QTEs in Splinter Cell and Tomb Raider
I wrote last time about the meaning of button-presses in videogames. Player inputs have meaning in two ways: in terms of what happens in the superficial scenario of the game — which I call metaphoric content — and in terms of the implications within the mechanics of the game — which I call systemic content.
This post is a case study around that idea, looking at quick time events. QTEs expose the player action of pressing buttons in a very literal way — images of buttons you must press light up on the screen, and the sequence is quite a specific test of just pressing the button you’re shown.
Sometimes QTEs draw you into a game, but sometimes they shatter the immersion completely. What I’m going to show here is that that difference comes down to whether the button-presses demanded of the player are meaningful in the system, or merely in the metaphor.
My examples are Splinter Cell: Conviction (2010) and Tomb Raider (2013). I’m going to dig into both of them a bit in this post. It’s not hard to follow, but if you want a primer on system and metaphor in games, or on systemic and metaphoric content of player actions, then, well, there you go.
The meaningless spacebar
First of all, just to make sure the terminology is clear, here’s an illustration of metaphoric and systemic content in Splinter Cell: Conviction.
The game includes a substantial narrative element that results in the player-character, Sam Fisher, performing a large variety of complex actions: defusing bombs, hacking computers, interrogating suspects, and so on. Other actions, like running, jumping, sneaking, and shooting, are represented and differentiated from one another at the level of the system: there are directional controls for running, a toggle for sneaking, a dedicated button for jumping, and a whole range of controls for equipping, drawing, and firing weapons, and those actions all have very specific and distinct consequences in terms of what the player can do next. Because those actions are different in terms of the system, they have systemic content, as well as the metaphoric content of Sam Fisher’s running, jumping, sneaking, and shooting.
However, the more complex actions are all handled by a single button. On the PC you are instructed throughout the game to “Press [SPACE] to hack into mainframe”, “Press [SPACE] to analyse sound wave”, “Press [SPACE] to defuse explosive device”, and so on.
The metaphor in play at those moments — hacking, analysing, defusing —presents great variety in mission objectives, but it isn’t backed up by any variety in the system. The actions have metaphoric content, but in the terms of the system, those objectives are all just “Press [SPACE]”, “Press [SPACE]”, “Press [SPACE]”. There is no alternative to pressing Space, and there is no specific outcome in terms of the system when you press Space to do one thing rather than press Space to do another. The spacebar is meaningless in those moments. This isn’t a criticism, but it does show that the depth of Conviction’s interaction comes from those player actions with systemic content, and not those merely couched in the metaphor. So it’s a game about running, jumping, sneaking, and shooting, not about hacking, analysing, or whatever.
So when we come to QTEs, what Conviction does well is it avoids prompting for spacebar-presses — which are meaningless in that game — and instead prompts for inputs which do have systemic content. Tomb Raider (2013), on the other hand, gets that point very wrong.
Tomb Raider getting QTEs wrong
I’ll come back to Splinter Cell for the good example, but we’ll start with the bad one. Tomb Raider’s earliest sequences, before any substantial gameplay, draw heavily on QTEs. The second command presented to a new player is “Mash [E] to pull”. Mashing E is actually a mechanic that gradually earns some meaning in the game, but at this stage — before any other gameplay at all — the challenge is basically “see how rapidly you can press an arbitrary button”. (And: “If not rapidly enough, I will make you keep trying until I am satisfied”.) The system here has nothing whatsoever to do with the metaphor: the metaphor presents “pulling”, but the system only presents an arbitrary, meaningless button-press, which could have been any button at all.
The failure of these opening scenes is that the system is not elucidated by the metaphor, and engagement with the metaphor is not enhanced by the system. In fact — on the contrary — the metaphor’s impressive presentation is interrupted by the QTE, because the player has not been taught the meaning of E in the terms of the system. It’s just an arbitrary intrusion into a cutscene (which could be said about much of the game).
Opening with QTEs is doomed to break player immersion because there has been no opportunity to teach players the systemic content of their actions — the meaningfulness of their actions within the world of the game. The only exception I can imagine would be using the directional controls, which carry some assumed systemic meaning by default, just from videogame convention, but even that would lack any subtlety of movement particular to the game in question.
Splinter Cell getting QTEs right
So what does a QTE look like when it works? A really great implementation is at the end of Splinter Cell: Conviction. Here, we are presented suddenly with commands like “[Q] Mark everyone in the room”, and then “[C] Grab the bad guy”. These are just QTE button presses of Q and C, but the difference from the Tomb Raider opening is that this scene comes at the very end of the game, by which point the meanings of Q and C in terms of both system and metaphor have been taught to the player very thoroughly.
This is not the catch-all spacebar, which would be as arbitrary as mashing E in Tomb Raider; Q and C have been used consistently throughout the game for marking and grabbing, and only for marking and grabbing. Instead of interrupting a cutscene with an arbitrary button-press, the player is drawn into the scene with meaningful interaction — suddenly called upon in the heat of the moment to do what they do best. Because you know what those buttons do, you are prepared to press them the moment you drop out of the cutscene — even before you know the QTE is coming. You have a good chance to succeed and to feel good about it. You know from elsewhere in the game what happens when you don’t mark or grab, so you know what the stakes are and what you have achieved — you know what pressing those buttons means in the system, and not only in the metaphor.
So what do QTEs teach us?
Conviction’s closing-scene button presses are meaningful because they serve a particular role for the player in the system and represent a particular action by Fisher in the metaphor. System and metaphor are aligned, and the game we are playing is matched properly with the spectacle we are watching. A QTE like that is immersive and exciting.
In Tomb Raider’s opening scene, the button-presses have no particular role for the player in the system, and no particular action for Lara Croft. You don’t know at that stage — the very first scene — what pressing E does, either in terms of what animations it triggers or in terms of what gameplay implications it has. For instance, is it only usable in close proximity to something? Can you only use it so many times? Does it recharge? Is it something with negative consequences that you do grudgingly or sparingly, like firing a noisy gun in a stealth game? Or is it something fun you do as much as you want, like a cool jump in a platformer? At that point in the game, it is none of those things. All we have is "to pull", at the level of the metaphor, and no systemic content, so the QTE breaks the immersion and interrupts the atmosphere of the opening of the game.
If the game is just to press the key on the screen then we might as well play Typing of the Dead.
Back to that meaningless spacebar
QTEs put button-presses in the spotlight, with very literal cues for what the player needs to do. However, cues for action are present throughout all games, in more subtle forms. Which player inputs should be meaningful are a question of game design — an artistic choice on the part of the game makers. In Splinter Cell, the stealth action is paramount, and the details of other spy activities are merely plot-points, so a meaningless spacebar leaves room for all that window dressing of hacking, and analysing, and so on, while the meat of the game gets systemic detail in its representation to the player. However, if Tomb Raider is supposed to be about grabbing ledges, pulling yourself up, forcing doors open, and things like that, then those actions should be distinct at the systemic level, and not all follow the model of mashing the same button to continue.