"Press X to not die." It's a gaming cliche at this point, one that many view as a symptom of lazy game design. Quick time events, as they're known, are glorified cut-scenes. Things happen, and we press buttons that don't really match up with the action on screen. They can be pretty bad.
I don't think they have to be terrible, though. In truth, QTEs (fun fact: not originally called quick time events) can be better than more traditional forms of gameplay, depending on when/where they show up. It's all about context.
QTEs are simple and restrictive, but that allows for a level of focus it's difficult to get from other game mechanics. Finishing off a boss with a complex combo, every action of which you perform yourself, might be more rewarding in the grand scheme of things, but mashing the hell out of a one or two buttons—your palms slick with sweat and fury—to drive home the final blow is a powerfully physical thing. You're only doing basic actions, but you're going all-in on them. No pauses or breaks, no mood-breaking health potion gulps, nothing to pull you away. It's just you and the moment.
And all the while, events on screen can take whatever cinematic form they need to—within limits. A good QTE is not entirely arbitrary. A good QTE accentuates the action (or non-action) unfolding in front of you, even if it doesn't directly correspond to what's happening blow-by-blow.
It is, however, easy to get that wrong. To overdo it or, worse, under-commit, lazily sprinkling QTEs all over an experience instead of considering the potential each individual one has to be really special.
Recently I've been playing a lot of Telltale adventure games, which spice their dialogue-heavy stew with brief bursts of QTE-heavy action. Problem is, they're pretty rote as far as QTEs go. I waded into Game of Thrones' opening action scene full of trepidation, but not because I was worried I wouldn't be able to press the left arrow key to—SPOILER ALERT—dodge left and avoid a dude lunging at me. It was the plot, the world, the lingering ghost of Game of Thrones book and TV show experiences wailing, "WooOOoooOOOoo shit is gonna get terrible for everybody you love in, like, three seconds. Also I am a ghost."
Game of Thrones QTEs got the job done, and that was it. They were samey and unexciting. They felt like they existed to pull players back into the game in case they'd zoned out while people were talking or something—not to be genuinely interesting on their own merits.
Telltale reuses QTE concepts too, to the point of eye-roll-worthy predictability. Game of Thrones has a bit where you get trapped beneath a thing/person and have to mash a button in hopes of escaping, but it turns out to be impossible. You can't fill the little meter no matter how hard you mash. When you inevitably falter, someone rescues you. Tales from the Borderlands had the same thing. If I remember correctly, so did The Walking Dead.
And, like, yes, I get it. The situation is hopeless, futile. This is a way to express that through gameplay. Thing is, it's supposed to be surprising—like, "Oh man, the button mashing thing I usually use to pry the slavering jaws of certain death from my throat didn't work like it always does!" If you copy/paste it between games so frequently, it's not a surprise anymore.
I don't mean to single out Telltale here, because a) they make some really great stuff and b) many video game QTEs are kinda garbage. There's also a lot Telltale gets right—for instance QTEs where failure doesn't mean instant death, just a new branch in the story. But the not-so-great aspects of Telltale's designs are a recent example of the trend on cruise control—QTEs used as a surrogate for other forms of gameplay (for instance, combo-based action or something) instead of an expressive tool in their own right. Other games that have made similar mistakes or have triggered "cheap" insta-death moments with QTEs include the recent Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
So what do QTEs look like when somebody's using them for good, not a drowsy, narcoleptic sort of evil? Well, the most classic example is the Krauser knife fight from Resident Evil 4. It's a tense, intimate scene—a sudden showdown between two men with volumes of history between them. Every line of dialogue is hissed, spat, snarled, and then punctuated with a swing or stab at some vital organ. The fight is a physical representation of their conversation, of the sparks between their dueling personalities.
But there are lulls, moments where Leon and Krauser circle each other warily, continuing to chat through gritted teeth. It's here that the player must wait for a button prompt that could leap out at them at any given second. I was actually on the edge of my seat during that scene. I was stressed out of my mind, a point lodged in the side of my brain by the fact that the in-game camera constantly lingered on those two terrifying knives, gleaming and flickering in the darkness. One wrong move meant certain death—gutting, evisceration, decapitation. Not a good time, in other words.
The stressful unpredictability of each button press accentuated the mood of the scene. I imagined Leon was feeling exactly the same way as me. Frightened, on-edge, despite his desire to take down Krauser and Get Some Answers. In a game of brazenly over-the-top action, it was a surprisingly human moment, one where the player and character's emotional states overlapped.
My favorite example of excellent QTE use, however, is Asura's Wrath, a game that was almost entirely made up of cut-scenes and QTEs. It was essentially a crazy shonen fight anime that pretended to be a traditional beat-'em-up sometimes, when it felt like it, but those parts weren't all that great. It was the QTEs that gave Asura's Wrath its unique personality. Well, that and Asura with, you know, all of his wrath. Boy was he ever upset. He was so mad that sometimes he grew extra arms about it.
But for all the rage and testosterone bleeding from every crevice of that game, its subtle mastery of QTEs was damn near artful. The glue that held it all together was the "burst" meter, which—when filled—let you enter a QTE finisher with the pull of a trigger. It was always mapped to the trigger, and it always meant the same thing: "You are about to do something inconceivably rad. Also your arm is gonna hurt like hell afterward."
Now, unlike the Telltale examples above, this was a place where consistency worked to a QTE-heavy game's advantage. Asura's Wrath had "burst" morph and evolve over time. The game's designers kept in mind the powerful significance the burst trigger held, and then they played with it. At first it was used to make you feel powerful, to hype you the goddamn hell up. But then, as the game progressed, it popped up in unexpected locations—even as a joke in a silly, extremely anime bathhouse scene. And the final burst of the game? One of the most satisfying, bittersweet trigger pulls I've ever done in any game ever.
I could write an entire article dissecting each form of QTE in Asura's Wrath. There were so many great individual moments, like hammering away on the B button—tiny versions of which blotted out the entire screen—to use your hundred arms to punch the most powerful punch of all time. Heck, even sprouting said extra arms was always cool. You did it by flicking both sticks in opposite directions simultaneously, and then—boom—arms. It just felt right. Like, now I know how growing extra arms should feel, if ever I need to advise someone on the process.
And then there was the ring that encircled especially important button presses. If you timed it just as it closed in around said button image, it'd click satisfyingly while exclaiming that you were "EXCELLENT" or some variation on it. Then, depending on the situation, you'd mash B to drag a giant dude's face across the ground or do a Dragon Ball Z-style punching battle with your old, now-evil master or click the sticks and mash furiously to stop the continent-annihilating finger of a dude who was fucking bigger than Earth.
Each individual button press corresponded to crazy cool, stylish action. Some were consistent throughout the whole game, others less so. And if you screwed up on the timing of one, well, you were a bit less awesome than usual. But you were still fucking awesome. Asura's Wrath was a teetering stack of reward principles. In lesser hands it would've fallen over and died and exploded (in that order), but carefully crafted QTEs carried the whole thing.
Those are just a few examples of how QTEs can be great, and there are plenty of others—for instance Heavy Rain, select examples from God of War, and more recently, Bayonetta 2. That's why it breaks my heart to see them used lazily. Maybe it takes away from my "gamer cred" or whatever, but QTEs have driven some of my favorite moments in games. In the right hands, they're a versatile tool for expression and evoking emotion. I think there's still a lot of unexplored territory surrounding them, too. Now here's a QTE for the game designers in the audience: PRESS X TO FINISH READING THIS ARTICLE AND GO MAKE SOMETHING COOL.
(You don't actually have to press X.)
(Actually I lied. You're dead now.)