Readings & Workings

Press F To Signify


L. Rhodes
Originally published as "QTE's and the Terms of Interaction."

Yesterday, over at Paste Magazine, Katherine Cross raised an interesting defense of a somewhat controversial convention in videogames: so-called "quick-time events" or QTEs. The heart of her argument is that,

They can be seen as a form of experiential integration designed to simulate involvement in a particular moment of the avatar's story. The input device, be it a keyboard, controller, a mouse, or a mobile phone, is used to its fullest extent to provide some kind of sensation that simulates what you see on screen: twist a control stick to wiggle free of an attacker or button mash to pry open a locked chest, as in Tomb Raider.

QTEs are, she goes on to explain, a partial solution to the limitations of conventional videogame interfaces, there being only so many ways you can manipulate a control pad to evoke real-world behaviors. The problem, from that point of view, is simply that most QTEs are poorly implemented, either in how they're introduced or in how they connect what our hands are doing to what's happening onscreen.

In some ways, that's an issue related to "terms of interaction," a topic I discussed in my last post, "Phantom Interaction." Whereas the terms of interaction in Gone Home are, I argued, too extravagant, QTEs are often so simplified that they make the poverty of what you're doing apparent. "Press F to pay respects" feels cheap because it exposes the vast gulf between honoring a deceased friend and the way you're being asked to do it. Screenshot from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Activision, 2014)

What I would add to Cross' analysis is that QTEs are often introduced as an exception to the terms that apply during the rest of play. The screen prompts you to "Press F to pay respects" because the designers haven't provided a standard term of interaction for paying your respects. There is no standard term because paying your respects is not an interaction you're expected to use during the normal course of play. And it's not expected because FPS videogames are designed to let the player make corpses, not honor them.

That can lead to ludo-narrative dissonance — that much-maligned term for when a videogame's narrative themes contradict the theme of play, or vice versa — but the more basic problem is that such exceptions draw attention to what the rest of the design leaves out. If paying your respects to a fallen comrade is an integral part of the work, why doesn't the game give you a method for doing rather than just a one-time button for triggering? The direction, we feel, is at odds with the design. The solution could be a design that better accommodates for that direction, but it might also be simply choosing direction that's better supported by the design.

QTEs don't always lead to those problems, of course. Cross cites the example of the climactic scene in Tomb Raider (Square Enix; 2013) when a series of QTEs lead to Lara Croft wielding dual pistols. That sequence is illustrative not only of what sort of QTEs work best, but also of why. The interaction there is relatively simple — simple enough that reducing it to a prompted button-mash doesn't create that distracting gulf between input and result. Moreover, it pairs well with the terms of interaction that make up the bulk of play — it belongs to the same general category of combat and survival behaviors.

Yet, despite those two qualities — simplicity and similarity — the thematic implications are disproportionately large and complex. Tomb Raider is reboot of the franchise, and its narrative arc is focused on the question of how Lara Croft becomes the indomitable heroine players know from previous titles. The image of Lara wielding two guns is a long-standing part of the iconography aimed at connoting the character's strength and mastery. So while the tangible interaction in that QTE may be little different from equipping a new weapon, something the player has done multiple times throughout the game, the "phantom interaction" (to reprise that term) is to reinstate a familiar symbol of Lara's strength.

Not all well-handled QTEs need be so pivotal, but it may be that the best of them work by balancing simplicity, similarity and significance. That is to say, they do more than simply introduce behaviors not compassed by the terms of interaction. They introduce behaviors that give richer significance to the rest of play.