If you’ve been a gamer for awhile, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon at some point. You meet a villain, maybe a new one, maybe one you’ve known about for awhile, and the boss music starts playing. You square off to fight, start the battle…and you get wrecked. Absolutely destroyed. And just when you’re expecting a game-over screen for your pitiful performance, that’s not what happens. Instead, the game keeps going. Like you were supposed to lose. And then you realize it.
You are supposed to lose.
That’s just one potential outcome of this common scenario. Sometimes, you can tell that you’re supposed to lose. Other times the game makes it look possible to win, but you can’t. Others don’t even let you play out the battle and just cause you to lose in a cut scene. The one thing you can count on in these scenarios? It’s pretty much always annoying.
Now initially this may sound a bit like a spoiled kid who always got first place complaining about a second place trophy. “I’m SUPPOSED to win!” That’s not where I am coming from. As a frequent reader and gamer, and amateur writer, I understand that the most interesting stories often arise from the hero’s failures, not triumphs. I get that losing to the bad guy is a perfectly valid way of moving the story forward. What I don’t appreciate is how it happens.
Let me give an example from the game that made me want to write about this in the first place: Dragon Quest VII, Fragments of the Forgotten Past. I got this game recently alongside Zero Time Dilemma (my first new games since Fire Emblem Fates back in February!) and I’ve been playing Dragon Quest quite a bit. At the point of the game I am currently at, my party of characters have lost their magic/powers and are currently trapped in a city ruled by a cruel muscled guy who enforces “survival of the fittest.” Upon my arrival I had to fight that guy and two of his goons as “initiation.”
During my first battle, I managed to defeat one goon but lost one party member to a “desperate attack” (read: critical hit) from the boss. I ended up losing that fight. I reset, fixed my inventory to have more healing items, and tried again. Once again, I found myself getting killed by crits that depleted something like 80% of my characters’ health. I bought some extra equipment that allowed me to put the goons to sleep, but it didn’t help – the boss was too powerful. I even got to the point where I had killed the two goons, but my healing items were depleted and my party started dropping like flies. Finally, exasperated, I stopped resetting after my loss and realized “oh…the game keeps going.” I was supposed to lose.
It was an incredibly frustrating experience not because losing made me mad, but because the game set no precedent for that scenario. Up to that point, there was never a forced loss – every boss could clearly be defeated. During the battle, I could clearly kill the goons and use status problems to make them sleep to give me an advantage. Every time I died it was from critical hits. It looked like bad luck or bad play, not a requirement of the story. The game made me feel like it was possible to win, when in reality there was no way. My frustration was only compounded when there was a second forced loss within that same chapter of the game against a different opponent – I burned a lot of consumables trying to win a fight that couldn’t be won.
Now not all forced losses against bad guys go quite like that, but there are plenty of other frustrating ways to have a forced loss in a video game.
UNCONVINCING CUT SCENE
The only reason I hate this less than the above example is because it’s less time-consuming. But it’s equally misleading. In this scenario, you HAVE battled the opponent and won the match. But then the cut scene starts and forces the opponent to be better than you, since the mechanics weren’t able to. I’ve got two examples for this one, and both examples made me very angry.
The first is the final boss battle of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, Riku. Oh, uh, spoilers, I guess? Anyway, Riku and Roxas have this throwdown where they run up a building that is scene in fleeting flashes during Kingdom Hearts 2. It looks cool in the cut scene, but trust me – it is NOT cool.
Riku is a total pushover. And to appreciate exactly how awful this is, you have to look at the other Kingdom Hearts titles as well. In Kingdom Hearts 1 and in Chain of Memories, Riku is one of the most difficult opponents you face. In Kingdom Hearts 2, he demonstrates a lot of powerful and useful abilities. You KNOW him as a strong character, the guy that Sora is always striving to beat. So the fact that Riku is the final boss of this game and then is a total pushover breaks the fiction of the KH universe.
Now that’s bad enough, but then here’s the lousy part: after you defeat him in this offensively easy boss battle, he flips right around and kicks your butt in the cut scene. So when you face off against him as the player, he’s the final boss and you have to be able to beat the game so you win. But as the character, Roxas isn’t supposed to be stronger than Riku so he loses after the game is “over.” It’s incredibly poor use of both mechanics and fiction and is one of many things that makes 358 Days disappointing (but that’s a totally different post).
Example two is Darth Sion from Knights of the Old Republic 2 (now to be referred to as KOTOR2). The second KOTOR game has a reputation for being too easy, and this battle just really rubs it in.
So here I am, squaring off to fight this guy with my lightsaber at the ready. We’re sizing each other up. His character has demonstrated his power in other cut scenes. NPCs I’ve met talk about how powerful and scary he is. He’s supposed to be a seriously bad dude. Meanwhile, my character is a Jedi Guardian, a warrior-type. So my goal is to leap in with my lightsaber and attack (a special move) and then engage him up-close. A combination of my lightsaber crystals and my character feats gives me an increased critical hit rate and increased damage when I do crit. Plus I have a double-sided saber, so I technically attack twice in one round. When I leap into the air and descend on Darth Sion, I score two back-to-back crits and his life bar is completely depleted. I literally killed him in one round. He didn’t even touch me.
So imagine my surprise when a cut scene kicks in, showing how he defeated me with his incredible power and I had no chance of winning.
The way this battle is set up, you’re supposed to be able to defeat Sion (I just coincidentally did so in a particularly spectacular way). But in the fiction, he “wins.” You’re too weak and cannot defeat him. That to me is completely ridiculous. If you’re not strong enough, you shouldn’t be strong enough. That’s that. I’d honestly rather it skip the battle entirely and just show me getting defeated as a cut scene. Yeah, less gameplay, but at least it doesn’t break your suspension of disbelief.
This is a sort of in-between of the methods discussed above. Rather than having a boss battle you HAVE to lose, or a battle you win but then a cut scene that shows you losing, this method puts you in a timed battle that you have to just survive.
The first example I can think of for this is Beatrix from Final Fantasy 9. Now I never played this game to the end, but I clearly remember how frustrated I was with the battle against Beatrix. She’s a tough opponent with lots of powerful attacks, and when it seems like you’ve defeated her, she actually busts out a really powerful finishing attack that brings the entire party to their needs. After doing a bit of research, it turns out that this kind of fight with her occurs not once, not twice, but THREE different times. Every time you find yourself facing off against Beatrix, you have to grit your teeth and do everything you can to stay alive for ten turns or until you deplete her “HP” to zero. And even then, she wins the battle with one of two ultimate attacks.
Shadar from Ni no Kuni also works this way. During your first encounter with him, you are expected to survive his onslaught of attacks and deplete his “health” to zero, but in reality you’re not beating him – you’re just scraping through by the skin of your teeth. His attacks are powerful and debilitating, and when you’re fighting him nothing seems to make him flinch or give you any clear advantage.
Now this doesn’t seem like a bad system, right? Fictionally it shows off the power of the villains by having them so powerful that you can’t really win, you just have to survive until their goals change or they use their ultimate move to force a cut scene. And yeah, that’s not too bad. But here’s where it gets ugly: if your party gets wiped out during either of these fights, you lose. It doesn’t transition to the cut scene where the bad guy wins and gloats and the game keeps going. Even though you are destined to lose these battles, if you do indeed lose, it’s game over. So the battle of survival becomes all the more important, because even though fictionally you can never win, mechanically you have to survive long enough to activate the next cut scene and keep the game moving. So that’s definitely annoying. If you’re SUPPOSED to lose, why doesn’t losing continue the story? It doesn’t make sense. And as the cherry on top, having the villain conveniently whip out their party-destroying move at the end of the battle all the time feels incredibly artificial.
“So is there any way to do this right?”
Great question, adventurers! I do think there are some games that demonstrate good use of fiction and mechanics in order to utilize villains that the player cannot defeat. They keep the fiction believable while also making the villain tough, unflinchingly staying true to both the fiction of the game world and the rules of game culture.
Is anyone really surprised by me saying positive things about Paper Mario? The original game featured Bowser as your very first battle, and it was a battle you could not win. You had to play out every moment, choosing battle commands, watching Bowser slowly whittle your HP down to nothing until you were defeated and thrown to your almost-certain death.
So why was that a good thing? Didn’t you say it sucks when you have to lose to the boss?
Part of the beauty of this fight is that it’s literally the first fight in the game. The frustrating thing about battles you have to lose is that you waste your resources, or you might be tempted to reset to try a different strategy. “Maybe if I just do this, or use that move instead.” You think there was something wrong with the way you played, not that the game is supposed to work this way. But in the fight against Bowser, you’ve got no resources to waste and no alternative tactics to try. Your only available action is one attack, and when that one attack starts to fail you realize that you’re done for and just accept it. The frustration isn’t there because the game lets you know pretty quickly that “hey, this isn’t gonna work out how you think it is.” It’s clear that you’re supposed to lose, not disguised in false hope that makes you think “well maybe if I try just one more thing…”
But doesn’t it break the game fiction for Mario to lose to Bowser? Mario ALWAYS beats Bowser!
You’re right. That’s exactly how it works. Mario ALWAYS beats Bowser. That’s the expectation you come in with. And the game runs with that. At the beginning of the battle, you see Bowser floundering and failing against you. Then, he changes things up. He’s got the Star Rod, which makes him invincible. Now with its power active, you can’t hurt him and his attacks are more powerful. Yeah, Mario always beats Bowser, but the Star Rod changes the rules. There’s fictional justification for why you’re losing the match.
Later on, the game takes that fictional justification a step further. The more Bowser uses the Star Rod, the more he passively absorbs some of its power. He doesn’t even necessarily have to activate it to be stronger and more defensive than he used to be. And then when he does activate it, he’s even more powerful than that. This justifies why when you face Bowser later in the game, his stats in his normal form are still higher than the stats he had at the beginning, before he began unwittingly absorbing power from the Star Rod. The game ties fiction and mechanics together in a way that makes the world believable, so when you fight Bowser again with the right tools to claim victory, that victory feels hard-won. And it’s sweet, sweet revenge for that time he spanked you all the way back at the beginning of the game.
FIRE EMBLEM: PATH OF RADIANCE
“Of course. If he’s not talking about Paper Mario, he’s talking about Fire Emblem.”
Stay with me here, adventurers. My second good example of having a boss fight you have to lose is The Black Knight from Fire Emblem, Path of Radiance. Before you ever have to face the Black Knight in battle, you get to see his fictional positioning during story sequences. And that fictional positioning starts with the power of Ike’s father, Greil.
Greil is the mighty leader of the Greil Mercenaries. He’s a legend. People say stuff about him like “that Commander Greil of yours is far stronger than any general we’ve seen around here.” During battles where you have six or seven guys guarding one side of a building, Greil is off BY HIMSELF fighting off all of the bad guys on the other side. Everything that Greil does and everything that others says about him creates this idea in your mind. Greil is powerful. Greil is unbeatable.
And then the Black Knight beats him.
Worse, the Black Knight beats him EASY. Taunting him. Not even breaking a sweat. Implying that Greil is the one who taught him to fight in the first place. You spend the first seven or eight chapters of the game learning about how powerful Greil is – and now the Black Knight is the man who could easily defeat that guy. Suddenly, the Black Knight is a true powerhouse in the mind of the player.
This idea is reinforced five or six chapters later, when the party is trying to escape to a boat in order to sail out of Crimea towards Begnion. Late into the battle, the Black Knight emerges from a nearby building stands in front of the door. He’s a unit on the battlefield. You can check his stats, see his equipment, his movement range, everything. You can fight him. And you can die.
If you’re not super familiar with Fire Emblem, one of the main staples of the series is permanent death. There are no phoenix downs or revives in Fire Emblem. If someone dies, they are dead for good. And fighting the Black Knight is the quickest way to get there. He’ll even go OUT OF HIS WAY to kill you. If a unit is within his movement range, he doesn’t just sit around like a static boss – he moves to that location and murders whoever is there. BAM. One of your party members is gone forever. And again, the Black Knight does not break a sweat.
Now, you see, they’ve reinforced the idea of the Black Knight being powerful in two different ways – fictionally and mechanically. They tie together. He’s not powerful in one and lame in the other. He is powerful. That’s that. So when you reach your final confrontation with the Black Knight towards the end of the game, you know how much power to expect from him. And it is quite possible to “lose” that battle, to have to run away from the Black Knight because fighting means that you will die. And when you do run away, you’ll know it’s because he really and truly was better than you. And if you manage to win that fight – MAN does that feel good!
Ultimately, I think that forcing the player to lose against a more powerful enemy can be an effective storytelling tool. But there are lots of ways to do it wrong, and often when I encounter it I find myself being frustrated rather than being impressed. But now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers. What is your opinion on the matter? Should games include boss fights you can’t possibly win? Or does that ruin the experience? Let me know in the comments and be sure to hang around Adventure Rules for guides, reviews, and more content just like this. Thanks for reading!