Boss battles are critically important to most video game genres, providing climactic story points as well as the kind of challenge for which the game was bought in the first place. But what about the minor foes of a game?
The personal blog 2-Bit Wasteland takes a sometimes irreverent, sometimes idealised look at the grunts of gaming's enemy forces. They're different that a boss and his motivation exists in a game either "to build sympathy for the protagonist and encourage the player to rally behind him", or "to flesh out the enemy and make him a more three dimensional character, often furthering the player's understanding of the hero's ordeal."
Waves of grunts? A different story. Or non-story. 2-Bit Wasteland seems to indicate they represent an opportunity - more characters through which a game may extend the narrative. In many games, I could see how integrating everyone into the story would make it prohibitively dense. But if only for the humour, let us consider what might motivate anonymous, ubiquitous cannon fodder like the goomba.
The Life of a Goomba: A Grunt's Motivation? [2-Bit Wasteland, Dec. 18] This raises a lot of questions, for example why are Goombas working for Bowser? Do they simply obey out of fear? Does Bowser have some kind of mind control? Or does he offer a great BUPA health insurance plan with benefits? Here lies the major flaw with games today: bog standard enemies have no motivation for their actions, and players disregard this flaw as if it's ok. Perhaps it seems trivial to consider this when talking about Super Mario Bros but the fact is very few games have evolved from this extremely basic premise. If you stop to actually think about it does anyone else consider that Mario might be the bad guy? Almost every single creature in several different worlds seems to pit themselves against Mario and put their lives on the line. Nobody stops to deliberate that he might be the evil one. Just because Bowser looks a bit nasty everyone thinks he's a baddie. Maybe he was just trying to overthrow the monarchy, Perhaps Peach raised the taxes too far. Perhaps she sent all the Koopa peasants to live in the lava world whilst she got the nice castle off their hard working backs. Doesn't seem so unreasonable now does it? Perhaps Bowser was a freedom fighter and maybe Mario was a puppet knight of the monarchy who mercilessly went world to world slaughtering all who passed him. Maybe not, the point is we don't know.
Some people just never admit when they're in the wrong
There are games that do this right, Gears of War pits you against the fearsome Locust race who rise from beneath the earth to lay waste to humanity. The genius of this race is that whilst you don't agree with their motivation you can understand it. Humanity landed and ravaged the surface of their planet and then destroyed a large portion of their species when they emerged from beneath. Furthermore the race design paints them as some giant mutated insects - they all obey a "Queen" and think as a single mind. In a twist the bosses in Gears tend to have less motivation and are more often larger creatures often who The Locust cant control themselves e.g. The Berserker, a blind charging beast, who thinks of nothing else other than tearing you limb from limb. The genius of this and Gear's story is that it gives you just enough information leaving the player to speculate. This becomes particularly effective in the 'Sires' section of the second game. So why don't other games do it? Laziness? Probably not, it's more likely the design and time constraints of game creation naturally result in shortcomings such as these.
Worth note is Shadow of the Colossus which pits the player against large roaming beasts that traverse the land. The brilliance of these creatures is that they pose no direct threat to you and are simply there for you to kill for your own selfish deeds. Its a unique dynamic where the player's motivation takes a back seat as Wanderer destroys these creatures to restore life to his love. The complete lack of 'grunt' enemies gives the game a sparse feel which results in a lonely journey that is accompanied with a constant feeling of dread. A brilliance not paralleled in any game since. Anyway back to the task in hand.
Evolution is required. No longer can we face off against meaningless enemies without reason. And I know games are fundamentally about the gameplay and that is the most important factor but I feel insulted by constantly being fed character development that is surpassed in every conceivable way by The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Imagine a game where every enemy had an agenda, a back story, where no two were the same, perhaps they have a family. What if you came across a Goomba with a wife and kids? Would that make you think twice before so carelessly jumping on their head and crushing their skull into the pavement?
Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears on Saturdays.. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.