Villainy in the Virtual World

Video games are not a medium known for excellent storytelling.  They really don’t have to be.  Since the days of Atari and the Commodore 64, there have been games about nothing more than simple tasks.  Bounce a pixel past your friend, get a frog across a road, stack as many blocks as possible to set a high score.  Eventually, games became more linear, and some kind of context was added.  Whether this meant rescuing someone or obtaining some kind of treasure, games now had an ultimate goal.  And now, since there was an ultimate goal, there had to be an ultimate obstacle.  A villain.

For these past 30 years, games have had a lot of terrible villains.  Not the good kind of terrible either.

That said, all villains can’t be judged in the same light.  Props to Extra Credits for this distinction, but I’ll re-iterate it here.  In video games, you have your mechanical villains, your narrative villains, and your force-of-nature villains.

Mechanical villains are more stereotypical, put there to stand in your way, without much development beyond their design and animations.  Basically your platformer bosses, dungeon keepers, and the villain in any game without cutscenes.

Narrative villains are typically used for narrative games, made to develop along with other characters.  They propel the drama and prompt the player to go through a longer experience for a more climactic payoff.  Take Sephiroth from FFVII, or Frank Fontaine from BioShock.  They often run the game world and manipulate the protagonist, creating a moral obstacle along with a physical one.

Force-of-nature villains are a kind of hybrid.  These are villains of overwhelming power, or which represent a concept.  They are the embodiments of chaos, greed, or suffering.  They’re also used in the wrong places a lot of the time, because it’s hard to give them character.  Ideally, they have to be used to elicit some kind of reflection from the player, to make the characters consider their role in the story and world.  They’re like Kefka from FFVI or several throwaway antagonists from Sonic the Hedgehog like Mephiles the Dark, or Infinite.  Without compelling protagonists, these villains tend to flop.

When I started thinking about this topic, I thought of my two favorite virtual villains: Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda and Sephiroth from FFVII.  However these two fill very different niches: Ganondorf has no distinct qualities beyond overwhelming evil, whereas Sephiroth is the sinister other half of Cloud, a deadly shadow of the protagonist.  But I love each of them in their respective roles.  Neither one is necessarily a “worse” villain.  Ganondorf is probably less memorable, but Sephiroth couldn’t fill his shoes.  He certainly couldn’t be the final boss of Mario either.  The key is, as usual, context.  A villain should fit the game as well as possible.  And I think there are some general guidelines for this.

First, I’d say make sure you’re using a narrative villain when you need one.  Too many games have rich worlds and backstories with cardboard villains that ruin the experience.  If you do know you need a narrative villain, make sure that all of their dialogue and screen time isn’t dedicated to cliched motivations or monologues we’ve all heard before.  The best kinds of villains are ones with variety, or who subvert expectations.  Maybe then you have to fight someone dealing with childhood trauma, who with values you partially agree with.  Even with the many flaws Skyrim has, I enjoyed the civil war quest because of the many gray areas it made me confront.  I didn’t want to kill the “villain” at the end myself, because I didn’t really think he was guilty.  In many ways, I thought this story was better than the actual main quest as a result.

Secondly, even if your villain is mostly narrative, don’t be afraid to make them part of the mechanics of the game.  Another one of my absolute favorite villains is GLaDOS from Portal.  Her twisted-yet-lovable autotuned voice reads quirky lines as you progress through the game and temporarily fail at solving a puzzle.  By playing the game, you’re basically fighting GLaDOS directly, like an omnipresent villain.  I see the same thing with what JonTron called, the “Gruntilda Effect.”  Gruntilda, the villainess of Banjo-Kazooie, taunts you ceaselessly.  When you die, she pokes fun at you.  When you reach a new area, she says you’ll never make it.  Once you finally defeat her, it’s like overcoming self-doubt.  Or an annoying witch.  Or both.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Metal Gear Solid and BioShock also do a great job of mixing compelling villains into the entirety of a game.  They have great plot twists that got me really invested.

I wrote all this because Halloween is a time of year when we love to examine fears and monsters.  The best monsters tell us something about ourselves.  They thrust us into the unknown, make us crave revenge or feel sympathy.  A great monster, a great villain, is something unforgettable to conquer.  I think it’s a shame that a lot of the character-building moments for villains is cut in game production.  With the talent and tools in the modern game industry, I think there’s room for some amazing storytelling.  Just as long as the will is there.

Horror Movies VS. Horror Games

So it’s the Halloween season, and things are gettin’ spooky up in here, so I wanted to take this time of the year to talk about some horror.  I don’t like horror much, but I find it interesting to talk about.  It’s a rare and impressive work that manages to get under people’s skin, and I think anything which can pull it off is worth talking about.  The strange thing is that horror movies are the bottom of the barrel in the film industry, whereas horror games tend to be pretty well-revered.

I admit this isn’t a site about movies, but I’m nevertheless a huge movie fan.  I spend about as much time in front of the big screen as the CRT screen.  Although they’re two completely different beasts, I think comparing movies to games has a lot of value.  They’re two opposite sides of the same coin: both are entertainment, but one is passive while the other is active.  The two have completely different approaches to horror as a genre, and I think they can shed light on each other.

The first thing we have to ask is, what is the essence of horror as entertainment?  The answer is subjective, of course.  My personal idea of horror is anything intimate and deeply unsettling.  Horror doesn’t just give you a quick scare and pump of adrenaline, it stays with you well after the fact.  But if you’re trying to actively give someone these feelings, it’s easier said than done.

Part of the issue is that horror is even a genre at all.  If someone goes to a scary movie or downloads a scary game, they go in with certain expectations.  Horror movies have trouble getting through to people these days because they’ve existed since the beginning of film.  Since games are a younger medium, they have the advantage of more uncharted territory.  Horror film, on the other hand, is plagued by tropes, cash-ins, and dead-end ideas.  Nevertheless, there are some movies that still manage to surprise people such as MotherSplit, and Get Out to name a recent few.  To me, that means there are reliable ways to freak people out.

I’m going to go out on a limb and  boil down the essence of good horror to a single word: investment.  The instinct of fear is rooted in survival, most often survival of something mysterious or powerful.    With an emotion like this, it becomes much more pronounced when the stakes are personal, and someone is directly involved.  Horror games therefore have a clear advantage as an interactive medium, because the player has agency and responsibility in this dangerous situation.  In a detached medium like film, the filmmakers have to use cinematography, character and world building, and intricate pacing to achieve the same effect.  It’s not as easy to make someone feel afraid of the unknown when the unknown is affecting someone else.  In his review of The Gallows in 2015, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club gave the film a D+, saying, “Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.”  That statement alone captures the point perfectly.

As far as pitfalls go, games and movies run into the same problems.  And that’s important.

If you look at widely discredited horror games and horror movies, a lot of the same problems turn up.  For example, some common gripes are linearity, predictability, and cheap scares.  These things make horror feel manufactured and dull.  A lot of poorly-made Unity games do this, and Five Nights at Freddy’s has taken heat for it.  As movies go, look no further than virtually any horror sequel to see what recycling a formula can do.

Conversely, the best horror typically takes normal characters and puts them through hell.  It also helps if that hell could theoretically exist in the real world.  I like to think of this as the “what-if” template.  Amnesia asks, “What if you woke up in a castle of nightmares?”  Carrie asks, “What if the invisible bullied girl in your high school took unholy revenge?” Silent Hill asks, “What if you had to confront a world of your own fears?” while IT asks, “What if you had to fight fear itself?”

A fundamental difference between excellent horror in games and movies, meanwhile, is that they use fairly unique methods.  Horror games use gameplay mechanics like sanity meters and limited resources to build tension.  Horror movies use compelling character development.  Horror protagonists aren’t particularly remarkable, which is intended to make them easier for viewers to project themselves onto.  The viewer feels along with the character.  All that remains is to manipulate characters to elicit genuine fear, as they slowly break down and change.  In the climax of The Shining, we feel fear as a once-sane Johnny tries to kill his own family, not only because of Johnny’s downfall, but because this fear is easy to understand.  We become invested in their survival as we imagine what it would be like to have this happen to us.

To conclude, if investment is the key to horror, then I’d say the greatest virtue to practice in any form of horror is patience.  You need to really work over the audience to make them feel unsettled.  Viewers want to understand the threat, to understand the unknown.  Knowing this, let them make certain discoveries while withholding others.  Make the initial sense of danger something relatively ordinary.  Let the consumer scare themselves a little bit first as they go down a frightening rabbit hole.  The slow burn of discovery will create something unforgettable.

 

Horrible Boss Battles: Sonic Rush

Can you remember your favorite boss in any game?  Can you think of three you really enjoy?  How many do you absolutely hate?  For me, I dislike way more boss battles in games than I like.  So many of them miss the mark of making a fun, challenging encounter.  I haven’t talked much about this problem as of now, so I want to start with a boss battle that annoyed me recently.  It’s at the end of Sonic Rush.

I love Sonic Rush.  I think it’s a very fun game, and the best of handheld Sonic.  But its final boss is one of the worst I’ve ever played.  This series has a very bad history with final bosses.  They usually end up being a drudge, impossible, or overly-time consuming.  But I haven’t yet found one in the series worse than Rush.

Let me set the stage for you.  Rush has two campaigns, consisting of the same stages with different layouts.  One is played as Sonic, the other as Blaze the Cat.  They control slightly differently, but end with the same boss.  After getting all the emeralds as both characters, the true final boss can be beaten after completing both stories.  As I said before, the same boss must be fought as both characters.

I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

The enemy: Eggman/Eggman Nega in a massive mech suit.  Nine rings are available to the player in total.  The goal is to hit the mech’s cockpit eight times (on Normal) by baiting it into getting its arm stuck on the stage and running up its arm.

The boss has six attacks: 1) slamming the stage with alternating fists, which send out damaging energy waves; 2) a similar delayed slam with both fists that can kill instantly; 3) a repeated laser attack that automatically trails the player; 4) a series of drones that arc electricity across the stage in succession; 5) one similar drone that automatically trails the player and traps them, forcing them to follow under it or get hit; 6) slamming the stage to create energy 4-5 waves that the player must dodge to get on its arm.

Now, attacks 1 and 2 are the only ways to trigger 6, meaning the player has to wait for them and land a counterattack just for a chance at doing damage.  As the boss progresses, it will attempt to shake the player off its arm as they try to attack.  The player must crouch down and wait to stay on the arm.  If the player doesn’t, or takes too long, the player gets knocked back to the stage.  On top of everything else, it will also send rolling spikes down its arm that can not only do damage, but make the frame rate drop, which adds an unnecessary layer of challenge.

THE PROBLEMS

Three things make this fight fundamentally broken: length, random chance, and unpredictable attacks.

This boss drags on for about 7 minutes for each attempt.  Over the course of two fights, I had to take about 20 tries.  This part of the game took me over two stressful hours.  It should’ve taken maybe 30 minutes overall.

The attacks that Eggman will use at any given time vary randomly — sometimes it’ll take a couple attacks to make him vulnerable, sometimes it’ll take four.  Sometimes he’ll use the same attack twice in a row.

The problem here is that attacks 3, 4, and 5 that I mentioned above are impossible to truly learn.  That is, chance determines how well the player will fare against them.  4 and 5 are both virtually undodgeable.  What rubs salt in the wound is, these attacks are most common when the boss is nearly beaten.  This means that the player has to complete over half the battle before dealing with three attacks that basically come down to luck.  Again, this comes back to time-wasting design.

I wanna re-iterate, you have to fight this boss twice.

As difficult as this boss is, the true final boss is a chore.  It consists of hits with virtually no consequences, and collecting rings to avoid death until the player can deal out a hit.  Most of it is spent in meaningless hitstun.

But hey, the music is awesome.

SOLUTIONS

The final boss sequence of Sonic Rush is some of the most frustrated I’ve been playing a video game.  Here’s what I’d do differently for the Eggman boss:

  1. Reduce the necessary hits by 2 or 3.  If the undodgeable attacks are staying in, the fight has to be shorter, and get to the point.  This is less than ideal.
  2. Only include attacks with discernable patterns to which the player can adapt, to create a sense of progression.  Attacks that are virtually a toll on rings only create a sense of rage.  This improves the fight.
  3. Since the player attack sequence lags, remove the spikes.  They have no reason to be there except frustration.
  4. My best solution is to make every attack an opportunity to make the boss vulnerable.  This would cut down on wait time, leave room for learning patterns, and force out random strings of attacks.

On a fundamental level, a hard boss should be quick and dirty, and it should be something the player can improve at dealing with.  It should be less a gauntlet, and more a tug of war.  If the player fails repeatedly, they can become more efficient instead of waiting on a lucky run.

Again, this game is great.  The boss is not.  If the player is going to relive the same fight over and over, the number one priority is to give it nuance and ways to get better.   Sonic as a series should take that to heart.

Cuphead: A Great Game That’s 1930s Hard

I wasn’t one of the people following Cuphead from the beginning.  My early memories were an impressive trailer and a constantly delayed release date.  I remember thinking it seemed impossible for such a small team to create something interactive that looked so aesthetically complex.  But they did that and more.  It wasn’t until the game came out that I heard its main selling point was extreme difficulty.  Interesting, right?

Cuphead VS. Pirates
Cuphead squaring off against pirates! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Difficult games have a strange place in my mind.  Like most things in game design, difficulty is a delicate balance.  Too much and the game feels unfair, almost lazy.  Too little and the experience isn’t rewarding, and the consumer doesn’t feel a sense of getting their money’s worth.  Some of the most revered games of all time are tough as nails, like Ninja GaidenSuper Meat Boy, or the properties of From Software like Dark Souls.  But difficulty is an art.  Make a game too hard, it’s no longer rewarding to play through.  Make it too time-consuming, a player is likely to give up early.  There are plenty of traps to fall into.

Cuphead had the twofold challenge of creating a visual tribute to rubber-hose, classic American animation and a challenging run-and-gun experience.  One that would create a unique imprint on the industry.

Spoiler alert, they did it.

Cuphead is overflowing (pun intended) with personality.  Its simple story references over-the-top calamity of shows like Pop-Eye or Tom and Jerry.  The animation is suitably perfect — there are no awkward gaps where it was left out, and everything set piece is full of life.   And the off-beat aesthetic is…just beautiful.  Our two heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, are adorable twists on Mickey Mouse, and even though everything wants to kill you, the personality of all the bosses and enemies is enough to make you laugh every time.  Lobsters doing the backstroke, a giant cigar, the queen of a colony of overwrought bees…this is the kind of stuff you see in this game.  And it’s as good as it sounds.

The gameplay has just the right amount of depth.  By collecting coins throughout each level, you can unlock new abilities and weapon types.  Different loadouts are better for different situations, making the player experiment to give themselves an advantage.  Some bosses are easier with an extra hit point, some are easier with an invisible air dash.  Some might be easier with slow, charged shots that do more damage.  The designers thought hard about this, and it paid off.

It also has a very clever parrying mechanic, where every pink object can be bounced off of by hitting jump while in the air.  Most bosses require you to  use it in some way, either to avoid an attack or move about the battle arena.  Individual levels also have you use it to avoid enemies or platform through.  It’s a simple but elegant way for the designers to give themselves more options.  Just like how some levels give you a “pacifist” rank for not killing any enemies, adding another fascinating challenge.

Cuphead builds intricate situations rife with unique challenges, none copied from each other.  Some bosses involve managing three simultaneous attack patterns, threading the needle out of ever-complicating attacks, and completing tasks in a certain order under pressure.  Conquering each new beast is always satisfying, which is the core of the game’s character.

It’s still relentlessly difficult, but I rarely felt like it was wasting my time.  Very few challenges involve random chance, and fighting a boss over and over again leads to improvement.  You will fail quite a lot playing this game, and some levels feel a little bit too long.  Although Cuphead‘s not for the faint of heart, it’s an excellent experience for those who love a challenge.

And if you don’t love a challenge, play it for the soundtrack and pretty backgrounds.