Resident Evil 4 & The Tension of Quick Time Events
One thing that I miss while playing the Resident Evil 4 remake is quick time events. Having to smash some buttons in time always added a bit of fright to the original game. There was so much tension in the moments where you’d hammer at the button to keep El Lago from dragging you into the lake. You’d feel these bolts of terror as you fought to hit the button before Krauser stabbed you. I used to feel that these little moments were inconveniences. Aggravating little additions that would only kill me if they caught me off-guard. Now, I miss them.
The very first quick time event caught me off-guard when I was playing the original game years ago. Video game enemies roll boulders and throw things at you all the time. So, when some enemies started rolling a boulder at Leon (our protagonist), I shrugged it off. I thought it would just be a scripted chase scene and then combat would resume. I didn’t expect that I’d be hammering a button to stay ahead of the rock the entire time. The game also switches which buttons you need to hit just as the chase is about to end. That trick caught me completely by surprise.
There were lots of things in these quick time events that made them work well in the original Resident Evil 4. For starters, they were infrequent. I would constantly get complacent about cutscenes and videos. In most horror titles, a cutscene meant nothing was going to happen to your character. Maybe you’d see a jump scare, but that was the worst of it. This lead me to drop my guard during these scenes. This game showed me that, if I just watched without remaining ready to act, then I’d die for that moment of carelessness. The quick time events taught me to always expect danger. I wasn’t safe even if I was in a cutscene or watching some story play out.
The presentation is simple, but impressive, as well. During each quick time event, you get a clear view of what button you need to press. Sometimes you get some instructions on what that button does, but it’s usually not important. You just know that you need to hit the button as fast as you can. However, when you have to tap multiple times, that on-screen button looks like someone is hitting it with a jackhammer. It makes you feel like you’re going to just have to lay into that button until your arm aches to survive.
This makes things so much scarier during moments like the boulder flight near the beginning of Resident Evil 4. You can see the rolling stone and you know you have to run. It’s tense already. Watching that button moving as if it’s being tapped a dozen times a second makes you think that you have to hit it absurdly fast to survive this moment. It increases the fright you feel in this moment, and the physical action of hitting the button that fast gets the heart rate up. You feel a little taste of adrenaline as you hurry to the end.
This early, basic quick time event does a good job of increasing your tension. Things are so much more frightening when the stakes are higher, though. The lake monster boss is a fine example of this. You have to fight a sea monster, El Lago, while riding a rickety boat. If it knocks you off the side, you have to slam on the button to get back on board before it eats you whole. It’s a really great moment if you have any sort of fear of sharks or sea life.
Here, Resident Evil 4 plays with perspective to make you fear for your life. For starters, your perspective changes if the monster knocks you out of the boat. You stop seeing things from behind Leon’s shoulder, which is your standard viewpoint. Instead, you can see Leon swimming toward the boat. He’s pretty far away. Behind him, El Lago is rushing forward. As you furiously hit the button, you can see Leon getting closer to the boat, but also that El Lago is far faster. You watch those distances close between Leon and the monster, praying that you make it to the boat before you get eaten. And you’re hitting that button as hard as you can the whole time. Will it be fast enough? It never feels like it will be.
When I played the remake, this fight was a bit more disappointing due to the lack of this quick time event. It was entertaining to fight El Lago in the boat, don’t get me wrong. However, it lacked that sense of danger that the original had. It just didn’t feel as scary without that chance of being knocked into the water. It lacked that terrifying scramble to survive. Taking a hit in the original game meant a furious swim to get back on the boat, which made this early boss utterly terrifying. Just having to keep my boat from getting broken wasn’t anywhere near as frightening in the remake.
Right after the El Lago fight in the original Resident Evil 4, you also have to slam a button to cut a rope after the boss dies. The beast drags you to your death if you fail. It put me through this sense of relief when I beat the boss, but it’s immediately followed by a spike of panic when I found out I was still in danger. In the remake, the boss fight simply ended when El Lago took enough damage. It lacked that surprise and genuine terror that came from cutting the rope from Leon’s leg. It was missing that relief at beating the boss followed by the panic of trying to cut yourself free before you drowned.
And there are a ton of other places in the game that were enhanced by these quick time events. Dodging an axe before Leon gets cut down. Narrowly skirting around near-lethal boss and enemy attacks. Running from a giant mechanical statue. Best of all, though, is the Krauser knife fight. You have to go through a chat with this foe while reacting to his random slashes, all with split-second timing. This moment drives me nuts, but also hums with tension as you narrowly dodge attacks. It’s easily the most tense, exciting story cutscene I’ve ever played through. But I suppose most conversations get pretty wild if the speaker is trying to stab you.
I understand why the Resident Evil 4 remake got rid of quick time events. They can be overly difficult and annoying at times. They often beat you by catching you by surprise. But that surprised terror created some of the most memorable moments in this game. I really missed those panicked swims against El Lago. I felt a bit disappointed just having a regular boss fight with Krauser. When used and presented well, quick time events can drag the player into the action. Make them feel a sense of fear when they’re normally calm and detached. They were a core part of what made the original game work well (among other things), and I really do miss them now that they’re gone.