Currently in liminal time. That's a clever sounding way to say I'm not sure what I'm doing with my life, so I find myself reading lots, working at a funeral home, laughing at my dog (for a variety of reasons), enjoying alliterations, and of course playing video games.
I also am finding that I occasionally like to write things. Trouble is I often find it difficult to actually come up with content I deem worthwhile. So, if anything does come up, I'll be sure to tell you.
Also, here's some of my favorite games I've played over the last little while.
Fallout 1 & 2
Metal Gear Solid Series
Halo: Combat Evolved
Sam & Max
Far Cry 2
This may be the most convoluted thing I've written on here. Also minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2.
When I was fifteen, I had a concept for video game that I held onto for quite some time. My idea was that you would be a government agent sent into to assassinate an enemy of the state of a foreign country. You'd arrive, have things go terribly wrong, and find yourself left without resources or form of contact. From there you would have to work within your target's city and find recruits, acquire supplies, and conceive a plan as to how, when, and where to take out your target. Perhaps you could execute the mark in a couple days when he went out to make a speech, or maybe you and a militia could drill underneath his complex over the span of a few weeks and emerge like angry ants. The freedom in approach was the basic concept. I also think that a bunch of ninjas and Darth Vader showed up, I don't know I was fifteen, things change. Looking back on it though, I realize that I was wanting a game that managed to capture the best of sandbox emergent titles, and the sense of direction of a linear game. Over the past few years, a couple of games have come close to accomplishing my idea, but I feel that they don't quite make it, and so I'd like to give my take on the conundrum. First though, lets look at two titles that almost obtained my ideal.
The first of these is Red Faction Guerrilla. Those that have played the game know well the extensive tool set one is given to cause utter mayhem, and players are expected too in order to progress in the games story. Players are given a list of potential targets which, when dealt with, lessen the enemy presence in the area, eventually diminishing too a point where the plot progresses. The main draw is that is that players have the liberty to approach these targets with as frenzied a demeanour as they like.
On a small scale, Red Faction Guerilla actually encapsulates all of my ideas. It grants the player the agency to reach the goal at his or her own discretion, and there is an agreeance between the player's actions and the goal. The player is physically removing enemy forces in the immediate game world and it's removing them in terms of story. The problem with this design of “cause havoc until a story mission pops up” is that its very limited in what it allows for plot. It seems that for plot progression to be natural, the main story one can tell is that as a result of poking the bee hive long enough, you've brought all hell upon yourself, but inadvertently opened up a major base to your advances. There are of course other paths the writer can take, but it becomes incredibly easy to create dissonance between the players reckless actions and the story. I realize that since the advent of cutscenes we've had dissonance in our stories and our gameplay, but I like to think we're getting better at narrowing that gap. The next game takes a more linear approach.
I adore Mass Effect 2, and one of the things that I cherished about the game was the format of the story. You're provided the option to pursue a variety of tools, allies, and improvements to greater increase your chance of success in your final mission. Mass Effect 2 is probably the closest I've seen a released title come to achieving my dream games framework. Giving the player choice in what measures they want to approach the supreme goal. Even more praise worthy, the game does it without sacrificing any of the story. The game engages the player whether they've chosen to gather a full team or not, and maybe even more so depending on how close one is with certain characters. But, I didn't say that it did achieve that peanut-butter and jam perfection of blending player agency with a linear overarching direction.
That last sentence should make pretty obvious what I'm about to say. Mass Effect does provide the player the option to seek after such aiding advancements, but ignoring them will leave the player with an ending that feels wanting. It often feels like there is only one option to get the effect you really want. The loyalty missions are perhaps the best example of this. In almost all of those missions, there is only one way to ensure that the trust of the crew member is maintained. Sure, there can be deviation as often a choice is presented to the player that maintains loyalty, but alters something else. However, this still can feel like an undesirable option. For example, in Tali's loyalty mission, you can maintain her loyalty by either pronouncing her guilty, resulting in her banishment from the Migrant Fleet, or, with high enough bonuses, surmount an admirable defence by her association to Shepard. Now, I realize that Mass Effect 3 isn't out and all is speculation, but I'm willing to bet that gaining the aid of the Quarians will be far easier if the player chose the second option in Mass Effect 2. The problem is that when the options are to either aid yourself in the struggle or shoot yourself in the foot, the choices in Mass Effect don't feel like choices at all. What I'm after, is a game that compliments the player no matter their choice.
I feel like these two games reflect the most common ways that blending player freedom and concrete story, but they don't quite live up to this standard I have in my head. One provides the player with a lot of options, but can create dissonance within the story, the other feels like a choose your own adventure book with only one right option. So is it even possible? In some ways no. A linear story requires some sort of authorial control, and emergent gameplay puts authorship in the players hands. I do think any practical combination will require some flipping between the two, but I think it's the placement of narrative that can achieve this. For example, placing the linear narrative as end caps and leaving the middle a gooey center of player driven action holds a lot of promise. Essentially what I'm asking for is the three-act play to be adapted to gameplay mechanics.
Act one in any good story fulfils the role of exposition. In it, a story should introduce the characters, the overall goal of the hero, and in a game, explain the rules. Many video games with a story follows this. Act two is the time where the protagonist is faced with opposition to achieving the goal, and it's here that I'd love to see authorship change hands. This middle section often features a variety of roadblocks, side stories, and development of the character, and why not simply have those fabricated by the mechanics of the game. Allow the player to become exuberantly wealthy in this time instead of having a bunch of scripted events increase their funds, encourage them to go recruit followers from the towns of their choosing in place of giving them an army of npcs because of some plot device, or let the player fall because of his or her own ineptitude rather than overwhelming the player through a linear sequence, let the player right this portion of the story. However, opening this act creates a lot of problems for Act three. As I see it, either many endings are required, or the ending has to be broad enough in scope that all roads lead too it. I can only imagine the former requires ample amounts of time, money, and work, and the later requiring something simple, such as the killing of a character.
Writing this, I feel like its a very simple approach, and so it surprises me greatly that I can't think of anything that has tried it on a large scale. One game that I've always wanted to see attempt this (the one that inspired a lot of these thoughts) is Mount & Blade. Mount & Blade throws the player in a world and allows them to amass an army, siege castles, meet defined characters who react depending on how they've been treated, and be captured and lose it all. However, Mount & Blade requires the player to define their own goals, and I thought it would be incredibly beneficial to provide the player some guidance through a story structured in the manner described. But I believe the lack of such narrative is simply based on what the intention of the developers is. They are wanting to create a world where stories are completely fabricated by the player. And the reason Mass Effect 2 doesn't feature the maelstrom of player choice I'm after is because they are looking to communicate a very specific emotion too their players. And so. I wait until a developer comes along that desires to turn their mechanics into a three act play.
The cries of the undead horde are a common sight in video games today. We've faced them alone in close quarters in small towns, we've practised genocide against them in malls, and most recently for me, I've worked together with friends to massacre them and preserve the life of a garden gnome. Recently though I found a game that takes a different approach than any other zombie game I've played. Die2Nite is a co-op game that enforces cooperation like nothing else, provides a great sense of impending doom, and you should really play it.
The outline of the game is that you and a few dozen others are stuck in a town and every night at midnight, a horde of zombies will bombard your town, with each subsequent night having more of the stiff seditionists at your door step. Your one and only goal of the game is to survive. Naturally, survival won't come by you sitting around. This means that the residents of your town have to erect various defences. Of course, such constructs don't make themselves. The majority of your day will be spent collecting resources in the wastes, then using those resources to fashion these cadaver killing mechanisms (I'm partial to the rustic devices of “The Great Pit”).
Now, before I go on to discuss the wondrous things that can happen in the game, I have to confess that I've been hiding something from you. The reason I haven't posted any screenshots is because Die2Nite is a game played through menus, forums, and a real time clock. This may turn some people off instantly, and yes, I would love to see the mechanics of the game implemented into something a little more interactive, but the game still manages to create some unique experiences.
Yes, this is how the majority of the game will be spent, but believe me, it's worth it.
The biggest draw of Die2Nite for me has been the interaction it creates between people. To survive past the first day it is a must for players to work together by discussing things in the forums. If buildings projects aren't agreed upon, a town will suddenly have several enterprises underway, and none of them being the crucial workshop the town so desperately needs to survive. If a town doesn't come to a consensus in the forums on what to upgrade, a community may end up with better knowledge of the zombies that will be out in the wastes tomorrow, but find themselves overwhelmed that night. And maybe most common of all, the forums provide a place to cry for help. Until certain improvements are put in place, wandering the wastes is an uncharted affair. You'll venture from location to location, completely blind as to what may walk into next. This leads to many encounters involving you and a hoard of zombies. The members of your dilapidated town then become your only means of escape as having more humans in a location sways the balance of power, allowing you to leave such horrific circumstances. Now these instances of cooperation are all exciting, and what one we'll see most in the game, but Die2Nite also provides players the opportunity to be an absolute ass, and it is this that creates some of the most unique moments I've seen in the game.
See, in Die2Nite each town has a bank. This is the place where the items for construction projects, extra rations, and your arsenal of weapons are stored. Because these are all community projects, the bank is open to all. You can put anything you want in, and also take anything out. Want to explore the world for decoration items for your house? Take all the food and the best weapons. Want to turn your house into a castle? Steal all the building materials for yourself. And hey, if the bank doesn't have what you're looking for, maybe your neighbour does. You have a 50% chance of getting caught, but that also means you have a 50% chance of not getting caught. Now, normally this would be a shameful thing for a developer to add as it just empowers griefers. However, the community isn't without it's own armaments against such delinquents.
The first step the town can take against them is shunning them. This means that the citizen no longer has access to the bank, can't participate in the town projects, and can't open or close the gate. They do get a few new abilities, but they really don't outweigh the sense of detachment from the group. But, lets say they persist. They keep stealing stuff, they spam the message boards, and prove to be a general nuisance. Well, then the town can just simply construct a set of gallows and kill that player, removing them from the town forever. And even crazier, if enough shunned citizens gather together, they can perform an insurrection and reverse the political state of the town, making the rebels in the right, and shunning the rest of the town. Okay, but enough about cooperation and disputes.
This means you all worked well together.
As I said earlier, each day will bring more and more zombies into the realm. Between twenty and thirty seems to be the norm for the first day, but such innocuous numbers don't last long. The increase is there to keep players working together and maintain challenge. Now every game features challenge, but the sometimes rapid increase can fabricate some fervent moments in the game. A good example of this happened to me early on. We had gotten to day four and over the last three days, attacks had grown by around thirty each day. We expected the same, so focused on more domestic issues. However, two hours before the attack, we realized that tonight’s hoard was three times larger than we expected. The majority of us had done other tasks during the day and were incapable of preparing for the attack. Still, for the next couple hours the forums were ablaze as we tried to figure out a way for even a few of us to survive. The group was frantic, and to see us all rattling our brains for a solution was great. Normally I expect such emotions to only occur in an intense shooter or maybe a close game of Starcraft, but there it was, flourishing in plain old text. Of course nothing came, and in the morning, we all received the achievement “Grandma, what big teeth you have.”
I've been playing for a while and so far have really enjoyed myself. The only major complaint I can raise against the game is the reincarnation system. Every time you die, you reincarnate into a random town. The lack of penalty that the system provides to get back into the action is nice, but it means that you are forced to set up some sort of coherence among everyone all over again, you have to repost a new player guide, and learn who you can trust out of these mysterious strangers. Sure, the more you play the easier it is to know what to do, but with it, it becomes far more common to distance yourself from the group, only communicating pivotal information. Long gone will be your “What are you listening too?” thread and your inside jokes, instead replaced by the refined cold thinking of experience...
Over the last couple years I've been in school and have unfortunately missed out on a few great titles that have come out. However, over the last few months I've had a great deal more time and have found myself catching up with some of the fantastic games that were absent from my library. Having such a leave of absence and then immersing myself in so many fantastic worlds and challenges has illuminated some particularly dazzling trends. As a result comes the following blog about some of my favourite developments in no hierarchical order. (Note: some of the following may not be super recent, think over the last year)
Choice Rather Than Morality
There have been many articles written on the subject of morality in games, and how it's frustrating to have things so black and white. Why is killing 30 people considered honourable, but stealing their pack of smokes a deed only dared by the devil. Thankfully such stark decisions are in decline, and in some games, being taken over by simple choice.
I'm a person that loves having the ability to influence the story. Bioware games have always been among my favourite, so I was thrilled to see Dragon Age: Origins completely ditch a morality system, but still keep the numerous opportunities to engage with the world. Sure, there are some choices which are blatantly good and bad, but many choices provide some ambiguity. I found it far more engaging to be in the world and decide for myself what was right wrong. The best example in the game is the decision of how you will approach the end. I found myself torn over how my choice would effect the world. And by keeping the game from telling which way was chivalrous and which corrupt, I felt all the more bewildered.
This is something that will get me to play a game far after I've grown weary of the main mechanics. Investing is when a game provides you with the ability to invest in a town or personal upgrades. Assassin's Creed 2 is a fantastic example of this. Early on in the game Ezio acquires a town, and as the warden of this villa, he can put his money into various financial endeavours. These mainly seem to provide him with more money, but the feeling of aiding the town into a thriving community is wonderful. I'd also like to say that this is greatly enforced by visual results. It's one thing to have a game tell you that they now live in houses made of gold, but it's another to see it.
Small Arcade Title from Big Studios
Double Fines release of Costume Quest and announcement of Stacking is mainly what spawned this point, though they certainly aren't the first to do this. Regardless, I'm glad to see this becoming an acceptable thing for two reasons.
First, it provides a place for studios who struggle at retail to be a little more efficient financially. With huge investments of time and money to make a blockbuster game, it can be astonishingly hard on a company who releases a poor selling game. It's nice to see XBLA and PSN provide a place that these developers can get back on their feet.
Secondly, smaller titles can sometimes be better than a full length game. Brutal Legend's quality seemed to subside as the game went on. However, with a smaller title, like Costume Quest, the serving size seems to be just right for slighter ideas. These titles can be like the short story in literature, sometimes you have an idea that can only be stretched out for a dozen or so pages.
Genre Blending That Doesn't Blend Something with an RPG
Genre Blending has been around for quite some time, and its a great way to provide variety to a game that may otherwise feel it repeating itself. A typical answer to alleviating such staleness has been throwing in a mini-game here and there. However, by adding a completely different style of gameplay, a new set of rules and mechanics are dolled out to the player, providing the fun of learning the systems of a new game. Even if such additions aren't the same level of quality offered by the rest of the game, they can provide a much needed break. Though some Mako drivers may disagree with me.
The most popular concoction seems to be RPG and X genre. Although I don't mind seeing the RPG attachment in games, I'm glad to see other genres getting a chance. Especially when it's a game type that is rarely seen today. One of the more recent examples of using a different genre is Halo Reach. The flight levels have seemed to garner a mixed response, but I was happy to play something so different and especially something I so infrequently play.
Okay so in no way a new thing, but after a long hiatus the jet pack is back in style. I wasn't a PC gamer during the Tribes era, so Halo Reach is really the first game I've played where I've seen it's effect in competitive play. I love to see how it opens up a map and provide a quick way of getting back in the action. Major battle happening on a floor above you? Fly up and greet the party by landing on someone and assassinating them. Killzone 3 is also bolstering the armoury with the propelling partner, and with two titles making use of them, it should provide studios a solid idea of how to make jet packs work well in a game.
Game of the Year Editions
I debated whether I should add this or not, because at the end of the day, they exist solely to make companies more money, but that is why I like them. Developers often complain how in Hollywood you get two big money making periods, the theatrical release and the DVD release, but in the games industry, a company only has one solid release window. GOTY editions look to provide that second chance which can be good for struggling developers. The problem is that a lot of games that get these re-releases, have already done exceptionally well financially. Still, there are some studios that I'm all right seeing get a little more money for their hard work.
The first time I remember this happening was with the second Ratchet and Clank. The game let you import credits from the first game to give you some bonus funds. It really didn't matter that much, but did make you keep your save game. More recently it's been done in a much more elaborate fashion with Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect imports many of the decisions made in the first game and then organizes the world accordingly. Nothing was ever too explicitly different, the story had the same milestones regardless. However, it creates an association unlike anything I've seen before, and it's something that only video games are capable of.
By importing a Shepard from the previous game, it creates a much stronger tie between the character on screen and the player. Suddenly that Shepard is yours and to play anything else will feel foreign. If your a fan of the Mass Effect games and for some reason avoiding doing so, I'd by all means recommend playing through the two games. And don't just import a save you found because you miss the whole point of forming your own unique Shepard.
Bioware hopes to try it again with Dragon Age 2, though with a slightly different approach. Instead of having the character transferred, the world is reformed according to the player's decisions. This does seem to negate my praise for save game importing, but I still find myself look forward to seeing what resonance it will create. It would also be nice see it attempted by other developers, though understandably difficult.
All of these are fine mechanics and systems that I'd love to see refined and attempted by other studios. Or they could just go create more exciting ideas so I can write another list.
Sometimes video games try to create the illusion of danger: crumbling ledges, being held up by mercenaries, or an overwhelming assortment of opponents are all used to make the player think that death has just passed over them. Recently a video of Call of Duty: Black Ops has appeared showing that it's possible to beat the entire first level without firing. The video crushes much of the illusion in the game, and even though later levels require more action on the players part, it still makes the player feel detached from the situation. The video made me think quite a lot about scripting in games, and the deceit they try to impress upon the player, and I've pondered some ways that games in the past have hoped to avoid such scandalous revelations.
Well first off, lots of games just make everything a threat. This can be an extremely successful outlook and can result in thoroughly unique, exhilarating moments. There are myriads of tales of Minecraft where a person will be venturing in blocky bliss only to discover a creeper suddenly hiss upon their precious life. Moments like these can certainly capture the sense of peril that I felt missing in scripted games, but they either miss the choreographic moments that one finds in such games or they create aggravating situations where the player has to react in a very specific way. So what's the answer? There are two things that I've come across that seem to help maintain the delicate balance of risk and awesome.
Real danger is simply put to a minimum. One example of this working can be found in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. In the the fifth level there is a moment where Sam Fisher is sent to extract some data from a heavily guarded server. You slide down a rope into the server room. Darkness surrounds Sam, save the flickering computer screen. You achieve your objective, but the game's scripting forces the room to light up and have a guard enter. The guard can kill you, but one would have to be fairly incompetent to find themselves dead in the situation. A quick witted person may climb back up the rope before being noticed, or they may simply force a bullet into the guards head. The imminent danger forces the player to act out of instinct, creating tension rarely seen. Providing that real risk is an important part in creating a believable cinematic experience, but it can be enough to overwhelm the player.
Maintaining player involvement is also a key factor. Call of Duty: Black Ops seems to expect the player to perform a genocidal level of killing throughout each level. If a player begins to hesitate in Black Ops, one may suddenly find that the game is progressing without them. Kept to a minimum, the game can feel to enforce the idea of being a part of something bigger like a squad or army; multiple times will quickly reveal just how innocuous the player is. Metal Gear Solid 4 also contains a moment where player agency is minimal, but instead enforces the feeling that the world lays in the player's hands. (SPOILERS) The player is tasked to keep Snake alive by mashing the X button. This is a moment that's heavily scripted and doesn't require the effort that many invest into it. However the illusion is maintained as the game expects the player to fall short at some point. Unless you've somehow acquired a turbo for the PS3, your thumb will likely get tired at some point and you'll ease up on mashing that button. The game then scripts certain moments where Snake begins to fall, these moments can seem like the players as fault as they've let off a bit. It increases the player to invest more and try even harder, thus avoiding the possibility that they'll realize that their effort isn't all that necessary, at least not to that extent. By linking likely player reactions, Metal Gear is able to implement believable scripted danger.
After seeing the reaction to the infamous Black Ops video, we will hopefully see developers better position players within their worlds. Implementing these two ideas would go quite a ways for me, but I'm excited to see anyways that studios look to keep players involved. May we avoid, games that play themselves.
Another World is a game that for years, I had known about, understood it was supposed to be good, that it was almost as old as me, and had the above image in my mind associated with it. Otherwise, my comprehension of the title was rather lacking. I didn't take notice until reading an article on Action Button that claimed it was “the best video game of all time,” pretty high praise I thought, especially since it isn't a game I frequently hear about. However, with such acclaim I decided to check it out, and no, I didn't find the best game of all time. However, I did discover a world that feels totally foreign and some of the best player integration I've ever seen. However, I have one thing I greatly despise about the game that I would like to quickly rant on.
Another World is unfairly punishing, and it's not the sort of punishing that's found in most older games. A game like Contra or Mega Man is punishing in that it forces the player to learn patterns and have quick reactions. Another World is punishing in that it forces the player to perform a myriad of actions in a perfect order so that he or she may progress. You will be forced to explore every pixel of the game, experiment with blowing up select walls, back track, learn where it's right to fall and where it's wrong to fall, disturb bats at opportune intervals, and die, die, die. I find that it's not so much trial and error, but things that I simply cannot predict.
For example, in a game like Super Meat Boy, one will likely have to play through a level several times to learn all the tricks of the level. You quickly realize that you shouldn't jump there because the drop contains a comfy mattress of syringes. In Another World this is not the case. For example at one point you have the option to blow up a wall which unleashes a great deal of water. You are then forced into an exhilarating escape as you try to avoid an aquatic demise. You can then continue on for some time to only realize that you were supposed to travel deeper down into the cave and destroy another wall which would allow you to enter the cave from another entrance and access it's now flooded compartments. It is this single point that frustrates me most about the game. With that out of the way, we can talk about the good stuff.
Hope you flipped the switch, unlocked the door, and started this escapade at exactly 3:17 PM.
So pretty much everything I'm going to praise the game on from here on out is related to making the player feel a part of the world. Another World does a great job of making the world feel alien. Many games try to provide a player with a fear of the unknown through their art direction. Prey comes to mind when thinking of examples of this. 3D Realms created a world with architecture vastly different than our own, with gravity that switched at various points, and a variety of unusual creatures. However, almost immediately you adapt to such things and forget that this is a place completely foreign. Another World instead uses it's gameplay to enforce this feeling, and does so with much more success.
Way less threatening and unusual than a day in Another World.
Upon gaining control in Another World the player is free to walk around, ignorant of any dangers. Entering the next cell, the player will see some slugs crawling towards them. They look pretty harmless, and even if they are aggressive, what's the worst that will happen? The slugs crawl over and a short cutscene plays where one of these slimy creatures punctures the characters leg with a stinger and death instantly befalls the protagonist.
By utilizing a one hit death system you feel far more afraid of anything and everything on the planet, and transforms your optimism into a strict paranoia. Instead of just having the normal enemies hostile, the world no longer feels safe, and it is this element of gameplay that greatly contributes to the overall alien atmosphere.
Another World also has a fairly unique control scheme in the idea of contextualized controls. Playing on PC, the game uses the arrow keys and the control button. The arrow keys are always used for movement, but the control button varies depending on what one is doing. It will start as a kick, progress to an activate button, change to a “roll for the pistol that is lying on the floor” button, and it all feels completely natural. The most impressive aspect of this style of control is that it keeps the feeling of agency in the players hand.
Quick Time Events are often slammed because of the way they steal the players abilities. No longer is it you orchestrating the events on screen, but you pressing a few buttons and watching your avatar do some cool attacks. With the contextualized controls of Another World, control never feels lost because that one button is constantly morphing. I would love to see more integration like this into games. For example, many first person shooters have moments where the character is grabbed and beaten in a cutscene, but then breaks free and the player is then given back control. Why not simply keep control in the players hand and turn what was once movement into “struggle” and melee into a “kick in groin” button. I think it goes a long way to keep up the pacing of the game and yet provide cinematic moments.
Well, maybe this principle would be useless here.
Lastly I would like to ask a rhetorical question, why wasn't this the future of adventure games? Point and click adventure games thrived in the late eighties to mid-nineties, but petered off after that. Despite a fair amount of gun play, Another World feels far more similar to classic titles like Sam and Max and Monkey Island than Contra. Great lengths of the game involve exploring the environment, flipping switches, and figuring ways to avoid mass conflict. However, instead of using a plethora of random objects to solve problems, Another World uses common sense or the contents of the room directly around you. Guard that destroys you upon entering a room? Head to the floor above and shoot a chandelier to drop on his head (just make sure his reflection is directly below). I realize it is far too late to go back and re-write history, but if I could I would definitely have pointed to Another World as an example in how to progress the adventure genre.
All in all, after playing through another world, I want to say that it displays steps that I would love to see future games to make. An odd statement considering the age of the game. Despite that though, there are many things to learn from Another World and recommend you check it out. It's $9 for the updated version which just came out a few years ago. I also might recommend this handy guide if you get stuck. And finally I leave you with this amazing cosplay which no words can describe.
Spoiler note:Though nothing overly specific is mentioned; Unforgiven, Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3 are all discussed.
Lately I've been thinking through of a few of my favourite bosses and thinking about what makes them tick. Then I watched the film Unforgiven and was astounded by the climax of the film. It got me thinking about how the film lead up to that end tension, and how games can learn from that build up (and some that already have).
For those of you who haven't seen Unforgiven, it's a western about a man who's had to put his rough lifestyle behind him, only to relive it after falling into some tough times. As I watching the movie I was completely enamoured by the protagonist and the antagonist, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman respectively, and more specifically, their climactic duel.
This final face-off proved to be one of the best I've seen in any movie, but why did I enjoy it so much? Thinking it through I believe it is largely in part by how the two characters are portrayed throughout the movie, or rather how my mind portrayed them. Both of these characters interactions create an image in the viewers mind that these are two absolutely unstoppable forces.
William Munny's (Eastwood) past life is constantly referred back too, but never outright explained. The viewer only receives glimpses of the former man he was. This creates a sense of mystery about Munny's origins and just how dangerous he was. A good comparison to this would be the Joker in The Dark Knight. By not being specifically told, are imagination is left to fabricate far more terrible things than the writer could provide.
The story also makes a point to show his unwillingness to revisit those former ways, this is portrayed by his unwillingness to drink. He goes through several points where he should by all means take the medicating effects of alcohol, but he refuses. This makes the moment before the climax all the more formidable, as he hears that his old partner has been killed, he takes the whiskey and alerts the viewer that this is the old man of legend.
We also see Gene Hackman's character raised up, especially through his interactions with English Bob. We see Bob to be a fairly competent foe, he's a man to be feared and one you don't want to mess with. However, Gene Hackman's character demolishes him in a matter of seconds and leads him in a bloody crumpled mess. We therefore see Gene Hackman as greater than English Bob, a man who the viewer previously thought was one of the top gunslingers.
Essentially what has happened is that, with both of these characters, the viewer has used their imagination to form both characters into individuals of immense power. The power is by no means measured, for that would ruin the effect. No, the viewer is left to think of all the things they are capable of. That is why the climatic duel at the end is so invigorating. Two unstoppable forces collide and the viewer has no real way of telling which will be the victor.
So, this idea that we as viewers essentially use our imagination to create how powerful these characters are is what I'm after here. Got it, good. Now, how do we apply this to boss battles?
Well, at first it's rather difficult. Because of the nature of video games, bosses have to die after a specific number of hits. This idea of our imagination defining the tenacity of an enemy seems to contradict the rule based design of video games. So what do we do to make bosses more challenging, more difficult, or more terrifying. Why we give them a bunch of health, make them look terribly ferocious, or just make them big. A good example of this is Fontaine at the end of Bioshock. A foe who was literally just a big, intimidating blue guy, who took a lot of shots. He even had the health bar to boot. It results in the game measuring out the strength of our villains, not our minds. So can this form of build up found in Unforgiven be applied to video games?
As you've been reading this I'm sure you've thought of bosses that do, at least to some degree, apply this idea. However, if you haven't been able too I'd like to point out a few examples and highlight some of the things done right and ways that this lesson of imagination was applied.
Design choice also may have helped here
I'd like to look at Sepheroph from Final Fantasy VII. This may seem like an odd choice, especially when I just stated that JRPGs often need to have boss's with set hitpoints, but FF VII did something rather cool to make Sepheroph menacing in my mind. Fairly early on in the game the player is given a flashback of (who we think is) a young Cloud fighting with Sepheroph in his hometown. As I recall Cloud is a little weaker than what you currently have him levelled at, but Sepheroph is loads more powerful than you are at this point in the game. His health is in the thousands, his attacks kill things in one hit, and his abilities have far longer cut scenes making them seem far more powerful.
With this, the player has a precise image of how powerful Sepheroph was at that point, but that was in the past, he's had all kinds of time to become stronger. For me it created such a caution when I went to approach Sepheroph in the final fight. He had been so much more powerful in the past, and even though I had far surpassed that past Sepheroph, I knew that he too would have bulked up. My imagination had essentially run wild with what abilities he could have amassed in that time. Of course it didn't end up being what my mind had fabricated, but it still created that anxiety leading up too it.
Next up is Dr. Breen from Half-Life 2 (though it could easily be Andrew Ryan or Glados). Throughout the game, Breen teases us, pleading the player to stop, but at the same throwing out aggravating quips. However, we're never able to interact with Breen, and rather just have to accept that he's up in his mighty tower, and we're having the time of our lives killing zombies and combine. The point is that it allows the player to develop a level of animosity towards Breen. It creates a very unique connection between you and that foe, something that an ordinary boss wouldn't have. Okay, so not playing as much on the imaginative thing, but it's sort of a psychological thing that makes boss battles more rewarding.
Not even a cardboard box can save you from this.
Finally, I want to look at The Sorrow from MGS3. The thing I'm after here is the idea of learning a specific rule set, and then completely abandoning it when it comes to the boss. This contradictory to most games as the typical format is for us to enter a level, learn a specific skill set, and the put that skill set to the test with a boss. However, The Sorrow took all the stealth, gun play, and clever survival tactics from the previous several hours and threw them out the window. A boss that does this can be absolutely terrifying, especially if a game could some how build this up.
What feelings of dread would loom over a player who knew that the final boss was somehow impervious to all of your attacks. That every way you had fought so far was going to be of no use. And then in contrast to that, how rewarding would it be to discover the way to defeat that boss who had feared so much just before. I'm not entirely sure what this looks like. I mean it could be something completely lame such as a player receiving a weapon at the end that suddenly makes their attacks super effective, but I'm more after something that throws out the previous mechanics (like healing your enemy instead of attacking it). Of course there would need to be some sort of hint.
This all said, traditional boss fights can be absolutely stunning if done right. I still consider the Hydra from God of War to be unlike anything else, and I'm sure all of you can think of great classic bosses. Still, it's wonderful to see fresh bosses as well, and I can only hope to see more and more in future generations.