Ah, the dread quick-time event. We may have to blame Shenmue for its wide adoption, though of course something like Dragon’s Lair used the same mechanic. They’re everywhere. They are one of the simplest game mechanics there is. And I have done my share of bashing on them too.
What is a QTE and why do big AAA tentpole titles love them? Well, the mechanic itself is “press a button within a very short time frame.” An incorrect press or failing to do it within the time limit results in a negative outcome. In other words, it’s basically whack a mole, or that game where you pull your hands away before they get slapped.
This makes it a mechanic almost entirely based on reaction time, naturally timeboxed to a minimal duration. As such, it’s incredibly accessible (one button!) and minimally disruptive to whatever else is going on.
- Tentpole titles need to be as mass market as they can get, so by having an extremely simple mechanic, they minimize barrier to entry to the game.
- Heavily narrative games want mechanics that do not break the story flow, and provide as cinematic an experience as possible. The QTE is about as small as a mechanic gets, and requires next to zero conscious thought.
In the case of AAA tentpole titles, narrative plus QTE therefore becomes the default gameplay mode. Often, we see highly varied stories where the protagonist can perform a huge array of actions, all condensed into the single mechanic. The story advances, the player feels powerful, and the systemic gameplay is tissue-thin. This then gets interrupted periodically with richer game interludes, such as combat sequences — still pretty simple, but rich enough to allow things like advancement and preparation and some degree of strategy, all of which are required to keep the player invested.
So QTE’s are there to help big titles reach the mass market, and to do better storytelling. But there is one huge irony.
Reaction time is not a mass market skill.
We all know this. Physical skill in general is not really mass market. When we examine the landscape of mass market titles, we find that most of the successful games are fairly slow (or at least start that way) or even turn-based, and that they generally involve mental skill rather than pure reflexes.
Just glance over the most popular genres:
- hidden object games, heir to the adventure game. There are timers, sure, but the game is Where’s Waldo. The game skill is not reaction to stimuli, but visual perception.
- match-3 games and puzzle games like Tetris, which require more advanced controls than QTEs do. There may be time pressure (usually ramping gradually), but the central challenge is a different core mechanic.
- management games, where again, time is a factor, but the core challenge is actually planning and queueing.
- the entire suite of games adapted from analog gaming, such as Bingo and poker and the like.
- even game shows, where you may need to buzz in, but you have to know an answer
The mass market audience not only doesn’t seem to chase after games that are just about who can slap a button the fastest, but also seems to prefer games with deeper mechanics.
So who would prefer a purely reaction time based exercise?
- Young folks, for sure. Reaction time is on a steady rise until age 20 or so, and the theory of fun would predict that therefore there would be a strong biological incentive to practice the skill. And reaction time declines gradually after a certain age, and rapidly after reaching advanced ages.
- Probably those acculturated to show off their reflexes: men. Many studies have shown faster reaction times for males than females, though there is some dispute about measurement techniques. And the gap seems to be narrowing in more recent studies, so it may simply be that women were not given the opportunity to develop the skill until relatively recently. (And it may be that games are actually helping to train reaction times in girls, alongside things like greater access to sports activities, etc. Again, something mentioned in Theory of Fun).
All of which leads up to a big question: to what degree have AAA tentpoles actually been limiting their market by pursuing the wrong mechanic in the name of accessibility?