Ok team, I should probably address the fact that I'm not blogging much at the moment. This isn't because I'm bored of blogging or because moderating the site is taking up all my time. I'm actually in the final couple of months of my degree, which means Deadlines and Exams, and then (potentially) Looking For A Job. This shit is important and I need to devote as much time to it as possible, as I'm sure you understand. This doesn't leave much time for playing videogames, nor blogging. When I do visit the site it's usually in small doses where I will moderate a few things, post in a thread or two, then get back to work.
My last exam is on the 3rd June. Until that time, don't expect a heavy blog presence :(
It's late. It's very late. You are tired, you need to sleep. You had a long day, a long week, even. You have shit to do tomorrow. You have shit you should have done today. So you start to stop. But just when you are about to call it a night, THAT SONG starts playing. THAT song. So you say to yourself "Alright". And you go get yourself another beer.
So yesterday I finished and submitted my 10,000 word university dissertation (Hence the hangover) on "The implementation, successes and failures of "Boss" design and encounters in Videogames." Now, I don't know how high y'all can count, but 10,000 words.... that a lot of words. It would normally be enough to make me not want to talk about videogames for a long. Time. But my name is Sweep (right?) and I'm going to keep talking about videogames. I'm just fucking mental like that.
So... I totally traded my copy of Bulletstorm back into GAME.
I'm pretty ashamed to admit it, but I actually bought that game for the Gears Of War 3 beta.
I know, I know. Shaddap.
About 2 days after I bought Bulletstorm it was announced that people who Pre-Ordered Gears 3 would also get into the early beta, only a week later than the Bulletstorm kids. So, I took advantage of the GAME trade-in deal and returned my £40 copy of Bulletstorm for £35 store credit which is going towards my copy of LA Noire when it eventually comes out.
Bulletstorm is a pretty cool game.
I really liked the skillshot stuff, it was an interesting take on heavily exhausted FPS genre. In the couple of weeks I had the game I completed the campaign and spent a bunch of time playing online. It wasn't bad.... but it wasn't particularly inspiring either.
What irritated me the most was that, despite the goofy and downright crass marketing campaign, the fratboy-esque skillshot puns and general crude scripting, the game is painfully sincere. There were attempts to explain, even rationalise the nonsense which was taking place on my screen. The characters admitted to being able to see the "skillshots" and that it was a system implemented by the army as a "Survival of the fittest" training program where only the best soldiers would be resupplied at the drop-shops. Later in the story [Don't worry, this blog is spoiler free] there are times when the characters get all mushy and emotional and it just feels... awkward.
There's a fair amount of nonsense I'm prepared to accept in the name of videogames, but making such an obviously goofy product and then filling it with such sincerity was just plain weird. I would have preferred if they just accepted that the game was completely bananas and left is as pure obnoxiously rambling nonsense. When I completed the game I didn't even watch the final cinematic. There was a painful amount of candid conversation taking place and it just made me feel uncomfortable considering in the immediate run-up I had received a 300 point bonus for shooting a flare-gun up some dude's ass. The narrative in that game isn't bad, it's just handled poorly, and for all the dicking around (ha) the game suggests, to then impose such high moralities upon it's characters is a bizarre juxtaposition.
If anything the atmospheric insanity is perfect for the multiplayer mode, a 4-man co-op arena in which players must mingle skillshots in order to progress - flying solo won't get you enough points. Unfortunately, many of the randoms on Xbox Live don't seem to understand this concept.
Anyone surprised? No, I thought not.
The result is that most players just run around killing enemies for their own personal gain. The game sporadically sends out enemies which require specific team skillshots for a bonus, but because most of the fucking monkeys online don't know what they are doing this usually results in all 4 players kicking the enemy back and forth like some weird school-yard terror ring until someone get's bored and leashes the mutant guy into a cactus. Or something.
This blog is getting pretty negative, so I should probably point out that there are many things I did enjoy about Bulletstorm. The characters are pretty great and, weirdly, work best when they are just bantering about stupid goofy bullshit. There's a real commitment to Greyson Hunt being a moron which, as I mentioned earlier, clashes horribly with his moments of sincerity, but the general vibe is pretty entertaining. I particularly like pressing keypads in that game. Greyson hunt doesn't poke buttons with his finger, he get's the desired effect by mashing the keypad with a damnfist. Like a man.
I don't really want to talk about the antagonist, for obvious reasons, but suffice to say he is a complete cunt and the finale of the game is handled fairly well.
So yeah. Good times were had.
However I'm a poor student and I can't really afford to spend money on games with no long-term playability right now so.... no more Bulletstorm!
I also just spent £100 pre-ordering the EPIC edition of Gears Of War 3. It's the most money I have ever spent on a single game, ever. I don't even know what's in the EPIC edition, all I know is that I want it.
Is there even any point in me telling you what kind of game it is?
I'm sure by now you already know and if you don't you should go and find out. Because it's free. Yep, you have no excuse not to play it. Unfortunately you then have plenty of excuses to stop playing it.
Being the broke chump that I am, I sauntered back into Millennium City riding the wave of freeness in all it's glory. Having arrived I was greeted by the familiarity of Champions Online's fantastic aesthetic and wonderful atmosphere. There are hundreds of dudes flying, teleporting, swinging, leaping, and whizzing around all over the place and when you are caught up in the hubbub it's a pretty magical spectacle to behold.
The general structure of the game remains overtly bland, with the city and it's surrounding locations so vast that it's easy to find yourself depressingly isolated for long periods of time. This is a shame, as it's the creativity of the playerbase in designing their heroes that makes Champions Online so vibrant. I have been playing a few hours a day for the past week and remain consistently underwhelmed with the gameplay, finding the core quest mechanics uninspired and monotonous - which is pretty much how I felt the first time I played it back when it was released. I'm level 11 with my current character and I only have two attacks other than my basic punch. One of them is a slightly stronger punch, and one of them if a leaping punch. As almost every mission involves going somewhere and fighting something, only having 2 buttons to press is absolutely mind-numbing. I spend most of my time mashing a single button before tabbing onto my next dullard opponent.
However it's important to remember that Champions Online is now free, which makes it a lot easier to overlook many of the games shortcomings. As a business model it works fantastically well, and I have on several occasions had to catch myself before handing over some of that Green Paper (that I don't have) in exchange for Atari Bones (That I don't want) so I could buy goofy shit (which I don't need). I stopped myself just in time when I realised that my Swamp Monster In A Tuxedo was already as awesome as it was possible to be. Perhaps more so.
The fact of the matter is, Champions Online is a fairly complete product already and you can enjoy it without having to worry about micro-transactions, though it remains a fantastically colourful world of entrapment and you may find it very hard to resist it's seductive manipulations. Just being exposed to the possibility of Rocket Boots is so sorely tempting that I spent a good 5 minutes looking at them and then researching how to buy Atari Points before I even remembered that I don't even actually like this game.
So Champions Online happened and is continuing to happen. There are many things in this world which I am prepared to pay for and Champions Online was once one of them, but in retrospect; free is a much more appropriate price for this specific brand of insanity.
Fortunately I love my degree, so it's not all bad. I'm actually working on a research project right now which I have chosen to title "The implementation, successes and failures of "Boss" design and encounters in Videogames". Catchy, ain't it.
Where to begin?
Bosses are a natural convention for videogames, a medium which is as much about timing and reflexes as it is logic and rational thought. The idea of a "boss" is traditionally a peak in the difficulty of a game, marking the end of a chapter or level - that the player must vanquish before they may continue. Bosses are also, conceivably, a huge failure, often dumped in an interactive adventure because... well... it's a videogame, and videogames have bosses, right? This is insufferably apparent amongst the "I'm the same as all the other guys you just fought but I have a bigger health bar" menagerie of bosses that reek of laziness and demonstrate the imagination of damp cardboard.
An alternative is for bosses to gain notoriety by simply being awkwardly difficult. Seth, the final monstrosity one must wrestle in Street Fighter 4 is an example of an enemy that simply bends the rules to his advantage. Instead of being praised for clever design, he is more often than not the target of resentment for being a cheating mother fucker. This is by no means a sign of bad boss design, however, as the satisfaction at his inevitable demise is all the sweeter having beaten him despite his obvious home advantage.
Clever boss design, both aesthetic and mechanic, is not an endangered state of affairs. The Mario games, notably Galaxy, flourish their creativity at every opportunity, and the bosses you encounter are wonderfully colourful as a result. It is a shame, therefore, that these bosses are often so uniquely bland in their character. Petey the Piranha is an excellent example of a boss that, though tremendously enjoyable to fight, is somewhat lacking in empathetic value. The Mario franchise always seems to take a back-seat when it comes to it's characters, allowing the over-arching Bowser wants Princess Peach storyline to encompass the entire adventure. Often the spectacle of fighting a giant volcano-dwelling octopus floating through the far reaches of space on a tiny asteroid seems to gloss over your incentive for doing so. He's evil? Sure, of course he's evil. He lives in a fucking volcano. How can he not be evil?
And that's about it.
Except it's not, really, is it? For many interactive titles simply pointing you at the bad guy and issuing the "kill" order isn't enough. You need incentive, which comes in a variety of flavours. The most obvious would be through empathy with your own character, your Commander Shepard or Nathan Drake. It's a lot easier to sympathise with their often destructive behavior having shared their sense of betrayal or manipulation earlier in the story. It also helps if your character is somehow entertaining to watch, be it the stoic resilience of Master Chief or the comedic charms of Super Meat Boy.
There are exceptions to the rule, Mario being the obvious example - what is lost in ambiguity is compensated for in charm and innovative design. Similarly Shadow Of The Colossus requires little introduction other than "You have to kill these giant monsters to save this girl" - the incentive to destroy these enemies being that it is mechanically enjoyable to do so. In the latter example, the ambiguity is almost part of the charm, leaving the player with a foreign uncertainty that is quite unique. This is some fairly masterful manipulation of the genre, deliberately limiting instruction to the player to heighten that sense of unease. Unfortunately there are endless examples of games that don't quite understand these ideas, offering enemies that are immediately forgettable and lacking any real design as a unique opponent - the design stemming from clever programming and art assets instead of gripping narrative.
Some games actively forgo the predefined character route either by nature of a silent protagonist, or allowing the player an extreme level of control over their avatar - much in the way of Dragon Age: Origins where the player directly chooses their response throughout the entirety of the game. Personally I find the resulting level of empathy with a character is heightened as a result - my avatar becoming a much more personal extension of my own personality. If someone insults you in World Of Warcraft, for example, they are insulting you, not your level 29 Troll Shaman. This style of design is also much more dependent on the narrative. As the game cannot impose a sense of anger or hatred upon you, it must develop it manually through the experiences in which you are placed. Failure to do so successfully can result in a hugely underwhelming results, as with the Elder Scrolls:Oblivion where the actual storyline was dull, repetitive and riddled with bland characters which I was supposed to like or respect. Having conquered the final boss I was in no way elated, not caring for the kingdom which I had supposedly saved. The resultant charms from that game stemmed from the freedom the player was granted in exploring the huge and surprisingly vibrant world, carving out their own adventure and gaining a much deeper satisfaction as a result. This sense of achievement is vital, a fundamental feature of the entire medium that must be satisfied as a matter of urgency. Closure must be attained one way or another. With our World Of Warcraft example, this sense of achievement is gained through bragging rights, the ability to demonstrate you have mastered your class and role, and visually flaunt your skill through the shiny new loot you just received. The actual empathy the player has with the enemies they fight has been minimised to an almost mathematic level as a result - with players essentially working robotically and without interest in their attempts to out-maneuverer what has been degenerated to a colourful algorithm. Which is a shame, because that narrative incentive is available, it is just largely ignored.
Where to begin?
This is all at odds with the fact that most bosses as entirely separate entities are predominantly uninspired. As Greg Kasavin pointed out on his blog, it's often the enemies you fight that share the greatest level of empathy with the player, usually because they are the characters to which you are most excessively exposed - which is why their somewhat lacking and repetitive design is such a huge lamentation to game enthusiasts worldwide. Bioshock, an absolutely superb game in many regards, develops a series of characters that are so successfully fleshed out that they complete the world they inhabit. Andrew Ryan, your supposed nemesis, is a character to which one ultimately becomes sympathetic throughout the course of your tour of Rapture. Similarly, Sander Cohen is so delightfully sadistic that it's almost a shame when one eventually clubs him to death with a wrench. These are examples of bosses that are nurtured and cultivated throughout a game, developed of a period of time, in which the player is given an opportunity to form a relationship with their enemy and their own inclinations at vengeance. These characters are by no means more powerful than the hordes one must battle to reach them, but they are given life through rich character design, and a stage upon which to flaunt it, making the journey the player must undertake infinitely more meaningful as a direct result. A stark contrast from the anonymous nature of the villains in the Mushroom Kingdom.
It's therefore deeply disappointing that the final encounter in Bioshock is so stereotypically labored, bearing more resemblance to Seth from Street Fighter than to the tailored delicacy and tact of it's own cast of alternatives - the ultimate showdown being reduced to nothing more than an unsatisfying ammo-sponge. Such a wasted opportunity, considering how thoroughly well realised the character was and how heavily empathetic one felt as a direct result at the core sense of manipulation.
Where to end?
Uh... here I guess.
So yeah, that's the sort of thing i'm going to be exploring and researching over the next two or three weeks. Bosses in videogames are a convention that is endlessly recycled and rarely successful. If anyone has any thoughts on why that may be, opposing opinions as to what makes bosses great, or even just fantastic enemies they have had the pleasure of battling personally - I would love to hear them.
I... woah. This feels like one of my blogs from 2009. It's freaking me out a little bit. Anyways.
Having acquitted my life of all distractions in a desperate attempt to complete my work for a University deadline, that deadline has passed and I find myself with very little remaining extra-curricular activities to occupy my time. Fortunately, there are always threads to moderate...