actually a bit of a challenge to take down. The environment was well crafted, giving the player the opportunity to take cover, but not take advantage of it. The AI was savage in its flanking techniques. The entire first phase was really well done. Then you went to attack the big bad, which was nothing but an extended QTE as you plummeted an infinite distance with him. Punch, Punch, Chainsaw, Jump. Punch, Punch, Chainsaw, Jump – over and over. Then there was a cutscene followed by credits. There was no precedence for this mechanic. It just showed up out of nowhere. After an entire campaign that was brutally epic and massive in scale, it ended in a fizzle. All the skills you had learned were not tested to the limit. The creative boss fights from earlier were not iterated on.

It was not over the top, it did not induce Fiero! (There it is again), and it did not feel like it belonged in the game at all.

 Good QTE

Call of Duty: Black Ops

 Humorously enough, there is a parallel in these two examples. Both games don’t have much in the way of QTEs throughout the campaign, and both games incorporate a QTE in the last fight.

Go Big Or Go Home

In the final moment of Black Ops, you murder the boss with your bare hands. You shoot him in the legs, run up to his body, and choke him underwater until he is dead. The choking, oddly enough, is done through a QTE. As you hold the boss underwater, you are prompted to rapidly press down R3 and L3. Simple enough – until you realize something awesome is happening. The act of pressing down rapidly on the joysticks causes your muscles to tense, your hands to tighten harder around the controller, and your thumbs to dig into the joystick. Through a QTE, you find that you are literally choking the controller to choke the boss. The controller rumbles to represent the feeling of his life force draining, and finally it is over.

Ladies and gentlemen, you just choked a man with your bare hands – talk about seriously intense Fiero!.

It’s worth noting that Space Marine and Black ops are very different games. Space Marine had new abilities learned frequently, upgrades, and boss fights. Black Ops had shooting, and that was about it. For a game that just arced via explosive set pieces and shooting to have such a massively intense mortal struggle is a serious achievement over a game that had all the easy tools to truly make a tremendously fun final boss.

So…what’s really going on here? Are QTEs done or what? It’s a really sticky thing to think about. For every great moment in QTE history, there are a handful of needless QTEs that totally muck things up. I don’t think they are going anywhere for a while, so let’s make the best of it.

Let’s make QTEs that don’t take the action out of the player’s hands. Let’s not build games around them, and let’s make each QTE meaningful and highly impactful – a moment of intense pleasure for the player to enjoy as a brief diversion, not a major mechanic.

The QTE is a tool we have to enrich the experience we are crafting, so lets stop treating it like a hammer that will force a square peg into a round hole. We do that, and we’ll be golden.