Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.
I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.
In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.
I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.
There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.
You stand before a towering spider beast. Your hands grip tightly to nothing but a flimsy sword and a shoddily-painted wooden shield. The sound of the monolith arachnidís mandibles snapping back and forth like some Lovecraftian torture mechanism bounces off the hollow walls of the base of this great tree. As it first moves, fueled by the pure vicious evil that drips from its fangs, you are surprised by its agility. It ascends to the ceiling with a bevy of insectoid clicks and spasms. Your arms sweat and your legs feel heavy, like a statueís would, as if your boots were made of pure steel. The forthcoming battle will be a vicious encounter and will only allow for a single victor, but you are not wholly sure it will be you. Despite the odds cruelly stacked against you, you ready your shield for whatever comes next. You are not sure what will occur, but you do know one thing. There is no option to retreat. There is no recourse other than battle. No escape to be had. Why?
Because the game slammed a door shut behind you when you walked in. This is a boss fight, idiot.
Welcome to the world of video game enemies, where fighting is mandatory. Your courage will not be needed, because the game will provide it for you. How? By not allowing any form of retreat or escape thus making only one action the correct one. Suck it up and fight. Games are about completing an objective, conquering a challenge, not turning tail and sprinting at the first sign of a scuffle. Thatís the very opposite of solving a problem.
Well, of course. You're the hero/heroine. It's your job to face danger and peril for the sake of the universe/princess/galaxy/planet/kidnapped president. But some games have taken a step outside this paradigm and given the player that opportunity to retreat without firing a single shot or drawing a sword. Some give you the chance to look an enemy in the eye and simply say no thanks. Itís not common. In fact, itís downright rare. Itís particularly prevalent in the Survival Horror genre, where you usually play an average Joe thrust into a world of unfair, over-powered supernatural beings. Much of the Silent Hill or Resident Evil franchises are almost completely based around escaping. But youíre still strung along by predominantly mandatory fights.
Sometimes you can escape into the next room or zone and leave the enemies behind, but usually the game places an arbitrary barrier that tells you to stop and fight or you canít continue. Other games may pretend to offer this opportunity by letting you sneak past some enemies rather than shoot them. But this is only temporary. Most of the time youíll end up fighting these same enemies anyway, itíll just be on your terms. So, is there any room in games for throwing your hands up and making a break for it?
A recent play through of Alan Wake revealed a startling trend in how I deal with enemy encounters. As you make your way through the thick blackness of forests and abandoned buildings, you encounter enemies called Taken, who are townsfolk twisted into malevolent shadow creatures by some dark presence. Their weakness is light, hence why youíll see Mr. Wake clutching dearly to a Maglite for much of the game.
The enemies have a tendency to surprise you, as they manifest from the darkness and blindside you. They are usually organized around a single mini-boss-style Taken or a possessed inanimate object, such as a massive grain harvester or rusty steam engine. The fights can be arduous, as youíre not the conventional tough hero and the dodge and run button are one in the same. So, when the fights get down to brass tax, youíre often too much of a wuss to handle much fight. Youíre a Steven King-esque nerd fighting hordes of otherworldly foul beings comprised of pure darkness. Iíd be surprised if there wasnít just a little bit of running here or there.
But heís got more than a pack of suspiciously frequent Energizer batteries and a dull sense of good metaphors to defend himself with. Scattered along the course of Mr. Wakeís path are bright sources of light or street lamps. These not only restore health, but they act as a checkpoint. The game saves my progress and the enemies behind me disappear forever. Poof! Theyíre gone. Iíve skirted this fight completely and have now started onto the next section. But the question stands, have I really solved this combat puzzle or have I just ignored it?
The game keeps up with this and, often without telling me first, the situation asks me to run. And run I can. Iím not against it. Itís a strong stylistic choice, breeding vulnerability in the protagonist and a sense of fear in the player by proxy. Whenever something pokes a whole in your sense of invincibility, towering foes no longer appear as neat visual obstacles to conquer, but real challenges that have you gripping a little tighter to the controller. I like this sensation. But it doesnít come easy.
Forcing a player to retreat is a fantastic way to cause them to reengage the game. If a player is kicking too much ass, they start to autopilot through levels. A rocket here, a grenade there. The problem solving, the real fun, gets bled from the experience. And the obvious solution is to make things harder, which usually just results in constant player death. This certainly knocks the player off the podium of perceived invulnerability, but it also kills the flow and takes the player out of the experience. Death sequences, loading screens, lost progress. It can also be controller-smashingly frustrating simply to die at a heart-pounding moment. But making a player acknowledge the strength of an enemy is important if you want them to be challenged and to fear he/she/it. Well, difficulty curve isn't the only way. By simply making the player run for their life can have the same humbling effect but without the constant dying and check-pointing.
The only problem being that retreat never comes easy to a player.
Gamers will never run from a scenario unless the system has specifically told us too. Even then, we might pop a few bad guys on the way out. This is because weíve been programmed to assume all challenges have an answer. All puzzles have a solution. All boss characters have a weakness. They have to. Or else we would have games that couldnít be completed or beaten. Itís inevitable that any problem weíre presented with has a clear way out. The game might try to scare us into leaving by presenting us with a boss character who seems far too powerful to take down, but this doesnít stop you from charging a six story mutated demon abomination and impotently striking him in the knee with a wimpy dagger to see if you can find a weak-point.
As long as boss fights are like this, players will never know that surrender is even an option. We only learn that a game wants us to punk out of a fight once weíve been killed over and over. We get frustrated and glance around to discover a door sitting wide open, just beckoning us to safety. Alan Wake has its share of boss fights that seem all but conventional and Iíll enter into them with confidence, only to realize after multiple restarts that all I had to do was dodge a few minions and dart into the comforting glow of some street lamp.
Is retreat asking too much of a player, whose brain is otherwise been engrained that no such option exists? Does it undermine the playerís problem solving ability? Giving them a riddle and then sitting back, cackling as they try to do the impossible. Like presenting them with a really hard Sudoku puzzle that turns out to be unsolvable and the only real solution is to tear it up and go do something else? Could a game exist where every choice was escapable and nothing was mandatory, but the player ultimately suffered from being a completely lazy wuss?
Probably not. Players need some aspect of heroism in their hero. Arguably, some games like this do exist to an extent. Most JRPGS, Final Fantasy being a huge example, toss random encounters your way and give you the option of abandoning them completely. But thatís not to say it doesnít have its fair share of mandatory boss fights. Pokemon lets you sometimes run from random creatures that pop out of high grass, but this is only for convenience. In case youíre not looking for that one creature in particular. No one needs seventeen Rattatas. But players arenít abandoning these fights out of fear. Very few people are trembling at the sight of a random Bidoof.
As it stands now, we need visual cues to tell us to run. We have to rely on objectives spelled out before us that say loudly that escape is part of the narrative. Things like collapsing buildings and timers ticking down on bombs drive us to make our hasty getaway. As it stands, all problems are solvable problems to gamers. Nothing should be run from and no fight should be abandoned. Does this make us simply clever folk intent on finding a solution to every problem or trapped in a world thatís too linear to let us do anything else?
Itís probably a little of both. But, retreating from fights isnít an aversion to puzzles. Itís not the antithesis of problem solving. Instead itís a scenario where the player relinquishes the title of strongest character in the game, just for a moment, without having to perish and respawn over and over until a controller shatters against a wall. If you want, itís the quickest method to scaring the ever-living shit out of your player too. To steal control from them for a moment and send them into a spiraling panic. If game designers want their players to be mortal, to be vulnerable and afraid, then thereís nothing wrong with making them turn tail and run like a sissy.