The very first QTEs were, in fact, a replacement for in-game action. The most obvious example is also the genesis of the modern concept of the QTE: the Laserdisc-based Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics, 1983). In Dragon's Lair, the player controls a knight on his quest to rescue a princess from a dragon. Though the story was common fare for any type of adventure story, the graphics were superbly unique compared to other games at the time. Dragon's Lair was a lovingly hand-animated cartoon featuring the work of renowned animator Don Bluth.
Dragon's Lair's secret was that its data was stored on a Laserdisc. Player control inputs were limited to actions that, effectively, changed the chapter being played. At certain points in the action, an arrow or on-screen object flashes, either to the hero's left or right. The player has to respond in a split second. If we succeed, we see a brief animation detailing our hero's triumph. If we fail, we see our hero's demise.
This game mechanic would be offensively shallow if it were the core of any games today. But at the time, with graphics so astounding, it worked.
Part of Dragon's Lair's appeal was that the hero's deaths -- not just his triumphs -- were unique animations. Dying is part of the game. Seeing each of the hero's deaths is as essential to earning encyclopedic knowledge of the game as seeing each of his triumphs.
We don't see games fully made up of QTEs anymore. However, we occasionally see games where the QTE becomes the main format of the game-action for an entire set piece.
One infamous example of such a QTE usage comes in the game Shenmue II (Sega, 2001) -- the sequel to the game that brought the QTE abbreviation into the mainstream. At one point in the story, the hero and his buddy arrive at a dilapidated tenement building in Kowloon. The goal is to get to the tenth floor, where they have an appointment to meet someone.
The hero goes ahead alone. Upon reaching the second floor, he finds that the floor is caved in, and the only way to get to the other side is to walk across a precariously positioned plank of wood. Step onto the wood, and the action QTE begins.
The camera is positioned just above the hero's shoulders as he stands on a thigh-wide wooden plank spanning a black hole in a gray-floored, brown-aired tenement building devoid of other life or sound. Arms held out at his sides, putting one foot in front of the other, he baby-steps forward across the plank. Every few steps, at randomly staggered times, he leans to one side or the other. An on-screen prompt urges you to press either left or right on the control pad.
Soon, these prompts are coming in relentlessly. Miss just one, and the hero falls to his death. Falling to your death means game over. You reload the game, you endure the journey from your save point to the place of your death, and you try again. Succeeding at this particular mission flawlessly takes 10 grueling, palm-sweaty minutes of your life. Failing at it might take a dozen hours.
You have to walk across planks -- sometimes two of them -- on each of the ten floors of the building. This might be where you give up on the game, either because it's too difficult or because you've smashed your controller. If you succeed, the other character is waiting for you at the top. The hero, confused, asks how he got up there. He explains that he took the elevator.
The player has no option to take the elevator.
Shenmue II's example of using QTE to replace game action, in theory, is purely out of Dragon's Lair. In practice, it offers no neat graphical payoffs. Even death is unceremonious: the hero is swallowed into the void. It's a chore that must be completed to move forward in the game. QTEs are a powerful game mechanic in that they offer developers the opportunity to show the player something really cool -- and that's why gamers play games: to see really cool things.
Making a game sequence entirely out of QTEs means everything has to be very cool, and it's hard to make everything cool. It's like writing a sentence using only exclamation points. People get tired of that after a while.
The secret, then, is to use QTEs to enhance in-game action.
In God of War (Sony, 2005), a shining example of enhancing in-game action, QTEs most often arise in the middle of climactic battles -- not the cutscenes before or after said battles. In an early boss battle against a hydra, the player must dodge the enemy's attacks while attacking its weak points. Hit the weak points enough times, and you induce a vulnerable state. The player has a few moments to reach and attack the hydra head during this induced vulnerability. He must continue to dodge attacks while climbing the mast of a ship to reach the hydra's head.
Once in place, the player presses a button to initiate a QTE during which the hero lambastes the beast's head, swings around in an acrobatic arc, and ultimately pulls the head down with great force, impaling it on a broken, spiked wooden pole.
Success at the QTE means destruction of one of the parts of the boss. If this were a game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the boss's life meter would be made up of four rectangular segments: attacking the boss outside of the QTE would not decrease his life meter, while successfully completing the QTE would erase an entire segment.
The penalty for missing a prompt in the God of War during-boss-fight QTE is ejection from the QTE: miss a move during the hydra fight, and Kratos plummets back to the deck of the ship. The hydra recovers his strength. You must now attack the boss as before until he's in a vulnerable enough position to initiate the QTE again.