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God of War: The Stranger Boss Fight and Ludonarrative (2/2) | Mini-Read

December 3, 2019


So we’ve figured out that The Stranger is
very, very good. What now? In the last video, we saw that the Stranger
passes the tests of both Freytag’s Pyramid and Mike Stout’s design doc on Boss Fights. I also said at the start of the last video
that ludonarrative problems are “inherent to all boss fights”—and I mean that literally:
every single boss fight you’ve ever played has compromised the ludonarrative in one way
or another. In this video, we’ll try to marry the two
perspectives from the last video so if you haven’t seen the last one I suggest you watch it now. Welcome back. This is Mini-Read, and the second part of
how the ludonarrative of The Stranger does and doesn’t work. The problem with bosses is that they exist
not only in their own dramatic arc, but also in the context of the entire game and its
narrative. That’s what Mike Stout’s analysis of his
experiences as a designer lacks. He surgically removes the boss fight, as a phenomenon, from the larger context of the work. Insomniac, where he works, do this a lot. They make decent boss fights, which are separated
from usually already pretty thin narratives. That’s one way of getting around the problem,
but the game also ends up lacking in one of the most motivating aspects in a player finishing
your game. God of War is clearly not free from narrative, and because of the game’s dense narrative focus The Stranger fight ends up causing
a bunch of problems throughout the rest of the game. The first, and arguably most important problem,
is how later boss fights become ludo-narratively less tense in comparison. If we assume that the design of mechanics
and systems feed into the narrative, we must also realize that a the rising nature of the
narrative calls for development of those mechanics and calls for development of those mechanics and systems. That’s why almost all games have some sort
of progress, such as more abilities, leveling up those abilities, or increasingly cool weapons. Bosses need to follow each other as the game follows its narrative arc and increase the intensity of mechanics or systems alongside that narrative arc. You can mess around with it a little bit—one bad boss doesn’t ruin an entire game— but in general a game needs to adhere to this
rule. After The Stranger, God of War doesn’t really have anywhere to go with the rest of the boss fights because it’s jumped the shark. In fact, every boss fight after the first
is worse: less spectacular, less narratively coherent, and less thematically significant. There’s Hraezlyr: pretty generic dragon that only
lets Atreus know that Kratos and be…uhm…a bit violent. If he hasn’t realized that yet, well… (disappointed horn) There’s The Helheim Bridge Keeper: a common troll
with added steps. Magni and Modi, the second best boss: a thematically
vague juxtaposition to Atreus’ character. I read Magni and Modi as being about the dangers
of blind loyalty to a bad father, but it only hints at a development which will likely take
place in sequels. There’s Svartáljǫfurr: a stock boss. And so on. The most direct consequence is that the very
last boss, which is fighting Baldur again, is simply the same fight with added steps. Essentially, they add some enemies to bug
you, as well as the need to switch between the Leviathan and the Chaos Blades in response
to Baldur’s color coding. It’s nowhere near the increase in intensity,
complexity, and significance that is required to bookend what was started by the first encounter. It’s important here to note that although it’s
possible to reach that higher level in theory, it’s about as likely as telling the same
joke again in the hope it’s going to be funnier the second time. The game, despite being absolutely excellent,
never fully recovers or solves the problem having such a bombastic first boss causes. Second, it causes problems with the ludonarrative
development of the character abilities— a problem stemming from how the fight doesn’t
test axe throwing or Atreus’ combat abilities. Let’s start with axe throwing, which
at release quickly became a poster feature. It’s so cool, right? Right! Sony Santa Monica deserve praise for every
frame of the mechanic, and you can read more about it in an article listed in the description. But The Stranger fight never mechanically
forces the player to use it in order to win, and that causes an issue—especially with
precision throwing. The effect is that the player is conditioned
to thinking that it isn’t required to win. It becomes a cool power that is used to prop
up the more pedestrian fights. Now, I played the entire game without even understanding how precision throws work, because I never had to. Since there’s not a single moment that forces you to learn how to do it and why it’s good most players will likely forget about
it, despite the game being significantly more difficult than the average triple-A venture. Then there’s Atreus’ combat abilities,
which left out of the fight, which affect the player’s relationship to those in a
similar way. Since they’re explained elsewhere, however,
at least the player doesn’t forget about them. But it also has a more subtle effect. The game’s arguably strongest plotline is
the one about Atreus’ budding Godhood, and the question concerning how powerful or important
he could become. The Stranger fight leaving him out leaves
a lingering sense of sub-plot to that arc that never really dissipates. At the end of the game, when father and son
find out that Atreus is in fact a giant and that the mother sent them on the quest in
order for them both to find this all out, you’re left feeling that Kratos’ plot
line suddenly takes the back seat. For instance, it’s really unclear how finally killing The Stranger ends “a cycle of violence.” Then again, it’s pretty clear that Freya
becomes wildly vengeful as a result, so it will likely be a theme carried into the next
game. The point is that The Stranger frames Kratos’
character as the main thematic thrust, which makes its relationship to Atreus’ character
somewhat blurred. I want to stress again, though, that this
could very well be intentional, as parenthood is essentially a transfer of the main plot
from you to your child— Oh, God, I can’t believe I wrote that… It also helps returning players connect easily to the game, since Kratos is who they’re used to. Despite these things, though, it comes across
as dissonant. Someone on Twitter named this thing “The
Ludonarrative Toblerone of Despair,” because the ludonarrative gets really messy really
fast, and it’s difficult to imagine elegant ways to fix these inherent ludonarrative problems. There are, however, some lessons to be drawn
from all this, such as the insight that all bosses demand unreasonably high stakes. The final boss of the original Bioshock is
a well-known atrocity. All Bioshock games have ludonarrative problems,
because Ken Levine writes them with the scope of a novel but the structure of a game—but
I digress. To start, I can’t think of any other game
where the difference in tone is as jarring as the one between the rest of the game and
the final boss. The world of Bioshock is…somewhat plausible. A crazy guy created his utopia, they extracted
some shit from sea slugs to enhance genes, and things spiralled out of control because
the utopia had no checks and balances. That part makes sense. What doesn’t quite make sense is the hulking, statuesque monster Fontaine becomes in the end. It does admittedly ties up most of the themes,
albeit clumsily, but it’s so over the top it becomes campy, which chafes against the
otherwise plausible yet maniacal tone. This happens because Bioshock has a conceptually
high-flying plot, with some fantastical themes, and the final boss fight requires such a narrative
climax that it needs to go overboard. This happens with most bosses—albeit to
a lesser degree than in Bioshock—simply because the ludonarrative feedback puts a
strain on the stakes being demanded. Other examples are Titan Joker from Arkham
Asylum, The Human Reaper from Mass Effect 2, and Nihilanth from Half-Life 1. These bosses fail to live up to the level its dramatic arcs have taken their surrounding narratives to. There are also ways to limit the ludonarrative
damage a boss fight can do, which is mainly a question of scope. A great example is GladOS in Portal. The most important thing is how the dramatic
arc of Portal is tempered; there are no other bosses in Portal besides the last one. Having nothing else to contend with, the GladOS
fight can be the searing, laser-focused deconstruction of boss fights that caps off what is a searing,
laser-focused deconstruction of games in general. But like The Stranger, it still poses some
issues of its own. In Portal’s case, that becomes clear once
Portal 2 is released, and GladOS is found not in the parking lot the first game left
her in, but retconned back into the lab. Even when the ludonarrative issue is pretty expertly
tempered, the boss fight is inherently over-dramatic. Bosses are meant to the be the end—final
bosses are meant to be the ultimate end to everything contained in the world, as it was
constructed. In other words, bosses can be ends to a part
or to the whole, but either way, they end up leaving very little, if anything, to allow for
forward momentum. The only way to not have to be extremely careful
about when and where to introduce a boss fight, if at all, is to have the rest of your game
be open to absurdity. Nobody minds that the final boss of Wolfenstein is Mecha-Hitler, because the entire game is awesomely silly. The Metal Gear Solid series is also really
good at this balancing act. But then again, as with Insomniac’s games,
there’s not really a ludonarrative to take seriously enough to compromise in the first
place. So, boss fights need to be read in the context
that surrounds them. But doing so reveals that it almost always
cascades into problems for that context—a context that can’t help being ludonarrative
in nature. It can turn out very wrong, or slightly wrong,
and while there might be strategies to lessen the effect, there is no way to absolutely
eradicate the ludonarrative absurdity that a boss fight constitutes. With all that said, I want to say that I,
like everyone else, obviously enjoy a tricked-out boss fight for the spectacle they are. GladOS and The Stranger are some of my personal
favorites, but I’m interested to hear your personal classics that I might have missed
in this exploration, so let me know in the comments. And if you enjoyed this video, the last one,
or maybe even both, remember to leave a like because it makes me happy, and it helps the channel a ton. Thanks for watching, and remember to keep
taking games way too seriously.

8 Comments

  • Reply Nate Great June 8, 2018 at 1:25 am

    At the end of Bioshock 1 doesn't Fontaine get turned into the guy on the cover of Atlas Shrugged? It doesn't make any more sense, but I guess that's what he is inspired by visually.

  • Reply Devin Callahan June 8, 2018 at 1:39 am

    I think that it's almost unfair to games as a whole to judge them as if the boss battle is inherently the climax they all move towards. Video games have proven that they can be so much more than a game, their defining characteristic being immersing the player, allowing them to experience content more directly, and even influence it through their decisions and individual performance.

    I believe that immersion is a video games main tool- and this really comes forward in examples like Bioshock Infinite, where the characters experiences and memories are yours as well. When you run across the bridge and find that years have passed, it doesn't just happen to the character, it happens to you. I believe that in most of the really great narrative driven games, gameplay is the outdated tool necessary to immerse the player into the mind of the character. I think that if there were an effective way to immerse you into a character without tedious gameplay (mostly combat), it would absolutely take the place of that combat. But, until choices are intricate enough, or crafting becomes advanced enough to mirror real life hobbies, or loot systems become something more than grinding, the only real solution is a somewhat shallow system of combat.

    God of War is one of the most incredible narrative driven games ever made, along with Bioshock, and despite that, you probably spend 90% of the time in game in combat. And of course the logical way to advance combat throughout the game is to add bigger, meaner fights, until eventually you end up with boss battles. But, I don't think that means that it's the focus. I loved God of War because of how it showed us the human side of a character struggling to be better- the things that forced him towards and away from that goal. I love Bioshock because of the world created. I love Game of Thrones because of it's dynamic characters and real feeling consequences. When I think of these, my favorites in their genres, I don't think of the gameplay or action scenes, I think of the narrative and emotions. I think that judging God of War on it's relatively shallow boss fights (other than the first) is similar to judging Game of Thrones on it's action scenes.

    But, to speak more directly about God of War and the fights with Baldur, I think that the second fight was much more emotionally heavy than the first one. Your son is present, and active in the fight. Baldur's mother is there, trying to stop the fighting. You are fighting against somebody who represents the character Kratos used to be, who he is trying not to be, and his decision to kill Baldur is his attempt to stop that cycle that created who Kratos used to be. The first encounter is an incredible experience, you are fighting as Kratos to protect your son. The second encounter adds in the fact that the monster you're fighting is somebody's child- it's somebody redeemable and somebody not far from who you are growing from, your son is there to watch your decisions and you are trying to do what's right.

    So yes, something like that fight may not have added many dynamics to it. But the dynamics of the fight are not what this game is about, it's about investing you into the role of Kratos, and viewed in that way, the fight is so much more for Kratos than the first encounter was. I'd rather have a game escalate for the player I'm playing as than for me as the gamer, because that's what makes a narrative driven game like this feel like so much more than the gameplay.

  • Reply Micah Edmonds June 8, 2018 at 7:12 am

    This is your strongest work yet. Start to end gold.

  • Reply Dave Talks Video Games June 8, 2018 at 7:36 am

    This was marvellous. You really got me thinking how a boss fight affects not only the narrative of a game but its mechanics as well (as the two are often intertwined). When I asked myself about the most memorable boss, what came to mind was actually the final levels of certain games. The tower without the dagger in The Sands of Time or The Citadel in Half-Life 2. Heck, stages 8-2 and 8-3 in Super Mario Bros are far more memorable than the final Bowser. Same with the obstacle courses before the Bowser fights in Super Mario 64. Perhaps games are more tailor-made towards a level as narrative climax because it's a greater expression of the player's journey.

    Or how about how so many Japanese role playing games have a climactic boss fight followed up by a story boss (which is usually unsatisfying and defeated easily). Even Demon's Souls did this. I have more thinking to do on the subject, and I'm so happy that your video is facilitating this. Keep up the great work mate!

  • Reply Select Screen June 8, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Great video, this was definitely one of the many problems I had with this game as well. One of the few good things I can say about God of War though is that (at least as I was playing the game) I didn't feel like the last Baldur fight was going to be the final boss fight. I thought for sure they were going to pull out one last fight scene with a god to get in the way of Kratos and Atreus finally getting to scatter Fey's ashes, so I was pleasantly surprised they didn't do that. It showed an amount of restraint I wished the rest of the game had.

    Also, thanks for recommending my video at the end. Always greatly appreciated.

  • Reply Ludocriticism June 8, 2018 at 8:15 am

    The conclusion arrives!

  • Reply Cannonfodder43 June 8, 2018 at 9:53 am

    Another good video and good points and observations.

    What I have noticed about Boss Fights along with you is that as a whole due to the already fantastical nature of most video games, boss fights end up having to be even more fantastically over the top in order to be more dramatic and threatening. Combined with the already dissonant nature of video game stories and IMO non immersive gameplay and the limits of interactive gameplay in general, they end up becoming rote chores. Rising in absurdity to the point of eye rolling.

    The pacing and scale that games struggle with in all other areas are epitomized in boss fights. And other than visuals and limited programmed interactivity, they lack the other human senses to augment them and the often more real, improvised, fluid, dynamic and brutal organic nature of fights other mediums like movies and books can show generally surpass games. Novels, Movies and TV can take full advantage of all possible movements and actions that anyone can actually do within its universe. Games by comparison are limited.

    I have even noticed that due to the more IMO visceral and controlled nature of movies and novels, the line between boss fight and regular threatening encounter is much more blurred; often indistinguishable. And when intentional, much more engaging due to the lack of player control, and the pacing and execution options that are possible with those mediums.

    By scaling down scope and curbing back the often fantastical power fantasy nature of games, slowing them down and making the gameplay and mechanics truly make the player vulnerable (and powerful if necessary), such encounters can become more engaging and meshing with the rest of the game. Conversely that can be done as well as scaling up the world, its scope and its threats to truly make the player genuinely small against truly terrifying threats and a world that goes on without them.

    But even what I suggested would only mitigate the problems. I see no real way to eliminate the problem with what tech and narratives that it would allow.

    I look forward to more as always. I am glad to see that you are one of a few that are tackling such topics. 😀

  • Reply MichaelAussie05 June 9, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks again for a thought provoking entertaining video.

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