Why the Boss Battles of Deus Ex Were Actually Brilliant

My name is Adam Jensen and I have electrocuted myself with the floor fourteen times. I’m not my target, but the floor is coated in some conductive liquid and the boss I’m trying to kill is an augmented cyborg that is stunned by the electricity spewing out of circuit breakers that line the room. Frantic hopping up and down provides marginal relief. It seems that we both have the same weakness.

There’s an upgrade in one of the combat trees that would make me immune to the electrical current, but I don’t have it or any like it. Up until this moment, I have focused my character rather exclusively to function competently with computers and sneaking. I can open any door, dodge every alarm, and hack robots to do my bidding. This room has capacity for none of these things and dodging Typhoon explosives while hunting an invisible woman in a tiny room is not my forte.

Fans of the game understand my pain. Many would call it bullshit. When Human Revolution came out, the sound of gamer uproar over these forced, small-room boss battles would only be trumped by the eventual fervor over Mass Effect 3’s ending. For now, forums shouted. Penny Arcade lampooned. Creative designer Francois Lapikas even came out to say he was “truly sorry” about the whole ordeal. Frankly, I think we’re just a bunch of spoiled brats.

The central complaint about these fights is that they are distinctly out-of-place in the context of Deus Ex and I get it. In a world where the player can otherwise solve every problem through a multitude of means (combat, conversation, stealth, hacking, alternate routes), small, unavoidable bursts of structured combat do seem forced – unfair, even.  This game was supposed to be all about freedom and these caged fights are everything but.

The first boss encounter forced me to rethink my choices and I felt pushed to branch out a bit from what I wanted to pick. I mean, where’s the realism in that? Here we have a vast expanse of choices and there are options that are ineffective for certain obstacles and leave us wishing we were more well rounded.

Actually, that’s the realest thing I’ve ever heard.

In life, my mistakes are my own, especially those born from poor decision-making. If I’m untalented in certain ways – and I am – then I will fail at related tasks. I’m my own weakness. But, in videogames, we have someone to blame. If we find anything to be obdurate, we can simply blame a team for not giving us everything we wanted. Our failure can be attributed to poor design rather than terrible foresight and planning. We assume that, since we’re given a breadth of choices, all of them have to be right. The only wrong choice is not to pick. But, where’s the fun in that?

Anyone who’s climbed leader-boards, set a game to the highest difficulty, or just dared to play Dark Souls knows that challenge and struggle are the parents of pride. Of course, there’s the wrong kind of difficulty, where an obstacle is one-dimensional and unfair, which some may claim about the boss battles that are initiated by a cutscene of our character walking blindly into the room. But, Deus Ex battles can be solved in a number of ways. In the aforementioned battle with Yelena, I could chain my stun gun with assault rifle, for instance. If focused in a combat tree, the electricity would have no effect. Heck, I could even just be fast and skillful. Nearly all strategies can work as long as it isn’t just hacking her email password.

Clashing with the boss character of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is inevitabile. The game’s intro provides sufficient foreshadowing that the story might come to blows when the hero is pummeled to near-death in the introduction sequence. Yet players let themselves be convinced that they can play however they want. No matter how many doors I hack with aplomb, I seem to delude myself that things can go peacefully with a few sneak rolls and knock-out grabs. The world isn’t that simple and we should applaud games for including a least a little of that complexity.

Gamers see games as playgrounds, where we own the toys. Like a entitled child, we think the world is made for us, because we bought that world on a disc. A power trip is fine now and then, but a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution that provides real consequences for actions, where  the strong character misses out on secrets and the smart struggles to fight, has real weight. We should seek out these sorts of experiences. Designers don’t need to apologize for providing them.

  • http://twitter.com/FailboatSkipper Henry McMunn

    Yep, I have to agree. I loved DX:HR, including the boss battles. Yeah, there’s no slow and tactical RPG combat in them, but I don’t see that as a problem. They’re quick and frantic, and often genuinely really hard. I had a great time.

  • http://twitter.com/MacTingz Sean McGeady

    While I can accept your point, though I’m sure not sure I can agree, is it really fair to say that we should applaud Human Revolution “for including at least a little of that complexity” if that complexity was included inadvertently?

    As you said, even the creative designer and the developers were apologising for how the boss battles were handled. So it seems any nuance, complexities or reflections of real life were accidental. I’m not sure we should give anyone too much credit for that.

    You’re right about one thing though, we are spoiled brats.

    • http://www.facebook.com/KeyboardCat Ben Chapman

      In terms of the apology, I think developers end up admitting fault whenever the outcry is as large as it was.

      As for it being accidental, it’s possible. Eidos could have either subscribed to a more traditional boss-fight mechanic or simply thought gamers would enjoy getting into a tough fight with a boss. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The effect may not have been completely intentional, but developers should still not be scared to give players a challenge, especially if it challenges their weaker attributes. That’s how you create the best challenge.

  • http://mediocritycodex.blogspot.com/ Timothy Hsu

    The real reason these bosses were brilliant is because you could defeat all of them without speccing combat, you just had to be really observant.

    The first boss is in a room filled with enough exploding barrels (or type of exploding barrels) that you could just throw all them at him, incapacitating him each time which opened him up to gunfire (or more barrels).

    the second boss could be defeated by using stun grenades and a poorly outfitted assault rifle.

    the third boss had a terrible habit of jumping back and forth over the walls, locking him in an animation that was terribly susceptible to gunfire (not to mention the room being CHOCK FULL OF GUNS) and completely unable to fire back. Also exploding revolver rounds takes him out in like 3 clips.

    It just takes some patience and a keen eye. Something that you don’t immediately think to use because all the boss fights are preceded by cinematics, which don’t give you a chance to survey the level of each boss fight beforehand to plan it out. Basically it requires a more serious commitment to the playstyle as opposed to a combat-specced Jensen.

    but your points are cool too, bro