Boss Battles

Yahtzee in this Extra Punctuation column argued that boss battles ought to fit in with the rest of the game. That is, a boss battle should not require the gamer to rely on a specific set of skills which have hitherto been considered optional in the game. A good example is that if a game gives you the option of creating a super stealthy character rather than a brute force fighter, the boss battle should not be winnable only by brute force. I agree. In the comments on his column the following opinion was expressed:

Well, some skills are better than others and if you did not select the skills which would allow you to win the boss battle, then it just sucks to be you. It is like real life. If you are trained in nuclear physics, you are unlikely to survive a fight with a ninja.

This is a paraphrase capturing the gist of the original statement. I do not cite because it would open issues I don’t want to deal with. I’m going to explain why this opinion is terrible.

First of all, all games manage the degree of realism in such a way that the game is actually enjoyable instead of being a chore. Health packs, potions or what-have-you instantaneously restoring your health or automatically regenerating while you are out of danger is not realistic. If someone replies that health packs and potions are okay because the game is set in a Sci-Fi or fantasy setting, they are just making my point: fantasy and Sci-Fi are not realistic! So perish the idea that realism, in and of itself, makes it okay to force a specific skill set to win a boss battle.

Second, the opinion expressed above does not consider the fact that games should not come across as capricious. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that the vast majority of people do not find it enjoyable to have their efforts reduced to nil due to mere chance. Chance is a desirable part of gaming but it must not come across as capricious chance. Let’s take a 400 meter race. Add an additional challenge: the finish line is closed off by a gate which can be opened only by doing one of the following:

1. Breaking a target by hitting it with a javelin. Breaking the target opens the gate.

2. Lifting a heavy weight to reveal the key. (The weight cannot be rolled or dragged.)

3. Solving a mathematical problem which gives a number combination to unlock the gate.

4. Any number of other possible challenges.

Now, the contestants do not know that there will be an additional challenge at the end. When they get to this surprise challenge, will they think it is fair? Will anybody want to participate in future races of this sort?

I can’t shake the feeling that the few people who are of the opinion I paraphrased above are those who will always choose to play a fighter over any other role. Playing a fighter is usually a safe bet. (No, not always but usually.) The fighter is a kind of default role in gaming. The development team will (usually) have worked out the kinks of playing a fighter. So players who play a fighter will invest skill points (or whatever is the equivalent) in fighting skills and think nothing of it. Now, I’d really like to see the tables turned on them. Imagine a game in which the final battle can only be won with a specific device. This device is kept in the vicinity of the final boss but it is in a locked closet. There is no key for this closet and the only way to open the closet is to have complete mastery of the lock-picking skill. What would fighters say then? Going by the logic of the comment above they should admit that they did not select the right skill set and replay the game so that they have lock-picking mastery by the time they get to the end of the game. However, if a developer pulled this little stunt, online forums would crash under the load of thousands of angry posts. Players would argue that they could not complete the game just because they were not able to read the mind of the developers. They’d be right! If a game allows players to play roles other than the prototypical fighter, then the game should not arbitrarily force the player into a different role just for the sake of a boss battle. Doing so would amount to asking the player to read the mind of the developers. In my experience, a game in which an essential device is in a locked closet will usually provide multiple ways to get the device: pick the lock, slyly steal the key from someone, break the lock, hack the lock, incapacitate that person to get the key from them, talk someone into giving away the key, get schematics of the device and build your own, etc, etc, etc. This is as it should be. If the game encourages multiple roles then someone playing any of these roles should be able to progress through the game and not find themselves screwed.

What it boils down to me is the fact that I don’t find mind reading to be an enjoyable challenge. No, I don’t need the plot or the mechanics of the game to be telegraphed to me ten times over. Yes, I do think there should be consequences to decisions taken by the player. However, the consequences of these decisions should be reasonably inferable form information presented by the game. If the big bad boss is especially vulnerable to a specific device or a specific skill, this information should not come as a surprise at the last minute, or even worse, be discoverable only by trial and error.

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