Yeah, I said it. I love Quick Time Events. Playable cutscenes. Poor excuses for interactivity in an already interactive medium. There's something to be said for a game that tries to give you control over something that would normally be either unplayable or a nightmare to program. We're all so used to cutscenes in our games (predominately action games), and when I was younger, I thought the idea of a little sequence of "smash the button in time to punch the guy in the face" was brilliant. It took off in gaming and eventually became one of those infectious trends that people just got sick of.
For me, it all started on a high note with this:
(Skip to 3:21)
This is from Die Hard Arcade, which swallowed many a quarter in my youth. It was a beat-em-up like every game back then, but this was different. After a few rooms, you'd get to watch Not John McClane sprint down the hallway as the game told you to hit Punch. And what a punch! That guy spirals through the air, twice, in slow motion! But what I appreciate about this ancient QTE is how it was tied to the gameplay. If you fail, you instead have to fight the guy like any other encounter, so the event was set up to give you a chance to move on without risking your health.
This same system made its way to Shenmue later on, which became synonymous with loathsome QTEs. I played Shenmue and enjoyed it, but I agree that there were a hell of a lot of the damn things. Why did they suck?
Mostly it was because you had to pass them to succeed.
This is a game that already has combat in it, and that's what most of these QTEs are.
These events became overbearing to the point of replacing actual gameplay. Why make a game where Ryo's primary interaction with the world (walking/running and talking to people) don't seamlessly blend with the combat and the exciting chase sequences? I recall reading an article about Enter the Matrix around this same time where the writer criticized the game for letting you run up to the window but not allowing you to actually jump through it, which the cutscene would do for you.
Some years later I played Devil May Cry 3 and thought the same thing. Granted, the gameplay itself is satisfying in its own right, but why did Dante do all the really cool shit in the cutscenes and leave the seemingly less-engaging combat to me? The game was a lot better after I started skipping everything but the fighting. There were no QTEs and the story wasn't worth mentioning, so I wasn't missing out- I stripped the game down to what it was: raw gameplay.
But still, I had a soft spot in my heart for the games that tried to capture what it was that made these little sequences so special. People lamented 2009's Ninja Blade because it advertised Quick Time Events on the back of the damn box!
Keep in mind that in the PC version, you can customize your color scheme so that you can be Rainbow Ninja.
See this? This, to me, was excellent- nobody had to feel betrayed that they were playing some incredible title that was then ruined by poorly-made QTEs. You knew what you were getting into. Sadly, the gameplay of Ninja Blade was pretty crappy, but when you consider that most of your time in the game is spent playing cutscenes where you surf on missiles and throw motorcycles into giant monsters, the combat's low quality doesn't matter.
What Ninja Blade also accomplished that some games do well with their QTEs is that it tied certain actions and moves to buttons that remained consistent with the gameplay. That is, when the protagonist has to jump or do something acrobatic in the QTE, the action is always tied to the jump button, and the same thing goes for attacking and throwing and dodging and so on. Heavenly Sword did this, as did Asura's Wrath, and while these games share the same disappointing pattern of arguably lackluster combat, their QTEs were satisfying. I felt like my actions had weight, and the button consistency allowed me to think I was still playing the game rather than just letting something happen. Hell, I'll even give props to the abysmal Ninja Gaiden 3 for this: the actions Ryu performs as he sails off rooftops or stealth-kills enemies are not only consistent with the buttons pressed during normal gameplay, but it also takes a page from Die Hard Arcade: if you fail these QTEs, you simply fight the enemies normally versus insta-killing them.
Don't lie. This fight gave you a boner.
Most games seem to forget what QTEs were supposed to be, or rather what I feel like they were trying to be: extensions of the game you were playing. It was completely natural to deck a guy in the halls while playing Die Hard Arcade. Mashing buttons in Bayonetta kept me in it, moment to moment. But why do I need a QTE in Max Payne 3?
Who the hell thought this was a good idea?
I get it, Max can't really fight a guy with melee in the game (since all the melee attacks are just cleverly-disguised insta-kills), but throughout the entire rest of the game Max pulls out a gun when he needs one. What's especially tricky about this QTE is that it's not just precise, but it's picky. Not only do you have to press the right button at exactly the right time, but if you press the wrong button at any time, you fail the next action which results in failure. You can tell this sequence wasn't fully thought-through as you can actually get the achievement for melee attacks simply by repeating it, which happens above.
I didn't care for the "timed decisions" in Mass Effect, though they were at least contextualized more smoothly (come on- the game puts the gun in your hands, the Geth in your scope, and you get renegade points when you pull the trigger? Really?). God of War has plenty of gruesome and truly inventive QTEs (bashing the horse keeper in the door in God of War 2 is a favorite, but the gold medal goes to the first-person slaying of Poseidon in God of War 3), but I don't care for them in the long run. The very end of Metal Gear Solid 3 gets an automatic pass for being important to the story and consistent with player interaction.
Poorly-implemented QTEs don't keep me grounded in the game, their inclusion feels arbitrary, and ultimately many of them beg that big question: why couldn't the game have been designed in a way to incorporate these actions into gameplay? We're moving in the right direction with some recent titles. I don't think the sequence in Call of Duty 4 where you crawl out of the helicopter and look up at the mushroom cloud counts as a QTE, but it certainly feels like a playable cutscene and it keeps the player in the game. The Assassin's Creed series started out with no "true" cutscenes in the sense that you retain control over Altair/Desmond while other characters talked, albeit with limited actions. This changed as the series advanced, but the early entries had some good ideas (especially those in the Ezio trilogy, beginning with his birth).
And how about those free-running sections in the excellent Sleeping Dogs? That's the kind of thing Shenmue could only dream of!
The prompts pop up as Wei Shen moves through the environment. It's just a display of context-sensitive actions timed with his approach to an object, but it kills two birds with one stone: the player feels like they're doing more than just pushing a button to traverse the environment (even though this is the same button used to sprint), and they don't feel like they're being taken out of the game to watch the character do something cooler than the player is allowed to do.
Their definition still seems somewhat fluid, and I get the variety of reasons that many players have for not liking QTEs. The bad ones suck. The good ones might not be fun for everyone. Some games are too much like movies with too many QTEs and not enough gameplay, and some games aren't enough like movies for the same reasons. For me, I try to measure those I come across against the models that I think do the form well, and it would be a shame if we don't see systems like those used in Sleeping Dogs in future titles. On the whole, people wouldn't miss them if they went away for good, but I think we'll get just enough of the shining examples to keep the mechanic around for a while.
And let's be honest: if the next Pokémon game told you to hit Down+B when the Pokéball closed, you'd do it.