In Defense of Tomb Raider’s Quick Time Events

The Tomb Raider reboot from 2013 was fairly controversial for a couple of different reasons, many of which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read internet commentary about any reboot of a classic games franchise, no matter how well-made. There were two major points of criticism that rang fairly true, though: the game has massive ludonarrative dissonance (I’ll explain what that means in a moment), and the game has too many damn quick time events.

I’m not interested in defending the game from the first charge, because it is a real problem. But I do take exception with the second one, because not only are there fewer QTEs than most people think, the game actually uses them in an interesting way to reinforce Lara’s growth throughout the game.

Glossary

First, let’s define our terms. Ludonarrative dissonance is a fancy term for something that everyone who has ever played a game has experienced to a lesser or greater degree: it’s when the gameplay (ludology) and the story (narrative) conflict. To a certain extent, this is inevitable, because the gameplay needs to make concessions to game balance, while the story does not. Think of Chrono Trigger, when an absurdly powerful wizard joins your party and suddenly becomes a lot less powerful. Or when enemies drop items that it makes no sense for them to be holding, because the game needs to make sure you have all the bullets or money you need. We forgive and overlook these minor dissonances, because they’re ultimately pretty inconsequential and smooth out the game flow. More serious ludonarrative dissonance comes into play when characters do things in gameplay that are utterly at odds with how they behave during cutscenes. The ultimate example of this, to me, is Grand Theft Auto IV, where in the cutscenes Niko is a man struggling to deal with and escape his violent past, who gets drawn back into the world of violent crime by circumstance…and then the second the cutscene ends he turns into a sociopath who drives on the sidewalk for kicks.

We also need – although it may seem that we don’t – to define Quick Time Events. Popularized by 1999 game Shenmue, these have become so ubiquitous in games that the only way to get away from them is to play nothing but strategy games. In the middle of a cutscene, the player is prompted to press a button to respond to the events of the cutscene. The events of the cutscene play out according to whether or not the player responds correctly to the prompt. Everyone knows a QTE when they see them, right? No further definition needed, right?

They look like this.
They look like this.

Well, not quite. In practice, the line between what is a QTE and what isn’t can be kind of fuzzy. Consider, for example, opening vent covers in Batman: Arkham Asylum. In order to open a vent so Batman can crawl through it (which happens at least twice per room), you need to follow the on-screen prompt, which tells you to mash a button to apply pressure until it breaks open. In terms of appearance, there’s nothing separating this from a QTE. But unlike a QTE, this is part of Batman’s standard traversal controls; he can do it in any room with a vent that needs opening, and do it at will, not at the whims of the developer. So which is it?

Same thing for these kinds of prompts.
Same thing for these kinds of prompts.

If you define the term sufficiently broadly, any contextual button press could be considered a QTE. So let’s lay down a more specific definition. In a QTE:

  1. Normal character control is suspended, in favor of a simpler control scheme dictated by the circumstances.
  2. The new control scheme must be sufficiently simplistic, such that it does not constitute a minigame.
  3. This switch to the new control scheme must be dependent on unusual circumstance, and not be part of standard play.

An in-game event must meet all three of these criteria to be a QTE. The above example of Batman opening a vent meets the first two criteria, but fails on the third. Resident Evil 4‘s infamous boulder run meets all three. I believe that this definition accurately describes QTEs as they are generally understood. Even within this definition, though, there’s a lot of variation in how these events are used and how they work, so it’s useful to further subdivide it. I’ve come up with three types of QTE for consideration: Death QTEs, Victory QTEs, and Branching QTEs.

A Death QTE:

  • is initiated by progression through the game, rather than specific player action
  • gates further progression
  • sends the game into a failure state if not successfully completed
  • examples: any time a game tells you to press X to not die

A Victory QTE:

  • is initiated by specific player action under unusual circumstances, rather than game progression in general
  • gates further progression
  • does not send the game into a failure state if failed, but instead resets to a standard state, and allows the player to try again
  • examples: most Platinum Games titles (and most modern action games in general) will do this towards the end of a boss battle so you can feel like you’re involved as your character finishes the boss off in a cool cinematic manner.

A Branching QTE:

  • may be initiated by either play progression or specific player action
  • does not gate further progress
  • determines which branch of the story the player will progress along
  • examples: Heavy Rain, Until Dawn

This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but it’s all the types I can think of, and certainly the only types relevant to Tomb Raider.

The Narrative

In the 2013 version of Tomb Raider, a young Lara Croft (orphaned daughter of a family of wealthy adventurers) is taking part in an archaeological expedition aboard the Endurance in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The objective of the expedition is to find the lost island kingdom of Yamatai. With her are her college friend Sam, and Whitman, a famous archaeologist who has fallen on hard times, as well as a cast of minor characters, most of whom will soon be dead. Leading the expedition is Roth, her mentor and former guardian. On Lara’s advice, Roth leads the expedition further East than they had planned, and the ship encounters a sudden storm and sinks off the coast of a tropical island. The good news: they found Yamatai! The bad news: the ghost of Yamatai’s former queen, Himiko, summons up powerful storms to destroy any vessel attempting to enter or leave the island, and the island’s other inhabitants are the Solarii, a violent society formed by survivors of previous crashes and shipwrecks who worship Himiko and like to burn any young women who land on the island in an attempt to find one who can serve as Himiko’s new body…and the Oni, vengeful ghosts of Himiko’s long-dead Stormguard, who murder anyone who dares approach her temple. To make matters worse, the leader of the Solarii, Matthias, determines that Lara’s friend Sam is compatible with Himiko, and wants to use her to resurrect the ancient magical queen. Alone and cut off, Lara must breach the stronghold of the Solarii to rescue the rest of her friends, and then make her way past the Oni into Himiko’s temple and save Sam from a fate worse than death, and try to find a way off of the island.

But first she needs to get nice and friendly with everyone's best friend, Mr. Rebar.
But first she needs to get nice and friendly with everyone’s best friend, Mr. Rebar.

This game’s Lara is not the confident and self-assured badass of games gone by. This is a younger Lara, not yet battle-tested, in the middle of a formative experience. Accordingly, the game begins with Lara in a position of extreme disempowerment. She is cold, wet, miserable, unarmed, isolated, and weak. She is heavily dependent on her mentor Roth; as she sits around that first camp site, she hopes that “Roth can find a way to get us home”, putting her fate in his hands. When Roth is injured and she needs to climb a mountain to send a distress signal in his stead, it takes a pep talk from him before she feels up for the challenge.

"Look, either you do this, or we all die. So get your arse in gear."
“Look, either you do this, or we all die. So get your arse in gear.”

As the game progresses, however, Lara’s resolve hardens, and her attitude changes. She begins her journey across the island of Yamatai frightened and weak, and emerges on the other side an unstoppable force. The island becomes a crucible that burns away her weakness through pain and hardship (her island adventure begins with her getting impaled through the side by a length of rebar, and only gets worse from there) until all that remains is a survivor.

The game is not subtle about this theming.
The game is not subtle about this theming.

Accordingly, the game gradually moves Lara from her initial weakness towards a place of empowerment and agency. As the game progresses, she begins making more and more confident statements about what she is going to do. This becomes most noticeable around the end of the Shantytown sequence, when fellow crewmember and all-around badass Grim is killed. Lara expresses her grief with a declaration of action: “I’ll make them pay”. From this point forward, she speaks almost entirely about what she is going to do about the situation, not about how Roth is going to solve it.

For the most part, she's just going to murder people until the problem stops.
For the most part, she’s just going to murder people until the problem stops.

Her relationship with her mentor also undergoes an evolution as the player progresses through the game. In the beginning, Lara is dependent on him. By the time she reaches the bridge sequence, however, in which she crosses a treacherous bridge to reach the Solarii’s palace stronghold and rescue the remaining members of the crew while Roth covers her from a sniper’s perch, they’ve begun to work together as a unit. She is still under his watchful eye (literally!), but they’re positioned as equals. In the aftermath of the palace sequence, however, Roth is killed protecting her from Matthias, and she takes on his role, leading the surviving crew of the Endurance to safety.

He goes out like a proper badass, though.
He goes out like a proper badass, though.

The game uses Lara’s signature dual pistols as a symbol of her growth throughout the game. In the classic Tomb Raider games, a pistol in each hand was Lara’s signature weapon, but in this game they’re conspicuously absent, and the bow appears to be her weapon of choice. You know who does use twin pistols, though? Roth.

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And at the very end of the game, she grabs a second pistol off of Matthias and uses them to finish him off. That she then stands facing the camera in a pose reminiscent of this iconic Tomb Raider box art is…probably not a coincidence.

203160_20160904230844_2Tomb-Raider-box-art

By the end of the game, Lara Croft has grown into herself, and become as powerful and confident as the classic iterations.

The Problem

The problem with this, of course, is that although the narrative does a good job of moving Lara from ‘powerless’ to ‘powerful’, the gameplay starts on powerful and just cranks it up from there. Especially at the beginning of the game, there’s a profound disconnect between the cutscene of Lara being forced to kill for the first time, and having a lengthy cutscene about her feeling conflicted about it, and the gameplay, where you kill enough people to build a temple of skulls. Not two minutes after Lara nearly throws up after killing someone for the first time, she rounds a corner and shoots two dudes in slow-motion, and it only gets more violent from there.

Not that Yamatai didn't come with plenty of its own building materials.
Not that Yamatai didn’t come with plenty of its own building materials.

The issue, basically, is that the gameplay is built to empower, while the narrative is built to disempower. The difference between the two is stark for the first half of the game, but they do gradually draw closer and closer together as Lara becomes more powerful in the narrative. The palace escape sequence is the moment when the two strands meet, as Lara rampages through the Solarii compound with her new grenade launcher, sending Solarii foot soldiers running. “That’s right!” Lara shouts as the smoke clears. “Run, you bastards! I’m coming for you all!”

See all that fire in the background? Lara did that.
See all that fire in the background? Lara did that.

From that point on, the ludology and the narrative are actually in perfect harmony. But man, that first half of the game has some nasty dissonance. From the moment she picks up the pistol to the moment she grabs that grenade launcher, the game has a serious problem on its hands, and I don’t think anyone would try to argue otherwise. I will, however, argue that the game does attempt to emulate Lara’s disempowerment in a different way: through the use of Quick Time Events.

Press X To Not Die

Tomb Raider has a reputation for being a QTE-fest, but that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. There aren’t actually that many QTEs in the game! However, I think the source of this reputation is that the QTEs are concentrated at the very beginning of the game. The game makes you perform no fewer than eight Death QTE inputs before you even reach the first camp site, and five in order to kill your first man and get the pistol. This trend continues for a bit longer as well: when Lara needs to go into the wolf pack’s den in order to retrieve Roth’s pack, the player might be forgiven for assuming that you will need to actually fight the wolf pack. Instead, you have to succeed at a pair of Death QTEs on your way out.

Get used to seeing this button prompt.
Get used to seeing this button prompt.

After Lara sets out on her journey to reach the radio tower, however, these events abate dramatically. In fact, from that point forward, there are only two more sets of Death QTEs for the entire game: two on during the bridge sequence, and then two more in the final confrontation with Matthias. In fact, on more than one occasion something happened in a cutscene that you would expect to require a QTE to advance, but simply didn’t. There are also two sets of Victory QTEs interspersed in there, used to finish off a couple bosses (one on the deck of the Endurance, and the Oni general), but that’s it. And while those do count as QTEs, they don’t put you in a failure state and require you to reload the game; you can just try again.

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It seems to me that these QTEs are deployed very deliberately. At the beginning of the game, when Lara is weak and unable to control the events around her, there are a bunch of Death QTEs, representing that she’s in a desperate scramble to survive, and simply reacting frantically to the crazy shit that’s happening around her. The more she takes control of the situation, however, the fewer Death QTEs the player faces. Remember, part of the definition of a QTE is that normal player control is suspended. Resolving situations via QTEs instead of gameplay is a perfect ludic metaphor for the fact that, in the early hours, Lara has no real control over her fate.

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Of course, neither does the villain. Up yours, ghosty.

This tactic does come with some downsides. For some people, any amount of Death QTE is too much, but even if you’re not one of them…the game, frankly, doesn’t do QTEs very well, and it makes the first hour of the game feel shitty and frustrating as you do the same unforgiving QTEs over and over. It leaves the game with a bad first impression. That would be a problem for any medium, but it’s a HUGE problem for a game, because game reviewers don’t always have time to play through the whole game before writing…and even when they do, they skim through them in a hurry. The first hour or so gets disproportionately represented in the review. I think all of these things combined to drive the narrative that the game was laden with QTEs around every corner.

Still, that it feels shitty and out of your control is, in many ways, the point. It should feel shitty to be Lara Croft in that situation. The gunplay doesn’t emulate that, but the developers at Crystal Dynamics tried to get it across to the player in another way, and it was if anything too effective. Even as we criticize the game for its dissonant gameplay, we should acknowledge its success.

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