Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who's The Boss?

So I finally finished up Resident Evil 5 the other night, and Holy Quick Time Event, was that final boss battle terrible.

Mrs. JPG and I ended up playing through most of the game together, which was bizarre considering she doesn't like games that 1) involve a lot of quick shooting, 2) have complicated controls, and/or 3) require fast and accurate button-mashing. Needless to say, we played on the easiest difficulty level. And strangely enough, we ended up (mostly) enjoying it. There was a certain perverse joy to overcoming the clunkiness of the control scheme just in time to blast an advancing zombie soldier, and to obsessively hunting through levels for spare ammo, and to manually(!) selecting and sharing said ammo with each other when in need.

(And, for the record: yes, I did share some of the
well-documented concerns about racist overtones in this game, but that's a subject for another discussion.)

But by the time we got to our fifth attempt at the final boss battle with Wesker, the charming gentleman pictured below, that joy had been thoroughly, painfully stamped out.

You see, immediately preceding the actual fight with Wesker - which is, like most of the boss battles in this game and in nearly every other game, a tedious exercise in pattern recognition - there was this insane QTE sequence where my dude had to uppercut a giant rock:

Click the image to watch this profoundly stupid sequence.

Capcom games, and the
Resident Evil series in particular, are famous for "artificially" inflating difficulty by foisting awkward controls and absurd timing challenges upon the player. It's not surprising to find these elements throughout RE5; you could tell from the demo it'd be a constant struggle between you and the input device. Given the prevalence of QTEs in RE4, it was a matter of course that they'd be back in the next installment. And while I think QTEs can make for interesting design discussions, I mention them here only because in this particular instance, QTEs highlight the bigger issue of how (not) to create satisfying boss battles. Let's look at this one more closely. (Spoilers ahead for this year-plus-old game, etc.)

So. In the final battle with Wesker, here's the sequence of events:
1. We're inside(?!) a fiery volcano(?). Both heroes, Chris and Sheva, run along a rock formation to avoid Wesker's flailing tentacles of death.
2. The rock formation collapses, separating our protagonists: Chris (Player 1) on the lower level, Sheva (Player 2) on the higher.
3. Chris runs up a small hill and engages Wesker in a gun battle, eventually prompting a brief cutscene in which Wesker jumps to the higher level and begins pursuing Sheva.
4. While Sheva runs ahead, Chris fires at Wesker to slow him down.
5. Running ahead triggers a QTE in which P2 (Sheva) must mash a button at an inhuman speed to avoid falling off a cliff. If P2 is not the AI, it is extraordinarily likely Sheva will fall to a flaming death, forcing both players to replay the entire 5-to-10-minute sequence again. (This is the point at which Mrs. JPG said, "Okay, I'm done with this shit," and I continued solo.)
6. Presuming Sheva survives, the above boulder-punching QTE ensues.
7. Chris and Sheva are reunited on a platform and the Wesker boss battle proper begins. I practice the "spin 180 degrees" button combination ~12-14x while attempting to shoot Wesker in the glowing orange pustule on his back, which opens a glowing orange pustule in his chest, which I then can shoot for damage. Repeat the entire torturous process ~3-5x until the final helicopter rescue cutscene plays, where...
8. ...there is one final, very easily missable QTE to polish off this turd of a battle. Good job, Player 1...?

Now, what has the game taught us in this, its final offering? Here's what I thought RE5 was telling me:
  • Mastery? Ha! Screw you. A successful game scaffolds a building sense of mastery as the player progresses, teaching new skills and combinations that the player can exploit to overcome increasingly difficult set of challenges. This is what Raph Koster and other smart people call "fun." Having the player's experience culminate in a ridiculous procession of QTEs, which are completely divorced from any skill the player may have learned, negates any sense of mastery she may have built in playing through the rest of the game and leads to a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion. It's like taking an English course for two semesters only to face a final exam that's all biology questions. In Swahili.
  • Hey, know what this is? It's a videogame boss battle! In two previous encounters, a sunglass-clad, slick-haired, leather-suited Wesker bamfs around dodging point-blank shotgun blasts like the lovechild of Neo and Nightcrawler. In the final battle, he's a lumbering mutant (okay, fine) who's nigh-invulnerable, save those two Very Obvious Vulnerable Spots. The previous battles were interesting because they required some degree of logic to solve. In the first, you come to realize you actually can't hurt Wesker, but must simply outlast him until you can "rescue" his companion. In the second, you have to deduce that turning off the lights makes Wesker's reaction time slower, allowing you to fire a rocket at him and potentially kick off the victory conditions. In the final battle, constant close-ups of the glowing orange pustules do those mental gymnastics for you. Also, can we please kill the Very Obvious Vulnerable Spot thing? It was kinda old in the 16-bit era.
  • Think you've won? Not yet! Mwahaha! If I hadn't just spent 25 minutes memorizing the button sequence to make my dude punch a giant-ass boulder into lava for no discernible reason, I might have been more shocked by the sheer audacity of busting out the tired old Bad Guy's Not Really Dead! trope at the very end of this scene. In a way, including this last parting shot of a QTE was the only way to wrap this up properly. I mean, why give us a plain shit sandwich when you can give us a shit sandwich with mustard? Mustard that MAKES YOU GO BACK AND DO THE WHOLE GODDAMN THING OVER AGAIN IF YOU PUT THE CONTROLLER DOWN FOR FIVE SECONDS.
  • Stuck? Maybe you should just consult a FAQ. Fuck you. (Gimme the laptop.)
What drives me nuts the most about Resident Evil 5 is that for a game with so many bizarre and downright silly design decisions, its production value is extraordinarily high. The in-engine art and lighting are superbly executed, the cutscenes are remarkably choreographed, the sound design (especially the mutant enemies' sucking and gurgling noises) is suitably gross-out-inducing, and the shooting, when it works well, is really, really satisfying. It's clear a lot of work by very talented people went into this game, and I appreciate the technical acumen that's on display here.

Thing is, though: by the end of the game, the player should feel like the boss, not the other way around. Let me prove how powerful and skilled I've become; don't chain me to some stupid button-mashing sequence. Give me a true test, in the language you've just spent hours teaching me. And if that test is good enough, I'll come out of it ready to jump right back in to the whole adventure again.


  1. With that title I was fully expecting and hoping for atleast one shout out to Alyssa Milano. Luckily the "In Swahili" made me laugh hard enough to forget the title until it finally made sense in the last paragraph. Fuck you. (gimme a candy bar)

  2. Thank you so much for posting this, John!

    My best gaming buddy and I had the exact same experience as you and your wife. I thoroughly agree with everything you've written, and I feel so much better knowing I'm not the only one whose experience was completely ruined by that miserably executed boss fight.

    I've already decided I'm not playing RE6 ever, and Shinji Mikami and his design team had better not ever try crossing the street in my city, because I fully intend to crush them all beneath my car if I'm ever presented with the chance.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, friend, although I'm not sure I had *quite* as virulent a reaction as you. For the record, Infinite Lag does not endorse or condone any attempted assault on videogame designers, vehicle-based or otherwise.

    Boss fights are tricky. On one hand you want to give the player a satisfying, climactic challenge to overcome, a true test of their mastery of the skills they've acquired throughout the game. On the other hand, just like a final test at the end of a semester, it's difficult to effectively and elegantly encapsulate all those discrete bits of knowledge and strategy into one perfect assessment. It's also difficult to integrate them into the flow of gameplay naturally, without practically screaming at the player "this is a boss fight!"

    In this case, I think the thing that disappointed me most was that the over-reliance on QTEs and the 180-degree spin move made the battle a poor test of the skills I'd acquired. Do you remember the earlier sequence where a bunch of monsters are climbing up the walls, and one player has to stand at the base of the wall and pick them off while the other, on the higher level, fends them off close up? That bit felt a lot more challenging, rewarding, and fun to me.