Most gamers are already aware of what a quicktime event is. A quicktime event is a cutscene in a game where the player is required to correctly input a series of button prompts. From that base, quicktime events can vary in how they are executed. Some require different sets and types of inputs. Some restrict themselves to certain parts of the controller. Some restart the entire event if a player fails an input. Some place the player at the point they lost, possibly with some penalty like health damage. Some even continue on despite failure, going with the flow of the event. This weeks article is a discussion of the quicktime event: where they work, where they can fail, and an example from a recent game that might reveal untapped potential for the mechanic.
I understand why game developers use quicktime events. One of the positives of using a quicktime event is that it allows the developer to forge a carefully choreographed and “cinematic” sequence without completely removing the player from the game, even in the middle of a combat scenario. Games like God of War have become well-known for this. The takedowns that Kratos performs during a quicktime event immerse the player into the world and give them a sense of the brutality of Kratos's character. In this case, the quicktime event functions in service to the game and the world that the game takes place in. A quicktime event can also act as a good way to give the player a brief reprieve from standard gameplay and breakup sections of combat. A brief, easy to pass quicktime event can allow the player to catch his/her breath and relax for a second to prepare themselves for the next gameplay sequence.
On the other hand, from the perspective of the player, the quicktime event can be one of the most irritating forms of artificial gameplay. Picture the following in your head: The player has just gone through a level of gameplay and finally arrived at a cutscene, giving him/her a time to relax. The cutscene depicts the player character talking with the villain while the villain has the hero in precarious position (Because they do that instead of just killing him outright, but I digress). After this conversation goes on for a minute or two, then the villain takes a knife and throws it at the player character and the game goes “Press X to not die!”. The player, controller set on the table, scrambles to grab it before he fails the randomly inserted quicktime event. Too late: The knife hits the protagonist in the head and the player has to sit through the entire conversation from the very beginning! While this type of game play is certainly on its way out, it has been done in far too many games. I am sure that most gamers reading this can think of a game that has done something like that to the player. There is no excuse for that kind of poor design. This is not the only bad things about quicktime events. That same reprieve that I mentioned in the above paragraph could easily have a regular, non-playable cutscene take place instead of a quicktime event and the player would not be any worse for wear. Another failing of the quicktime event is that it often takes the reins away from the player in order to highlight an action that the player cannot perform in standard gameplay. Instead of making characters perform super-cool in a quicktime events, why not just give that move to the player in standard gameplay. While there are admittedly times where this could be difficult, it is by no means impossible. Going back to God of War, no one complains that they do not get to perform amazing and visceral actions in gameplay because the entire game is visceral and exiting action. Furthermore, any action done in a quicktime event is often ignored because the player has to keep looking for button prompts. In that case, a regular cutscene would be a better choice.
But despite my criticisms, I think there is an untapped potential in quicktime events that a game released very recently made me realize. As some of you who read this might be aware, one of new “features” included in Final Fantasy XIII-2 was “Cinematic Action”, aka quicktime events. While they are mostly just used as coup de graces for all the boss fights (Which I hate. I already defeated the boss. I do not need a quicktime event to show how they canonically defeated the boss. I know how it died because I killed it! But again, I digress.), the first quicktime event did something interesting that I did not expect. While it was a small thing, it had a profound impact on me and made me alter (if only slightly) my negative opinion of quicktime events. At the beginning of the game, the player fights the obvious big bad of the game (anyone who wields a weapon that looks like Soul Edge is evil) as Lightning, the hero from Final Fantasy XIII. Towards the end, a “Cinematic Action” sequence begins. Instead of saying “Press X to not die!”, the games gives the player the choice of two prompts: One button initiates a physical attack and another cause Lightning to cast Ruin. The event gives the player two more choices of attacks before it ends in a styleish and admittedly cool looking sequence. This is an interesting mechanic. I would love to see a game where the quicktime events is not the player going through a scripted sequence, but rather them going through an actual battle, making split second decisions and actually affecting the outcome of the event by what they are pressing as opposed to having a reflex test. The scene would change to show who is winning and who is losing. It could help to bring the player into the frame of mind of the protagonist and help immerse the player into the experience. I am extremely disappointed that, twenty hours in and after several more “Cinematic Action” sequences, they do not do anything similar to that again. This could have potentially revolutionized the quicktime event and made it fresh and interesting.
Quicktime events do not have to be stupid and annoying. They are like any other tool in a game designers arsenal. Used well, they can be a splendid addition to the experience and add to the immersion of the game. It is a shame that very few games ever use them well.