It's actually quite possible to place button-mashing QTEs in a strategic context. One fantastic example is in Gears of War 2 (Epic, 2008). Your characters are ambushed while standing in the middle of a circular elevator. The enemies are in the circular hall surrounding the elevator shaft. In the center of the elevator is a round wheel. Get to this wheel and hammer the action button to raise the elevator above the heads of the enemies.
Now you have the high ground. The enemies, however, have access to a crank handle all their own, and they can pump it to lower your high ground. Now we have to keep our eye on the enemies' handle to pick off anyone trying to kill our advantage while also dealing with enemies around the circle. While dealing with those other enemies, one of them out of your sight range might get to the enemy crank and start lowering your elevator. It's a fast, maddening, excellent level design.
God Hand plays with the idea of opening a door with a QTE even while stopped at a conflict-free dead end. It does this by turning the event into a mini-game. Locked doors in God Hand often feature a large, smiley-faced button with a wide mustache made of maces.
As you pummel the button, it turns from green to red. You can see its facial expression quaking. The face soon gets angry. This is your cue to tweak the right analog stick to dodge: its mace-mustache is about to clap your ears, doing big damage.
Dodging forward or backward offers a slimmer margin for error than dodging left or right, though it is also quicker, and buys you more time to pummel the door-button. (Any time you're not pummeling the button, its color slowly fades from red to green.)
Though the level design may be no more than hollow boxes full of enemies, the fights are fantastic, and even the simple act of opening a door includes unforgiving mini-games involving punching. It's no wonder scientists recently proclaimed God Hand the Best Game Ever. (Editor's note: they didn't actually.)
A pattern that emerges in the analysis of game-enhancing, progressive QTEs is that they involve using buttons on the controller for the same purpose that they're used in regular play. In the God Hand example above, the player uses the punch button to punch and the dodge button (actually an analog-stick swipe) to dodge.
Another excellent example is the first boss in Ninja Blade, a game that otherwise features bland (if forgiving) cutscene-replacement QTEs. The first boss is a massive spider monster at the end of a corridor. The player must traverse that corridor, dodging left and right to avoid the shock waves the boss is spitting. If a shock wave hits the player, it hurts him, and knocks him back.
The corridor is long and treacherous. When the player successfully reaches the end of the corridor, he can now attack the spider's face. He does this by pounding the attack button. Eventually, the boss doesn't like this, so he emits a super-powered shock wave that knocks the hero back with intensity. The camera zooms in to the hero's face. He's holding up his sword-edge against the shock wave. This is your cue to press the sword button rapidly to fight back the shock wave.
No matter how many times you press the sword button, you're not going to conquer the shock wave. It's going to knock you back. The question is how much it's going to knock you back. With a less-than-stellar button mashing performance, you might be all the way back at the beginning of the corridor. With a great performance, you might only be 10 feet away.
John Woo's Stranglehold (Midway, 2007), likewise, exclusively employs such progressive QTEs. The most striking of them are the standoff situations. A group of enemies surround the hero. They point guns at him. They tell him to negotiate. He's played by Chow Yun Fat and wearing sunglasses at night, so he is definitely not going to negotiate.
The camera slides into a first-person view. Time slips into super slow motion. Using the right analog stick, we perform the usual right-analog-stick motion of aiming the hero's guns. We pull the right trigger, and it does what the right trigger always does: we fire our guns. In the first slow-motion microsecond, the enemies begin to fire their guns.
The first-person camera snaps from attacker to attacker. The crosshair is always a bit off of the deadly pressure point. You move it manually, at just slower than its usual speed, as you savor the super slow motion reaction time of the enemy in front of you. You pull the trigger. The camera follows the bullet impact. The enemy flinches, deforms, crumples, or explodes backward with terrific physics calculated by the impact point of the bullet.
This is as exciting as QTEs can possibly get: the action fits story context, character context, and game control context, and the payoff is visceral and instant. Much as Half-Life phased out the cutscene by making the narrative "happen" in the world as the player plays, Stranglehold shows that QTEs can be part of a game and not be sudden, intrusive, demanding situations.
In Stranglehold, physics is the payoff. Everywhere you go, you're shooting neon signs and watching them fall onto enemies. Objects that can be shot glint at appropriate times. Shoot them, and they're bound to fall on an enemy position. The "glint" is the game's way of temporarily, instantaneously gifting the player with the hero character's superhuman skill of destruction-minded creative perception. Shoot at the glint, and something will happen. Shooting the glint is accomplished by aiming and shooting your hero's gun in the same way as you'd aim and shoot the gun in any other context.
For the moment, let's ignore the way Stranglehold jumps the shark one-sixteenth of the way through stage two, and say that it might just be the future of action games. Stranglehold presents a genre where the game world itself is a QTE.
So we've come full circle. Game graphics today are incredibly impressive, even if the things we do with them are something obtrusive and weird. Eight-year-olds who gawked at Dragon's Lair in 1983, if shown Stranglehold, would likely scream until they spontaneously combusted.
The amazing thing, way back then, was that games could look this good while simultaneously portraying complex, dynamic, cinematic action on the screen. We've evolved much since then. We've learned how to make graphics equally as impressive as those cartoons of the 1980s, and we've learned how to make games so incredibly interesting to play that we're willing to get online and play them with profane 12-year-olds, if we have to.
Consider Road Blaster (Data East, 1985), which depicts high-velocity cartoon car chases from a driver's seat view. In Road Blaster, your only input is pressing right or left on the controller at excruciatingly specific times. Your reward for enough precise inputs is to watch an enemy car fly off the road, smack into a mountain wall, and explode in a ball of fire -- or to watch your own car drive up a ramp and fly over some impossible ravine.
A decade and a half later, we have Burnout 3 and Burnout Paradise (EA, 2004 and 2008), games about driving at criminally insane speeds and performing ridiculous maneuvers, where the central play mechanic involves knocking cars off the road to their death. What we've done in this modern age is perfectly recreate the thrill of piloting a speeding automobile, and married it seamlessly with the crazy action of sideswiping some dude off the road and into a mountainside.
Unlike Road Blaster, Burnout, using only its vehicle native controls and no on-screen button icons, lets us finely control the velocity of our car and minutely consider the angle and ferocity of our approach. And when we succeed in our favorite in-game action of death-delivery, all kicks into slow motion and the camera swivels to bring the road behind us into view to show our soon-to-be-late rival slowly careening toward some form of demise, the physics of his flight perfectly calculated uniquely, just for our current performance.
Compare that to the game-length QTE that is Road Blaster. (Please ignore Road Blaster's killer soundtrack and wicked-sweet character designs.) Which one is more exhilarating to play? Be honest. If QTEs are a "problem," we might be millimeters away from a global solution.