Thursday, January 22, 2009

Non-Stop

If games that slowed down below 40 mph blew up, we would have been blessedly saved from Final Fantasy XII.International Hobo (and more particularly Chris Bateman) have taken it upon themselves to put quick-time events (QTEs) on trial.

You've seen this mechanic, no doubt - normal gameplay gets interrupted, and you're asked to quickly press the buttons displayed on screen in order to do something awesome. Yahtzee Croshaw calls it "press X not to die", and that's fair to some extent (Prince of Persia), but it's just as commonly "press X to disembowel" (God of War) or "press X to become one with the Matrix" (Fahrenheit).

It's a terrible mechanic. It's crude, it's abstracted, and it's punitive towards casual and beginning players who may not be prepared to suddenly press X without warning.

I applaud it. More, please.

Because you have to take baby steps. To achieve something good you have to vomit up something bad. And while your average QTE is a crime against gamers everywhere, it's the first incarnation of something much better that we've been heading towards since the late 1970s.

Gaming should be non-stop. And I don't mean by this that gaming must be an epilepsy-inducing cavalcade of action, but rather that the player should never be shut out of the game. At each and every moment that the hardware is active, the gamer should have the option of contributing something relevant to the play.

Take some examples from board and card games. These games usually feature players having distinct "turns". In bad game design, when it is not your turn you have nothing to do. In good game design, what you do during other people's turns is just as important as what's going on during yours.

Magic: the Gathering uses "interrupts", which can cut into an opponent's turn and allow you to respond to their moves. This gives you a good reason to watch your opponent closely, and look for just the right moment to surprise them with your interrupt. Another example might be the popular Monopoly house rule which states that if you fail to claim rent you miss out, again giving players an incentive to watch each others' turns.

In these examples, even though a player is not actively making moves on the game board, they are engaged because they have the potential to influence the game.

Videogames have been plagued with interactivity problems since their inception. Non-interactive features have become staples of the medium, such as long cutscenes, lengthy dialogues, and scripted sequences. Players are regularly asked to wait until they can play again - and there is not even the rationale of it being "someone else's turn".

It's not good design. Gaming should be non-stop. And QTEs are an attempt to fix that.

QTEs are an attempt to add interactivity to what would otherwise be downtime. Yes, it's cool just to watch Kratos ripping off a minotaur's head, but it's significantly cooler to be engaged in it. Yes, it's great that the Prince doesn't die when he loses a fight, but the introduction of a QTE gives the illusion that he doesn't die because of something the player did. It's better than non-interactivity, and it's better than removing the feature altogether.

And yes, it's still pretty awful. It's a bad solution to a real problem, but it's better than no solution to the problem, and when iterated over a raft of games it creates a dialogue among developers about how do we do it better? It's a step on a stairway that's going to lead us to better gaming - a shaky step, but an important one all the same.

And sure, next time you see a game use QTEs in a really ham-fisted way, feel free to blast the developers, because they can find a better way. There is another road, and it's going to take us to some really excellent places.

But just remember that long before we got to walk that road, we had to start looking for it.

9 comments:

Grant said...

I actually really liked the QTEs in Shenmue, but then Shenmue is brilliant.

Greg Tannahill said...

You lucky sod and your Shenmue. I've got Shenmue 2 sitting there for my XBox but as far as I'm aware you just can't get the original on any current-gen systems, even factoring in backwards compatibility.

Marcie said...

Interesting blog, Greg. Thanks.

I think that your beef more has to do with bad design, rather than QTE. Like you said it's about taking turns, and really why should the "game" get a turn in the first place?

I think that cutscenes, if they need to happen (and, that is debatable) are great to give the gamer a minute to stretch, and to slurp a cuppa coffee. A bit of downtime isn't a bad thing. Except in survival horror, when you should be on edge of course!

Sonictail said...

QTE's in Shenmue were awesome, a lot has been experimented with but when it fails is when you go back to the start of the cutscene cause you missed a motion (Bee Movie is the WORST offender for this) as they should have a different outcome or path. Prince of Persia implements them well, but some of them fail for no real reason, I failed several X hammer events and I had no idea why! The latest clive barker game had each one mapped to a limb, so when you were attacked from the left you hit the left QTE and so on, mapping them to the motions for the cutscenes and the end result being on your health.

I have to agree, we need to experiment to succeed with em, but we will not make it until we get the ability to really change the outcome beyond the character status.

Duncan said...

It's all about context. If the QTEs are consistent and map to something familiar then they tend to be less aggravating. They become unbearable when they just appear for no reason, and have nothing to do with the rest of the game (or controls) that you've been playing for the last half hour.

As our ability to make seamless connections between gameplay and visual aesthetic advances, hopefully we'll be able to make smooth connections between interface and gameplay as well. That's the key.

Greg Tannahill said...

Marcie, Duncan, Sonictail: I was about to respond to you all but really it just boils down to, "excellent points, I agree". :-) Thanks for commenting.

Carlos said...

Heavenly Sword got a lot of bad reviews (which i dont understand) but it had brilliant QTEs! Not only were they epic in animation and had a fair input window but they also had multiple paths. If you screwed up an input you'd see Nariku miss a jump or a rope but she'd grab on to something else and you'd get a second chance without dying and having to restart the sequence. Those QTEs were brilliant because they weren't punitive. Quite the opposite actually, if you failed some inputs you were rewarded with an animation you might not have seen otherwise.

Greg Tannahill said...

I've been dieing to play Heavenly Sword since I sampled it at TGS 06. I understand the reviews are mediocre but still, if I ever end up with a PS3, this is first on my purchase list.

Jonathan said...

I think another way to view this post is "The Problem of the Cutscene" vs. The Problem of the QTEs. If non-interactivity is our concern, than the cutscene is the primary villain. Personally, I'm not entirely sure that the cutscene makes for bad game design or storytelling, but if we accept that it does, there are better solutions. I think that the Valve approach in Half-Life 2 or Left 4 Dead is better, where all of the story occurs from the perspective of a first-person player-character. This creates new problems: when the narrative requires a response from the main character, the solutions are usually as inelegant as a dialogue wheel or a disembodied voice that also offers no player control.

Nevertheless, I think QTEs are more problematic. I don't think that a QTE event "gives the illusion that he doesn't die because of something the player did," or, if it does, then it's a very shallow illusion. The frustration in QTEs is largely a consequence of their repetition. Either you die (if you don't press X) or you're stuck in the same repetitive loop until you manage to do exactly what the game wants. Repetition interferes with the narrative enjoyment of a game more than non-interactivity. The interactivity in QTEs is binary: success, or failure, and to continue the game you have to succeed. [Edit: The previous post's reference to Heavenly Sword challenges this a bit, but there's still a heavy level of scripting, and the final result is likewise limited.] Consequently, there isn't any true player control. Interactivity that doesn't empower the player is a worse game design decision in my book.