I Should Stop Quitting Games At Boss Fights

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I finally got a chance to boot up Control a couple days after the game launched. Since it was late at night, I only had a little time to explore its unsettling world before I had to go to bed. I quit at the game’s first boss fight, intending to play more later. Instead I spent the next several days avoiding the game because I knew I had a boss fight waiting for me when I returned.

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I don’t really like boss fights. Some of this is a function of writing about games for a living: When reviewing a game, repeatedly throwing myself at a boss fight takes time that could be better spent moving through a game’s story. I feel clever when I first figure out a boss’ patterns, but I find these fights tedious once I know what to do. Watching a boss’ health bar slowly tick down reminds me of running on a treadmill at the gym—there’s nothing to do but repeat the same actions while a counter incrementally moves. I get frustrated if I make progress only to lose it all to a silly mistake or badly-timed button press, which makes me play worse on the next go. Often I grow too aware of my own gameplay because I don’t want to mess up, which of course makes me mess up. I’m especially annoyed when I have to complete a boss fight to progress, because then there’s nothing to do but try something over and over until I get it right.

Usually I’ll take a break, sometimes quitting the game for the day. When I come back fresh, a boss fight is almost always easy to beat. The trouble with this strategy is it means that when I boot up a game again, the first thing I have to do is a boss fight. It’s not the most pleasant way to regain my bearings, and it’s not too fun to have to start a gameplay session doing something I don’t enjoy.

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In Control, I quit for the night after struggling a bit with the fight against Tomassi, a possessed Bureau staffer who can fly. It’s a very early fight, shortly after Jesse gets the ability to telekinetically throw things. It isn’t too tough, but I kept losing track of the guards that filter in or getting too far out of cover attempting to hit Tomassi with debris. I also fumbled with the game’s keyboard controls: On PC, Control defaults your powers to holding and releasing the E key, an awkward placement that impeded my movement. This, plus the time pressure of knowing it was getting later and later, quickly frustrated me, and I gave the boss fight only a few tries before quitting.

Having a boss fight to deal with the moment I loaded up the game again kept me away from it for several days. How to beat the fight was obvious and fairly simple—I just didn’t particularly want to do it. Knowing I’d have to start right up with an unpleasant challenge made Control feel like a chore. My friends and my Kotaku colleagues raved about the game, which made me ache to play it, but every night for the rest of the week I’d look at it in my game library, remember the boss fight waiting for me, and change my mind. I even thought about restarting the game with a controller, just so I could do something more fun than darting around an arena throwing furniture and looking out for guards while Tomassi’s health bar slowly ticked down.

I loaded up Control this morning, popping into the offices outside the Tomassi fight with dread. I poked into the game’s menu and saw that the game binds your powers to the middle mouse button as well as E. My middle button is a little sticky, so it’s not my favorite binding, but it was a more comfortable and tactical way to play. This made the fight infinitely easier, and I completed it on my second try.

Of course this meant I instantly wanted to keep playing, only to have to get to work instead. I regretted how much of my previous free time I’d spent avoiding Control because I didn’t want to play the boss fight.

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Taking a break in a game is usually a good idea when I’m stuck, but I’ve played games long enough to know quitting at a boss fight is only going to keep me away from a game. I don’t know why I keep thinking I’ll wake up as a person who will find boss fights compelling instead of dull. When I get bored or frustrated with a boss fight, I remind myself that it would be better to just dig in and try to complete the fight, or to save and quit when I can sense a boss fight coming so I’ll have something else to do at the start of a play session. But instead I inevitably try a fight a few times and then quit, even though I know I’ll just have to do it later.

I’m looking forward to playing more Control, though I know there will be more boss fights to come. Maybe I’ll take my own advice in the future and quit the game without leaving myself a boss fight. I know myself well enough to doubt this, though. Probably, like when I play boss fights themselves, I’ll keep making the same mistake.

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DISCUSSION

lightninglouie
lightninglouie

Boss fights are a relic of an era when players could breeze through games in an evening if there weren’t difficulty bottlenecks every other level or so. There really is no good reason to put them in a game where the main campaign runs twelve hours or longer. They’ve stuck around because of this infantile notion that games are a thing you “beat,” rather than just play. (Imagine applying this to just about any other form of entertainment and you realize how dumb it sounds. “Hey, did you finish that new Dark Crystal show on Netflix?” “Yeah, I beat it last night.”)

I have a neuropathy that affects my hands, so any part of a game that requires a lot of repetitive actions, like button-mashing, or fine motor control (i.e., aiming for that one tiny vulnerable spot on an enemy) is just a royal pain in the ass. Not fun, not challenging, just an irritant the designers have placed in the way of me enjoying the other 95% of the game.

Case in point: I loved the exploring aspects of the Metroid Prime series, but the boss battles could just eat shit and die. It felt like the designers were holding the fun parts of the game for ransom, and I’d have to do this not-fun thing to get them back. My ideal of a “good” boss battle is something like Breath of the Wild, where, once the battle mechanic is clear, you just do it two or three times and that’s it, you get back to the parts of the game that are actually worth playing.

None of this is to knock games that are designed to be hard, like Dark Souls, or high difficulty settings. But in a lot of cases boss battles are just pointless kneejerk “challenges” that add nothing to the overall experience.