Size, Grandeur, and the Inevitable Disappointment of the Boss Fight

by G. Christopher Williams

6 February 2013

As much as I kind of hate its retrograde commitment to the classic boss fight, still I have to admire the “truthfulness” of Devil May Cry in allowing the numbers behind the image and the actual image itself to reflect one another. That giant-unborn-baby-guy boss is what he appears to be -- frickin' hard.

The Devil May Cry reboot has a number of things going for it: pretty good voice acting, a more interesting iteration of its protagonist, a continued commitment to absurd and grotesque spectacle, and some punishingly fun gameplay.

However, the game doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.  The reboot iterates on previous ideas in the series, in many cases improving on those ideas, but then, there are the boss fights.  And it’s 1989 all over again.

Enter the boss, that guy with the health bar that stretches across the screen and whose attacks hit you like bricks as you plink away at his seemingly endless supply of health.  Oh, and “behind” that life bar is another colored life bar.  Because once you chip away at that health bar, then you can do “true” damage, only then can you actually begin to hurt this guy.  That is, until he regenerates the original life bar, so that you have to whittle it away again before getting back to “really” hurting him.

When I encountered a horrifically enormous boss towards the end of Devil May Cry, a boss that I like to call the giant-unborn-baby-guy-thing, and I saw that he actually had health that ran in two complete bars across the screen (that is, his “armor,” since, yes, again, you can’t do true damage to this critter until you have brought this armor down, multiple times, of course), I had to take a break from the game for a few days.

This isn’t an impossible circumstance, just a tedious one, as you have to learn the proper dodge patterns until you are good enough to last long enough to bring that baby-guy-thing down.

But still…

Conversely, I was playing League of Legends a year or two ago, the multiplayer PVP game, playing as Miss Fortune, a ranged character who puts out a lot of damage but dies rather easily.  Essentially, this character is what some refer to as a “glass cannon” —supremely powerful offensively but that ultimately dies really, really fast.  It was about mid-game, and I had just turned a corner into the river, down near where the dragon usually lies, when I ran into the opposing team’s tank, a gigantic rock creature named Malphite.

My initial gut reaction was to open fire with my dual pistols on Malphite, as we were standing more or less nose to nose.  This visceral response was immediately replaced by an almost equally powerful opposing reaction.  I wanted to flee.

For a moment, I was just overwhelmed by Malphite’s size, specifically in contrast to my own character, a more or less normal sized woman in a silly pirate hat.  The response was truly instinctual.  There was no particular reason that I necessarily should fear a tank, a character that is highly defensive and generally puts out little in the way of damage.  However, looking at the screen, at the images of the two characters, I felt vulnerable.  He was big and made of stone.  I was smaller and made of flesh.

I probably would have tried to flash back across the wall to my jungle, but I then noticed that the amount of damage I was putting out against his supposedly rocky hide was huge and despite the fact that he was punching a woman in the face with sledgehammer arms, it was pretty clear who was winning here.  I stood my ground and blasted him to bits, which was relieving, elating, and almost miraculous in my brain as I was still caught up in the juxtaposition of the images of the two characters squared off against one another, rather than with their stats.

If I had been a more savvy a player at the time, I probably would have actually paused for a moment and noted the level difference between our two characters.  You know, the numbers that underlie the image, that tell you what you are really facing in a game, not the superficial representation of mere character.  In retrospect, I imagine that I was three to four levels above him.  I also might have had the sense to have been aware of how many more kills I had than him, since kills equate to gold in the game, and gold equates to more powerful equipment.  I imagine that I had far superior offensive items at the time, and he was probably still developing his defensive equipment.

The image itself, though, of the two characters seemed like inescapable realities at that moment, though, not stats and numbers facing off against one another as they more or less “really” were.

The moment put me in mind of playing one of the first Tomb Raider games, in which there is a sequence when you are guiding Lara Croft through a misty and seemingly empty valley.  Then a figure emerges from the mists in front of you, in front of her, an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex looming over her tiny form.  I ran.  I felt like I had to.

If I am remembering correctly, too, that was the right thing to do.  Despite having fought wolves and bears (I think) and armed henchmen with this character, I am pretty sure that to survive Lara has to retreat at this point.  You will bring this enormous critter down eventually, but (again, if I am remembering correctly), not under these circumstances.  The game, as it were, respected the terrifying numbers behind that Tyrannosaur by representing its level of threat in a clear and meaningful visual way.

Some number of years ago, I had a conversation with a guy I knew who was working for Turbine Entertainment.  This was after their first MMORPG, Asheron’s Call, had been running for a number of years, and they were working on a new title.  Turbine was being funded in part by an outside source for the new game, and he told me that the money men would stop by once in awhile to look at how the game’s content was progressing.  My friend complained that every time they took a look at the monsters that they were developing for players to fight, there was only one question that they had, “Can you make it bigger?”

They wanted everything, from the lowliest rat or slime that a level one character would be fighting to the most ferocious dragon that might require a score of high level characters to bring down, to all possess this feature: size, size, size.

Admittedly, size intimidates.  Size provokes fear and uncertainty, but as he and I discussed, an image has to mean something.  A player would no longer be able to differentiate between threats if all they ever fought was overwhelmingly huge beasts.  Indeed, and maybe more importantly, they would never feel overwhelmed at all if every encounter boiled down to being confronted by “really large guys.”  Where is the awe of the Tyrannosaur from Tomb Raider (and, indeed, partly why I remember that sequence at all was because I still clearly recall feeling both awe and fear at that moment)?

All that being said, this brings me back to my more recent experiences with Devil May Cry.  As much as I kind of hate its retrograde commitment to the classic boss fight—facing off against that horrifically durable and powerful opponent—still I have to admire the “truthfulness” of the way in which the numbers behind the image and the actual image itself reflect one another.  That giant-unborn-baby-guy-thing is what he appears to be—frickin’ hard.

On the other hand, even in its respectfulness to accurate representation, the encounter does suffer some of the fatigue of terror, the exhaustion of fear that that MMORPG I was talking about might suggest.  While that baby-guy-thing is majestically grotesque and potentially terrifying to see and then to realize just how difficult it is going to be to beat (damn that double life bar), still the fight becomes so extraordinarily tedious after awhile that that awe-inspiring majesty tends to evaporate.

It’s kind of like seeing a werewolf in the daylight.  At night, when you just catch glimpses of that wolf-like creature loping through the woods, catch snatches of its claws and jaws, it seems pretty scary.  By day, clearly seen, it just looks like a really damned big wolf.

I still mostly respect that Tyrannosaur.  He filled me with fear.  I knew he could tear me apart and that I was ill equipped to face him.  He made me know my vulnerability.  At the same time, the game respected that image by letting the creature die while I was still afraid of it. 

I still want something of the grandeur of the retrograde boss fight, those bigger than life climactic events, in games, but they have to learn to consistently tell me the truth as a player, as a gamer, too.  And most of all, they have to not bore me by enlarging the numbers so much that any drama or gravitas shrinks in comparison to boring old numbers themselves.

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