Technical play skill + setting/situation + narrative + player dissatisfaction

innerdude

Legend
** WARNING: This post may contain spoilers for the Star Wars: Jedi Survivor video game. **

Two nights ago I reached the narrative climax / end of Jedi Survivor. I'll do my best not to give away too much about the final "boss" battle, but be warned that some spoilers may slip through. If it's important to you to maintain a spoiler-free view of the game, proceed with caution.

And I had a very revealing experience about my own preferences as a gamer that night.

The final boss battle is with a character you've had contact with throughout the bulk of the game's storyline. The battle proceeds through a series of "tiered" levels, where after whittling down the boss to a certain amount of HP, a cutscene happens and the situation of the battle changes slightly. But overall, you're generally just expected to use all of the skills/tricks/powers you've accumulated along the way to win the fight.

The problem, however, is that this particular boss battle goes out of its way to sort of "cheat", in the sense that many tactics / moves you've used successfully in the past are basically made null / shut down by the boss. The game programmers have made the boss impervious to certain tactics.

In addition, the boss's action economy seems to be more . . . robust than yours. You, as the main character, are generally bound by the limits of certain actions and the animations that go with them. Meaning, there are some actions that force you to go through the entire animation sequence before changing tactics. It's supposed to be a bit of a rock/paper/scissors effect, with a heavy tonnage of timing involved as well.

The problem is it appears the boss is NOT bound by the same action economy restriction. The character can perform action chains without being interrupted by your attacks, and overall just seems to be programmed to have more "freedom" of movement and action than you. The character animation sequences for the boss give you no real clue as to whether they can be interrupted, if it's effective to even try, if it's better for you to simply keep your distance and re-engage or go in full force.

Basically, none of the "cool powerz" you've acquired throughout the game really have any effect. All of your hard-earned skill-tree XP building is wasted in this battle. You can't Force push/pull/lift/slam the opponent, the enemy is impervious. You can't force mind control, obviously, that would be too easy. Your "advanced" saber moves, based on various stances, are too risky, because they require you to go through a full action animation that the enemy is just going to shrug off and counter-attack at great detriment to you.

So what ends up happening is you're basically left with the most bare-bones combat "mini game" possible.
  • Time attacks
  • Time your blocks
  • Only use the most basic attacks for your stance (no special attacks)
Now, I will be the first to admit I am NOT into the whole "Darksouls" / "Souls-like" gameplay approach. Jedi: Fallen Order and Jedi Survivor are the only games of this type I've ever played. I have not and will not ever play a Dark Souls game, or Sekiro, or Elden Ring. I have only played the Jedi games at the "Padawan" difficulty, only 1 level above "Story Mode". I'm just not going to invest the time to "Get gud" at these kinds of games. I only play Jedi for the setting.

But even readily acknowledging that I am not the most skilled player, this boss fight ultimately felt like I was being cheated of my hard work. This was a case where I had spent 45+ hours carefully curating force powers and saber stances to play the game in a way that appealed to me. And all of that was tossed out the window.

I made two attempts at the final boss battle at the "Jedi Padawan" difficulty, and was thoroughly beaten both times.

And you know what my immediate reaction was?

"Screw it."

I was too far into the game. The plot was basically over at this point. I fully expected to get a typical Star Wars denouement where the character reflects on life and the Force after the fight was over (and I was not disappointed in that expectation), but beyond that, there was nothing left of the narrative to experience. The narrative tension was complete. There was no point to this battle other than to simply test myself to see if I was good enough at the core mini-game minus all of the additions and special exceptions I had accumulated.

And I wasn't angry, per se, at this turn of events. But I was certainly nonplussed. It was kind of like, "Oh, so you're not going to respect the work I've done up to this point and just turn this into an exercise in button mashing?" Yeah. Not happening.

I instantly went into the gameplay settings, changed the difficulty to "Story Mode", and finished the game.

But afterward I was beset by questions.

Had I made that choice because it was simply "too hard"? No, even at Jedi Padawan level, I'm sure I could have beaten the boss in another 3-6 attempts. Another 45 minutes or so of time and I could have beaten it. It wasn't that I couldn't beat the final boss. It was that there was something about the setup/situation that just completely turned me off. I simply didn't care to approach this boss battle the way the developers intended. And I had not felt this way at ANY POINT PRIOR during my gameplay.

So why did I feel that way now? What was it about this particular situation that made me just thumb my nose at the developer, turn on "Easy mode" and be done with it?

Percolating in all these thoughts are parallels to tabletop GM-ing and roleplaying. I think I was upset because I was being denied access to the narrative conclusion that I sought, but not only was I being denied, I was being denied in a way that thoroughly negated my in-game choices to that point. It was a double-denial, of sorts. Denied the emotional resolution I craved, and denied the satisfaction of knowing I had played the game well.

And it has gotten me thinking about what sorts of things a GM might do in a similar fashion to likewise disempower a player or party in such a way that leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction.
 

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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
And you know what my immediate reaction was?

"Screw it."

I was too far into the game. The plot was basically over at this point. . .
Yup. End of Dante's Inferno (the game) was like that. The boss battle is just too difficult, and there's nothing after it but a (probably) cheesy cinematic. So, screw it.


But afterward I was beset by questions.
Cheater's remorse. Only us non-sociopaths get it.

Percolating in all these thoughts are parallels to tabletop GM-ing and roleplaying. I think I was upset because I was being denied access to the narrative conclusion that I sought, but not only was I being denied, I was being denied in a way that thoroughly negated my in-game choices to that point. It was a double-denial, of sorts. Denied the emotional resolution I craved, and denied the satisfaction of knowing I had played the game well.

And it has gotten me thinking about what sorts of things a GM might do in a similar fashion to likewise disempower a player or party in such a way that leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction.
The DRPG equivalent might be GM-handwaives or plot armor. "Why do I have to follow the rules, when the NPCs don't?" A major difference: there's (often) no scripted "you're awesome" scene after a DRPG boss, like in a CRPG. So it's harder to feel robbed of a specific outcome. Also, the GM is supposed to be on your side, so coming up against one wall should mean that a door somewhere else opens up (unless you built the wall).

Anyway, I'm going to call foul on the Jedi Survivor designers, as presented. It's fine and accepted to make a boss fight feel hard, and it's fun to add some tricks to it as well. But don't change the game (read: break the rules, read: cheat) to make your boss harder. That's just mean.
 

innerdude

Legend
Anyway, I'm going to call foul on the Jedi Survivor designers, as presented. It's fine and accepted to make a boss fight feel hard, and it's fun to add some tricks to it as well. But don't change the game (read: break the rules, read: cheat) to make your boss harder. That's just mean.

I mean, it's not "cheating," per se. It's fairly clear throughout the game that most of the "boss" level foes are mostly immune to "Jedi mind tricks," and the "standard" force pull/push/lift/slam cadence.

But the end boss just takes it to a different level. Like, sure, take away my hard earned force powers. But don't take away my fundamental ability to logically deduce / follow the enemy's movements, get inside their OODA loop, etc. The way the final boss is set up, and the way it breaks the fundamental gameplay animation / action / block / attack loop was infuriating.

There was no way to orient myself against each attack pattern -- and there were at least a dozen of them -- without studiously going through painful repetition after painful repetition. Which is, of course, the "Dark Souls" way. Like, it's supposed to be part of the appeal of those games, or at least so I've been told. And even then, things that should have "broken" the attack loop pattern simply didn't. Things that should have interrupted attacks were ignored. So you get in a quick strike ahead of a "red power move", and it didn't matter, nope, you did a miniscule amount of depletion on the enemy's block meter, and get your ass kicked in return.

So you have zero Force-related control mechanisms. You have no real way of predicting what's an allowable / valid tactic moment to moment. It's pretty much, "Okay, flurry flurry flurry attack, back off, wait for return attack, dodge or block. Repeat." Like, just utterly tedious. Soul-suckingly lame.

And so again, you're really denied the satisfaction of even knowing you played the game well. Because it's just attrition. "Welp, glad I've got all 12 stim cannisters up my sleeve, because it's not like I can fight back in a skilled way. Just have to absorb whatever comes and just hope I've got enough left in the tank."

Again, soul-suckingly lame.
 

This is a fundamental problem with both video games and table top games.

Simply put: It's hard to make a good high power/high level fight. To do so take a huge amount of skill, plus lots of time and effort. And very few DMs have the skill.

Though, from the other side, very few players have the skill to beat a tough or hard boss encounter.
 


kenada

Legend
Supporter
This would be like a D&D type game with a party of all wizards, and then when you reach the climactic last encounter, it’s in an anti-magic zone!
That makes me wonder. What happens if I have a contingency to cast mage’s disjunction on the anti-magic field when I enter one. Does it go off before or after the GM has a conniption?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
But the end boss just takes it to a different level. Like, sure, take away my hard earned force powers. But don't take away my fundamental ability to logically deduce / follow the enemy's movements, get inside their OODA loop, etc. The way the final boss is set up, and the way it breaks the fundamental gameplay animation / action / block / attack loop was infuriating.
I feel your pain. Part of me says that the end boss should break some patterns, or else it's just another boss but with more health. The other part says end bosses shouldn't be infuriating!

There was no way to orient myself against each attack pattern -- and there were at least a dozen of them -- without studiously going through painful repetition after painful repetition. Which is, of course, the "Dark Souls" way.
I fully support the Dark Souls method of, "discover enemy pattern and design a battle plan." It's based on a set of rules that make sense and apply universally. But this has to be done carefully, because an enemy who has unlimited access to an unblockable move (for example) is a recipe for "infuriating." So is an enemy who doesn't have to follow the universal rules.

Cue Morpheus, " the world is based on a set of rules. Some can be bent. Others can be broken. "
 

innerdude

Legend
So I was trying to catalogue a little bit more about the gameplay experience and drill in on applicable principles for gamemastering TTRPGs.

Part 1 -- Emotional Stakes

There's something to be said around matching combat stakes to the emotional resonance or emotional tension. As GMs, I'd say that this is a desirable trait or game state to be in, right? For a big, "boss battle" fight, we want it feel different than a "run of the mill," "Fighting bandits making apple pies as they don't tarry along the road" encounter. It should feel different.

And that feeling is driven by the emotional stakes. Hopefully by the time you get to a 'setpiece," "boss battle" fight, the players have something at stake in the game world. A relationship. An outcome. Reputation. At the very least, something of material value.

And the instinct is to "emotionally charge" these fights by trying to make them epic. They don't want to feel anti-climactic or like a let down. So we have to "beef up the challenge."

But after having this experience with Jedi Survivor, I'm actually wondering if it isn't preferable to have a fight end a little too quickly rather than go on a little too long. I think there's a danger in trying to chase the "epic moment" of a big fight. If a fight ends a little too quickly, it's much easier to frame that as a victory for the players --- they came in prepared, they played their characters and tactics well, and the dice landed in their favor. "Well done, then!"

Corollary --- It's probably better to let the players win the fight early by using their best character attributes. Classic case of a trying to prevent high-level D&D wizards/clerics from using "I win!" spells, right? Or prevent specialty build "spam attacks" from fighters/barbarians/monks, etc. I'm now turning the corner on this. It's better to let the players feel competent than for the battle to feel "epic."

*Edit -- to clarify, if you can only focus on one, focus on making the players/characters competent. Obviously focusing on BOTH would be the ideal.


Part 2 -- Situational Context

I'm very much interested in exploring player expectations around payoff. What emotional need is being met by successful play? Contextually, being frustrated at the very end of the game is different than being frustrated at the 40% point. If it really is "the end" of a campaign, does that change the expected "payoff" of the gaming session? If it's not heightened / advanced beyond a "standard" game session, should that be the expectation?

I'm comparing my experience with Jedi Survivor to one of my other favorite games, Ori and the Blind Forest. The final challenge in Ori, right before the end of the game, is hard. Quite hard. But not necessarily harder than some challenges that came earlier. It's equal to those challenges, but not greater. Further, the challenge itself is a culmination of everything you've learned to that point. You're combining every skill and ability you've practiced. You're not suddenly thrown into a situation where most of what you're good at is neutered.

When you finish the final sequence of Ori, it feels satisfying, fulfilling. Like you've truly mastered the parts of the game that are meaningful. Jedi Survivor didn't feel that way at all. It felt cheapened and a little hollow. Almost as if it exposed something about the game itself. Take away all of the moves / stances / Force powers, and the game turns into a really nice looking platform puzzle exploration game.

I think I've disagreed with about 90% of everything Emberashh has said on this site over the past 6-8 weeks, but there is one thing that he said that seems to stick with me, which is that you can't take away too much of the game mechanics without ultimately taking away the game. Taking away game mechanics basically just means you're substituting a different kind of game for the one the mechanics represent. And that feels true about Jedi Survivor's final battle.
 
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niklinna

učim hrvatski
There's something to be said around matching combat stakes to the emotional resonance or emotional tension. As GMs, I'd say that this is a desirable trait or game state to be in, right? For a big, "boss battle" fight, we want it feel different than a "run of the mill," "Fighting bandits making apple pies as they don't tarry along the road" encounter. It should feel different.
I'm thinking about this in relation to the MMO genre that I've now largely given up on. I was perfectly happy to go about killing frogs or fetching things for quest givers in Final Fantasy XIV (A Realm Reborn) or Guild Wars 2, but the "main story" quests invariably made me want to quit playing—which I eventually did. The more the fight was presented as epic, "save the world" stuff, the less I cared and the less I enjoyed the canned missions and fights, often featuring the precise removal of abilities I'd been practicing that you mention, substituted by some entirely new thing like aiming a cannon at a dragon or playing as an entirely different character (of a different class!), which I'd had no experience with. Now, I know it's a thing in the real world that you can be dumped into a position of responsibility with no training and it's sink or swim. But I do not find it entertaining.

(How do you feel about boss fights like the one in the original Diablo, where if you bothered to get one minor little spell that you stopped using at some point for the bigger guns, it turned out to be just the Achilles' heel you needed to wipe the floor with the big bad? On top of that, it being a spell, if you were playing a Sorcerer you probably stumbled on this much sooner than if you were playing a Warrior or a Rogue.)
 
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