5 – Quick Time Events
Few mechanics provoke as a strong a Pavlovian response in gamers as Quick Time Events. Mention them in polite conversation and you’re sure to get an earful about awful they are, how they pull you out of the moment and distract you from what’s happening in the game by forcing you to focus instead on button prompts which, if you miss, will force you to replay the entire sequence over and over until you get it just right. I won’t deny I’ve shared many of the same frustrations. I loved Resident Evil 4, but some of those scripted QTE moments were a real bummer. It’s like developers want to have their cake and eat it too–they want their games to feel huge and epic, like a movie, but they worry that taking control away for any length of time will cause players to grow bored and quit. Jamming random buttons in response to prompts is the best they’ve come up with, unfortunately.
This might be a controversial opinion, but the best implementation of Quick Time Events is found in David Cage’s Heavy Rain. The vast majority of the game is, in fact, a Quick Time Event, separated by moments of exploration. The reason the QTEs work in Heavy Rain is because no failure is game ending. The structure of Heavy Rain is such that the story will continue no matter how badly you screw up–it will just continue differently. Major characters can even die. The game keeps on trucking regardless. This answers one of the biggest complaints people have with QTEs: forced restarts. Heavy Rain has its detractors, as do all David Cage games, but it deserves props for redeeming an otherwise-irredeemable mechanic.
6 – Escort Missions
Secondary characters are important if you want your game to feel fleshed-out and complete. Some of those characters are by definition not going to be as capable as you, the main character, because if they were, then what’s the point of you? For the sake of the plot, sometimes the main character needs to get an otherwise-worthless-but-storyline-important character across enemy lines to complete a specific task. Yes, I’m talking about escort missions. There are innumerable examples of terrible escort missions in games: from Metal Gear Solid 2’s Emma who’s terrified of bugs and water (to the point it’s often easier to just knock her unconscious and carry her through obstacles) to the Little Sisters in Bioshock 2, whom you have to babysit as they stab dead bodies with terrifyingly long needles, many games have dabbled in the form. Very few have pulled it off in a compelling way.
That’s what makes a game like Ico so interesting. The entire game is essentially an escort mission, and while it’s not perfect, it creates a scenario in which you’re not irritated by your companion’s inability to perform tasks because that’s actually the point of the game. Yorda is tall, and she can jump fairly well, but that’s it. She can’t defend herself from the smoke monsters that want to drag her into the darkness, nor can she scramble up crumbling towers to unlock the path forward. You, as Ico, are responsible for getting Yorda from point A to point B, and while she doesn’t do much to help you, she at least doesn’t actively make your life difficult from a gameplay perspective.
Also, seeing those two crazy kids hold hands still warms my heart to this day.