Sunday, May 28, 2006

mmm victory is sweeter when it's over your boss - article

i love articles about the psychology of pop culture:

Who's the Boss?
By Clive Thompson
02:00 AM May, 08, 2006
Games Without Frontiers

I was barely one hour into playing Kingdom Hearts II, gaming's latest bona-fide hit, when I encountered the first "boss battle." It was a three-story tall gray monstrosity -- I barely came up to his knee. We lunged about, frantically trading blows, until I finally located his weak spot and plunged my "keyblade" in. Boom: He dissolved into black dust, leaving me with a sore thumb and a system full of adrenaline.

And the curious sense of satisfaction that comes from a boss battle. They're among the most cherished tropes in gaming: Get a bunch of gamers together to talk about adventure games or action titles, and sure -- everyone will praise the wonderful characters, the superb graphics, the intriguing narrative. But it's the boss battles that leave scars on their souls. They wind up sounding like grizzled war veterans, reminiscing wild-eyed about facing The Flood in Halo, four-armed Goro in Mortal Kombat or even Bowser in Super Mario Bros. Bosses dominate the psychic landscape of games.

It's partly because a boss battle is the most mythopoeic part of gaming. An adventure game, after all, typically puts you on some dread quest in which the foes get bigger and nastier until you face one final, hellish climactic baddie. This is a pure apocalyptic narrative -- the same story line that has obsessed the West for millennia, from the Bible to Das Kapital to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Boss battles make games seem cosmic.

But personally, I think the allure is much more straightforward than that, and also, in its own way, more complex. We love boss battles because they represent game design at its purest and trickiest.

Every game has to strike a careful balance: It has to be teasingly difficult, but not overly frustrating. But when the boss battle comes along, the game is supposed to become suddenly more difficult. That makes the balance all the harder to strike.

"The really good bosses seem impossible at first -- but they provide incremental clues to weaken them," said Ian Bogost, a game-design theorist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, when I called him about the subject. "That's where the sense of mastery comes from. A good boss has to kill you a few times first. It has to be arduous, physically and mentally." His favorite villians were the overlords in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, partly because their gargantuan size came as a thrilling shock after the hobbit-like proportions of everyone else in the rest of the game.

The danger, of course, is a game that goes too far: Nothing grinds a game to a halt more than a boss that is hair-pulling impossible to kill. Such was the case when Luke Smith -- a friend of mine who works at 1UP -- took a band of high-level World of Warcraft characters to battle with C'Thun, a squid-like creature that spawns endless "flay eyes" and "claw tentacles". "For months it was improperly tuned, literally unkillable," Smith ranted. "You simply could not put out the damage required to kill everything before the fight spiraled out of control. It kept spawning, and you never caught up."

With an overly-fierce boss, nothing you've learned in the game seems to work -- which makes you think, I slogged through weeks of this game only to be repaid with this?

The well-tuned boss vibrates in perfect harmony with the skill level of the game. Tom Byron, the editor in chief of the Official US PlayStation Magazine, told me his favorite boss was the vizier at the end of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. "He's flying up in the air, and whipping these stones down at you -- so you need to use literally all of the prince's acrobatics that you've learned. You're doing all these wall-runs, and there are fireballs, like, everywhere," Bryon gushed. "It's just awesome!"

That's the key: A good boss demands you to call upon every technique you've painstakingly learned over hours of play -- each special jump and magic combos. In Kingdom Hearts II, for example, I'd played around a bit with the different settings for Donald Duck's magic-healing ability (boy, that's a weird sentence) -- but I'd never understood how important it was to tweak it until I faced down the Hydra, and was getting flayed alive by its seven heads.

It's like bosses are the SATs of the game world: "It's a culmination," Byron notes. "It's not asking you to suddenly learn new skills. It's asking you to remember everything you've learned." You're aiming for that "aha" moment when, desperate for some way to topple the boss, you suddenly hit upon a clever new way to apply your powers -- and the insurmountable becomes manageable.

That's one of the best feelings ever -- and it's also one we rarely get in everyday life. The enemies we face in our contemporary world are so much more ambiguous and internal, and half the time it's ourselves. We try to find a meaningful job, to hack through a bad relationship, to blunder through the red tape of money and taxes. Even our modern literature of struggle has been blunted. The Greeks and Romans imagined their lives through metaphors of heroes facing down arcane monsters; we read The Corrections or Indecision or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, tales of neurotics struggling just to get out of bed.

Our enemies are nowhere, and everywhere. Targets of resistance melt away in all directions. Terrorists seem frightening only so long as they elude the authorities. Death creeps slowly in hospital wards. And so, perhaps, it's a comfort to see our fears rear up in an honest-to-god monstrosity. Bring it on.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

secrets, secrets, secrets...


from cave canum, an anonymous forum for secrets:


There is this thing you do with a computer server where you can “ping” it. It means you send a message to the computer asking if it is OK. The computer responds back with the equivalent of a “yep”. That’s it. A status check in the simplest form possible.

I wish I could “ping” my friends. I don’t have the time everyday to call each of them and ask about their day. I don’t have the bandwidth to get the full download and hear stories about what he said and what the jerk in the office did and how your sister was mean. Sometimes a simple “ping” would be so much better.

“You OK?”


I think we have a lot to learn from computers.

check it out. which secrets were posted by someone you know?


from postsecret, art form and therapy packaged together:

it's haunting. updated every sunday.


last semester, i had this breakdown. it was during finals, when i honestly thought there was no hope for me, which is silly, but silliness doesn't necessarily preclude me from feeling it.

i think i just get delicate when i get stressed. like, everything is precarious, there is a genuine need for someone else to ground me, for perhaps only the simple reason that during those times, i just don't know that i can do it myself. when sam was here, he was my grounding factor. without him, it's more of a toss up; i have friends but they have their lives as well, and i can't really blame them for not having the time to pick up the slack that i - in all reality - DO have the ability to handle myself.

it's all about perspective, i think. when you're in the thick of it, it just doesn't seem...doable. the road, the path, on and out, isn't obvious. it's like spelling lisp with an s. fuck that shit. isn't that when you need the clarity of mind the most, when you're stuck and hurting and need to be anywhere but where you are, and THAT's when the mind chooses to show you no options?

so here's my secret. i try and i try to be the most rational creature i can. but sometimes being a girl takes over, and i can't disentangle from the wicked self-esteem issues. the trick is to be able to hide it, i suppose, which brings forth another question:

what happens to those few whom you rely on to help get you out of those messes? my friends, the ones who know not only when i need their help but also what to do - does their being privy to the more pathetic Me mean that they think i'm sad? that they don't want to come back and help the next time?

it's a delicate balance, no?

Monday, May 08, 2006

a little power...

an open letter. to the librarian who keeps telling me how to sit in the library.


i am asian! i like to be barefoot! i especially like to be barefoot when i study! because studying law, my friend, SUCKS.

it is a miserable experience. there is too much to know. and not enough time to learn aforementioned knowledge. and it's not just that i have to know some stuff about the law! i am also expected to know MORE THAN EVERYONE ELSE about the law. do you see?! do you see how those three elements combined are inherently counterintuitive to the concept of doing well?

so anything that i can do to make myself feel better - I NEED right now!

YES. that does include me showing up in your library in sweatpants and subjecting you to the unfortunate sight of my un-makeup-ed, undone hair "ensemble." to be fair, i always try to pair said pants with a cute tank top, but trust me, i understand it's not a pleasant sight. when you consider it in a package with my less-than-sparkling personality right now, I GET THAT I AM NOT A SYMPATHETIC SOUL.

BUT I NEED THIS. i need to be able to sit cross-legged on your incredibly uncomfortable wooden chairs and bang my forehead alternately on the glass table top and my casebook. please don't tell me it is a "health risk." i buy on average 10 books from your used bookstore every six weeks! you make a profit on me! DONT YOU FEEL I HAVE EARNED THIS? *sobbing* GO AWAY...

deep breaths. in closing, thank you for your free wifi. thank you for your fabulous comic book collection. but leave me alone with how i sit. thanks.


ps. how about staying open a lil' later than 9pm, eh? smooches.

so we'll go no more a-roving

so, we'll go no more a-roving
so late into the night,
though the heart be still as loving,
and the moon be still as bright.

for the sword outwears its sheath,
and the soul wears out the breast,
and the heart must pause to breathe,
and love itself must rest.

though the night was made for loving,
and the day returns too soon,
yet we'll go no more a-roving
by the light of the moon.

[thanks, lord b.]