Sunday, February 5, 2012

#4: Is the Boss Battle Outdated?

Games have evolved in a great variety of ways over the years. Graphically speaking, there is no comparison between the games of today versus the games of yesteryear. Voice Acting and Music have evolved from beeps and boops into amazing vocal performances and sweeping orchestral scores. The advent of motion capture technology has greatly improved animations. Games have also become a great and immersive medium for storytelling. And while gameplay has also evolved along these lines, one holdover from the old days may be beginning to overstay its welcome: Boss Battles.
Every person who plays video games knows about the Boss Battle. After the player has completed the level/dungeon, he/she encounters an enemy more powerful than any other seen before this point. The player is forced to defeat this challenger (whether a person or a creature) in order to advance through the story or on to the next level. Done well, these fights with larger than life enemies can be satisfying while keeping the player immersed in the game world. Poorly executed, they frustrate the player and break a games flow and immersion. These encounters should also serve as a test for all of the skills the player has learned, over the course of either the game or the level in question. The question remains: Has modern gaming outgrown the old Boss Battle, or is there still a place for them? Many games that have been released in the past few years have had poor Boss Battles, but I think that it is possible for Boss Battles to do well: The designers of the game simply have to take the type of game they are making into account.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player can play the game with a variety of styles. In any given situation, the player will usually be able to:
  • Fight his/her way out by killing or knocking out the guards.
  • Sneak his/her way out of the situation completely undetected.
  • Hack through security, clearing out a path or obtaining vital information.
  • Talk to people in order to gain information or clearance to explore.
This enables the player to tailor the game to his/her personality or preferred playstyle. In general, the game succeeds at letting any style get through any level. Then the game's boss battles happen. During a boss battle, the player had the following options:
  • Fight the boss.
  • Go back to a previous save and look for weapons, because he/she has to fight the boss.
The game has gone from four viable play styles, to one. The old school boss battle feels annoying and out-of-place to the vast majority of playstyles.

A boss battle could work in a game like Deus Ex, but it must allow for the breadth of approaches that a player might want to use. It should be possible for a player to sneak past the boss and seal the door behind him, forcing the boss to give up the chase. It should be possible to use hacking skills, either to disable the boss's equipment or to use the environment against him. Lastly, the player should have the option to convince the boss to let him go or even to side with him. These approaches are allowed to vary in difficulty, but they must all be viable methods of defeating/bypassing the boss. It requires significantly more effort to pull this off, but it transforms a frustrating and potentially difficult chore into gratifying test of skill. Other modern games like Alpha Protocol are equally guilty of similarly poor design choices.

Some other games have different problems with regards to bosses. In Assassin's Creed 2, the player character has been exceptionally trained in combat, stealth, free-running, and several different types of weapons such as hidden-blades, swords, smoke bombs, poison, a hidden-gun, throwing knives, and daggers. Throughout the game, even the most stealthy and merciful player will slaughter thousands of unnamed, faceless guards who get in his way. Then the game reaches the last part of the game where the player, for story reasons that make sense in context, fights an old man for control of a powerful, ancient artifact. This old man is fat and frail in the game's story. However, during the fight, he has the more health than any enemy in the game, he is immune to poison, the hidden-gun, and instant assassination using the hidden-blade. Also, he summons guards after the player beats him and then the player immediately has to fight him again at full health with the guards and is quite capable of dodging attacks on occasion. While the fact that the game pigeonholes the player into using the sword or the dagger is a problem, it is not the underlying issue as a decent player will have no trouble getting through this fight even with low-level weapons and armor. The problem in this case is that this fight makes no sense from a plot standpoint. The player is immediately thrown out of the experience and thinks “Ugh. This is a typical video game boss battle.”. A frail old man is stronger and more agile than someone who has trained from most of his life in order to kill the corrupt. No one could believe this. This could be fixed by a little preplanning on behalf of the writers and game designers, but this confrontation did not need to happen.
Boss Battles can work. With a bit of forethought, bosses can present an adequate challenge and test the abilities that the player has learned while making sense from a plot standpoint. That is the key: A boss has to be tailored to test the abilities taught to the player and it has to make sense that the boss would be challenging. Game designer should keep this is mind when making trying to think of boss battles in their games.

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