Let me describe a potential game scenario. You’re walking though a dark cave, exploring it slowly, a torch in one hand and your other hand trailing along the walls. Just as you’re reading some ancient text carved into the stones, a big pop up prompt appears on your screen, demanding that you press a button before some random boulders collapse on you.
Welcome to Quick Time Events, or to give an abbreviation, QTEs. A lot of them are completely unnecessary, yet some of otherwise fair, player controlled, games toss them in for the excitement. And then the player dies because they had zero idea they had to mash a button before an invisible timer ran out (and sometimes what exactly needs to be done isn’t even clear). This annoying variant has earned the name Press X to Not Die.
To make matters worse, many of these instant death QTEs occur in the middle of what seem to be cut-scenes, a time where the player is not expecting to have to do anything. Bayonetta games have a habit of doing these during action sequences, where one moment you’re watching her dodge attacks effortlessly, and the next moment, you have to mash your controller in less than a second or watch her get killed by a chunk of flying concrete. This kind of cheap difficulty doesn’t reward skill. Instead, it forces people to replay sections until they memorize the exact moment where they need to press a button, and that’s just repetitive and frustrating. Ironically, Bayonetta uses QTEs to increase damage on finisher moves, and they’re really fun to execute, yet still decides to do the Press X to Not Die variant within the same game. I’m honestly not sure why.
On the flip side, there are good ways to insert QTEs, like not killing the player if they fail it. Sometimes, they are used to unlock cool cut-scene visuals, extra story paths, or more score points. This way, all it does is reward players for getting it, and positively encourages them to replay a section at their own leisure if they don’t get it. A really fun example of good QTEs that benefit the storytelling are the ones you get in the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm fighting games.
Playing story mode in these games lets you replay many of the high energy fight scenes in the Anime and Manga series, but instead of just making a ton of cutscenes that the player just watches, they insert controller commands to integrate the player into the moments. They have to power up the attacks, dodge, and parry. And the better the player performs, the more interesting the fight scene becomes in response. Stars gained during QTEs unlock secret battle cutscenes, and sometimes the player can choose objectives mid fight to perform to get certain endings or a better score.
Overall, I don’t really like QTEs. I feel like they drag you out of your game experience to punish you for some arbitrary reflex check. Unless more games make more effort to make them feel more integrated and fun, I don’t see much of a point to them beyond shoving in unnecessary game-play elements.