The Arrogance of Boss Fights
August 31, 2021 1:57 PM   Subscribe

John Walker’s blog Buried Treasure covers games people “likely miss” if they only follow the regular games sites. He plays and reviews the games; mostly indies, mostly uncommon genres or interesting twists on popular ones. Recently Walker revisited a topic covered previously: the frustration of boss fights that prevent you from playing most of a game.
posted by Foaf (101 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sekiro was the last big flashpoint on this. People wanted to experience the beauty of the world and the storytelling but the game was too damn hard for lots of people. I myself gave up on Nioh 2 at some point for similar reasons.

It's a tough topic. On one hand the gameplay is inextricable from the creation and difficulty is one aspect of that, so creators should have a free hand to make a boss "hard" because having that challenge and overcoming it is part of the experience they would like players to have.

But being inflexible about it doesn't seem to serve any purpose. It seems so simple to have a "normal mode" that says, "this is the way we think most people should experience the game" and then just a mode where you can't die or something. The user can pick how they want to play. (And this is before even considering the question of accessibility and embracing players with disabilities, which would seem to make adjustable gameplay modes a must-have if possible.)

A developer (like the one John cites) who would rather a player not experience a game at all than allow them to experience it differently... suggests the kind of artistic ego I would rather not engage with.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:18 PM on August 31 [23 favorites]


I take it that what Walker is complaining about is inconsistent difficulty. No one minds when a game with punishingly difficult levels also has punishingly difficult bosses.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:28 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


FWIW I am with pro making it possible for people to see the whole game when there is a whole game to see.

I am a bit torn when it comes to indie developers and one-man-bands. It's a lot of work and hell of a lot of testing to implement multiple levels of difficulty. As a not-particularly-good programmer I know that adding that kind of thing later is even more difficult.

I can only hope that a developer who "is happy with the difficulty" in their current game takes the feedback onboard for their next one and does the work to help out their players.
posted by Foaf at 2:29 PM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I walked away from the first Gears of War at the final boss fight because it was just too frustrating. At that point the game was over, all I would miss was the final cut scene, and I could look that up on YouTube anyway (though I never did).

Control is a recent game that got flack for being pretty hard and not having difficulty settings. But at least the bosses (or what you would think of as a “boss” and not just an extra-powerful normal enemy) were optional, with at most a side quest or an outfit gated behind them. The last boss frustrated me enough to put the game down for a while… until DLC came out with “Assist Mode.” I activated invulnerability and one-hit kill and slew the last boss in a hot minute. Thank you, Remedy! Screw you, Tomassi!
posted by ejs at 2:34 PM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I don't mind a well done boss fight. I don't even mind a HARD boss fight. But I do absolutely mind when the strategy that has taken you successfully through 90% of a game utterly fails because one fight is so much more difficult than the rest that you eventually give up in disgust because you are so sick of trying and failing over and over and over.

Looking squarely at you, Metroid Prime.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:36 PM on August 31 [17 favorites]


(In retrospect perhaps that is on the designer, NOT the player... I should not have to use the strategy the designer used, to beat the game. If my approach works for nearly all of the rest of the game, it should also work for the "hard" boss fights - right?)
posted by caution live frogs at 2:42 PM on August 31


I just picked up Venineth this weekend, which looks like a beautiful exploration / physics sort of game in the lineage of Marble Madness. The areas themselves mostly don't seem linear... except where they are. The level selection is entirely linear. And I've reached a point where I just cannot get past a fiendishly difficult series of jumps, so I just can't see anything else. Before that, it was mostly a chill game with a few places where you need to slow down and be careful. Not really a boss fight, but the same sort of effect.
posted by Foosnark at 2:42 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


My least favorite bosses are the ones where you can learn his patterns, learn his tells, figure out when to dodge and when to attack... but he has so much health and deals so much damage that you have to maintain perfection for minutes that feel like hours. From Software have been sliding down that hill ever since the DS2 dlc, and it makes me worried for Elden Ring.
posted by rifflesby at 2:42 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


"this is the way we think most people should experience the game"

What really gets me about this as an argument for not providing an easy mode: If what's important is how the player experiences the game, you have to take the player into account. One person's hard mode is another person's easy mode, and vice versa.

Like, I think Ghost of Tsushima is way too easy on its default setting; I wasn't getting the experience of danger or fear, since I felt like I could take on anything and win. But the developers made it possible to increase the difficulty, and now I feel like my gameplay supports the story instead of undercutting it.

The thing is, when I first started to play video games, I was usually getting the same type of experience from the default difficulty setting. I changed as a player and being able to adjust the difficulty let me keep the experience much more constant.

I really want to see more player-centric understanding of "difficulty" settings. I know that there are technical challenges, especially for developers with fewer resources, but "we can't right now" is a very different argument than "we shouldn't because it will compromise the player experience".

The latter seems more protective of the player's membership in an exclusive, rather than protective of what you think their "experience" with the game should be.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:58 PM on August 31 [9 favorites]


From's been doing "asshole boss with too many hit points so you just have to fucking grind it out" ever since Demon's Souls though? Though there's usually that one weird trick you can use to cut the time way down.

What's your shittiest boss fight memory? Mine's the Dragon Age 2 DLC "Legacy" final fight with Corypheus. I am still scarred from having to micromanage every fucking movement of every fucking party member for at least 30 minutes because the AI wanted them to kill themselves on the total bullshit electricity maze thing. "Let's introduce this totally new game mechanic that you've never had to deal with before, and make the ally AI essentially suicidal!"
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:03 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


I do absolutely mind when the strategy that has taken you successfully through 90% of a game utterly fails because one fight is so much more difficult than the rest that you eventually give up in disgust because you are so sick of trying and failing over and over and over.

As a Fallout: New Vegas sneaky sniper facing Legate Lanius, I could not agree more.
posted by hanov3r at 3:07 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I really want to see more player-centric understanding of "difficulty" settings.

Certainly I would like to see this as well, and bigger developers are embracing much more granular difficulty and accessibility settings. Look up the latest Ratchet & Clank, it's got tons of great stuff.

I expect that there will be some game dev middleware that will come out in the next few years that will expedite this so it doesn't have to be reinvented by everyone. Like, not every company needs to reinvent lip sync or ray tracing... why should they have to reinvent a standard set of difficulty settings like enemy health, overall game speed, target hinting, and so on?

I love a good challenge myself and I have accomplished things in Bloodborne I swore were impossible the first time I tried them (looking at you, Defiled Watchdog of the Old Lords). And in Sekiro, funnily enough a friend of mine and I had opposite experiences, each getting stuck on the bosses the other found trivial. But I never actually beat Bloodborne (got within a pixel of killing final DLC boss and was like... "I basically did it") or Sekiro (Sword Saint Isshin was too much for me). There's a huge range of needs even within individual players so I hope that flexibility is the rule going forward.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:11 PM on August 31


I remember during Portal 1's developer commentary, they discussed a bunch of wild ideas for the final boss fight, but they were all so different than all the previous gameplay that they basically threw all the ideas out and stuck a timer to the otherwise normal fight, to add a bit of stress. The game wasn't ruined in the process.
posted by meowzilla at 3:20 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


I want the thrill of beating a hard boss without it actually being hard. We need fake difficulty levels that trick the player into thinking it's really hard while secretly giving the player all kinds of boosts and cheats.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:36 PM on August 31 [5 favorites]


What's your shittiest boss fight memory?

The final boss of Descent, way back when.

It took multiple tries to beat with invincibility and infinite ammo cheats because I got bored with the fight. Definitely a bad ol' days of gaming where too much HP = difficulty thing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:44 PM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I don't mind difficulty, but at this point in my life... don't make me retread the same ground over and over when I fail. Let me save anywhere or provide lots of checkpoints. I don't have the time.
posted by AlbertCalavicci at 3:48 PM on August 31 [12 favorites]


One of the worst memories was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Overall a game I liked, but the problem was the bosses could really only be dealt with via straight up combat, in a game where other than boss fights you could go a completely different way. So if you optimized your character for stealthy, "pacifist" playthrough you'd struggle against bosses, even though one of the selling points of the game was that flexibility.

To me thats slightly worse than just "huge difficulty spike", although those suck too. Worst for me personally are "do this thing flawlessly for a long time, and if you fail start over". I got almost all the way through the recent Ori game but couldn't beat one of the last boss sequences due to this, one of the few recent games I couldn't finish (and again, otherwise a great game I was having a lot of fun with).
posted by thefoxgod at 3:55 PM on August 31 [7 favorites]


The thing about the from software games is they have nothing resembling a real or significant story (i'm playing through bloodborne right now and i don't even remember if the character has a name or not). The point of the games is the difficulty, and there's nothing else you really get out of them (they're kind of pretty, sort of, in a dark and drab smudge of brown and magenta kind of way, I guess). I think story driven games should have difficulty settings (in particular I'm a huge fan of the fine-grained difficulty settings offered by The Last of Us 2, where you can control various features of the game that impact difficulty indepedently). But the point of some games is to be hard. If they weren't hard, they wouldn't be worth playing.
posted by dis_integration at 3:55 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


And then contrast that with Hades, where they have done both: They have a gameplay loop entirely predicated on death and failure, but they've tuned the game with God Mode, which allows you to play with full achievements and storyline, but progressively reduced damage from the enemies in the game. It puts the whole story in reach for most players.
posted by ChrisR at 4:00 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


It is a poor designer who merely uses "difficulty" in order to produce the desired catharsis of defeating a boss. Presentation, emotional stakes, characterization, etc all contribute. In fact, while I'd generally agree a final boss fight should feel like the most cathartic victory, it should not be the most difficult. Put the most difficult earlier in the game so if players feel it's too much, they don't waste their time grinding towards an eventual wall. Alternately, one could do this, which led to some of the most memorable boss encounters I can recall.

In fact, designers cannot control the difficulty of a game, only influence it.
How difficult a game is is determined by the player, and they're all different.
posted by subocoyne at 4:11 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


IMHO, a lot of the failure of indie gamedevs is simply not having a diverse testing audience, though pro devs are often just as guilty of this. Way too many devs had fallen victim of listening to the 10%, i.e. the hardcore fans. Obviously they want more difficulty... because they "mastered" the game, and they are the most vocal about things. They'd already figured out the optimum attack cycle timing and stuff like that. This makes the game way too difficult for the average Joe.

Often, the problem is also the uneven difficulty curve. Games that have weird plateaus of difficulty gets lambasted all the time. Who can forget the first DRIVER game, where the first thing you have to do is perform a series of "stunts" in a parking garage before the timer runs out as a test, before you can even play the rest of the game? It's mentioned even now as an example of what NOT to do.
posted by kschang at 4:27 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Thank you! Most boss battles are crap. They feel like one of the few relics of arcades that for some reason refuse to die. Even in games like Dark Souls which for some reason people seem to think is what those games are all about.

I've played all the dark soulsian From software games and given up at one boss or the other because of some bull shit boss that after the 3-4th time stopped being any fun to fight and after the 10th or 50th (I'm looking at you Ornstein and Smough) made the clear there was no way the game could make up for the lack of fun I was having.(Then again, I finished Nioh and Nioh 2, not sure why those were any different.)

I get the desire to have some sort of climatic battle, but almost every boss battle is just a cheap difficulty spike/learn a whole new way to play without feeling like that game earned it. And even at the ending of a game when people complain about the final bits of a game being too easy, I'm generally so ready to just finish the game by then that a roadblock to finishing is obnoxious. Almost all games (especially the kind with bosses) are already longer than the gameplay warrants, and need less friction at the end, not more.

(I do guess that classic shooters kind of need bosses, but that's because shooters are arcade games at heart. Give a player save states or infinite lives in a classic shooter and then stop being fun. But those really are a niche game these days.)
posted by aspo at 4:30 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


The thing about the from software games is they have nothing resembling a real or significant story (i'm playing through bloodborne right now and i don't even remember if the character has a name or not). The point of the games is the difficulty, and there's nothing else you really get out of them

I must respectfully disagree (though of course the point of this thread is we all want and get different things out of games). Bloodborne in particular does not have a traditionally told story but with a little work on the player's side there emerges a truly, truly incredible narrative. Your character is part of it to be sure but much of it happens "off-camera" in a way. I honestly think Bloodborne is among the greatest works cosmic horror ever made.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:34 PM on August 31 [7 favorites]


What's your shittiest boss fight memory?

Mine is basically any aerial boss. I'm extremely prone to motion sickness - it's something that seriously impacts my life, and I've been to numerous specialists without managing to get a diagnosis.

The most frustrating thing is that it doesn't just go away when I stop doing whatever's triggering it. If I get motion sick I've basically wrecked the rest of my day. It's a miserable fucking experience.

Anyway, I basically have to take a dramamine in order to play most modern video games. Usually this keeps the motion sickness at bay, but there's something about aerial bosses that fly above your head that is just awful. If the fight lasts any time at all there's a good chance I'll get motion sick anyway. I literally cannot finish a game that has an unskippable aerial boss unless I have a friend do that boss fight for me.

The only reason I was able to finish Horizon: Zero Dawn on my own, for example, is because I was able to enable the easiest of easy modes when I couldn't avoid dealing with those fucking storm birds. Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of my favorite games; it would have been a real bummer if I hadn't been able to finish it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:35 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


This post just made me realize something. When I'm playing a visually oriented game with a story, I do get annoyed if boss battles are too hard, and prevent me from progressing. But I also play rogue-like ASCII games, most prominently Angband, and in those games, I'm willing to accept that some opponents are too hard for me to deal with at a given time. No story, no problem, but when having a too strong boss prevents me from progressing, that becomes a problem.
posted by mollweide at 4:42 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I like the mechanic where if you fail it up at some game thing enough times, the game gently asks whether you'd prefer to just skip this part. That way if there's one particular thing you suck at (say, timed jumps) but you're good at fights, then you don't have to do a game-wide difficulty reduction.

Hades' god mode was, to me, a perfect marriage of the game's premise (success through progressive failure) and accessibility. The experience of playing with or without god mode is functionally identical, god mode just makes progressing in the game easier and/or more accessible.
posted by yasaman at 4:43 PM on August 31 [9 favorites]


But the point of some games is to be hard. If they weren't hard, they wouldn't be worth playing.

I disagree pretty strongly with your opinion that From Software games wouldn't be enjoyable if it wasn't hard. Take Bloodborne, for example. It's a beautifully designed world to look at and explore. It does have a story - it's deliberately obscure and mostly told through implication, unlike your Assassin's Creeds or whatever, but there is fun in discovering the bits and pieces of story as the player, too. There's a whole cottage industry of lore dives and let's plays for people who want to experience the game who can't (or don't want to) play it.

But that aside...

What is hard for you is impossible for others. Someone who is less skilled at this type of video game could still experience the game as "hard" on an easier difficulty level, and have much the same player experience as you.

On the other hand, what is hard for you is easy for others. Someone who is much more skilled than you is also missing out on this experience that you think is important. It's pretty interesting that when we discuss adjustable difficulty levels, people are really concerned about keeping a game "hard," because the game being easy would compromise the experience, but we don't talk about these people. Somehow they're still experiencing the game correctly, I guess?

I would love to see a From Software game that's challenging but not impossible for everyone. I think we are getting to the point where that should be technologically possible - if not now, soon.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:49 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


I feel like one of the nuances with a boss fight is now much it punishes you with a retry. Are there checkpoints or saving within the fight itself? How far do you have to go to restart the fight? I walked away from Control (which I really liked) because I kinda suck at boss fights and the checkpoint for a given boss was ~5 minutes away.
posted by microscone at 5:09 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Yeah boss fights are pretty obnoxious, this is why I've never touched any of the Souls games because while they look good, every mob seems to be a boss. I packed it in on the last couple of Doom games about 3/4 of the way through because, ugh, another boss fight.

Arbitrary invincibility/immune phases for bosses are simply the worst game mechanic ever, too (see last week's Destiny 2 Nightfall for an example).
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:21 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


But the point of some games is to be hard. If they weren't hard, they wouldn't be worth playing.

I think this is true of some games, but not very many. For "I Want To Be The Guy" or "GIRP" or "Super Meat Boy", the brain pummeling difficulty is the entire point of the game and making them easier would be self-defeating.

Those games are few and far between, however.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:30 PM on August 31


Really, anyone who's saying From Software games -- or any "hard" game -- shouldn't have easier difficulty settings, including a 1-hit-kill "story mode," is preaching from the gospel of abelist gatekeeping and obnoxiously so. That includes developers.

I play on hard mode and go for trophies because I want to. But that's me. Let players choose how they want to be challenged, or if they want to be challenged at all. It's so simple to make people happy in this way.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:43 PM on August 31 [10 favorites]


My hot take is that there has never been a game that was improved by its boss fights, and there are more than a few games are ruined by them. But maybe that's not helpful... I hate boss fights but the formula for beating tough fights is usually 1: learn to dodge the boss indefinitely 2: once you can do that, snipe at them until they are dead (You'll probably figure out how to damage the boss during step 1)

Hmm. I liked the way Celeste let you turn off huge swathes of difficult platforming in the accessibility settings, and it's a reminder that "git gud" can be an extra heartless thing to say, and that designing your game to be hard can exclude people in a similarly cruel way.

What's your shittiest boss fight memory? Chrono Trigger, where the early bosses (which I hated) became the later trash mobs (which I also hated.) I suppose I respect that nowadays. It gets more use out of limited art assets, and it helps the player feel like they are progressing, but wow did I find it annoying back in the 90s.
posted by surlyben at 5:45 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


I have little to add to this discussion except - I read the Walker piece a day or two ago and thoroughly agreed with it. I was just as thoroughly irritated by the idiotic comments that the article got on Buried Treasure. So props, Metafilter, for having a WAY better discussion about the topic.
posted by ZaphodB at 5:53 PM on August 31


The most frustrating (and, in a way, most interesting) "boss fight" I can recall right now is in Red Dead Redemption 2 at the very end of the Arthur Morgan storyline. It's really more of an anti-boss fight -- ridiculously, frustratingly difficult, and even if you "win" (which I couldn't do, after about an hour of trying and failing I just selected the option to skip past), you don't really win. It's more of a comment on the futility of violence, in a way.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:54 PM on August 31


I seem to recall that the Left for Dead games have an internal "director" function that changes the level in real time according to how the player is progressing. That is, if a player is struggling they'll find more supplies and healing kits; if they're being too cautious then a bunch if zombies will attack; if they're not being challenged then the game gets tougher.

In a story-driven game these things are justified: stories have a certain momentum and you don't want people to drag them out, or have to repeat them too often, or just blaze through them. If I'm recalling this correctly then the director is a really good technique, and I'm surprised other games haven't incorporated a similar technique.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:12 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


My new personal favorite, thanks to Ascent is the early-game boss that's suddenly hard and ALSO prone to game-breaking bugs.

...the damn mechaspider thing is a difficulty spike AND ALSO frequently doesn't appear at all, leaving you unable to proceed. So you get two options: a non-fun fight, or a dead-end, and you won't know which you'll get until the cinematic ends.

(which, actually, reminds me of another pet peeve -- boss cinematics. If a giant metal spider starts to scuttle into the room, my character would not just be standing there watching it arrive and do its little aggressive dance routine, I'd be firing literally as soon I saw the first leg appear).
posted by aramaic at 6:23 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


The biggest example of this for me was the first boss of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Game Gear, which is not only way more difficult than Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Genesis (an entirely different game, as it turns out!), it's also harder than the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 because the screen is smaller and doesn't show you nearly as much of the level.

The first boss is this terrible pit with a sloped wall that leads to a pincer robot/monster thing that kills you if you touch it without rings (and also this game was hilariously stingy when it came to spawning rings after you got hit once, you basically lost 90% of the rings you had). Dr. Robotnik's at the top of said pit, dropping bombs that bounce in a completely random pattern. You have to survive the waves of bombs, wait for him to fly within attack range, and hit him a bunch of times, then rinse and repeat. I managed to do this successfully exactly once.

Sonic 2 is what made me decide that I was bad at platformers and would always be bad at platformers, an opinion that remains true to this day. But it also turns out Sonic 2 for Game Gear is just bad. It wasn't until decades later that I discovered that everybody else hates Sonic 2 for Game Gear as well.
posted by chrominance at 6:36 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


If my approach works for nearly all of the rest of the game, it should also work for the "hard" boss fights - right?

Yes, you are right. Strats that work the rest of the time should work for bosses. Boss fights that introduce, as we say, arbitrary immunities, or somehow disable some of the abilities/weapons that have carried you through the rest of the game up to that point, are shoddy boss fights.

I feel like Ghost of Tsushima, God of War and Spider-Man (and the above-mentioned Control), three of which are PS exclusives, had some pretty tough boss fights, but all your stuff still worked, and with perseverance (and perhaps some upgrades) you would triumph. God of War had a boss fight in it that was basically impossible for a mere mortal like me, so I lowered the difficulty and eventually got it (and the platinum!).
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:38 PM on August 31


Allow me to preach the gospel of PC superiority for a reason that most will not expect: Cheat Engine. It allows you to cheat in games that do not have a cheat mode. Boss to hard? Do a little bit of mucking around, figure out which variable is health, lock it in place, boom, you're invincible. Don't feel like grinding for hours to get enough cash for the super-boss killing sword? Give yourself all the money in the world.

It takes a little bit of finagling , but games have become a great deal more enjoyable for me (especially JRPGs, with almost all of them requiring grinding) since I started cheating. I would never do it in multiplayer, but when it's me against the computer, I should be able to modify it as I want. Think of it as a right to repair for video games. The game is broken if it contains sections that are unobtainable to me without tremendous wastes of time.

We had the game genie back with the NES, Genesis and SNES. I loved my game genie.

Mostly, I don't do things like god mode. And for survival games, I generally don't use cheat engine. But the one thing I have decided is that money in games is almost always bullshit. Unless there is a very precise fixed amount that is designed to cause you to make some tough choices, money is a waste of time. It's there to force grinding, to unnecessarily gate items behind time sinks, etc. I happily give myself the money needed to buy the next level of weapons when I feel like they won't make the game unfun. And if they do? I can drop them, get rid of them or just restart the game and not do it if it's too much. (Or go back to a previous save)

So cheat! Just not against other human players. That is a scum of the earth move. But for yourself against the computer, there is no shame in it. If they won't give you an easy mode, make your own. This is also why I will never own a console again. They do their best to prevent cheating.

(I say this having gotten 100% trophies on the PS3 version of New Vegas. (The trick to Legate Lanius, assuming you don't have speech at 100, is 50 pounds of mines in his path, then a single shot. It won't matter how little damage your sniper shot does, no one can survive a blast that big.) I can do hard, I can play a game until I have exhausted all aspects of it. But it needs to be damn good for me to do so. And most games just aren't that good.)
posted by Hactar at 6:40 PM on August 31 [10 favorites]


So glad someone is saying this (and some folks are agreeing)! A few things have pretty much put me off "serious" gaming. Boss fights like the ones the article describes, endless and complicated crafting with little to no direction, and the lack of meaningful tutorials or manuals. I'm getting old and I'm busy. I can't keep all that stuff in my head from play to play, nor can I sync hours into getting past a single fight. It's a shame because I used to REALLY like gaming, especially when there's a good story and world to get lost in.
posted by treepour at 6:43 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


I was unreasonably excited for Diablo II when it came out but never finished it because, after I’d romped through the entire game with my lovingly developed, carefully geared summoner druid, the final boss just immediately turned my horde of pets into burnt hamburger and then roflstomped me. I’m… still a little bitter about it.
posted by disentir at 6:49 PM on August 31


My favorite boss fight was the final boss in Grandia II. What made the final fight so great was that it was easy. And it was easy because the game had taught you the skills you needed to defeat him and humbling the boss was the payoff for all your work to get there. It was a genuine feeling of accomplishment.
posted by SPrintF at 6:53 PM on August 31 [8 favorites]


I take it that what Walker is complaining about is inconsistent difficulty.

I never finished the last Half Life episode because while every other part of it was pretty easy playing at the hardest difficulty (and I hadn't had a problem playing Half Life 2 at the hardest difficulty), the final boss fight was significantly harder than everything else and after beating my head against it I simply didn't care enough at that point to dial down the difficulty and finish it.
posted by Candleman at 7:06 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Lots of games have dynamic difficulty. Some are a little notorious in that if you let the computer beat the hell out of you for a while the difficulty stays turned low. I loved Outer Wilds, but on my setup the jumps under brittle hollow were so frustrating that I scoured the internet for cheats. Eventually I just got better at them (also there's basically nothing you're required to do, it's a small part of the lore hidden if you can't make the jumps).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:38 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Presentation, emotional stakes, characterization, etc all contribute. In fact, while I'd generally agree a final boss fight should feel like the most cathartic victory, it should not be the most difficult.

This has been followed pretty faithfully by the Mass Effect games, which have easily beaten final bosses.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:22 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite versions of dynamic difficulty is the headgear in Punch-Out for the Wii, as its unlock mechanism is diagetic - the WVBA requires all fighters who rack up 100 losses to wear headgear (this is why Glass Joe is wearing one in Title Defense - you taking him out previously was loss 100.) And if Mac racks up 100 losses, well - rules are rules.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:24 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


And then contrast that with Hades, where they have done both

Supergiant Games in general has implemented difficulty in smart ways. Bastion let the player fine-tune their own difficulty, giving you an in-game "temple" with various statues you could make "offerings" to change the difficulty. One of them decreases health drops from enemies, another increases your enemies' HP, still another decreases your ammo storage, etc. There was also a tavern that would give you buffs with a tradeoff, like you do more damage when your health is low, or you get a boost fighting an enemy in exchange for being super vulnerable to its attack.

I think Transistor had a similar mechanic. I never played Pyre but I bet someone can confirm.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:31 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Just yesterday I went back to play Titanfall 2. Yes, I'm way behind the times. And I am reminded of some HORRIBLE jumping puzzles in single-player. Most levels have slow paths, but there are a couple places in SP where you need to perform some incredible feats of wall runs. I think it took me about 40 tries to clear the quadruple wall-run. When I saw the level where I need to perform a wall run jump off the wall before your thrusters run out, bounce off a POLE (not a wall, a POLE!) continue wall run, jump off against and bounce off a pole, and do this one MORE time before you can reach the other side.

At that moment, I reached for a cheat. There's just NO WAY I'm going to perform that wall-run of insanity.
posted by kschang at 8:31 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I find John Walker so irritating that I'm going to argue against his position out of spite, even though normally I feel like we've come up with enough good approaches for adjusting difficulty without encouraging players to cheese it that making your game more accessible should always be a consideration.

I also feel like Dark Souls 1 should be the exception here, but that's only because a) it gets a pass for being iconic, and b) that game does so much work to say that things are hopeless that I think giving up, frustrated, is the canonical ending for your character (much like most of the NPCs), and beating the Lord of Light is not.

If you have a cognitive or physical disability so that every game is like that, man alive, absolutely, do what you must, but taking a game that is trying to use its difficulty to evoke an emotion, and then removing that so people can look at the nice pictures, I think is a shame.

I think the way that difficulty has been handled in games is not helpful. There are different ways to balance a game - to keep up the pace; to provide a little resistance and agency; to test mastery - and what usually happens is that a designer will pick one of those approaches, adjust numbers based on player skill, and then call it day, when I think what people are looking for is a different experience.

Supergiant Games in general has implemented difficulty in smart ways.

The "qualitative difficulty options that feed into a numeric reward system" thing is a signature Supergiant mechanic. Hades is kind of an interesting example of what people are talking about here, because despite the God Mode setting, you still are expected to die a lot and reset, and there is a hard limit where at some point you have to actually beat each boss or the story runs out, God Mode not withstanding. I've heard from some people that they simply do not like the structure of the game - they don't want to have to go thirty minutes between attempts, even though I'd argue that taking multiple cracks at building your loadout, finding a preferred weapon and knowing how much health you need to be getting are just as important as the actual fight.

I've definitely also played games that are too easy, where you don't have to engage with the game's mechanics at all and it's just an exercise in hitting A every 5 seconds while nothing much interesting happens. I've played games that eschew boss fights and then don't have any other ideas for raising tension, so it just feels like a series of samey level packs (and in some cases are a series of samey level packs). There are good arguments for boss fights, which is why they've endured. You're just not going to get them from John Walker, who has his preferences and then assumes that his preferences are universal and everyone else is just lying to themselves.
posted by Merus at 8:42 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


XCOM 2, the 2016 sequel to the 2012 reboot of the nineties classic, started from the premise that the player had lost the first game. Apparently Firaxis' statistics showed that hardly anyone ever got the "humans win" ending.
(The '94 version was so difficult that save scumming was pretty much essential - then it ended with a multi-layer final alien base with the save function disabled)
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:28 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


XCOM 2, the 2016 sequel to the 2012 reboot of the nineties classic, started from the premise that the player had lost the first game. Apparently Firaxis' statistics showed that hardly anyone ever got the "humans win" ending.
(The '94 version was so difficult that save scumming was pretty much essential - then it ended with a multi-layer final alien base with the save function disabled)


The original X-COM is interesting because it’s designed for you to uncover the lore and victory conditions through researching random alien artifacts. My friend and I actually did this as kids and won. It was definitely hard, and we certainly abused the save system plenty in the process. Once you know this stuff, though, once you have the “spoilers,” you can run it a lot faster. And once you know what the best equipment and most exploitable strategies are, it’s not really that hard.

I’ve heard the original sequel (Terror from the Deep) is even harder but I still haven’t tried it.
posted by atoxyl at 9:57 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I’m really divided on this subject because I’ve had games where the difficulty spike made me quit playing the game and I’ve had games where the difficulty spike was a satisfying challenge that forced me to learn skills that made the whole rest of the game more fun.

And it’s usually impossible to tell which is which until I’ve banged my head against that wall for a while. Many of those satisfying, rewarding challenges I would have skipped if there had been a button to let me do it. And that would have been a real loss. But some of the games that I didn’t finish because they didn’t have that button were also a real loss.
posted by straight at 10:13 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Actually, case in point: X-Com becomes a fundamentally different game when you play with the ability to instantly undo any mistakes or bad luck with save-scumming, versus playing in Ironman mode (no save reload mechanic)

When the 2016 game launched, I made a Commander Ironman difficulty game, built a whole team of soldiers based on my friends' likeness and wrote a long fictional bio for every one of them, and streamed every mission on social media, so they could take bets on which of them would die first. When I finished that run, Steam told me that only 1.3% of the playerbase had gotten this particular achievement.

Playing "with" savescumming on the other hand takes away all the stakes in the game. Your soldiers are effectively immortal, because you can keep on redoing the mission until you get a flawless run. You never get forced to make interesting choices like, do you rush the mission to complete the objective even if it puts your soldiers at risk, or do you evacuate now to salvage half your squad rather than try to complete the objective anyway, etc. Instead, you just start again and finish another flawless mission with 10 aliens killed with no damage to any X-Com soldiers.

Even more interesting is the "Exquisite Timing" achievement which basically makes you play under a very restrictive time limit. Without the time limit, most players would leisurely collect and upgrade every soldier to their maximum technology and experience level, then stroll into the final battle with ultra powered super soldiers. In this mode, you have to make real decisions about what technology to upgrade and what to omit, and which soldiers you train up and which ones you don't. Again, the difficulty level FORCES you to make interesting decisions: otherwise, you make no decisions, you just slowly upgrade everything and then go fight the final battle. On completing this, Steam told me that just 0.3% of the playerbase had obtained this achievement.

I can see how both playthroughs - no save scumming, and having a time limit - made the game a far richer experience, because it made players engage with the mechanics that were designed in the game - with choice, comes player agency. Without choice, and it's just another idle clicker where every click advances you inexorably to victory.
posted by xdvesper at 11:23 PM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Without choice, and it's just another idle clicker where every click advances you inexorably to victory

Is it, though? This assumes a whole lot more willingness to grind out a path towards victory than most people are into, I think. If you handed me a game and went "this will have a magnificent ending, you will feel that your path was worth it and you will remember this for the rest of your life", but it involved a 50-hour playthrough savescumming...
that promise is a lie on its face, and I reject it.

I think that mindset is of a kind with what you see come up in a fair amount of game design talks, about some percentage of players being interested in doing the optimal thing no matter how unfun it is (and then with the nature of the internet being what it is, propagating that unfun/optimal play to others).

I played XCOM2, I enjoyed it, I beat it; but if you told me I had to gamble on losing 40 hours of progress to some savestate bug in order to "truly beat it"? Nah. You have fun with that.
posted by CrystalDave at 11:37 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


One of the reasons I love Borderlands 1+2 is how you can cheese both boss fights by hiding out of range and pew pewing your way to victory, but Borderlands 2 did have an insanely difficult, and zero fun, mandatory mission about one quarter into the game (repairing a teleport machine) that I thought was one of the worst balanced combats in any computer game I had ever played, and I wasn't even playing on hard difficulty.

Note. If you ever play BL2 do not complete the energy shield quest (for the town) until you have at least two really good acid weapons with multiple ammo capacity upgrades for both weapons. Also, you'll want a really good shotgun, with a high fire rate, to deal with some obnoxious invisible monsters.
posted by Beholder at 11:50 PM on August 31


Regarding missions and difficulties, this reminded me of the situation with Wing Commander. The original Wing Commander has both winning and losing mission trees. And there were a couple of missions that are nearly IMPOSSIBLE to win (Save the Ralari, any one?). But people will play the missions so many times to win it they have NEVER seen the losing tree. So basically players never saw about 35-40% of all the designed missions.

Origin redesigned the missions in the DLCs (Mission packs) and Wing Commander 2 so there is no more losing mission tree. Instead, if you lose you play a slightly different version of the same mission, albeit with less resources or tougher difficulty. And if you lose enough missions you get the losing endgame.
posted by kschang at 11:51 PM on August 31


In fact, designers cannot control the difficulty of a game, only influence it.
How difficult a game is is determined by the player, and they're all different.

posted by subocoyne


I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous.
posted by Beholder at 11:54 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I played Jedi: Fallen Order recently and thought the bosses worked really well. They absolutely felt like a natural extension of the rest of the game and were probably the thing I enjoyed most in it?

Plus, the game constantly reminds you it's ok to adjust the difficulty, and you can do so at any point. I actually stuck through my initial struggles and found it very gratifying to learn how to counter, but when I reached the final boss and eventually conceded it was going to take me way too long to beat, i could just jump one mode easier and finish the game. So I got the best of both worlds, really.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:26 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Are there any resources out there with regards to difficulty levels? Like with movie age ratings you have the different official ratings, but there is The Becdel Test Movie List if you're concerned about representation of women and Common Sense Media for a "family-oriented" closer look. Seems like there could be room for a ratings page where you can tick off boxes like "Super-hard boss fights", "Require excessive grinding" and "Motion sickness inducing".
posted by Harald74 at 1:20 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


the first boss of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Game Gear

Oh no, why did you make me remember that? Possibly why my GG spent most of its time as a TV which was awesome.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 1:25 AM on September 1


release god mode for QWOP, foddy you coward
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 1:37 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Plus, [Jedi: Fallen Order] constantly reminds you it's ok to adjust the difficulty

That game could really have done with an extra difficulty level between the middle and the lowest.

Of course, I might not have needed it if I'd realised there were more health bar upgrades before I'd struggled 2/3rds of the way through the game...
posted by entity447b at 3:16 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Re the idea of having the most difficult battle midway through the game suggested by subocoyne, in the excellent Banner Saga trilogy, my most difficult battle was with Eyeless, which occurred just over halfway through the second instalment.
posted by domdib at 4:06 AM on September 1


Entity - i recently played Hades for WEEKS before I realised you could have more than one life. My sympathies.
posted by ominous_paws at 4:23 AM on September 1


And I've reached a point where I just cannot get past a fiendishly difficult series of jumps, so I just can't see anything else.

Foosnark, I have been bouncing off that exact part of Venineth for days, and it's making me sad. It's such a great game, and I've hit this 3D-pinball sequence that I just can't operate at all.

I think my favourite gameplay-alternative to date has been the Discovery Tour Mode in Assassin's Creed Origins, that just let me wander these beautiful cities as a regular old pedestrian, seeing the sights and learning stuff.
posted by mhoye at 5:42 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I find John Walker so irritating that I'm going to argue against his position out of spite

Yeah, this article is in his usual obnoxious style (of course everyone who disagrees with him is FURIOUS --- incandescent with rage --- because what else but lunatic anger could drive anyone to take issue with the calm, cool rationality of John Walker?) but I don't totally disagree with it. I've definitely played games that had annoyingly steep difficulty spikes, or that partway through suddenly demanded that the player perform a new and extremely difficult skill or stop playing.

I think I gave up on one of the Ninja Gaiden games, for example, when I just could not get through some kind of platforming-based trap corridor, no matter how many times I tried. I also remember being unable to beat the unique bullet patterns of the true final boss of Hollow Knight, and I had immense trouble getting through what I think is the only part of Rain World that requires a long series of perfect wall jumps. I think all three of those were problems with the game design (I probably had trouble with the Hollow Knight and Rain World bits because I was playing on PS4, and those games seem to have been designed for the more precise input you can get with a keyboard. But the Hollow Knight boss is an optional extra, and I can't bring myself to really dislike anything about Rain World).

I know that as any online discussion about difficulty in games grows longer the probability of a comparison involving From Software approaches 1, but their games don't have this specific issue (and Walker doesn't mention them). Or at least they don't have difficulty spikes so much as entire conifer forests of difficulty - but From's boss fights are very finely tuned, and are only truly difficult if you're deliberately making the game harder by limiting yourself in some way (the only recent From game that this is less true for is Sekiro, which I still think was in part a joke aimed at Bobby Kotick. But it sold really well, so he wouldn't mind).

Of course, I don't care if a game has an easy mode if that's what the developer wants. Especially if it's particularly well tuned, like the difficulty modes in the early Halo games, or if it adds something interesting to the game as a whole, like the different kinds of slugcats that eventually got patched into Rain World. One thing that I have to admit really kills my interest in a game, though, is difficulty sliders that let you adjust various aspects of the game's challenge on the fly - because this says to me that the developer lacks confidence in their ability to balance their game. If I do come across a really hard bit I won't know whether I'm really meant to be able to get through it, or whether the designer just assumed that everyone would play around with the sliders until they made it easy enough to win. But that's just me, and a lot of people really like those sliders, so it doesn't bother me if some games have them.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:23 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


release god mode for QWOP, foddy you coward

Proposal: QWOP plus a destructable landscape. As you punch and headbutt the ground, it bursts away beneath you. You try to climb the side of the crater you've created, but your control is so crude, your thrashing more and more destructive with every keystroke. You find yourself digging ever deeper, trapped in the dark pit of your own creating, deep in the earth's crust; your godlike power forging a prison of its own clumsy creation as you grind helplessly through the dark mantle of the earth, never to see the sun of the surface again.

Solid metaphor IMO.
posted by mhoye at 6:49 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Should all books have audio versions for the blind? Ideally, yes.
Should they have large print versions? Ideally, yes.
Should every movie have subtitles, even if muffled dialogue is part of the artistic vision? Ideally, yes.

Difficulty in games is so rarely all or nothing. Often the games already have difficulty levels! Not adding an easier setting because "the game is supposed to be hard" is just ableism. I will acknowledge that this is less possible in some games than others.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:09 AM on September 1 [6 favorites]


There is satisfaction in an experience that requires effort to realize, to experience, to understand, and to enjoy. It often takes careful repetition to master the skills involved, and the acquisition of those skills is part of the enjoyment.

While that is true, that is not a meaningful argument in this context at all.

To run down your list: Zero novels require you to pass a comprehension test at the end of the first chapter before you are permitted to start the second. Zero musical albums insist that you be able to play an instrument to accompany the band through the first half of the album, before you're permitted to so much as listen to the second.

You were allowed to see The Godfather, Part 2 and nobody even asked you if you'd seen the first one, much less quizzed you on the topic, you have never needed to defeat anyone at chess before getting permission to play more chess.

Somebody who refuses to top up your glass before you fully elaborate the experience of the unique tannins and hints of particular berries in your glass of chateau de wherever, and tells you you can fuck right off and drink a coors light from a baby bottle if you don't, is I think we can all agree a poor host.

As stillnocturnal points out: you don't even need to be able to read or even see a book to be able to experience the text and gain value from it, and the idea that anyone would simply disallow that out of some sort medium snobbery is - if we're talking about books, at least - an obviously disgusting idea.

This is something that, if it is not unique to video games, certainly shares more with challenging athletic endeavours like rock climbing, mountain biking or downhill skiing, and even those will allow you to plod further - to route around the hard parts of the hill - if there's a particular section of trail or track that's beyond your current skill level. But even a modest trail rider who gets out of their depth can walk their bike down the hill.
posted by mhoye at 7:13 AM on September 1 [17 favorites]


I've had my share of tough bosses and difficult spots in games, and have had to stop playing a few partway through because I just couldn't progress (in spite of every hint available). Also hate when play mechanics change (like changing to quicktime {Bioshock, Far Cry} when you get to the boss).

What makes me mad is the perception that there is content there in the game that I've paid for and the developer won't let me see.
posted by achrise at 8:06 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


but Borderlands 2 did have an insanely difficult, and zero fun, mandatory mission about one quarter into the game (repairing a teleport machine)

I assume this refers to the Siege of Overlook which requires fixing the Fast Travel station while under assault by Hyperion loaders.

you can cheese both boss fights by hiding out of range and pew pewing your way to victory

This is actually the solution to the Siege. If you position your Vault Hunter correctly, it's a turkey shoot. (It also helps to realize that you don't really need to defend the beacon. You can let the loaders break it and then fix it again. Take your time.)
posted by SPrintF at 8:16 AM on September 1


But even a modest trail rider who gets out of their depth can walk their bike down the hill.

Yeah, but that would be like being able to go back to the main menu in the game. I think people are asking to see the beginning, middle, and summit of the hill even if they aren't good bike riders.

I would compare this more to like an amusement park ride. What if someone doesn't like experiencing any kind of drop? I know there is one in Pirates of the Caribbean. Should there be an option for that person to at least walk through the ride to still enjoy the scenes?
posted by FJT at 8:43 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


They feel like one of the few relics of arcades that for some reason refuse to die.
And at least they had a purpose there (if an evil one): boss fights in an arcade suck in more quarters and solve the problem of trying to create a balanced difficulty gradient for the “normal” game.

I’m definitely on board with the idea of consistent difficulty. Throwing a whole different game at you in a boss fight is essentially the same as putting problems on a math test that don’t look anything like the homework.

Oddly enough, I’ve been really enjoying Control, in part because it’s pretty difficult throughout. The boss fights are tough, but I can get my ass kicked pretty much anywhere if I’m not careful. I doubt I’ll ever get past the stupid fridge monster boss, though, because of awful encounter design: you have to keep moving to avoid getting hit, dodge or catch a nonstop stream of projectiles, and avoid the holes the thing thing makes in the floor constantly. It’s bordering on impossible to watch the floor, the boss and its projectiles all at the same time, so while I can take the boss, I inevitably end up falling through the floor and dying.

OTOH, I’m stuck in Witcher 3 because my otherwise badass Geralt is on a save that leads directly to the final boss of Blood and Wine, and that fight gets so out-of-form crazy that I got frustrated reloading and gave up on the whole thing.

I feel like the attitude of the unnamed game developer in the attitude reminds me of something I’ve seen in software engineers generally, a particular lack of empathy that’s very common. Those afflicted create obtuse, inaccessible systems on purpose, and then blame the user for not being “smart enough” to use them. It’s pure ego on the part of the developer who, of course, knows how to use the weird thing he created, and so gets to feel smarter than you. It’s the single biggest reason I feel like the “year of Linux on the desktop” never arrived.
posted by gelfin at 8:47 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


But even a modest trail rider who gets out of their depth can walk their bike down the hill.

Yeah, but they didn't get to ride their bike down the hill, which is the "game".

They could always watch gopro footage of a professional riding the trail though, and here's the thing - in this age of youtube and twitch, there is always a let's play video somewhere, often without commentary, if the game is too hard for you to play but you still want to see what happens.

So I guess I'm not really against difficulty as a gatekeeper in entertainment and sport.
posted by dazed_one at 9:23 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I think Horizon Zero Dawn story mode difficulty and the ability to adjust the difficulty at will has it about right.

I play the whole thing on normal and knock it down to story mode for bosses and cauldrons which are just stupidly annoying. I hate bosses. They bore the arse off me and I don't like banging my head off a wall trying to defeat them.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:24 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I guess the counterpoint is installing ladders and stairs on Everest, which they did. Maybe a gondola next.
posted by dazed_one at 9:24 AM on September 1


I don't get the hate for the concept that the same tactic won't work for all bosses, a game where the same tactic works 100% of the time seems like it would get dull.
posted by Ferreous at 9:53 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


I have absolutely no-one in my life to say this to so I'm saying it to you, metafilter.

I have completely hit a wall in Path of Exile at lvl 75 with my Juggernaut and I'm starting to think it's because of the 3.15 update that everyone is screeching about. And this so thoroughly sucks, because POE is a total delight of a game, beautiful and captivating and entirely unique in its story-telling and depth. But there's no way I'll ever finish the Atlas with this build and all of the forums are full of boring-ass spreadsheets for builds that min/max specific traits and that just feels like algebra to me. It's why I could never get into Eve.

Anyway. I really wish developers would take more seriously the plight of the 38 year-old parent of three who has honestly only a few hours a week for gaming. I feel like we've been relegated to sports games and soloing the 4X genre.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:08 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


One solution is the one Ubisoft have adopted - make the end of the game so stupid and underwhelming no-one cares if they can't reach it.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:09 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Mod note: One removed. Exclusionary comments are not OK. Please refer to the Guidelines.
posted by loup (staff) at 11:09 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Are some people left out? of course! And I feel no shame about saying that sometimes this fact even improves the experience.

Why should it matter to you how strangers play? You've got a very unhealthy attitude about gaming.
posted by Beholder at 11:19 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


My least favorite bosses are the ones where you can learn his patterns, learn his tells, figure out when to dodge and when to attack... but he has so much health and deals so much damage that you have to maintain perfection for minutes that feel like hours. From Software have been sliding down that hill ever since the DS2 dlc, and it makes me worried for Elden Ring.

A few months ago, after having bounced off the Souls games before, I found myself with a desire to try again, and for whatever reason Dark Souls just clicked with me. I'm still held back by my shitty reflexes, but I managed to Zweihander my way through the game and kill Gwyn and had a blast. Then I tried 2 and 3, found them way, way more punishing and vicious, and quit for awhile. I came back to 2 after some time (which involved some smacking my head against 3 in order to figure out why I found 3, specifically, to be so thoroughly hateful) and managed to get into its groove, and I was making pretty decent progress... up until the second boss, The Pursuer. And it's this kind of boss! It's a duel against a far superior opponent that you need to execute perfectly for multiple minutes or get brutally punished. And after a lot of practice I can hang in there... for maybe thirty seconds. And then I lose the pattern or the timing or whatever.

So fuck it, I'll just go back to Lordran.


Note. If you ever play BL2 do not complete the energy shield quest (for the town) until you have at least two really good acid weapons with multiple ammo capacity upgrades for both weapons. Also, you'll want a really good shotgun, with a high fire rate, to deal with some obnoxious invisible monsters.

There's a side questchain you can do right after you crash the Hyperion train where you help Tiny Tina throw a "tea party" in order to murder the bandit who killed her parents; the reward for this is a unique pistol called the Teapot. I cannot recommend enough doing this questchain on every character because the Teapot absolutely brutally wrecks everything with armor (and is also a damned good weapon against flesh) for several levels afterward.

(As per the stalkers, cheat yourself in a Thunderball Fists pistol- its special effect tears them right apart.)
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:22 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


But I do absolutely mind when the strategy that has taken you successfully through 90% of a game utterly fails because one fight is so much more difficult than the rest that you eventually give up in disgust because you are so sick of trying and failing over and over and over.

RIP Arkham Knight, I wanted to love you, but I didn't sign up for a tank game.
posted by banshee at 11:22 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous.

How so? Difficulty is subjective. It is the result of a player's skill (or patience, or physical ability, or free time, etc) combined with what the game requires of the player to succeed.

Perhaps I am not being clear about what I mean when I say designers can only influence difficulty. They can absolutely increase or decrease it, but they are applying a multiplier to an unknown variable (player's ability), not setting a constant value.

If Player A can mash a button 8x per second, and Player B can mash it 4x per second then a game that requires a button to be mashed 3X per second is of course more difficult for Player B than A.
If it requires 5x per second, it is a bit more difficult for Player A, and impossible for Player B.

This is in part a failure of terms. Players have become accustomed to difficulty settings like "Easy", "Hard', etc. as being prescriptive. Certainly "Easy" is likely easier than "Hard", but only the player can tell you whether they found the game to be actually easy or hard, regardless of the designer's intent.
posted by subocoyne at 11:39 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


I don't get the hate for the concept that the same tactic won't work for all bosses, a game where the same tactic works 100% of the time seems like it would get dull.

[and later, seemingly unrelated]

How so? Difficulty is subjective. It is the result of a player's skill (or patience, or physical ability, or free time, etc) combined with what the game requires of the player to succeed.

Both of these comments are alluding to something that we haven't really touched on in this thread, that being failures at the structural level of gaming, rather than in the details. I note that the words "teach" and "instruction" do not appear anywhere in this thread, despite one of the basic principles of much of modern game design involves teaching people over the course of some "level" or other contained environment how to defeat their ultimate opponent in that environment, in a structure that often very much resembles the independent voices of a choir coming together for the crescendo.

I think there's a distinction worth exploring between games that are prima-facie Hard - that is, requiring great speed, precision, dexterity and practice to navigate that ultimate contest - and games that have simply failed to prepare you well enough for that encounter.

What we used to call "Nintendo Hard" back before Nintendo (correctly, IMO) discovered that they could rapidly grow their audience by taking a more accessible path was the sort of difficulty I mean, and in Nintendo's case was eclipsed by the brilliance of Ocarina Of Time, whose dungeon design quietly taught you how to defeat the bosses contained within, without ever saying so explicitly.
posted by mhoye at 12:22 PM on September 1 [5 favorites]


As a follow-up on my comment on Titanfall 2... It turns out I wasn't paying attention to my time flip mechanics, and that's all I have to say about it.
posted by kschang at 12:46 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


Difficulty in games is so rarely all or nothing. Often the games already have difficulty levels! Not adding an easier setting because "the game is supposed to be hard" is just ableism. I will acknowledge that this is less possible in some games than others.
I've seen variations on this throughout the thread, and I think it's worth mentioning that games are designed. If a game has fantastic, modular and well thought out difficulty controls (Looking at you, Naughty Dog!), that's because that kind of design work was prioritized. If a game doesn't seem like it could support difficulty levels, that too is also at the end of a chain of design decisions that lead to that kind of game.

Adjustable difficulty is not a technical challenge, it is a design challenge, a scheduling challenge, and above all, a challenge of imagination.

Do better, developers! Except you, Naughty Dog. You're rocking it!
posted by chromecow at 1:36 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


The original X-COM...once you know what the best equipment and most exploitable strategies are, it’s not really that hard.

The correct answer for all encounters in X-COM endgame is "the rocket that flies around corners and completely nukes everything in a 9x9 grid".
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:44 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


Except, no, because the boss – despite your having depleted his health bar – isn’t dead after all.

This is what stood out to me because I think that giving a boss three consecutive health bars is a design decision that can increase frustration independent from the actual difficulty of the encounter. It's like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. Game UI conventions tell you that if you get the bar to zero the enemy will be defeated but when you get there *yoink* it's just another stage of the fight. You power through that health bar hoping that maybe this time you will be able to finish it but instead *yoink* yet another health bar. It's a recipe for frustration because we trust that UI elements won't lie to us.
posted by metaphorever at 3:01 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Bioshock is one of my favorite games ever, and the boss was kind of a wimp, which did not bother me in the least, as it would have been horrible to not be able to complete that amazing game.
posted by Beholder at 4:03 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


Talking about the original XCOM, from the wiki:

Fan-made patches fix a notorious bug which results in the game always resetting to the easiest difficulty level ("Beginner") after completing the first Battlescape mission, no matter what difficulty level has been selected. This glitch was not noticed by MicroProse and was not fixed in the official patches, resulting in the very high difficulty of the sequel due to many complaints from veteran players who believed that the original game was still too easy even on seemingly higher levels.

Which is an aggressive way to deal with the difficulty issue.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:02 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I remember during Portal 1's developer commentary, they discussed a bunch of wild ideas for the final boss fight, but they were all so different than all the previous gameplay that they basically threw all the ideas out and stuck a timer to the otherwise normal fight, to add a bit of stress. The game wasn't ruined in the process.

Ahem. As someone who actually stopped playing Portal 1 for a couple of years because I could not beat the final boss, I think that fight still diverged way too far from the rest of the game play. It was time stress combined with first-person-shooter style nonsense. I don’t like FPS, I like puzzle games. I wasn’t playing Portal to die repeatedly because I aim poorly when under stress and have no sense of direction and get very stressed by a timer. I was playing it to solve puzzles.

I think that’s actually one of the major points here: the “final boss” should be in line with the rest of the game play, if maybe a little harder or maybe using combos of all of the game play so far in one place. Otherwise it’s like “I was playing this one game, and now there’s this stupid other game that I can’t get around.”
posted by nat at 8:14 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


Game dev here. Chromecow has it right: difficulty is a problem of budgets, scheduling, and priorities. Further complicating the issue is the psychology of people playing games. Most people never touch difficulty sliders (source: metrics) and fewer ever dig into menus after starting a game. The "talk about it on online" portion of gamers is rarely enthusiastic about anything perceived as "easy mode." Personally, I think Control did it right: bury your easy mode options deep in the accessibility menus, where only people who care will find them.

Also, yes, ideally we try to train you in specific mechanics, and the boss fights are where you get to execute on that knowledge and feel powerful. We also do are best to not tell you what we're doing, because people hate that.

Remember that first hidden 1-Up mushroom in Super Mario 1? That's there to keep you from falling short of the first run-required pit. Go back to SMB1 and try to jump into that pit at running speed. It's very hard.

When done correctly, dynamic difficulty is great solution. The problem is that it's most effective if you can keep it secret, which makes an expensive feature even harder to justify.

Remember the dynamic difficulty in Resident Evil 4? Yup, it's there, and it's fantastic, and almost nobody noticed for 10 years.

Someone mentioned up-thread that indie games don't get enough testers. Absolutely true. Most game devs are FAR too good at their own games and often blinkered as to what makes a reasonable level of difficulty.

A friend of mine once said 'people hate easy mode because it trivializes their trivial achievement.'

I am annoyed that the success of Dark Souls (and the messaging from the devs) has given so much ammunition to the argument that there is a "right" difficulty for any given game. That's nonsense. There is a difficulty that will have something like the desired impact on the largest portion of your intended audience. It's hard to hit that mark. It's great when we can do it. But it's even better when we can open things up to more people. People who are colorblind. People who never developed amazing twitch reflexes. People who had those then lost them to degenerative nerve diseases.

I can't speak for all devs. But whenever I hear a dev say "it's meant to be this hard", it's usually because
1) they didn't have the time, money, and/or inclination to put in other difficulty modes
and/or
2) they know their fans are gatekeepers, and they are scared of losing those fans.

It's true that not all games work with accessibility options that tweak their core mechanics. But not all games work with colorblind mode, either. But most games work with colorblind mode, and saying colorblind people don't deserve to play sounds callous, so people sort colorblind mode into a different bucket. It's not. It's all just varying flavors of accessibility with varying degrees of cost.
posted by ®@ at 8:49 PM on September 1 [13 favorites]


I wasn’t playing Portal to die repeatedly because I aim poorly when under stress and have no sense of direction and get very stressed by a timer.

That was my experience too. And here's another example: Control.

I played through it on the normal level and I beat the hardish boss Tommassi after reading some strategy tips online. But there's endgame content, the Expeditions, that make you beat four different areas within 24 minutes. I tried that maybe four times and gave up, because it's just so dispiriting to keep being reminded that you're not good enough, you're too slow, maybe you didn't die die, but coming back from a checkpoint takes so long that you can't win any more.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:03 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


If it's hard to design levels right for difficulty, then Respawn (Titanfall, etc.) must be the masters of level design. Titanfall 2 manages to "teach" you how to use EVERY single new "trick" without using a single tutorial prompt or whisk you away to a "training level" (ala Assassin's Creed's Animus). And the time-travel level remains one of the coolest levels of any scifi FPS and has yet to be topped, IMHO, even by shooters in 2021.
posted by kschang at 12:33 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


My personal favorite counter-example to the "some games just need to be that difficult" argument is Celeste. This is a difficult game, and that difficulty is there for a reason. It evokes emotions that are tied directly to the story of the game. And yet, Celeste has a very successful assist mode that can reduce or eliminate that difficulty. And that has meant that people who would not have been able to overcome the difficulty have still been able to enjoy the game. And this really just comes from the game trusting players to play in a way that works for them.
posted by eruonna at 8:02 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


I will add that some developers can learn. It took them a few years, but Larian added an easy mode to Divinity Original Sin 2. It was desperately needed for anyone who wasn't about to geek out about builds and combinations. It allowed people to still play the game.

DOS2 is one of the few games I can play through on hard (although not in ironman mode). But I know I'm an exception here- I've put in too many hours, I've read all the wikis and guides, I know where all the secrets are, etc. But I'm unusual. Most people have trouble with Classic, and can still die too much in Explorer. Story mode is there for people who don't want to dedicate a great deal of brain power to figuring out the system in depth. And good for them. It's undoubtedly healthier.

It looks like they're doing the same with BG3, which is a shame. They will have difficulty levels, but right now, in early access, it appears to be locked. (I'm waiting for the full game before purchasing it, so this may have changed with one of the updates)
posted by Hactar at 9:53 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Apparently Firaxis' statistics showed that hardly anyone ever got the "humans win" ending

Statistics generally show that hardly anyone ever gets any game's ending. There's plenty of factors that go into that; game design DNA having difficulty tuned to squeaky-wheel gatekeeper segments is I'm sure part of it. Sheer timesink scale is another! There's plenty of games pretty much everyone agrees are "easy" that I never finished simply because the assessment of what I'd already seen and enjoyed, and how many more of my breaths would be dedicated to it crossed a threshold and I directed pastime energies elsewhere, and I'd be stunned if I'm anywhere close to unique in that.

A friend of mine once said 'people hate easy mode because it trivializes their trivial achievement.'

Sounds about right, and quote cheerfully secondhand stolen!
posted by Drastic at 10:29 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Just like it's okay not to finish a book, TV show, or a sandwich, it's okay not to finish a game too.

(Well, maybe at least save the sandwich for later as not to waste food)
posted by FJT at 10:33 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Subterrain!

The game didn't even do bosses until the end and the boss was an absolute mess.
posted by quillbreaker at 2:01 AM on September 4


Axiom Verge had many event-style boss battles, with the first few (I want to say 3rd and 4th one?) being the most difficult ones.

In contrast, Axiom Verge 2 only has optional bosses and healthy accessibility settings (four different b options), which really don't hurt the game. There is still a lot to explore, without being gated by bosses, and there is still challenge, which can be adjusted to your tastes.
posted by ersatz at 2:25 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


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