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Portal

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PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to First-person puzzle game Scale aims to shrink the moon, deliver it via Kickstarter">Scale







Scale, a new first-person puzzle game created by developer Steve Swink, features a young girl armed with a potent power: the ability to scale anything up or down almost infinitely. Currently raising funds on Kickstarter, Scale looks a lot like a Portal-alike, with its female protagonist and sci-fi Game Mechanic gun, but it’s a comparison that Swink categorically rejects.







“Yeah, we’re busy redesigning to the gun to be less Portal-like as I speak," he tells PC Gamer. "It got chucked in there quickly before PAX. It’s the obvious comparison to make, totally understandable, but the game is about exploring and discovery… rather than a linear series of puzzles that show how much I’ve explored the mechanic and how clever I am as a designer.”



Set around 40 years in the future, Scale follows the protagonist, Penny, a brilliant young physicist. While working to study elementary particles, Penny loses patience with the hit-or-miss world of supercolliders and settles on a different plan: a device that can enlarge anything so she can just zap an electron, make it as big as a minivan, and take a look. Naturally, she destroys the entire east coast of the United States.







Though Penny has a story she’s following, the exploration and puzzles are self-directed. In a gameplay video, Swink shows one where the player needs to cross some water to an island. Penny hops on a landlocked sailboat and then enlarges the moon, causing the seas to rise. I ask him how else it could be done. Penny could also stand on a flower and scale it until she just steps onto the other island, or just scale the boat itself until it’s big enough to be a bridge.



It seems that every new game with an experimental mechanic has to follow the Portal formula, so it’s nice to see a game with the ambition to set players free. Scale has a few days left on Kickstarter before it continues development for a planned December 2014 release.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Source SDK 2013 update gives modders “support for virtual reality via the Oculus Rift”">Portal 2 Rift







A Steam news note announces the arrival of an updated version of Valve's software development kit, which grants "support for Mac OS X and Linux to mod developers" and adds "the ability for virtual reality support in your mod." Yes, expect to see a wealth of Oculus Rift mods heading to a Source game near you. Ricochet with Oculus Rift support! The dream lives.



There have been other alterations, too. The source code is now up on github and a tweak to the license agreement allows users to share modified versions of the kit for free. If you're interested in making mods, the Valve Developer Community wiki is a good place to learn.



VR is the talk of the town at the moment, with the Rift's impressive showings at Eve Fanfest and E3. You can keep up with the latest VR news here.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Behind the scenes of Valve’s Portal 2 ARG">Portal 2 ARG







When Portal 2 was announced, the news dropped through an elaborate scavenger hunt puzzle that sent thousands of players crawling all over the internet. Years later, we finally get to see some of the work that went into making that alternate reality game, as told by celebrated Half-Life modder (now Valve employee) Adam Foster in a blog post at Gamasutra.



Foster, one of the designers of the ARG puzzle from Valve, describes the elaborate trail of puzzles that the Portal-playing community was able to decipher. It began with a seemingly mundane game update for Portal 1: “changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations.” That update changed the radios found throughout Portal into Morse Code-dispensers. The code was deciphered into slow-scan television images. Somehow—my knowledge of information theory and cryptography ran dry a paragraph ago—these images were combined into an elaborate code, which was then hacked. Remember: none of us is as smart as all of us.







The result? A phone number to an ancient modem in Foster’s kitchen that slowly drip-fed Portal 2 concept art to announce the game to the world. The ARG team at Valve did a fun thing with no budget, and it caught the attention of the world’s games media. It was also an intricately designed puzzle that, despite a few false positives, played out exactly as Valve designed. As Foster writes, “Estimated time to 'solve' the initial puzzles: seven hours. Actual time to solve: seven hours and sixteen minutes. This wasn't an accident.”



We are all just puppets dancing on Gabe Newell’s strings, aren't we? Check out the full blog post from Foster for a lot of fascinating details about ARGs and the devious geniuses at Valve.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Don’t be nervous, but Valve still wants to measure your sweat">rsz_tf2_medic







There may come a day when preparing for the next chapter of a Left 4 Dead game will include wiping down your sweaty palms and taking a deep, deep breath. If you don’t, the zombies will get faster.



In remarks during the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo (via VentureBeat), Valve’s in-house experimental psychologist—Wait, hold on. Did you know that Valve employs an experimental psychologist? I wonder if he has lunch sometimes with the economist.



Anyway, Valve’s in-house mad scientist, Mike Ambinder, discussed experiments where players’ overall nervousness and agitation were measured, in part by recording sweatiness. If players began to show signs of nervousness or fear, the game would speed up. This new control scheme—mouse, keyboard, sweat-measuring skin pads—added another way for the player to interact with the game. Shoot zombie, reload pistols, keep calm. Signal for rescue, throw molotov, keep calm.



Ambinder also described other experiments in game design and biofeedback—which Valve has been talking about for a few years—including a version of Portal 2 that was played via eye tracking. Exploring the next generation of possible gaming inputs shows once again that Valve continues to operate, and plan, on a whole different level.



So good for you, Mike Ambinder. Just stay away from the mega-baboon hearts and everything will work out just fine.
PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Don’t be nervous, but Valve still wants to measure your sweat">rsz_tf2_medic







There may come a day when preparing for the next chapter of a Left 4 Dead game will include wiping down your sweaty palms and taking a deep, deep breath. If you don’t, the zombies will get faster.



In remarks during the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo (via VentureBeat), Valve’s in-house experimental psychologist—Wait, hold on. Did you know that Valve employs an experimental psychologist? I wonder if he has lunch sometimes with the economist.



Anyway, Valve’s in-house mad scientist, Mike Ambinder, discussed experiments where players’ overall nervousness and agitation were measured, in part by recording sweatiness. If players began to show signs of nervousness or fear, the game would speed up. This new control scheme—mouse, keyboard, sweat-measuring skin pads—added another way for the player to interact with the game. Shoot zombie, reload pistols, keep calm. Signal for rescue, throw molotov, keep calm.



Ambinder also described other experiments in game design and biofeedback—which Valve has been talking about for a few years—including a version of Portal 2 that was played via eye tracking. Exploring the next generation of possible gaming inputs shows once again that Valve continues to operate, and plan, on a whole different level.



So good for you, Mike Ambinder. Just stay away from the mega-baboon hearts and everything will work out just fine.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Steam for Linux gets beta builds of Portal, Left 4 Dead 2">L4D2 Linux







Valve has thrown a bit more of its weight behind Linux with the release of beta builds of Portal and Left 4 Dead 2. If you own either (or both) games you should find that beta versions have materialised in your Steam library - along with Portal 2, according to some. The Linux build of the first-person puzzler has so far gone unheralded by Valve, but here's a blog post describing the latest beta version of Left 4 Dead 2. In addition to letting Linux users play Valve's zombie hit, the download acts as a "testing ground" for its new Extended Mutation System. Thankfully, you can try the beta on Windows and Mac too.



The beta version of Left 4 Dead 2 is the same size as the main game, so you have a hefty download ahead of you. (I assume the same is true of Portal.) Steam for Linux officially launched in February, so it hasn't taken too long to get Portal and L4D2 on there. Half-Life 2 next?



Thanks to BluesNews and Kotaku.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Face Off: Are silent protagonists superior?">face off silent protagonist







Are mute heroes better than verbose heroes? Does a voice-acted player character infringe on your ability to put yourself into the story? In this week's debate, Logan says "Yes," while his character says nothing. He wants to be the character he’s playing, not merely control him, and that’s easier to do when the character is silent. T.J. had a professional voice actor say "No." He thinks giving verbalized emotions and mannerisms to your in-universe avatar makes him or her feel more real.



Read the debate below, continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. Logan, you have the floor:



Logan: BioShock’s Jack. Isaac Clarke from Dead Space. The little boy from Limbo. Portal’s Chell. Gordon Freeman. These are some of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever played, and they all made their indelible impressions on me without speaking a single word. In fact, they made such an impression because they didn’t say a word. By remaining silent throughout, they gave me room to take over the role, to project myself into the game.



T.J.: All of the games you mentioned were unforgettable narratives. But everything memorable about them came from the environments, situations, and supporting casts. Gordon Freeman is a great example. What can you really say about him, as a person? I find Shepard’s inspirational speeches to the crew in the Mass Effect games far more stirring and memorable than almost anything I’ve experienced in a silent protagonist game. I was Shepard, just as much as I was Gordon. But I didn’t have the alienating element of not having a voice making me feel less like a grounded part of the setting.







Logan: Ooh, Shepard. That was cold. I’ll happily agree that some games are better off with fully written and voiced protagonists—and Shepard’s a perfect example. But it’s a different matter, I think, with first-person games in particular, where your thought processes animate the narrative: “OK, if I jump into a portal here, I’ll shoot out of the wall there and land over yonder.” In this way I’m woven into the story, as a product of my own imagination. If the character is talking, I’m listening to his or her thoughts—and they sort of overwrite my own. It can be great fun, but it’s a more passive experience.



T.J.: First-person shooters are probably one of the best venues for silent protagonists, but lets look at BioShock and BioShock Infinite. I definitely felt more engaged by Booker, who responded verbally to the action, the story twists, and the potent emotions expressed by Elizabeth... than I did by Jack, who didn’t so much as cough at the chaos and insanity around him.



Logan: But was the result that BioShock Infinite was a better game, or just that it delivered a traditional main character?



T.J.: Booker? Traditional? Did we play the same game? I mean, it’s a tough call to say which was out-and-out better, as there are a lot of factors to consider. But zooming in on the protagonist’s vocals (or lack thereof) as an added brushstroke on a complex canvas, Infinite displays a more vibrant palette.



Logan: Do you think that Half-Life 2, in retrospect, is an inferior game as a result of its silent protagonist?







T.J.: Half-Life 2 was great. Great enough that we gave it a 98. But imagine what it could have been like if Gordon had been given the opportunity to project himself onto his surroundings, with reactive astrophysics quips and emotional back-and-forth to play off of the memorable cast around him? We relate to characters in fiction that behave like people we know in the real world. So yeah, I’ll take that plunge: I think I would have bonded with Freeman more, and therefore had a superior experience, if he hadn't kept his lips sewn shut the whole way.



Logan: A scripted and voiced Gordon Freeman may or may not have been a memorable character, just like a scripted and voiced Chell from Portal might have been. But in a sense, that’s the problem! Because some of my best memories from games with silent protagonists are the memories of my own thoughts and actions. I remember staring at the foot of a splicer in BioShock and realizing that the flesh of her foot was molded into a heel. I was so grossed out that I made this unmanly noise, partway between a squeal and a scream. I remember getting orders shouted at me in FEAR and thinking, "No, why don’t you take point.” I’m glad these moments weren't preempted by scripted elements.



T.J.: You were staring at the Splicers’ feet? Man, in a real underwater, objectivist dystopia ruined by rampant genetic modification, you’d totally be “that one guy” who just stands there dumbfounded and gets sliced into 14 pieces.



Logan: No, I’d be the guy at Pinkberry with his mouth under the chocolate hazelnut nozzle going “Would you kindly pull the lever?” But my point is, I remember what I did and thought at moments throughout all of my favorite games, and those are experiences that are totally unique to me. And that’s at least part of why I love games so much—because of unique experiences like that.







T.J.: I see what you’re getting at. Likewise, a lot of my love for games is driven by their ability to tell the kinds of stories other media just aren’t equipped for. Silent protagonists take us further beyond the bounds of traditional narratives, accentuating the uniqueness of interactive storytelling. That being said, really good voiced protagonists—your Shepards, your Bookers, your Lee Everetts—never feel like a distraction from the mutated flesh pumps you come across. When the execution is right, they serve to enhance all of those things, and lend them insight and believability.



There’s nothing like being pulled out of the moment in Dragon Age: Origins when the flow of an intense conversation stops so the camera can cut to the speechless, distant expression of your seemingly-oblivious Grey Warden.



Logan: Oh yeah, there’s no question that voiced protagonists have their moments. But they’re not my moments, and those are the ones I enjoy the most in games. Valve seems to understand this intuitively, and that’s why it’s given us two of the most memorable characters in videogame history: because I think the developers deliberately build into their games moments that they all understand will be uniquely owned by the players; “a-ha!” moments when the solution to a puzzle suddenly snaps into focus, or narrative revelations like watching horseplay between Alyx and Dog that instantly tell you a lot about how she grew up. Voiced protagonists can give us wonderful characters; silent ones let me build my own.



That’s the debate! As always, these debates are exercises meant to reveal alternate viewpoints—sometimes including perspectives we wouldn’t normally explore—and cultivate discussion, so continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for more opinions from the community.











https://twitter.com/hawkinson88/status/325060938120183808



@pcgamer it really depends on the writing. Some voiced characters are amazing, and some are whiny and annoying.— Ryan H (@kancer) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer In many cases, yes. I am forced to substitute the absence of a developed personality with my own words and thoughts. I like that.— Rocko (@Rockoman100) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer The volume of the protag doesn't matter, only the skill of the writer: hero voice is just one tool of many in a master writer's box— Jacob Dieffenbach (@dieffenbachj) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer The most interesting characters are the ones with a history, with regrets. Blank characters don't have that.— Devin White (@D_A_White) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer Most voiced characters seem to disappoint. I think silent ones express the storyline better through visuals which I prefer.— Casey Bavier (@clbavier) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer Definitely voiced. Having an NPC talk to you directly, then act as if your lack of response is totally normal feels eerily wrong.— Kirt Goodfellow (@_Kenomica) April 19, 2013





@pcgamer Silent! #YOLO— Michael Nader (@MNader92) April 19, 2013

PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Face Off: Do boss battles have a place in modern games?">face_off_boss







In this week's Face Off debate, Tyler goes left, then right, then left again to dodge Evan's precisely timed barrage of attacks against traditional boss fights in modern games. Are they an outdated trope which should be reserved for arcade-style experiences? Is there some common ground, where boss fights and modern ideas can coexist?



Read the debate below, add your argument in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. Tyler, you have the floor:



The Debate

 

Tyler: Why shouldn't games use a tried-and-true design template? Here’s an analogy: you spend a semester learning, then face the ultimate challenge in the final exam. It’s hard. You might have to repeat it again and again to pass, but it makes earning the right to advance to the next level meaningful. My degree would just be a piece of paper if I passed on attendance alone.



Evan: Thanks for comparing bosses to school exams, something universally disliked by mankind.



Tyler: I know, but see, what I’m saying is, because tests and bosses are- OK, fine. I guess I didn’t do myself any favors with that analogy. But are you just going to critique my rhetoric?



Evan: Let’s try this again, with less sarcasm on my part. So you’re saying that without a demanding test punctuating a player’s progression, being told “You won!” or “You advanced to the next area!” by a game isn’t as meaningful. Correct?



Tyler: I’m not saying games need boss fights to create meaningful progression, but the old-school structure still works where it’s used well. Bosses get the big set pieces—the explosions that would just be worn out if they weren't a sparingly-used reward. They can be crazy, huge, monstrous things. They can seem insurmountable at first, and when you turn one to dust, you are the hero. You’re Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard. Happy trails, Hans.



Evan: I see bosses as an antique trope. They’re a lazy roadblock-in-antagonist’s clothing, and I think designers generally use them out of convenience or tradition, and not because bosses are the best or most creative way of structuring a game. Plenty of modern games have used bosses in a way that feels completely out of place—BioShock’s pathetic end boss was one of the only stains on one of the best games of the era. Ken Levine has admitted this.







Tyler: You’re right, mecha Andrew Ryan was too conventional for BioShock. That was an avoidable error—Wolfenstein 3D wouldn’t have worked if it built to not a fight with mecha Hitler, but BioShock? BioShock should have ignored tradition. That doesn't mean design traditions are universally bad or lazy, though. They give us historical learning to draw from, and that’s valuable.



Iterating on a design only leads to better versions of that design—not in every case, but over time. We’ll only get more and more amazing boss fights, and I’m happy to allow for some failures.



Evan: But designers aren’t iterating, they’re regurgitating. For the most part, bosses are still being implemented in the same form they were 10 and 20 years ago. What would you cite as an example of a great modern boss?



Tyler: Dark Souls, all of them. Sorry, is that game too “antique” for you?



Evan: Actually I’m glad you bring it up, because Dark Souls demonstrates what I’m talking about. The fun I had fighting its bosses relied on difficulty more than interesting design. Dark Souls is saying: “You’re fragile, so let’s make you fight things that have a bunch more HP and do more damage than you. Boss: DESIGNED!”







I don’t find that totally unappealing, but it’s mechanically mundane: pattern recognition, timing, and fighting an enemy with an enormous hit point bar isn’t tried-and-true--it’s overdone. That template originated in in the 2D arcade games of the ‘80s and grew ubiquitous through the console games of the ‘90s. Do we really want games that are just a series of homages to the techniques of the past, or do we want new ideas and new experiences?



Tyler: We want both! And sometimes we want a combination. We can want whatever we want. Alright, that last one isn't a very good argument, but how about this: it’s true that the best examples of boss fights come from arcade-style games and Japanese console series, making a “modern” PC-centric argument more difficult, but even Valve draws from that collective design learning. I thought Portal and Portal 2 climaxed just fine, and those are plenty modern.







Evan: I remember enjoying the ending of both games, but I think I was enjoying the narrative execution more than what I was being asked to do with my mouse and keyboard. Glados and Wheatley are both entertainingly written, and both Portals incorporated original, lyrical songs that provided as a surprising payoff for all your hours of brain work. But as an activity, as a test, I’m not sure if I’d call Portal and Portal 2’s bosses stimulating.



How to beat the end of Portal 2:



Stand behind a pipe as Wheatley fires a bomb at you. This will break open the Incredibly Obvious White Gel Tube.

Put a portal in front of you, and put a portal on a surface that faces where Wheatley’s shields aren’t. Stand there.

While Wheatley is stunned (because it wouldn’t be a boss if they didn’t have a “paralyzed” state), retrieve the cores and then just like, walk up to him.

Repeat.



It does a lot of the work for you--you don’t even have to consider where to place the gel, which was something Portal 2 taught you how to do over and over. It was a narrative success, but if we’re judging bosses by their test-like traits, I’d say it was a pretty easy exam.



Tyler: You’re right, boss battles tend to be exercises in pattern recognition and repetition. They require a binary win/lose state, and winning in one shot would be a bit anticlimactic, so you wear them down in stages. But what about Half-Life 2: Episode 2? That wasn’t a standard pattern-based test, it was a whole level. Conceptually, is that still a “boss?”



Wait. No. I’m unplugging my keyboard and walking away before I turn this into a semantic argument about “what is and isn’t a boss.” I’ll plug it back in after I’ve sat in the corner thinking about what I’ve done for a minute.



Evan: Yeah, I agree that it’s pointless to argue whether Half-Life 2: Episode 2’s incredible sawmill/Strider showdown is or isn't a boss. Mostly I’m interested in encouraging designers to throw out the notion that bosses or “tests” or endings require something like a binary win/lose state, or that they have to replicate something players already understand. I like that Left 4 Dead’s crescendo events make it possible to win and lose simultaneously--you or a teammate might’ve died, but if one person completes the finale it’s considered a success.



Mainly, I don’t want any more Human Revolutions. It was a legitimate tragedy that the reboot of one of the defining, agency-driven games of our time reverted to “let’s put the player in the room with a guy that they stun and then shoot until they kill him.”



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKuLO1WeuTg



Tyler: You’re right again, but I don't agree with a universal conclusion. Yes, “shoot until they die” is out of place there (and no fair using Human Revolution, which had bad boss fights for many reasons), but even so, I want to face the villain, and sometimes I really just want to win the fight. The hero’s journey, and all that! There’s a place for challenging the idea of binary win/lose states, as in L4D, but there’s also a place where John McClane shoots the bad guy, and it’s a place I’m not done visiting.



I don’t want to miss that confrontation because we're just too sophisticated for traditional boss fights. True, there are better ways to handle that confrontation, and that’s the experimentation I want to see.



Evan: “The hero’s journey, and all that” is exactly what I want more designers to deviate from. Not to derail our discussion about bosses, but I’m sick of being everyone’s savior.



Now that i think of it, Far Cry 3 represents one of the recent attempts at iteration on boss design. It’s an open-world game with maybe last year’s best villain, but Ubisoft’s solution for bringing you face to face with Vaas and other big bads was throwing you into these frustrating, (and I hate to use it like it’s inherently a bad word, but) linear, drugged-out hallucination sequences. Why did they do that? Because they wanted the player to have this prolonged encounter with the villain, and a dream sequence creates this context where they can bend the rules and allow the player to shoot the villain a whole bunch of times before they die.



Tyler: You sure have a lot of examples of bad boss fights, but they don’t add up to a rule—and at least Far Cry 3 tried to justify its boss confrontations a bit differently, even if it didn’t succeed.



And on your first point, sure, things can get really interesting when we deviate from archetypal hero narratives. What if I’m just a person in DayZ, on an island with zombies, what do I do? Fascinating, and I can’t wait for more. But why can’t we have both? We don’t have to stop saving the world to also find out what happens when we can’t save the world, or when the final boss is actually Jonathan Blow’s internal emotional struggle.



Evan: It sounds like we’re approaching something that resembles consensus. I think we’re both interested in boss encounters or “difficult trials” that are built on new ideas. I guess part of my criticism stems from the idea that Western game design has won out over Japanese game design over the past 10 or 15 years, and that bosses represent a dated trope that was perpetuated a lot by Japanese games.



I’m especially frustrated when well-funded projects, staffed by dozens of talented people, rely on templates like locking you in a room and throwing a single, durable enemy at you.



Tyler: Have you played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater? I know, another Japanese console example, but I think The End is a brilliant modern boss fight—it’s a sniper battle, a long back-and-forth which can be won with a kill or non-lethal takedown. That’s the kind of boss fight experimentation we need more of in PC games. We don’t need to do away with them altogether.







Evan: I’m a closet Metal Gear Solid fan, so I’m not going to fight you on this one--The End works for the same reasons HL2: Ep. 2 does--Konami built a whole, intricate level around that character, imbued him with some unpredictable behaviors, and the result was this interestingly-paced jungle hunt that didn’t simply have one solution, yeah. A lot of MGS’ bosses do rely on some tropey pattern-recognition stuff, but he’s one of the best examples of combining “Japanese difficulty” and Western sensibilities. There’s a lot of that in what Kojima does.



Tyler: Yeah, we’re at least within sight of each other now (nice hat, by the way). Neither of us mind having that big confrontation, or even sometimes sticking to narrative tropes, we just want cleverer approaches. That is, we don’t want designers to force traditional boss fights into otherwise non-traditional games.



We want them to design climactic experiences that make sense, and “dodge, shoot, dodge, shoot” can be fun, but it only works in games wholly designed in that arcade style. When you force it into something like BioShock or Deus Ex, it’s a mechanical and narrative let down.



Evan: Ratified.



That's the debate! As always, these debates are exercises meant to reveal alternate view points and cultivate discussion, so continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for more opinions from the community.











@pcgamer I hated ME3. Without boss battles, the story was basically about fighting mindless enemies 4 cutscenes. And Kai Leng don't count.— Nathan Hansen (@NathanHansenWDN) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer outdated. but also fighting endless waves, survival style is boring too.Simply, keep "boss" fights at random times throughout.YAY— derps | ADLT (@Batou079) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Dark Souls did it well. Bioshock did it well. I like the idea of roaming boss fights with the black knights and big daddies— Nicklaus Lacle (@NLacle) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Like anything else, boss battles have a place if they fit the game. They are often overused and obvious, though.— Ben Price (@bk_price) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Japanese-based games have it on tight, I don't see much from NA titles.— Abdelrahman Al Amiri (@_Bu3ouf_) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Boss battles are a needed mechanic but also needs to be well implemented using the games key features e.g. Zelda style or DMC!— Russell Jones (@RusDJones) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Bosses are essential.The problem is every boss is the same now, people don't put the effort into creating original fights anymore..— Niek Kerssies (@KIPKERssIEs) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer The Boss is the one unique super baddy that gives us the challenge I seek in a game, otherwise its just CoD— Zack McCloud (@ZackLynx3187) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer depends on the game's style. A bit outdated. only not that bad. but don't really need it anymore if the gameplay is strong enough.— Tony J. Vodka (@tonihato) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Yes Boss battles should be the climax of a game - compare Hitler Robot of Doom vs UN victory in Civilization 3— Logun (@Logun0) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer For something like a Strider or Reaper I think yes; otherwise, I feel it's outdated, as games like Mirror's Edge or Far Cry 2 show.— Davehonored (@david_shea) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer No tool in a writer's box is ever obsolete, but just as hammers aren't for fixing electronics, not every game needs a boss battle.— Jacob Dieffenbach (@dieffenbachj) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer @deadspace is doing this right. Minibosses that sometimes prove more intense than the "end boss", it's about nonlinear progres— CosmicD (@CosmicD) March 20, 2013

PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Face Off: Do boss battles have a place in modern games?">face_off_boss







In this week's Face Off debate, Tyler goes left, then right, then left again to dodge Evan's precisely timed barrage of attacks against traditional boss fights in modern games. Are they an outdated trope which should be reserved for arcade-style experiences? Is there some common ground, where boss fights and modern ideas can coexist?



Read the debate below, add your argument in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. Tyler, you have the floor:



The Debate

 

Tyler: Why shouldn't games use a tried-and-true design template? Here’s an analogy: you spend a semester learning, then face the ultimate challenge in the final exam. It’s hard. You might have to repeat it again and again to pass, but it makes earning the right to advance to the next level meaningful. My degree would just be a piece of paper if I passed on attendance alone.



Evan: Thanks for comparing bosses to school exams, something universally disliked by mankind.



Tyler: I know, but see, what I’m saying is, because tests and bosses are- OK, fine. I guess I didn’t do myself any favors with that analogy. But are you just going to critique my rhetoric?



Evan: Let’s try this again, with less sarcasm on my part. So you’re saying that without a demanding test punctuating a player’s progression, being told “You won!” or “You advanced to the next area!” by a game isn’t as meaningful. Correct?



Tyler: I’m not saying games need boss fights to create meaningful progression, but the old-school structure still works where it’s used well. Bosses get the big set pieces—the explosions that would just be worn out if they weren't a sparingly-used reward. They can be crazy, huge, monstrous things. They can seem insurmountable at first, and when you turn one to dust, you are the hero. You’re Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard. Happy trails, Hans.



Evan: I see bosses as an antique trope. They’re a lazy roadblock-in-antagonist’s clothing, and I think designers generally use them out of convenience or tradition, and not because bosses are the best or most creative way of structuring a game. Plenty of modern games have used bosses in a way that feels completely out of place—BioShock’s pathetic end boss was one of the only stains on one of the best games of the era. Ken Levine has admitted this.







Tyler: You’re right, that was too conventional for BioShock. That was an avoidable error—Wolfenstein 3D wouldn’t have worked if it built to not a fight with mecha Hitler, but BioShock? BioShock should have ignored tradition. That doesn't mean design traditions are universally bad or lazy, though. They give us historical learning to draw from, and that’s valuable.



Iterating on a design only leads to better versions of that design—not in every case, but over time. We’ll only get more and more amazing boss fights, and I’m happy to allow for some failures.



Evan: But designers aren’t iterating, they’re regurgitating. For the most part, bosses are still being implemented in the same form they were 10 and 20 years ago. What would you cite as an example of a great modern boss?



Tyler: Dark Souls, all of them. Sorry, is that game too “antique” for you?



Evan: Actually I’m glad you bring it up, because Dark Souls demonstrates what I’m talking about. The fun I had fighting its bosses relied on difficulty more than interesting design. Dark Souls is saying: “You’re fragile, so let’s make you fight things that have a bunch more HP and do more damage than you. Boss: DESIGNED!”







I don’t find that totally unappealing, but it’s mechanically mundane: pattern recognition, timing, and fighting an enemy with an enormous hit point bar isn’t tried-and-true--it’s overdone. That template originated in the 2D arcade games of the ‘80s and grew ubiquitous through the console games of the ‘90s. Do we really want games that are just a series of homages to the techniques of the past, or do we want new ideas and new experiences?



Tyler: We want both! And sometimes we want a combination. We can want whatever we want. Alright, that last one isn't a very good argument, but how about this: it’s true that the best examples of boss fights come from arcade-style games and Japanese console series, making a “modern” PC-centric argument more difficult, but even Valve draws from that collective design learning. I thought Portal and Portal 2 climaxed just fine, and those are plenty modern.







Evan: I remember enjoying the ending of both games, but I think I was enjoying the narrative execution more than what I was being asked to do with my mouse and keyboard. Glados and Wheatley are both entertainingly written, and both Portals incorporated original, lyrical songs that provided as a surprising payoff for all your hours of brain work. But as an activity, as a test, I’m not sure if I’d call Portal and Portal 2’s bosses stimulating.



How to beat the end of Portal 2:



Stand behind a pipe as Wheatley fires a bomb at you. This will break open the Incredibly Obvious White Gel Tube.

Put a portal in front of you, and put a portal on a surface that faces where Wheatley’s shields aren’t. Stand there.

While Wheatley is stunned (because it wouldn’t be a boss if they didn’t have a “paralyzed” state), retrieve the cores and then just like, walk up to him.

Repeat.



It does a lot of the work for you--you don’t even have to consider where to place the gel, which was something Portal 2 taught you how to do over and over. It was a narrative success, but if we’re judging bosses by their test-like traits, I’d say it was a pretty easy exam.



Tyler: You’re right, boss battles tend to be exercises in pattern recognition and repetition. They require a binary win/lose state, and winning in one shot would be a bit anticlimactic, so you wear them down in stages. But what about Half-Life 2: Episode 2? That wasn’t a standard pattern-based test, it was a whole level. Conceptually, is that still a “boss?”



Wait. No. I’m unplugging my keyboard and walking away before I turn this into a semantic argument about “what is and isn’t a boss.” I’ll plug it back in after I’ve sat in the corner thinking about what I’ve done.



Evan: Yeah, I agree that it’s pointless to argue whether Half-Life 2: Episode 2’s incredible sawmill/Strider showdown is or isn't a boss. Mostly I’m interested in encouraging designers to throw out the notion that bosses or “tests” or endings require something like a binary win/lose state, or that they have to replicate something players already understand. I like that Left 4 Dead’s crescendo events make it possible to win and lose simultaneously--you or a teammate might’ve died, but if one person completes the finale it’s considered a success.



Mainly, I don’t want any more Human Revolutions. It was a legitimate tragedy that the reboot of one of the defining, agency-driven games of our time reverted to “let’s put the player in the room with a guy that they stun and then shoot until they kill him.”



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKuLO1WeuTg



Tyler: You’re right again, but I don't agree with a universal conclusion. Yes, “shoot until they die” is out of place there (and no fair using Human Revolution, which had bad boss fights for many reasons), but even so, I want to face the villain, and sometimes I really just want to win the fight. The hero’s journey, and all that! There’s a place for challenging the idea of binary win/lose states, as in L4D, but there’s also a place where John McClane shoots the bad guy, and it’s a place I’m not done visiting.



I don’t want to miss that confrontation because we're just too sophisticated for traditional boss fights. True, there are better ways to handle that confrontation, and that’s the experimentation I want to see.



Evan: “The hero’s journey, and all that” is exactly what I want more designers to deviate from. Not to derail our discussion about bosses, but I’m sick of being everyone’s savior.



Now that i think of it, Far Cry 3 represents one of the recent attempts at iteration on boss design. It’s an open-world game with maybe last year’s best villain, but Ubisoft’s solution for bringing you face to face with Vaas and other big bads was throwing you into these frustrating, (and I hate to use it like it’s inherently a bad word, but) linear, drugged-out hallucination sequences. Why did they do that? Because they wanted the player to have this prolonged encounter with the villain, and a dream sequence creates this context where they can bend the rules and allow the player to shoot the villain a whole bunch of times before they die.



Tyler: You sure have a lot of examples of bad boss fights, but they don’t add up to a rule—and at least Far Cry 3 tried to justify its boss confrontations a bit differently, even if it didn’t succeed.



And on your first point, sure, things can get really interesting when we deviate from archetypal hero narratives. What if I’m just a person in DayZ, on an island with zombies, what do I do? Fascinating, and I can’t wait for more. But why can’t we have both? We don’t have to stop saving the world to also find out what happens when we can’t save the world, or when the final boss is actually Jonathan Blow’s internal emotional struggle.



Evan: It sounds like we’re approaching something that resembles consensus. I think we’re both interested in boss encounters or “difficult trials” that are built on new ideas. I guess part of my criticism stems from the idea that Western game design has won out over Japanese game design over the past 10 or 15 years, and that bosses represent a dated trope that was perpetuated a lot by Japanese games.



I’m especially frustrated when well-funded projects, staffed by dozens of talented people, rely on templates like locking you in a room and throwing a single, durable enemy at you.



Tyler: Have you played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater? I know, another Japanese console example, but I think The End is a brilliant modern boss fight—it’s a sniper battle, a long back-and-forth which can be won with a kill or non-lethal takedown. That’s the kind of boss fight experimentation we need more of in PC games. We don’t need to do away with them altogether.







Evan: I’m a closet Metal Gear Solid fan, so I’m not going to fight you on this one--The End works for the same reasons HL2: Ep. 2 does--Konami built a whole, intricate level around that character, imbued him with some unpredictable behaviors, and the result was this interestingly-paced jungle hunt that didn’t simply have one solution, yeah. A lot of MGS’ bosses do rely on some tropey pattern-recognition stuff, but he’s one of the best examples of combining “Japanese difficulty” and Western sensibilities. There’s a lot of that in what Kojima does.



Tyler: Yeah, we’re at least within sight of each other now (nice hat, by the way). Neither of us mind having that big confrontation, or even sometimes sticking to narrative tropes, we just want cleverer approaches. That is, we don’t want designers to force traditional boss fights into otherwise non-traditional games. We want them to design climactic experiences that make sense, and “dodge, shoot, dodge, shoot” can be fun, but it only works in games wholly designed in that arcade style. When you force it into something like BioShock or Deus Ex, it’s a mechanical and narrative let down.



Evan: Ratified.



That's the debate! As always, these debates are exercises meant to reveal alternate view points and cultivate discussion, so continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for more opinions from the community.











@pcgamer I hated ME3. Without boss battles, the story was basically about fighting mindless enemies 4 cutscenes. And Kai Leng don't count.— Nathan Hansen (@NathanHansenWDN) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer outdated. but also fighting endless waves, survival style is boring too.Simply, keep "boss" fights at random times throughout.YAY— derps | ADLT (@Batou079) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Dark Souls did it well. Bioshock did it well. I like the idea of roaming boss fights with the black knights and big daddies— Nicklaus Lacle (@NLacle) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Like anything else, boss battles have a place if they fit the game. They are often overused and obvious, though.— Ben Price (@bk_price) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Japanese-based games have it on tight, I don't see much from NA titles.— Abdelrahman Al Amiri (@_Bu3ouf_) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Boss battles are a needed mechanic but also needs to be well implemented using the games key features e.g. Zelda style or DMC!— Russell Jones (@RusDJones) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Bosses are essential.The problem is every boss is the same now, people don't put the effort into creating original fights anymore..— Niek Kerssies (@KIPKERssIEs) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer The Boss is the one unique super baddy that gives us the challenge I seek in a game, otherwise its just CoD— Zack McCloud (@ZackLynx3187) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer depends on the game's style. A bit outdated. only not that bad. but don't really need it anymore if the gameplay is strong enough.— Tony J. Vodka (@tonihato) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer Yes Boss battles should be the climax of a game - compare Hitler Robot of Doom vs UN victory in Civilization 3— Logun (@Logun0) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer For something like a Strider or Reaper I think yes; otherwise, I feel it's outdated, as games like Mirror's Edge or Far Cry 2 show.— Davehonored (@david_shea) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer No tool in a writer's box is ever obsolete, but just as hammers aren't for fixing electronics, not every game needs a boss battle.— Jacob Dieffenbach (@dieffenbachj) March 20, 2013





@pcgamer @deadspace is doing this right. Minibosses that sometimes prove more intense than the "end boss", it's about nonlinear progres— CosmicD (@CosmicD) March 20, 2013

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