Monday, February 22, 2010

The Insurmountable Foe

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Minor spoilers for BioShock 2, Dead Space, and Half-Life 2 follow.

The Big Sister in BioShock 2 was terrifying, at first. I saw only glimpses of her as she exited rooms or passed by windows. I knew we would be brought to a confrontation eventually, and I had no idea what to expect. She was as sturdy as a Big Daddy, but faster and more agile. She seemed more intelligent, and had unknown powers. The first time I was alone with her, she flooded the room and escaped unharmed. Now this was a worthy foe.

It was a little longer before I faced her directly, and when I did the fight was a hectic one. I used every attack in my arsenal to fend her off, emptying my weapons and hurling explosives her way, trying to shock her to keep her in one place. By the time she fled, the edges of my vision were darkened and I was bleeding profusely. I barely made it to a healing station.

The next time we met, the ensuing battle was similarly difficult, but at the end something unexpected happened: I killed her. I stood above the corpse of my worthiest of enemies and paused to think. Was this disappointment I felt? I knew that this meant there would be other Big Sisters, but the sense of fear was gone. No longer did I wonder whether I was the equal of the Big Sister in combat. I knew I could prevail, and would prevail again in the future. In that moment, staring down at my conquered foe, I felt confident that I could face anything that came my way.

Unfortunately, this all happened in the first quarter of BioShock 2: I defeated the enemy I previously believed undefeatable, relegating the Big Sister to the status of just another enemy. Even worse, shortly after that battle it became clear that the Big Sister would only confront me directly at specifically designated times in each level, and I learned to anticipate those confrontations and prepare for them. For that first, glorious hour, the Big Sister was something special. Then she became almost mundane, a difficult foe, but one that I knew how to kill.

The insurmountable foe, when done correctly, can be a spectacular change of pace in a video game. In most action-based games, we have learned to operate under the assumption that if it is placed before us, we can defeat it. The sections in games that reject this notion are almost always a dramatic shift; instead of standing to fight, the player must run or hide from a foe they cannot hope to overcome. Perhaps later in the game a weakness will be shown, or a new weapon will allow for new possibilities, but the pacing and tension that results from a shift in power is incredible. Usually, the player has the power to kill and overcome. When faced with an unstoppable force, the player becomes powerless.

Dead Space includes one enemy who regenerates any damage done to it. When first encountered, it seems to be nothing more than a particularly large and tough necromorph and the player can, with some skill, render the thing unable to attack by removing its limbs. When it gets up again, regenerating its lost limbs, the player has no option but to run. The subsequent section of gameplay is terrifying in a very different way from the rest of Dead Space; instead of shock scares and steadily building tension, the player is put in the position of the hunted fleeing for his or her life. In a game built to inspire fear, the variety is welcome. Unfortunately, Dead Space makes a similar error to that made by BioShock 2: the moment when the tables are turned and the player finds a way to defeat the enemy comes too soon. As a result, the player can relax. Other monsters may be around the next corner, but that one is conquered.

Dead Space also telegraphs the fact that the player cannot defeat the regenerating monster; there is always someone yelling in the main character’s ear when he should run and when he should stand and fight. The tension and fear in the opening section of BioShock 2 comes from the fact that I did not know whether I could defeat this foe. This made it both more frightening leading up the confrontation and more disappointing when the first Big Sister fell before my onslaught. But BioShock 2 also didn’t really provide an opportunity to flee. Sure, I could run for a little while, but she would always catch up. It was clear that the developers meant for me to fight until one of us died or she fled. I had no other option.

Older games are not always so kind about telegraphing their intentions. Final Fantasy IV, for example, includes a button that allows the player to flee from combat, but our experiences with most modern role-playing games teach us that most random encounters and monsters can be defeated with some good strategy. There are several enemies, even early on in Final Fantasy IV, for which this is not the case. The only way to learn is to be killed by these foes which are clearly well above the power level of the heroes. The game quickly teaches the player, through direct punishment, that when these monsters are seen, running is the only option. It’s a harsh learning curve, but effective.

There is a more elegant way of doing things, however. When looking for examples of spectacular game design, we often turn to Half-Life 2. Every time the player encounters a strider, those massive, spindly, and impossible tall tanks, the game changes into a game of cat and mouse, with the player’s shots pinging off the metallic hull until a weapon capable of taking the strider down is found. Running and gunning changes immediately into hiding, skulking and scrounging for ammunition. In Half-Life 2: Episode 2, one section in the antlion caves provides another desperate struggle. Faced with an enormous, deadly foe, Gordon Freeman’s only option is to flee from one small hiding place to the next, and hope that the enemy can’t fit in to chase him. These sections provide incredible examples of how to ratchet up the tension using enemies that can’t be stopped, even if the effect is only temporary.

One of the ways that Half-Life 2 creates this tension is by limiting the usefulness of certain weapons. Most of the guns in Half-Life 2 are entirely useless against the striders, so the player feels helpless until a rocket launcher or similarly powerful device is secured. BioShock 2 has a similar system, in which some ammunition does considerably more damage to Big Sisters than others, but a well-prepared player can make sure they are never caught at a disadvantage. Maybe this is just a sign that resources are too plentiful in the game; I only died once in the entire game, due to a distracting real-life cat. I’m not trying to brag, and I don’t consider myself an expert at first person shooters. Shooting expertise is unnecessary; you just need to manage resources well and have a sense of strategy. On the standard difficulty, resources seem abundant. Big Sisters don’t seem insurmountable; they just require a few more bullets and health kits than most enemies.

The basic benefit in including foes that cannot be stopped is the same that can be accomplished through creative level design, changes in pacing, and other tricks of design: it adds variety to the game. Sometimes the player must feel powerless so that they can feel empowered at a later time. Most video games opt for near-constant empowerment; the game may get difficult, but since the purpose of video games, for many, is escapism, the scenario is always winnable. Video game designers are so focused on making the player feel like a powerful, unstoppable winner that they forget that sometimes a great sense of triumph requires a series of failures, if only temporary ones. And everyone wants to feel, from time to time, like they achieved the impossible.


  1. I think Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 is also a good example of an "insurmountable foe", perhaps an even better one than those mentioned here. He is unbeatable until right before the end, and everytime you meet him you know it's "you can't beat him, run for your life". Even brief moments of him appearing, like on the hospital rooftop where he just pushes you down, are terryfying to the bone and I've never again encountered such a menacing foe, especially the moment he chases you through the hospital cellar. I can still remember every second of this short level almost 5 years after I have played SH2 for the first time. And finally killing him at the end still doesn't make him just another hard foe. I think PH in SH2 is a masterpiece of survival horror game design.

  2. Definitely an excellent example. I remember being baffled by the first direct confrontation with Pyramid Head, running around that small staircase room, wondering if anything I did was affecting this horrible monster.

  3. You want a scary, insurmountable foe done right? The SA-X in Metroid Fusion will mercilessly kill you if you can't hide fast enough throughout the entire game. At one point you even learn there are multiple SA-X monsters running around and you don't really have the strength to fight it (essentially the old you) until the end of the game.

    Every time I saw the SA-X in the game I freaked out and ran as fast as I could, hoping I could hide in time.

  4. You mention Silent Hill 2, my thoughts went to Resident Evil 2, with the Nemesis prototype. You kill the thing over and over and it just gets back up. It mutates and changes it's body in an upgradably like manner. Only at the very end does it die.

    Of course someone has to bring up Shadow of the Collosus. The bosses start big, but never at any moment do they seem defeatable when you first see them and its only after the battle do you feel like you can beat them. Even when they drop in size, they are still bigger than you. The entire sense of scope puts you in the mindset that these are insurmountable foes. It doesn't hurt that I confused the last one's elbow for the sun.

  5. What I love about insurmountable foes in video games is that conflicts with them are consistently memorable experiences. Each of your examples are fantastic, and I can tell that they've left lasting impressions.

    I'd actually be interested to see if anyone can come up with an example of an insurmountable foe in a video game that was completely uninteresting, or did nothing to improve the game or its pacing.

  6. Maybe that would be also Silent Hill, this time the 4th iteration. Those unkillable ghosts were, in my opinion, simply annoying. Or Sullivan himself, also unkillable. And both reside in areas where you constantly have to search something (subway train maze anyone?) or backtrack to (forest?). Both just broke the 'flow', I think.

    Not really fitting, but somehow a strange experience was Quake4's first encounter with the Makron, which you were supposed to lose. I think I'm not the only one who emptied every single weapon in his arsenal on that beast just to quickload again, immediately after it killed you. But here it wasn't the foe, it was the game handling the situation, what broke this part of the game.

  7. Some more I thought of:

    -Bone Whale from Bubble Bobble
    -The dolls from Onimusha
    -Some of the weapons from FF7
    -Although I didn't like Sands of Time 2, my favorite sections from it were absolutely the segments fleeing the time guardian.
    -(You'll like this one) Ghosts from Pacman?
    - The big tendril things from Halflife 1
    - This is a little bit of a stretch, but the Evil Flame Samurai guy from Ninja Gaiden
    - The bear from Condemned?

    Now that I think about, both Halflifes have a real mastery of this kind of tension building. Most of the major encounters of the game are set up where you are repeatedly exposed to an enemy you are unable to take down for a segment of the game before acquiring the means to do so.

    Something else that is interesting about this idea is that I think it actually articulates one of the most appealing things about many MMO games. The idea of being exposed and threatened by things much more powerful than yourself and having to work over a long period of time to reach the point of being able to combat them is really at the core of a game like WoW. I can't think of how many times I would see an elite monster or high level creature, or flagged high level character, wandering a zone and be murdered by it and feel only egged on to survive for longer and get powerful enough to come back and beat it.

    Awesome post

  8. I thought of two more:

    - (it's a rare game but) Iron Helix had a robot that chased you throughout the entire game (and not just in scripted events, but actually chased you) and couldn't be defeated for most of it.

    - Rocket Knight Adventures, the Black Knight


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