Indulge me, please. I have a complaint. Yeah, it will probably seem like a pretty minor one in the grand scheme of things, but, all the same, it’s a source of regular frustration. Basically, what I’m working up to writing here is that I’m sick of videogames, good and bad alike, being ruined by the most easily avoidable problem of all: poorly designed quick time events. Quick time events (or QTEs for brevity’s sake) are often awful. They’re a decent design idea that felt truly novel at one point, but are used to good effect pretty much only within specific genres now. QTEs don’t have to be terrible (more on this in a bit), but their inclusion in many titles comes off as lazy or just plain poorly thought-out. When not properly integrated within gameplay mechanics they’re capable of destroying either entire sections of a game or the experience as a whole.
I started thinking about this topic after giving up on a videogame because of an incredibly frustrating QTE. Grasshopper Manufacture’s Killer is Dead is a third-person action game that certainly isn’t without non-QTE related narrative and design faults, but it was one sequence in particular that made me give up on a title I may otherwise have continued with. While fighting a boss about two hours into Dead’s campaign, the battle was interrupted with a QTE that required the frantic mashing a single button to complete. The timing of the sequence was so demanding that even the best controller-ruining tricks (rubbing a pen cap over the button, hammering at it with an index finger, etc.) couldn’t help me past it. I tried to look up some tips, found that a number of other players have had the same problem, and gave it a few more shots to no avail. I could blaze through the actual battle itself without difficulty. I could even get through the first of two QTEs after a while, but despite coming just short of turning my fingertip into a bloody ruin, couldn’t manage to pass the second sequence.
This has only happened to me once before, in Resident Evil 6, and served as the straw breaking the camel’s back on what was, all things considered, a pretty crummy game. But, even when they’ve featured in games that are really good otherwise—like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which features a notable sequence where the player keeps Snake from electrocuting to death through button mashing—a badly designed QTE can make me consider giving up on playing through something entirely.
Back when videogames like Shenmue and Resident Evil 4 were first coming out, QTEs seemed like a pretty good way to introduce light gameplay elements into scenes that would have otherwise been completely non-interactive. It was a smart idea then, but as the best developers took note of what worked about QTEs, simple, annoying ones designed around hammering a single button went away. Games like Indigo Prophecy and The Walking Dead re-contextualized the quick time event into a primary gameplay mechanic, using timed button presses to keep players engaged in story-heavy experiences. God of War and The Last of Us used QTEs to add a sense of physical urgency (and violence) to Kratos’ battles and Joel and Ellie’s desperate fights. These games changed the way that quick time events were used. Rather than simply tasking the player with hitting a button quickly—or as hard as possible for a sustained period of time—they worked to increase the connection the player has with her or his character.
When QTEs aren’t used properly, though, they can ruin a game. It seems astonishing that there are still developers who haven’t noticed when this mechanic works well and when it doesn’t. There’s a place in games for tough challenges that require quick reflexes and manual dexterity, but creating artificial difficulty through button mashing segments doesn’t fall into this category. Sure, games can ask us to beat up our controllers with frantic combat and tense action scenes, but gating progression behind unforgiving, overly simplistic quick time events is just plain bad design.