What Makes A Good Boss Battle?

Boss battles are about as deeply entrenched in video game DNA as life bars; it’s hard to think of a series that doesn’t feature some kind of boss battle. Even in games like Top Spin and Fifa 20XX, there are the big events like Wimbledon and the Cup Final that the game builds up to, where you’ll compete against harder opponents. In conventional story-driven series, boss battles help to break up the action; you’ll progress through a level, build up to the boss, overcome the boss, then move on to the next area. It’s a well-trodden and comfortable rhythm, and a perfectly sound way to pace a game. So, this begs the question: what makes a good boss fight?

Firstly, let’s look at some examples of bad boss fights. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, an otherwise solidly crafted game emphasising player choice, is marred with boss encounters that essentially force you to take down the bosses with good old fashioned murder bullets. Not only are these encounters particularly dissonant in pacifist playthroughs, they also betray the game’s tenet of freedom of approach. You can’t sneak past them without a trace, you can’t really hack stuff to your advantage; if you haven’t geared up with offensive gear in favour of a stealthy playthrough, you’re going to have much more frustrating time, and it’s not your fault because apart from boss battles, the game has been selling player choice.

Another frequently-touted example of a poor boss is the fight with the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker is beefed up on a more-potent variation of venom, Titan. While the fight doesn’t break gameplay consistency, since brawls with large Titan-enhanced enemies were already in previous encounters, the boss is egregious because it doesn’t make narrative sense. The Joker is a thinker; he’s dangerous because of his genius, not his physical prowess. He’s only a threat to opponents in combat because of his sheer unpredictability. Batman shouldn’t beat him in a battle of brawn, but a battle of brains, and the final boss fight with the Joker just broke the narrative and character consistency that the game had been wonderfully building up to that point.

So, then, a boss battle should be consistent with the game, both in terms of mechanical design and narrative design. Dishonored is a good example of a counter to Deus Ex, since both games encourage exploration and flexible approach to the levels. Dishonored has the protagonist Corvo Attano chasing down targets in a corrupt government, most of whom are related to his fall from grace as the Lord Protector of the Emperess. Dispatching these targets are essentially the main objective of each mission, so they’re acting as bosses in this game. Rather than requiring you to eliminate your targets through murder, Dishonored allowed attentive players to dispatch targets in non-lethal ways. For example, you can mark one target with a heretic’s brand, which leads to him being kicked out of his high office, effectively removing the threat he imposed. This approach to design allowed players to make choices which suited the narrative consistency of their play style, and none of the choices of approaching targets betrays the narrative themes of the game up to that point.

Setting aside narrative concerns, a commonly held belief is that a good boss battle tests what you’ve learned about the game so far. Bloodborne boss Father Gascoigne is one such boss that epitomises this philosophy. The second (or first, if you take a certain route) boss in Bloodborne, the Gascoigne fight takes place in a cemetery and is more or less a trial by fire; relentlessly charging you with formidable speed and power, players that haven’t yet learned to dodge and parry attacks will have a hard time beating him. You can also make use of the grave stones in the area to give yourself some breathing room to heal and time your attacks, which emphasises the use of environment that’s so important in Souls/Borne games. Lastly, there’s an item you can acquire before the Gascoigne fight that allows you to render him immobile for a short period of time, which let you get in some much-needed hits. This teaches you the importance of preparation and the rewards of exploration, as well as providing a narrative gut-punch once you understand the circumstances surrounding Gascoigne.

Boss Battles Should Be 1

Conversely, games have made use of boss fights as ways to expand the player’s mind beyond what they may have learned in the preceding sections of the game. Forced to adapt new strategies to deal with the boss, the fight often plays out more like a puzzle until you work out the right method of dealing with the enemy. The Metal Gear Solid series is famous for this approach; while much of the games focus on stealth, most of the bosses require unique strategies. The Psycho Mantis fight in MGS is well known for its genius, making the player plug their controller into the player 2 slot so that Mantis can’t read the Snake’s mind, rendering him beatable. In fact, each boss battle in MGS embraces a completely different play style; a prolonged sniper battle with Sniper Wolf, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Vulcan Raven, a simple fist fight with Liquid Snake… each encounter distinct and memorable as the last, and very little to resemble the core gameplay of the game.

I think that Shadow of the Colossus may be the purest example of this style. While your mechanical options are the same in each instance, each colossus requires a different approach; sometimes you need to bait a certain attack to be able to climb up onto them, sometimes you need to sue the environment cleverly, and sometimes you need to hit a weak spot. Climbing each colossus is a puzzle in itself, as you navigate their massive bodies in search of weak points where you can damage the creature. I think that game which use this approach to boss design tend to be more successful in creating more memorable and varied encounters.

All in all, I think that the best boss fights are those that are memorable. They should be hard, but fair, and most importantly, true to the game. It’s clear from Dishonored and Metal Gear that we can have varied, interesting and unforgettable bosses that improve the game rather than acting as a barrier to the player.

Image credits: alphacoders.com, gbhbl.com

Brazen Stealth: I Love Disguises In Games

Whether you’re sneaking past guards unseen leaving nary a slumped body in the bathroom, cutting a silent bloody swathe through unwitting enemy forces, or cowering in a convenient closet as some terrible invincible stalker pursues your newly ripe scent, stealth games are a cornerstone of modern video games. I think that stealth is often a more satisfying approach than straight action when given the option between the two, because you’re not just eliminating or navigating threats- you’re outsmarting them. Observing movement patterns, slipping in between weaknesses in the patrols, and removing threats to your infiltration, it’s a more cerebral approach than swatting out a roomful of enemies with a big gun.

A lesser-used aspect of stealth is the use of disguises. Most prominently used in the Hitman series, but also notably turning up in the Metal Gear series and ingeniously in Team Fortress 2’s Spy class, disguises allow you to pass by NPCs (and other players in TF2’s case) unnoticed, so long as you don’t start to act too out of place, like sharpening a knife and asking if anyone wants a free back rub over there. It recently occurred to me that it’s a criminally underused mechanic, both in single player and multiplayer games.

I think my biggest problem with Hitman: Absolution is that it introduced the concept of the “instinct” resource being used to “sell” your disguises, which is represented onscreen through Agent 47 looking down and to the side, gaining a kind of “keep it cool keep it cool” saunter, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. Part of the atmosphere of previous Hitman games that I loved was the ability to acquire disguises and wander into appropriate areas unmolested by NPCs. If you were caught showing an FBI agent your piano wire throat massage technique, you’d have to show Agent Jones your bullet lipstick, but if you managed to change unseen and hide your outfit donor somewhere safe then you could go wherever the outfit let you. There really is a kind of perverse glee in just striding on by guards without anyone questioning your presence.

Team Fortress 2’s use of Spy disguise to trick enemy players into thinking you’re on their team. You use your disguise device to pick a class to emulate, and to the enemy team you appear as a member of their team, in their colour, and your name shows up as a random member of their team’s. Of course, if the person whose name you’re assuming spots you, they’ll realise you’re a squishy enemy Spy and introduce you to the wonders of cheese grater cosplay. You really have to try to emulate movements that the enemy would make in that class- but you can’t shoot the weapons that the enemy thinks you have, so you need to avoid being spotted not shooting your pals on the frontline. It’s a really interesting method of play that’s totally unlike any other class.

This mechanic seems like it’ll be explored further in Compulsion  Games’ upcoming survival game, We Happy Few. Set in an alternate dystopian England, most of the populace takes a mind-altering drug, Joy, to keep them content and under control under the powers that be. The player is a “Downer”, that is a member of a resistance movement that refuses to take Joy, and wishes to escape town. The general populace doesn’t like downers very much, murderously hunting them down when they notice they’re not tripping Joy. So, the player has to act like they’re high on Joy to navigate unmolested, scavenging food and supplies from the environment and navigating the game’s procedurally-generated world. Aside from the very promising premise and inspired art style, We Happy Few seems to expand on the “Acting” mechanic to really make players think on their feet and avoid detection. Needless to say, We Happy Few seems like it could be a very interesting game.

Stealth in plain sight is so potent in games, I think, in its delicate balance of empowerment and tension. When you can brazenly trespass in restricted areas, yet feel like one wrong move might be your downfall. It’s been used so well in Hitman, Assassin’s Creed (especially online) and TF2, and I’m glad to see new games like We Happy Few picking up and running with the concept. I think that as A.I. evolves and we can start programming for more complex reactions from NPCs, disguises and other plain-sight stealth mechanics will see more use. And they should, because used right, they’re damn fun to play with.

Horse Armour 2.0- The Latest Stop In The Never-Ending Road Of Konami Mess-Ups.

Lately, it seems like Konami just can’t seem to stop messing up. It’s getting downright farcical at this point; like watching a child trying to chase a ball, only to keep kicking the ball further away at the last moment. Except that the ball is on fire, and the child is an apathetic company seemingly trying to duck out of the videogames business, and the field is psychological abuse of employees, and the child’s shoes are the fanbase, and now I’ve lost track of the metaphor.

Okay, let’s step back a minute. Konami is a company which makes the majority of its money in gambling and arcade machines, and in the wake of several years of flailing about with its key franchises, seems to be backing away from AAA game development (although it has recently stated that this is not the case, but I’ll take their word when I see proof). The only games that the publisher had to show at e3 were Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and the most recent Pro Evolution Soccer. Even if they’re not planning to completely abandon game publishing, there’s very little evidence that they have much for us at the moment.

For the past few months, there’s been a slew of negative press surrounding the company, to a frankly absurd degree. There seems to be a new piece of news every few days at this point, but there are some very prominent examples I’ll bring up to make sure everyone’s nice and up to speed. Despite several years of the Silent Hill franchise suffering something of a quality and identity crisis, the mysterious PT (“Playable Trailer”) teaser for Silent Hills arose on the Playstation Store as if from nowhere. Pretty much an overnight hit, the teaser was driven by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro and was a superb little slice of horror and clever use of environment. Sadly, the project fell apart (I mean, Guillermo Del Toro was on the project, so what could we expect?), but P.T. and Silent Hill fans found their wounds freshly salted when P.T. was suddenly lifted from the PS store, meaning that unlucky fans who had deleted the game to make space couldn’t re-download it.

Perhaps the deletion of P.T. was down to some rights contract tomfoolery, but what’s less forgivable is good old fashioned employee abuse. It came to light that Konami treats their employees worse than PETA treats its rescued animals. Reportedly, developers (even in senior roles) deemed to not be “useful” to the company any more- through whatever secret code that’s judged on- have been bumped down to menial jobs. Furthermore Hideo Kojima, Konami’s pet genius, departed the company just months before the release of MGSV. This led the company to unceremoniously boot Kojima’s name from the box and promotional art for the game, even though Kojima and the Metal Gear franchise are about an inseparable as any auteur- driven series. Not that this stopped Kojima’s name being plastered all over the credits of every mission in the game, but still. Not a great move on Konami’s part.

Finally, we have the most egregious moves on Konami’s part; the actions which betray a disregard for their consumers, and a startling misunderstanding of their own properties. A pachinko machine based off Silent Hills was a pretty stupid move, shown off in this gaudy monstrosity. The cacophony of pachinko noises, the flashing numbers, the pyramid head exploitation… it’s completely tone deaf. It’s almost like Konami is completely out of touch with its audience and franchise. And then there’s the Castlevania pachinko trailer promising “Erotic Violence”. Yeah.

The most recent piece of news, however, is just the cherry on the cake for me, cementing Konami’s farcically out-of-touch attitudes almost to the point that I’m not sure it’s not self-parody. A couple of days ago, Konami announced an upcoming piece of DLC for MGSV:TPP. More missions, you ask? Maybe a fleshing-out of the cut missions which reportedly round up the plot? No.

It’s horse armour. It’s literally horse armour.

… Sigh.

This has literally been a joke since Bethesda famously experimented with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion DLC way back in 2006 by releasing DLC purely aesthetic horse armour. This has been a running joke for 9 years. And here we are in 2015, with the most out-of-touch publisher in the games industry proving how out-of-touch it is. You really couldn’t make this up.