To Kill a Big Bad; or, the 238498792 wipes before you learn to not stand in a boss’s fire.

So I came across an interesting read over at Gamasutra by Vincent Smith.

To summarize, the dilemma he outlines is one that has of late been on the brain. That is, he poses a very important question, are game bosses the most efficient component of gameplay structure to enable both character and story progression?

I found this question interesting because as someone who has experienced his share of games (dating way back to the barrel-tossing, princess rescuing days of  Donkey Kong on Coleco Vision), it seems that the end-boss trope for video game objectives and storytelling was as inescapable as that annoying “I Love It” song from Icona Pop (really, is there anywhere that’s SAFE from this song?).

But more and more video games these days are attempting to stray from this typical structure to create something a bit more organic even if there is an “end boss” so to speak.

Shadow-of-the-Colossus
“Atreu, srrsly, I just want some rocks to omnomnom on.”

I remember a few years ago, I watched my buddy play Shadow of the Colossus from start to finish completely enthralled in the tragic story (naw, I never played it myself because we quite literally played the game together…he just had the controller, hehe) and the way it had approached its idea of bosses. Team Ico had created thoroughly engaging big bads that were more than just your run of the mill hit-point sponges. Instead, each of the major encounters were trials of spatial orientation, deductive reasoning and problem solving skills that rewarded more in each victory than defeating a boss that had simply a series of supermoves that you needed to mitigate or avoid to bring said boss down. In short, they were puzzles used to defeat these big bads.

I think that’s why I fell in love with the God of War games. Yeah, they had typical boss fights that would on more than several occasions boil down to hit the baddie until the QTE engaged, but the more puzzling fights were nicely interweaved in both the game itself and its end chapter bosses and that kept me engaged in the story. Where God of War‘s boss encounters fall in line with Shadow of the Colossus, the series did, sadly, fall just a tad short.

Smith cites examples where the end bosses as we have come to know them are completely absent, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite being the most recent. These games champion peak confrontation moments followed by epic storytelling that engage a player’s relationship with game’s protagonist no matter how depressing the story is (seems like the more depressing the better).

Ultimately, the right mix of encounters rests with the theme of the game. A post-apocalyptic undead infested venture really doesn’t need big bads to progress a story; conversely, a perpetual online universe where the goal is simply to kill things and get purples (and possibly oranges) relies solely on the size of the Scott sponge of a boss and occasionally how tough it’s green scratch pad is when rubbed up against the will of a determined virtual adventurer whose breath is laden with a dubious mix of Pringles and Mountain Dew. That is to say, there is no one way to design a game’s encounters and objectives, and that’s just how it should be.

There are, however, missteps that can be to the detriment of the immersion of the story. Again, Smith cites Batman: Arkham Asylum’s ultimate big bad, The Joker, as one of the more ironic turns in what would otherwise be an epically designed game. I’m inclined to agree. I mean, c’mon, the lore of Batman is that his battle with the Joker is either unending, unfinished, or the clown-faced buttmunch slips away. While it might have been annoying to some, think of how AWESOME the game would have been if you never would have taken on The Joker one on one. If at the peak of an encounter to get to him, he did as he always does, had a few pun-y one-liners, a maniacal laugh, and slipped away leaving a looming and tragic sense of defeat that historically – in the Batverse – mars Batman’s triumphs.

Yoggsaron
Is your sanity in check? Let’s fix that. Oh, and uh…can I get a tictac from ya, kkthx.”

Now now, like Smith, I’m not suggesting that games need to do away with the “final boss” mechanic completely. What would World of Warcraft (for which I’ve been a loyal player of six years) be without its intricately designed loot piñatas (I mean, back in the day, Yogg Saron +0 keepers was worth every wipe for its sheer awesomeness in design)? See what I did there? Dungeon crawlers especially need that boss mechanic.

In the end, it boils down to what the player expects and what the developer delivers, which is nothing profound more so than it is common sense. When I go into Blizzard-engineered raid, I expect challenging boss fights. When I explore Vice City, I expect intense encounters that don’t necessarily need a boss.

So with that said, here’s a link to a kickstarter drive in support of American McGee’s OZombie.

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I stumbled upon it while wandering the interwebs about interesting and upcoming game titles in the works. American McGee is, for those non-indie game buffs, the genius behind the Mad Alice games. Normally I don’t advertise for games unless I’ve played and liked them (or hated them so bad I want to spare my friends the pain and disappointment), but the premise on this game is just so intriguing I simply must see it into fruition. It’s as the title suggest, yet another Zombie game, BUT – and this is a cool “but” – it’s set against the backdrop of Oz. Yes! Apparently, you play as Dorothy in an alternate take on Frank L. Baum’s classic, in which you find Oz in shambles as all the many lands within it are battling against each other and the big bad – are you ready for it – is none other than the brainless, spineless, potato-sack fire hazard himself, Scarecrow. Because, really, nothing says mindless zombie more than a dude made of straw whose sole purpose was to scare away birds.

So please, click on the link or photo and drop them a dollar or two. Heck, take a look at the levels for donation and see the perks; you could even find yourself in zombie-form in the game. I mean, whose bucket list doesn’t include that? For $750, mine does. I want this game to happen! It’s really about what I want, in case you haven’t guessed that 😉

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